Did you know Calaveras County has three caverns that you can visit? Where else in the world can you find so many underground adventures in one spot? And we’re not just talking about a few walking tours either (although that’s a great place to start). You could literally spend an entire day, or heck, even weekend exploring the caves around here.
Check out our interview with Heather Ginn of Cave & Mine Adventures to find out more about the unique (and crazy!) adventures you can have when you go caving in Calaveras…
Tell us a little about the caverns in Calaveras?
We’re lucky enough in Calaveras to have three caves: Mercer Caverns, Moaning Cavern, and California Cavern. And really, each cave is so different. Every person that visits should see all three. We have so much diversity in our caverns despite the fact that we’re so close, and that’s really rare in a county, let alone a state.
Cave & Mine Adventures itself has many different forms of activities you could do underground, as well as above ground. California Cavern has a wonderful tour that I always like to describe as what Hollywood would perceive as a cave. It’s familiar, but you get to explore so much of it that you’d never see in a movie…different types of formations that are so incredible, soda straws that are less than a quarter inch in diameter–hundreds of them hanging from the roof of a cave. It’s incredible. Whereas, Moaning Cavern is a very vertical cave. We can fit the Statue of Liberty in there. When you first come down, you’re just blown away by the vastness of it. Mercer Cavern is just totally different than from what our caves offer. So again, what county do you have three sets of dynamic caves that are so different?
There’s some pretty neat history behind the caverns too. Can you give me a brief overview?
We have great history. California Cavern, there used to be a gold mining town at that site. Unfortunately, there are only the remnants of Cave City (that’s what it was called). Our tours at California Cavern are excellent because we really incorporate the gold history with the mining history. There is an area within the cave that’s called Signature Hall. Sometimes we take tours of that hall on special occasions, but we don’t take our regular tours there simply because we want to preserve that wonderful piece of history for generations to come. We’re basically protecting that resource for everybody. That’s kind of our mission. To have adventure, education, and preservation.
At Moaning Cavern, again, a rich mining history. Some of the early explorers of Moaning Cavern were miners because they were actually looking for gold. They were looking in the wrong place, but found a really cool cave.
People can literally spend the day at Moaning Cavern. Can you tell me about some of the activities that are offered there?
At Moaning Cavern we have a plethora of activities. We have our climbing tower which is 32-feet-high. We have the walking tour, which is great for anybody who has a desire to learn about geology, science, and history. We take all ages down there—anybody who can hike down 234 steps and can go back up 234 steps. And then of course, the zip line. Our twin zip lines go up to 40 mph so it’s a great activity. But I’d say the most challenging adventure we offer is our rappel, in addition to our Adventure Trip. We’re one of the few caves in America that offers that to anyone who is capable, and has the courage to do something like that. We really want to push people’s envelopes as far as adventure.
If people want to try rappelling, what should they know?
You start out at the old entrance to the cavern. It’s 165-foot-rappel and we use a J-rack system. It’s a pretty simplistic system, but again, you have to have the courage to do it. We provide all the gear and training, so we really try to make you feel comfortable. But, it’s an adventure activity. So anything with adventure does have risk, but that’s what makes it so fun. You don’t get an adrenaline thrill from sitting on the couch watching TV.
And what’s the Adventure Trip like?
Basically, it’s a 3-hour trip and we have a circuit that you spelunk through. We call it the cave crawl. You get to see different parts of the cave that the walking tour doesn’t get to see. You’re crawling, squeezing, and shimmying…any method you can use to get from point A to point B. We have an area that’s my particular favorite called the “Meat Grinder.” Then there’s another spot that’s really fun. It’s called the pancake and is only 18-inches-tall, so you actually have to turn your head to the side and go through it. And it’s about 6 to 8 feet long so it really pushes that claustrophobic limit. It’s for anyone who wants to push their limit.
A lot of people know about Moaning Cavern, but why should California Cavern be on people’s must-do list?
Basically, California Cavern is one of those rare gems. It’s a great tour for families. You get to see incredible formations, learn about history, and our expeditions at California Cavern are so cool.We have the Mammoth Cave [Expedition] for children 8 and above. You get muddy. That’s a requirement. We also have the Middle Earth Expedition which is anywhere from 4-5 hours long. That one is an amazing expedition. If you’re not afraid of mud, you’ll love it because you go in clean and you come out caked afterwards. You’re wading through hip-deep mud. It’s an adventure to say the least.
What’s your favorite activity at the caverns?
That’s so difficult to answer. When I first got here they couldn’t keep me off the zip line. But the adventure trip at Moaning Cavern is one of my favorites, and the Middle Earth trip is something that is so amazing I would encourage everyone to do it if they’re capable of doing it.
CAVING IN CALAVERAS: More Info…
California Cavern: State Historic Landmark and California’s first show cave featuring a mostly horizontal trail with passageways connecting multiple formation-adorned chambers. Walking tours and spelunking adventures. Open mid-March thru December (due to varying water levels in the cave – slightly unpredictable…check their website for updates on current availability). Go on your birthday and get a free activity.
Moaning Cavern: Home to the largest cave chamber in California that’s open to the public (it can hold the Statue of Liberty) and massive flowstone formations including the pristine, white “Igloo.” Walking tours, zip lining, climbing tower, rappelling and spelunking adventures. Open year-round. Go on your birthday and get a free activity.
Mercer Caverns: Discovered in 1885, Mercer Caverns is home to a wide variety of beautiful cave formations, most notably its world famous array of delicate frostlike crystals known as aragonite flos ferri, for which it won a Grand prize at the 1900 Paris World Exposition. Walking tours, gem mining and more. Open year-round.
Photo Credits: Top: California Cavern’s Jungle Room, photo by Dave Bunnell; Middle: Moaning Cavern’s Rappel, photo by Ian Andrae, Mutineer Magazine; Bottom: California Cavern’s Middle Earth Expedition, photo by Dave Bunnell.