California is home to some of the most incredible cave systems in the U.S. From the sprawling marble caves of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the unique lava tubes in the Mojave, the caves of California draw novice and experienced cavers alike. Let’s take a look at some of the best underground adventures to be had in the Golden State.
1. Crystal Cave, Sequoia National Park
Located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this marble cave boasts a striking array of stalactites, stalagmites, and other incredible formations. The cave maintains a constant temperature of 48°F (9°C), so no need to get too bundled up to explore its twists and turns. This is the only one of the park’s 200+ caves that is open to the public. Guided tours, ranging from family-friendly to more challenging wild cave tours, are available from May to November and need to be reserved in advance.
2. Moaning Cavern, Calaveras County
Situated in the gold country of Calaveras County, there’s a reason that this cave is called Moaning Cavern. As you descend into the 165 feet (50 meters) cavern, you’ll be greeted by eerie moans, thanks to water echoing as it drips deep down into the depths. There are a variety of tours to take at Moaning Cavern offers a variety of guided tours, including the Spiral Tour, which consists of traversing down a staircase, and then – for the more adventurous of visitors – down a second, deeper one. For the adrenaline junkies, the Expedition Tour starts with a lighted helmet – which you’ll need as you get close, belly crawling and rope descending into the dark deep of the cavern.
3. Black Chasm Cavern, Amador County
Alright, here we have a cave called “Black Chasm” that’s located in a town called Volcano. If that alone doesn’t get your caving motivation flowing, maybe it’s incredible helictite formations will. Helictie’s are delicate, twisted formations that seemingly defy gravity.
The guided walking tour takes visitors through well-lit chambers adorned with a variety of unique formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones. If you’re looking for a more adventurous experience, there’s an off-trail excursion, which allows participants to explore undeveloped sections of the cave.
4. Lava Beds National Monument, Modoc County
Located in the remote northeastern corner of California, Lava Beds gives you access to the most extensive collection of lava tubes in the United States. You’ll need a permit to explore, but once that’s sorted you’ll have more than 700 caves to explore, ranging from easy, well-lit passages to more advanced ones that “may have confusing passages where getting disoriented and lost is a risk.”
5. Mitchell Caverns, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area
Nestled in the Mojave Desert, Mitchell Caverns is a remote and hidden gem. The effort to get there, however, brings the unique reward of seeing the beauty of limestone caves in an arid environment. The caverns, which are part of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, were closed for several years, however, two of the three main formations are now open to the public.
6. Subway Cave, Lassen National Forest
Another lava tube, the Subway Cave is easily accessible with a well-defined trail and interpretive signs that guide visitors through its 1,300-foot (400-meter) long passage. A short, self-guided tour allows visitors to explore the unique volcanic features of the cave, including its smooth, curved walls and fascinating lava formations. While it’s not a strenuous walk, the cave is dark (so bring a flashlight) and retains a steady 46°F (8°C) temperature, even in the middle of summer.
7. Boyden Cavern, Kings Canyon National Park
Boyden Caverns will be closed until 2024
Carved into the cliffs of Kings Canyon National Park, this marble cave features an array of enchanting formations such as draperies, flowstones – and interpretive favorites like the “upside-down city” and the “wedding cake.” Guided tours take visitors on a 50-minute journey through the cavern’s beautifully decorated chambers. Due to its location within a national park, visitors can also enjoy the stunning scenery – such as the massive sequoias – and outdoor activities that Kings Canyon has to offer.
8. Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave, Pinnacles National Park
Central California’s Pinnacles is home to two unique talus caves: Balconies Cave and Bear Gulc. Unlike limestone and lava caves, talus caves are formed by massive boulders that have fallen into narrow canyons, creating a series of interconnected passageways that can be reached by hiking trails. Both caves are important ecosystems for bats, and subject to closures to protect the bats’ habitat.
9. Lake Shasta Caverns, Shasta County
Lake Shasta Caverns, located in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, offers a unique limestone cave experience combined with a scenic boat ride across Shasta Lake. Inside the caverns, visitors are treated to a dazzling display of stalactites, stalagmites, and other captivating formations, with the highlight: the awe-inspiring Cathedral Room, with its towering columns.
These are just nine of the many caves and caverns to explore throughout the state. An important reminder: when venturing into these delicate environments you are often entering delicate natural environments and ecosystems, so it’s crucial to practice responsible caving and adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace. Also, many of these caves and tours operate seasonally and can be closed for a variety of reasons, so please check ahead to avoid disappointment.