This summer we’ve been exploring an area of California we really haven’t ever spent much time in — Calaveras County. Brian and I have gone wine tasting, we’ve explored historic towns like Sutter Creek and Plymouth, we explored Columbia State Historic Park, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Moaning Cavern, Natural Bridges, and Calaveras Big Trees.
But we hadn’t yet visited California Caverns. While Moaning Cavern is one giant Cavern room, California Cavern has the most extensive system of caverns and passageways in the entire Mother Lode region. Plus, they offer something the other caverns don’t — muddy adventures for the whole family that will have you walking, crawling, wriggling, and squirming through through natural passages that connect thirteen cavern chambers.
The minute I saw that we could do a more hands on, dirty adventure, I knew that I wanted to do it.
Yes, California Cavern offers a walking tour like the ones we have done before. But I was interested in the two more adventurous guided tours called the Middle Earth Cave Expedition and the Mammoth Cave Expedition. The Middle Earth Cave Expedition was ruled out right away because the minimum age is 16 and our kids are 10 and 13. However, the Mammoth Cave Expedition minimum age is only 8 years old, so we could totally do that one.
When I showed the kids the Mammoth Cave Expedition photos from the California Cavern website, Natalie was excited and Carter was a bit nervous. What if he got scared? What if he didn’t want to do one of the crawls? What if it was too dark? He had questions and thankfully the staff at California Caverns had answers. Not only did their website give me lots of information, but we called to ask a few questions before booking our adventure and the woman on the phone was really helpful.
Once Carter heard that every crawl and tight squeeze/climb is optional and that if you don’t want to do it, you can skip it, we got the approval to book the adventure!
California Cavern Mammoth Cave Expedition
The California Cavern Mammoth Cave Expedition is by reservation only and we had a 10:00 am tour time, the first of the day, so we ate a good breakfast, packed up our extra clothes, and headed over to the visitor center early. We got checked in along with another family of four, signed our waivers, and went to the gear shed to get gloves, knees pads, and helmets with headlamps, and review our adventure on a wall map, to see where we would be exploring in the cavern.
Our guide Andrew was friendly and funny, and he gave us some great tips for other adventures nearby, but beware, some of his jokes about it being scary made our already nervous 10 year old even more nervous.
We then hit the trail for an easy, short walk to the cavern entrance, where we saw the original cave entrance and learned the history about how the California Cavern was discovered and how it was turned into a show cavern. After entering the cave, we took a moment to sit in the dark with all of our headlamps off to really get an idea of just how dark it is inside the caverns and learn more about how the caverns were used when this area was called Cave City.
Then we turned our headlamps back on and immediately began the off-trail part of our expedition with a 20 foot belly crawl through a tiny cave opening on the floor of the cavern room, across the thick, mineral-rich clay mud. The other family we were with went first so Natalie and Carter could see what they were going to have to do — which turned out to be a great idea! They were able to see that it wasn’t a big deal and both kids did it no problem. The crawl had us using our forearms to pull ourselves through the mud. This is where wearing overalls or a jumpsuit would have been helpful, as my pants slid down past my butt during the crawl/slide! Thankfully only Brian was left behind me!
Once inside the next small cavern room (really just a larger part of the tunnel), we dug in the clay a bit to make our own sculptures to leave behind for others to discover. The kids loved making their own sculpture and seeing all of the ones others have left before us.
Next, we crawled through another cave tunnel to reach what they call the Claustrophobia Test. Our guide Andrew climbed onto a rock, sat down, put his hand in a small basketball shaped hole in the ground in front of him, and told us that our next climb would be through that hole! We would have to slide down the hole feet first into the Womb Room, then climb/pull ourselves back up and out of the hole. Say what?! I had my doubts.
Again, we went last to see how the other kids and parents fit through the hole. This was our approach to the entire tour because it made Carter more comfortable, and he ended up doing pretty much every crawl. Natalie, Brian, and Carter slid through the hole into the Womb Room no problem, but then it was my turn. Remember how I said I had doubts? They told us that the largest person to fit through the hole was six feet tall, 275 pounds, but that also a 100 pound woman didn’t fit because of her hip size. I knew that would be my downfall — my hip size. I’ve got wide baby-carrying hips, and I was right. There was no way I was going to fit through that hole, so for this one, I was only the photographer.
Next we visited the Registry Room where hundreds of early cave visitors carved and scratched their names in the walls and some are dated back one hundred years. We walked through some of the cavern with absolutely spectacular views of limestone rock formations, cave popcorn, cave bacon, and stalactites. Then got back down on our hands and knees for another crawl, a short break, and yet another belly crawl — well, more of a belly slide down the mud through a tunnel — that had us bending our backs almost in a taco shape!
