(Calaveras County, CA) --- While Calaveras County, located in California’s “Gold Country,” is a year-round recreational destination, the magic of the local caves is alluring all year round.
Tucked away between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, Calaveras County is adorned with rolling hills that are peppered with vineyards and framed with alpine lakes and rivers.
The four seasons bring a bounty of outdoor activities including everything from hiking amongst giant sequoias and engaging in water sports to snow play and, well, cave dwelling. Additionally, the destination is known for its annual Frog Jumping Competition, made famous by Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
The recreational stimuli above ground is matched by the abundance of underground treasures found in the caves of Calaveras County. Steep staircases lead to narrow passageways and chambers filled with stalagmites, stalactites and other alluring features.
Formed millions of years ago, the limestone and marble caves are worth a visit any time of year, especially during the hot summers and cold winters.
There are three primary caves in Calaveras County that are open to the public, including Moaning Caverns in Vallecito, Mercer Caverns in Murphys and California Cavern in Mountain Ranch. Each of these caves offers walking tours.
Moaning Caverns Adventure Park’s earliest explorers were prehistoric Native groups, who for thousands of years used the cave to inter their dead. Hundreds of bones and burial artifacts have since been found by archaeologists, some of which date to as far back as 12,000 years.
The cave was rediscovered in 1851 by miners looking for gold, but the steep entrance and lack of precious metals meant that it would be forgotten for another 70 years. In the early 1920s a spiral staircase was added, and it was officially opened for the public as a show cave.
During the tour, visitors might hear a distinct "moaning" that comes from an eerie sound heard in places created by water dripping into flowstone formations, not from the spirits of unhappy cave people.
The aforementioned 100-foot spiral staircase with 144 stairs, built in 1922 out of the hull of a World War I battleship, is still used by visitors today. Moaning Cavern's formations have edgy monikers such as "Godzilla's Nostril" and "Meat Grinder."
The cave offers a family walking tour as well as an Adventure cave excursion in spelunker jumpsuits and helmets.
Info: Moaning Caverns, 5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito, CA; (209) 736-2708, moaningcaverns.com. Daily walking tours, known as the Spiral tour, start at 9 a.m. Walking tours cost $22 for those 12 and older, $15 for those two-11; those two and younger are admitted free. (NOTE: please check website for updates on tours)
Mercer Caverns is less than two miles from Murphy’s bustling Main Street, which is full of boutique shops and wine tasting rooms.
Among those who came to seek their fortunes in the California Gold Rush was Walter J. Mercer, who rediscovered the caverns in September of 1885 and public tours started less than two weeks later. The first visitors toured the caverns using ropes and ladders and holding in their teeth a board with candles. Thankfully, today’s tours have evolved with a few modern touches, including walkways, stairs and electric lighting.
The tour includes 440 steps, 208 down and 232 up (using a different path than the descent). There are formations that resemble a Shih Tzu, a jellyfish and a mermaid as well as delicate frostlike crystals known as aragonite flos ferri (iron flowers). Visitors can expect a range of illumination with transitions of candlelight to total darkness.
Because of the tight quarters on the climb back up the steep staircase, sturdy footwear is recommended.
Info: Mercer Caverns, 1665 Sheep Ranch Road, Murphys; (209) 728-2101, mercercaverns.net. Open daily; first tour departs about 9:30 a.m. Tours cost $20 for those 13 and older and $13 for children 3-12.
California Cavern is open seasonally and is about a 40-minute drive from Murphys and well worth the trek. Hosting visitors since the early 1850s, some of those original visitors included naturalist John Muir and writer Mark Twain.
The cave was an essential part of an old Gold Rush camp called Cave City. Weddings, church services, court trials and parties once took place inside the cave.
The tour begins by wandering through a marble passageway into Council Chambers, where some signatures from the 1800s can be viewed. Marking one’s “territory” on the walls used to be commonplace, which is evidenced by thousands of signatures.
It is encouraged to use one’s imagination when discovering the different figures in the cavern, including one large stalagmite in Bishop’s Palace, where church sermons once were given.
In the Cathedral Room, “cave bacon” hangs from the ceiling and is illuminated from behind. This particular calcite formation literally looks like strips of bacon.
California Cavern offers two cave walking tours depending on the time of year, including the Trail of Lights Tour in summer and fall and the Trail of Lakes Tour in the winter and spring. Visitors will also tour other parts of the cave, including the Bridal Chamber, Bed of Nails and the Jungle Room.
Info: California Cavern, 9565 Cave City Road, Mountain Ranch; (209) 754-1850, cavetouring.com. Opens 10 a.m. daily, with tours on the hour. Walking tours cost $16 for adults and $8.50 for children ages 6-12.
Mercer Caverns Fun Fact:
On September 1, 1885, Walter J. Mercer made a discovery that forever changed his life. After a luckless day of prospecting for gold, he stumbled upon the subterranean wonderland known now as Mercer Caverns. For two weeks, Mercer and his geologist friend Emile K. Stevenot explored the caverns. It was during this early exploration that Mercer discovered many skeletal remains, which later would be identified as members of the Mi-Wok tribe who lived in the area some 1500-2000 years ago.
For more information, www.gocalaveras.com