Spelunking California’s cool caves and caverns

The Lake Shasta Caverns are a network of caves located near the McCloud arm of Shasta Lake in California. It was formerly named Chalk Cave and Baird Cave, named after Spencer Fullerton Baird.

California spends a lot of time, and money, bragging to the outside world about its giant trees, miles of beaches and “must see” theme parks. However, there’s one natural wonder that seems to get ignored in all the Cali-hype … the state’s beautiful and majestic caves and caverns.

If you’re already planning your mid-summer getaway, consider a trip to a “cool” location. Why not explore the spectacular caves located in California?

Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Lewis & Clark Caverns in Idaho might rightfully be “bucket list” destinations, but California’s caves are also worth a look-see. Especially, when the weather is hot and you’re looking for a perfect location to “chill” for a while.

If you suffer from claustrophobia, cave and cavern exploration might not be an activity in which you want to participate. Take that into consideration when planning your caving adventure.

With that said … here we go!

Exploring Moaning Cave in Vallecito, California, May 9, 2019.

Moaning Cave

5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito

Info https://moaningcaverns.com

Moaning Caverns Adventure Park is home to the largest single cave chamber in California. Regardless of the outside temperature and weather, the cavern environment is a constant 61 degrees with mild to high humidity. In addition to the temperate conditions, you will warm up going down and then back up the 235 steps. Most people are fine in short sleeves and shorts. However, those who get cold easily may want to bring a sweater or light jacket.

Moaning Cavern was discovered by miners in 1851. The vertical chamber, located near Angels Camp, is so massive, it is the largest public cavern in California. It is big enough to hold the entire Statue of Liberty.

A spiral staircase provides easy access to the cavern. For intrepid explorers (prepare to belly crawl), a 2½-hour adventure tour delves into the cave’s deepest burrows, roughly 280 feet below the floor of the main chamber, through narrow passageways with names like Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze and Birth Canal.

California Cavern State Historic Landmark

9565 Cave City Road, Mountain Ranch

Info www.gocalaveras.com/travel-directory/california-cavern or (888) 488-1960

Originally called Mammoth Cave, California Cavern was the state’s first show cave and is the longest cavern system. Depending on the season, the guided cavern walk tour can be 45 minutes to 80 minutes long, featuring an enchanting trail with beautiful crystalline cave formations.

The cavern walking tour takes you through several passageways into multiple chambers on a trail system. On the way, you’ll see a wide variety of beautiful white-, cream- and caramel-colored formations including stalactites, stalagmites, cave popcorn, flowstones and helictites, while also learning about the cavern’s fascinating discovery and early uses.

Cavern tours usually include the lights being turned off for a moment to experience total darkness. Experienced, professional guides lead groups into the “Jungle Room,” named for the array of crystalline “vines” covering the ceiling, many of them several feet long. 

Black Chasm National Natural Landmark

15701 Pioneer Volcano Road, Volcano

Info https://cavetouring.comor (888) 488-1960

The first documented exploration of Black Chasm Cavern occurred in 1854 when a group of explorers discovered the beauty that exists below the surface. That beauty includes a bright blue lake and millions of sparkling crystals that seemed to twist from the cavern walls in every direction.

More than 100 years after its discovery, Black Chasm was recognized by the federal government for the abundance of the unusual and rare speleothems called “helictites” that grow throughout the cavern. It was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1976. Of all known caves on Earth, perhaps 5 percent contain these rare helictites.

Twenty years later, Black Chasm began to be developed as a show cave with the construction of environmentally friendly steps and walkways.

Guests view three chambers in the upper levels of this vertical cave where the most spectacular formations grow. The beautiful blue lake is located in the second chamber about 80 feet below the viewing platform. The cave is vertically oriented with three platforms and five flights of stairs.

Guests can explore the cavern from these platforms, and view the dazzling array of crystals throughout the cave guided by an experienced and knowledgeable cavern naturalist. 

