With the drought continuing to make normal winter recreation difficult, this is definitely a year to think outside of the box. So here’s another non-typical winter idea – explore a cave. Caves are great all year-round because temperatures are always somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees.
Five of the state’s best public caves are close to home in Calaveras and Amador counties. They offer a wide range of activities, from easy walking tours to challenging spelunking expeditions that involve crawling through narrow tunnels and climbing ropes into a remarkable underground world few people see.
Moaning Cavern: The main chamber of this giant vertical cave is large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty. It has beautiful cave formations, but the incredible size is what left the greatest impression on me. Most visitors access it by climbing down a giant spiral staircase, but you also can make a thrilling rappel descent of 165 vertical feet.
Both ways are fun, it just depends on what kind of adventure you want. The rappel is one of the most exciting things I’ve done. For the most extensive and challenging tour, you can rappel into the cave, take a three-hour “Adventure Trip” through the most remote parts of the cave and then return to the surface via the stairs. This adventure is offered by reservation for ages 12 and older. A climbing tower, zip line and gold panning also are offered. Moaning Cavern is north of Columbia.
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For more information, go to www.caverntours.com/MoCavRt.htm or call (866) 762-2837.
California Cavern: While Moaning Cavern has the greatest vertical chamber, California Cavern has the most extensive system of chambers. Seventy-minute tours are offered daily for all ages. For a higher level of adventure, a three-hour “Mammoth Cave Expedition” with tight squeezes and crawling is offered by reservation for ages 8 and up.
The ultimate adventure is the five-hour “Middle Earth Expedition” – a truly wild trek through a part of the cave system that wasn’t discovered until 1980. Participants walk, crawl and wiggle nearly a mile underground through passageways, wading at times through thick cave clay and rafting across a subterranean lake. On the level of excitement, this adventure is a near tie with the rappel descent into Moaning Cavern. It is offered during the dry months by reservation only for ages 16 and up.
Gemstone mining is also available. California Cavern is in Mountain Ranch. For more information, go to www.caverntours.com/CalifRt.htm or call (866) 762-2837.
Mercer Caverns: Like Moaning Cavern, Mercer is vertical. It’s much smaller, too, which provides for a completely different kind of experience – one where you get to see the cave’s formations at a much closer range. A 45-minute tour through an outstanding variety of these formations is offered daily for all ages. As long as you can stoop beneath a few low spots and climb 232 steps to exit the cavern, you can do this tour. Gemstone mining also is offered. Mercer Caverns is near Murphys. For more information, go to www.mercercaverns.com/index.html or call (209) 728-2101.
Black Chasm Cavern: The state’s most newly accessible cave, Black Chasm is another great place to see remarkable cave formations up close. There are 50-minute tours offered daily for all ages. A unique above-ground “Labyrinth Tour” is also available. This reservation-only tour takes visitors ages 8 and up through giant above-ground rock formations that were shaped by hydraulic mining in the 1800s. You also can find gemstone mining at Black Chasm. Located in the small town of Volcano, you can learn more at www.caverntours.com/BlackRt.htm#bktour or by calling (866) 762-2837.
Natural Bridges: This is a different kind of cave experience – one you can float through. Part of the New Melones Recreation Area, this cave is part of the watercourse of Coyote Creek. From the parking area on Parrots Ferry Road just north of the Stanislaus River, you hike downhill 11/2 miles to the creek. You can then wade into the first chamber and swim or float through the next two to daylight on the other side.
It’s helpful to have a raft or flotation device and a waterproof light if you want to explore the entire cave. A second cave is located downstream via a rough, unmaintained trail through a lot of poison oak. This is definitely a cave best enjoyed in warm weather, so I recommend visiting the others now and saving this one for then. Natural Bridges can be popular on hot weekend afternoons in the summer, so it’s wise to make your trip early or on a weekday. For more information, go to www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/planning_visit.html or call (209) 536-9094.
Adam Blauert is a Sun-Star correspondent. He is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at email@example.com.