Editor’s Note: Although part of California Cavern’s above ground landscape was burned by the recent Butte Fire, the underground environment in this enchanting cavern is completely unaffected and guided tours have reopened.
Calaveras County draws people for many reasons. For me the area is my gateway to the High Sierra. I’m what you might call a mountain nerd. If there’s a piece of high ground nearby I generally want to be up on it. Any random outcrop, spire or jumbled pile of stone, I’ll probably try to climb it. All covered with snow and ice? Even better. Caves to explore? Yes, please. I’m here for the hills, and by extension, so are my kids. At seven and four, they are always willing to come along on the adventure of the moment. As long as there are snacks.
One thing I know about having two high-energy boys is that it helps to have a plan. There’s a lot to do here, and by about 8:30 in the morning they’re bouncing off the walls unless otherwise directed. Here are a few of my favorite go-to activities, which are by no means exclusive to the kid-carrying members of our society.
On a recent hot day we made our way to Cave City, home of California Cavern, in Mountain Ranch. We strapped on the plastic helmets–which are optional, but as our guide pointed out that encounters with stalactites are likely to take layers of skin off the top of your head–certainly not a bad idea. Then came a rush of cool air (57°F to be precise) as we approached the cave entrance and wandered into a dark opening in the limestone. The boys’ eyes lit up and my four year old turned to me, “Dad, this is epic!” He’s trying out new words and I loved that this was the correct usage. The hour-long tour was just right for the little people, and while adults had to duck a lot, it’s an easy walk. The cavern also offers longer, wild-caving excursions for those interested in spending half a day exploring the depths with headlamps and coveralls. And a guide, of course.
Interested in exploring other caves in the area? Check out Mercer Caverns or Moaning Cavern‘s websites for all the info. All 3 of our local caves offer gemstone mining above ground, and Moaning Cavern Adventure Park includes a 40-ft climbing tower and zip lines that allow you to zip tandem with little kids.
Jump in the water
The shallow creek running through the middle of Murphys Park is a popular watering hole for the under four-foot crowd on a warm day. I can sit on the bank and play lifeguard while they investigate the creek bottom with masks and snorkel. Another favorite is White Pines Lake, a mile from Highway 4 in Arnold for a shady playground, sandy little beaches and a disc golf course. This lake is good for taking out the kayak or paddleboard and it’s also stocked with trout. Later in the afternoon/evening when the water settles down is a great time to break out the fishing pole for a little casting. The other cool thing about White Pines is that it’s next to an entrance to the Arnold Rim Trail and there’s a very easy section where we can walk about a quarter mile (or more, depending on the boys’ stamina levels) into a nice fir and cedar forest. The Sierra Nevada Logging Museum is also here, which has fun 19th and early 20th century logging equipment for the boys to check out. We can easily do an entire day at White Pines.
The region is full of lakes and swimming holes, both remote and accessible, many with camping available – learn more here. The Arnold Rim Trail offers over 30 miles of trails in the National Forest, read our list of hikes.
Giant Trees & Big Rocks
I always get a little bit of nerdy excitement whenever we head east of Arnold, because that’s where the landscape starts to feel more alpine. Calaveras Big Trees State Park never disappoints. I’ve been going there since I was a kid and it’s continually inspiring. Go there in the spring when the mosses are wet and dogwoods blooming. Go in the fall when the changing colors are set against the towering sequoias and animals are busy stocking up for winter. Go in winter when the snow-covered silence is otherworldly and their warming hut offers free hot chocolate and spiced cider. There are no bad times to visit Big Trees.
Stop into Sierra Nevada Adventure Company in Arnold, our four-season gear shop with everything for camping, outdoor recreation and equipment rentals.
There are those days when we only have time for a day trip on Ebbetts Pass, in which case we’ll center our activity around Bear Valley, one of my favorite playgrounds. This past summer for example, we climbed the boulders around town, rode bikes, played disc golf in the meadow, hiked into nearby Box Canyon (where there are gorgeous aspen groves for fall color), rented paddleboards from Bear Valley Adventure Company and played a game of pick-up whiffle ball in a big parking lot. Bear Valley Mountain is our local ski/snowboard resort which also offers kids’ summer day-camps for a variety of group activities–a great option when you want to drop the kids off for a break. With enough time for an overnight, camping at Lake Alpine is an easy win–good fishing, lakeside sites, and a paved bike path along the shore.
Pack a cooler, hit the road early and take your kids out for an epic day.
Ready to learn to rock climb? Mountain Adventure Seminars in Bear Valley offers entry level family, advanced climbing and four season mountaineering courses. Come in the winter and learn to ski at Bear Valley Mountain Resort, they have a great kids’ program!