The Lake Shasta Caverns are a network of caves located near the McCloud arm of Shasta Lake in California. It was formerly named Chalk Cave and Baird Cave, named after Spencer Fullerton Baird.

Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark

20359 Shasta Caverns Road, Lakehead

Info https://lakeshastacaverns.com

The Lake Shasta Caverns are a network of caves located near the McCloud arm of Lake Shasta. Formerly named Chalk Cave and Baird Cave, the caverns were part of life for the Wintu Indians, who lived in the area.

The caverns were “officially” discovered in 1878. Since 1964, the caverns have been opened as a natural attraction to the public.

From tiny cave coral and gravity-defying helicities to magnificent cave drapery, the caverns offer a variety of formations for guests to enjoy. Geologists consider this one of the most beautiful limestone caves in the United States.

The caverns are constantly 58 degrees with a high humidity level of 90 to 95 percent. This raises the temperature to between 68 and 72 degrees.

Bring a sweater or sweatshirt if you chill easily. Wear comfortable shoes as the tour includes extensive walking and stair climbing. 

Tours generally last about two hours. This includes a 10-minute boat ride across the McCloud arm of Lake Shasta, a 10-minute bus ride up to the cavern’s entrance and a 45- to 60-minute guided tour in the caverns.

Mercer Caverns 

1665 Sheep Ranch Road, Murphys

Info www.mercercaverns.com

Discovered in 1885, Mercer Caverns is home to a variety of magical cave formations, most notably its famous array of delicate frost-like crystals known as flos ferri aragonite which won a grand prize at the 1900 Paris World Exposition.

The entirety of the caverns was not mapped until 1985, 100 years after it was first discovered.

The cavern’s decorations have formed from seeping and dripping water that is highly charged with dissolved calcite. In the lowest sections of the cave, ponded water saturated with calcite encrusted everything with spiky, orange dogtooth spar crystals upwards of 2 inches long.

Higher in the cave, ground water pressure was fed through tiny imperfections in the calcite sheathing and formed twisted, medusa-like helictites ranging from a hair’s thickness to massive 2-foot-long “lobster claws.”

Seeping water slowly formed popcorn or coral-like decorations called coralloids. Gently flowing water expelled dissolved carbon dioxide and dropped a calcite load to form sheets of flowstone that resemble frozen waterfalls.

An unusual type of stalactite is found in the cave, where roots penetrating the roof have been coated to form rootsicles.

Guests, who visit the caves, walk about a quarter of a mile with a total of 440 steps — 208 down into the caverns and 232 up out of the caverns. Many of the steps are along steep, narrow stairways.

The tour descends into the caverns to a low point of about 161 feet below the surface. This is the equivalent of a 16-story building. Currently, the lowest known point of the caverns is about 192 feet below the surface.

The caverns maintain a constant temperature of approximately 55 degrees all year with a relative humidity of about 90 percent. 

Mitchell Caverns 

Providence Mountains State Recreation Area,located in the eastern Mojave Desert, 56 miles from Needles on Interstate 40, 116 miles east of Barstow and 16 miles northwest of I-40 near Essex Road.

Info https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=615

Mitchell Caverns is among the most spectacular in California, but also one of the most difficult to see. A limited number of reservations are available to view the caverns and must be booked three months in advance.

The caverns include two main caves named El Pakiva and Tecopa.

Curious formations of helictites are seen throughout the caves, which take random gravity-defying shapes. Spectacular and intricate limestone formations include stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, lily pads, draperies, curtains and cave coral.

Temperatures inside the caverns vary slightly from chamber to chamber but generally range in the 60s. Cavern formations create areas as low as 62 inches and as narrow as 14 inches.

Reservations for tours of Mitchell Caverns are taken in person at the visitor center or by phone on Mondays from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. The tour involves a 1.5-mile strenuous roundtrip hike to and from Mitchell Caverns and an hour guided tour of the cave.

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