When I first saw the hole in the limestone bench just above the cave's floor, I wasn't sure if it was big enough to accommodate a basketball.
Our guide had cracked a few jokes since the beginning of our spelunking tour of California Caverns and I was sure he was joking when he suggested that we would be sliding through this tiny aperture.
Despite our laughs, he wasn't joking. He stretched his arms out like a diver, curved his body forward and slithered headfirst into the hole like a greased snake on a polished downhill slope. Barely a moment later, his head popped back out of the hole. It was time for us to follow.
As I watched the other four spelunkers in our group disappear, I still wasn't convinced that it could be as easy as it looked. When my turn came, I gave it my best shot, sliding forward and downward into the passage.
The limestone was smooth and the handholds were easy to find. In a few seconds I had reached the end of the chute and dropped my feet to the ground, returning to an upright position in a small chamber where the only light came from the lamps on our helmets.
When I looked back up the chute, a little boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was looking down at me. His family was on the cavern's walking tour and he had spotted our headlights down the hole. He was excited in the way that only small children can be to discover people in that hidden place. He was even more surprised as we pushed our way back up the chute.
California Caverns is one of the most spectacular caves in the state, decorated with a great variety of unique stalactites, stalagmites, and crystals. People of all ages can enjoy walking tours of the main rooms, while those seeking a higher level of adventure can choose the Mammoth Cave Expedition or the Middle Earth Expedition.
The Mammoth tour includes exploration of a lot of passageways and chambers that adjoin the main chambers of the cavern. It is a thrill for anyone aged 8 and up.
The Middle Earth Expedition that we participated in (open to anyone 16 and up and considerably more challenging) included many parts of the Mammoth tour plus a long traverse through the deep mud of the Cave of the Quills, boating over a subterranean lake, and climbing a series of ladders and ropes to return to daylight.
"Middle Earth" is an appropriate name. At different times it evokes both Gollum's Lair and the Mines of Moria, but also something completely different and astonishingly beautiful.
The Middle Earth Expedition was one of the greatest adventures I've had in quite a while the kind of journey you'll never forget. Just over two hours from home in Calaveras County, the tour I was on drew participants from as far as Sonoma and San Diego Counties.
With expeditions scheduled through November, there's still plenty of time to enjoy the Mammoth and Middle Earth adventures before the season ends. Walking tours are available all year, but some of the more remote parts of the cave fill up with water during the winter.
The more challenging tours generally resume in July. No matter which option you choose, you'll be impressed with the cave's beauty. It has been open since the Gold Rush, but some of the most impressive parts including the stunning Jungle Room weren't opened until the 1980s.
One of the best features of the tour was our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, Brett.
By the time the four-hour Middle Earth Expedition is over, you feel like you've been somewhere and seen something. And you have you've experienced about 80 percent of a spectacular cave system, over a mile in total distance including parts that most visitors never see.
You're tired, a bit sore, absolutely covered with mud, and thankful for the helmet and knee pads that you wore. Showers are provided for washing up and changing clothes after the adventure and you'll definitely need them.
Having been on challenging underground tours at two caves recently (California Caverns and Moaning Cavern), I've learned what a great team-building experience they can be. These kinds of tours attract interesting, fun people. Both times the participants became well-acquainted over the course of the wiggling, sliding, and climbing, trading contact information and photos once it was all over.
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For more information about California Cavern and other local caves, go to www.cavern-tours.com" target="_blank"__gt__http:// or call (866) 762-2837. Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.