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March 22
1875 - Construction begins on San Fernando Railroad Tunnel [story]

Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Dec 27, 2015

DianneErskineHellrigelI love adventure. I’m happiest when I’m climbing a mountain, scuba diving, hiking or spelunking. There are lots of caves in California to explore. I’ve narrowed it down to Southern California, or this article would be 100 pages long.

Once you’ve discovered caving, the Internet is a great source for other opportunities in California and around the world. In fact, humans are still discovering caves.

Recently, a huge cave in Vietnam was found. It’s so big that an entire forest grows inside of it, and a clear, clean river flows out of it. If you’re into international caving, you might want to check it out. It’s called Son Dong Cave, and is located in central Vietnam. But let’s go back to California.

Cave City, Calif., is a great place to start. The caverns are composed of limestone and are in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Cave City is located in Calaveras County. These interconnected caverns were found in 1849-50 by Capt. Joseph Taylor and are some of the earliest recorded caves in the Mother Lode. The caverns are a California Historical Landmark.


California Caverns

Taylor, knowing he had found a “cash crop,” opened the caves for public touring – the first such enterprise in California. He named it Mammoth Cave, but the name was changed 44 years later to Cave City Cave, which is how it is known today. Many famous people have toured this cave including Mark Twain and John Muir. In fact, John Muir wrote about the caves in one of his books.

Lucky Taylor discovered this curious chain of caverns by accident, as have many others. He was target shooting, and he noticed that his targets were being moved by a strange breeze. Curious, he investigated and found the entrance to the caves. A hotel was built near the site, and tourism began in 1850.

Today, tourism in the area continues with guides who assist you through the caving adventure and keep you safe on your walking tour of each cave. There are multiple opportunities in the area including California Cavern, Moaning Cavern and Mercer Caverns. They offer tours for all ages and all ranges of enthusiastic adventure from easy walking tours to rappelling and advanced caving.


Crystal Cave

Operators at Moaning Cavern Park offer tours and a zip line opportunity, so your adventure doesn’t have to end when you return to the surface of the Earth. Mercer Cavern and Black Chasm Cavern also offer guided tours.

Boyden Cavern is located in Kings Canyon National Park. It is only 18 miles north of Grants Grove Visitor Center, yet very few people know it exists. If you’re visiting Kings Canyon National Park, it’s worth the quick drive to experience Boyden Cavern. Boyden Cavern is only open during the summer months to visitors, and only by guided tour.

Crystal Cave is located in Sequoia National Park and is definitely worth the visit. It is a great cave for beginners, and tours are easy walking adventures for all ages and skill levels. This cave is open to visitors during the summer months, and only by guided tour.

Although closed for renovations, Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area are beautiful and well worth the drive. They should reopen soon. If you’re going to be in that area, call for information to see if they have been reopened.

If you’re on an adventure in San Diego, check out Sunny Jim’s Cave in La Jolla. If you find yourself in the Anza Borrego area, visit the Arroyo Tapiado mud caves. These caves were formed by erosion, by both wind and water over thousands of years. There are 30-plus caves here, and all can be easily explored.


Lava Tube Cave in Mojave Preserve

One of my favorite caves that I’ve recently explored is in the Mojave National Preserve. This is a lava tube cave. It is a fairly small cave with two distinct rooms. It is a typical lava tube with an amazing shaft of light in the back room. Emerging from the darkness as you traverse carefully from the first entrance room to the back room, you enter the second room and are bathed with an ethereal shaft of light that is beautiful and powerful. Everyone I’ve taken there has reached out to touch it. It is an unworldly sensation.

While this cave is easy to enter and exit with no chance of getting lost, be aware that between rooms 1 and 2 you will have to stoop down very low, and you will have to protect your head with your hands or you will bump and scrape it. Also, there is a lot of loose dust on the floor of the cave, so step lightly or you will be breathing in a lot of heavy dust.

The Cave of Munits is a local cave in Los Angeles County. This cave is in the Castle Peak area and was once a sacred area of the Chumash Native Americans. It is a small cave that is open for adventures year ‘round. You will need to hike in to it, and you will need strength enough to rock climb a short distance to enter and exit this chimney cave.

cave02Painted Cave is on Santa Rosa Island off of the California Coast and is only accessible by boat, but it is beautiful and is “painted” with various types of fauna that can stand the constant wash of sea water. You can scuba dive in the cave, or you can enter with a dingy. If you don’t have your own boat, contact the Channel Islands National Park or Island Adventures for available tours.

Big Horn Mine is another local “cave.” It’s actually an old gold mine near Mt. Baden Powell. There are tailings and artifacts outside the mine, and the mine shaft goes quite a way into the mountain. It is closed, off and on, by the Angeles Forest Service. You’d be wise to give them a call about its status before you plan to visit. Also, the area generally has snow during the winter, making it inaccessible from November to April in heavy snow seasons.


Subway Cave

If you’re lucky enough to have visited all of the caverns in Southern California, head farther north to experience Shasta Caverns and Lava Beds National Monument caves on Cave Loop Road. There are two small caves at Pinnacles National Monument which are easy to navigate and are open daily. In Sacramento you will find the Black Chasm Caverns. It is open only by guided tour, but you will find many gorgeous examples of stalactites and stalagmites in this cave. It’s definitely worth a visit. Subway Cave in Lassen National Forest is a lava tube cave, similar to the lava tube mentioned above in the Mojave National Preserve.

The Caves of California have recently been rated. The top ten are:

Lava Beds National Monument

The Arroyo Tapiado

The Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Black Chasm Caverns National Landmark

The Lava Tube, Mojave National Preserve

Subway Cave

Cave of Munits

Mitchell Caverns

Big Horn Mine

Put these sites on your bucket list. I’d love to know about your experiences as you visit each of these sites. Maybe you’ll eventually fly to Vietnam to visit the Son Dong Cave. Take lots of photos. Have a great 2016, and remember, there’s no time like the present to become a spelunker.



Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.




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  1. Great article! Making some plans.

  2. Grace says:

    Loved your article! I love exploring caves. Thank you so much.

  3. Wonderful article. Thanks

  4. Such a beautiful picture

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