We scooted out onto a rock ledge through a horizontal crevice to look out over the open cavern room and then walked down the cavern walking trail to the Jungle Room. Our guide said that all of the other Northern California Caves are jealous of this room, and I can see why. The Jungle Room is awe inspiring. Everywhere you look there is something incredible to see, like stalactites of all sizes, soda straws, stalagmites, helictite crystals, and crystalline vines. At one point we caught the pristine water dripping from the straws in our mouths!
Our cave expedition also included visits to the Bridal Chamber with rock formations that look like a wedding dress and stains from champagne that couples would pour down the rocks when they got married inside the cavern! We saw the Cathedral Room, the Bed Of Nails Room, Music Hall, Bishop’s Palace, and Odd Fellows’ Hall, and at one point, we slid down a muddy rock with only a rope to hang onto! Brian and Natalie also did the wet and muddy Worm Squirm, that had to be done on your right side using your right elbow and left foot to push yourself through while you wriggled your body through mud, water, and a tight turn. But our guide who was trying to be funny in his warnings, scared Carter too much, so he and I ended up skipping it — even though Natalie and Brian both said we could have done it no problem.
While all of our tunnel climbs, crawls, and belly slides were amazing, the kids’ favorite was one of the last ones that had us exploring — without our guide — a very, very muddy labyrinth of cave tunnels and small rooms. It started with a climb through a small cave opening on the floor. Once through, we were left to our own devices to explore the cavern chambers, searching for one of three ways out. This mud was deeper, stickier, and wetter than anywhere else in the cave. When we could stand up, our shoes were sticking in the mud and it was hard to even take a step. When we were on our hands and knees, our knees pads were getting stuck in the mud. It was hard, slippery, and dirty, and so much fun!
Even though all eight of us were looking for an exit, we had a hard time finding one! We found dead ends, giant holes in the ground, and mud slides, but no exits! Finally we found an exit up high that required us to climb upward and hoist our bodies out with our arms. Carter needed a boost because of the height and the slippery mud — there was nothing to grab onto for leverage! I boosted him up, but he ended up stepping on my face and neck with his muddy shoe. (Gross!) I went next and holy crap. It was hard. At one point I was practically doing the splits to get one leg up over a rock, so my other leg could wedge into the rock wall behind me and push my body up out of the muddy hole.
We did hike nine miles at Calaveras Big Trees the day before, so after that I was exhausted! Thank goodness it was the last “hard activity” before the end of our almost three hour underground cavern adventure!
While on our Mammoth Cave Expedition, a walking tour came through the cave past us and you could hear people commenting about how muddy we were. The best part though, were the shocked and horrified faces of those just starting their walking tour, when we came out of the cavern completely caked in thick, clay mud! They had to be reassured that we were on a different tour.
Back out in the bright sunlight, we followed the trail back to the gear hut to turn in our helmets, knee pads, and gloves so they could be washed. There were a few hoses and scrub brushes to clean most of the mud off of our shoes, and showers were available if you wanted to take one. We were going straight home after a picnic lunch and some panning in the California Cavern Flumes, so we just washed the mud off our faces, hands, and arms, and changed into clean clothes for the ride home. Needless to say, all of the clothes we wore on our cavern adventure went straight into the trash at the Visitor Center.
There are no restrooms available on any of the tours at California Cavern, not even the Mammoth Cave Expedition or Middle Earth Cave Expedition, which last 2.5-4 hours! Knowing this in advance, we drank very little before our tour and we didn’t eat too much either. So by the time we had changed into clean clothes, we were absolutely STARVING!
There are several picnic tables available, but only one or two in the shade, so we grabbed one of those, unloaded our picnic supplies and our ice chest and chowed down. Most places we take the kids hiking and adventuring, including California Cavern, don’t have food options available, so we’ve gotten used to taking an ice chest and picnic meals pretty much everywhere we go.
Plus, not only is cheaper than eating out, it is way more fun to enjoy a picnic outside under the trees than it is to sit for an hour or more in a restaurant!
While we were eating lunch, our muscles began to tighten up and we could definitely feel how hard we worked our bodies. Brian and I looked at each other across the picnic table and started to laugh… we felt like we got our butts kicked and we knew just how sore we were going to be the next day.
Mining And Panning For Kids
After lunch, we headed back into the store and Visitor Center to check out the large bear skeleton up close and pick up a few bags of mining rough (dirt seeded with treasures) for some gemstone mining and gold panning. At Moaning Cavern, we chose the gemstone bags of mining rough, so this time we bought two bags of fossil rough and one bag of arrowhead rough — and they didn’t disappoint! Brian and I, along with Natalie and Carter all did some mining and found a ton of different fossils and several different arrowheads, including two made from obsidian.
I just wish these mining flumes were in the shade like those at Moaning Cavern instead of the full sun, because it was really hot and we didn’t have sunscreen on.
About California Cavern at Cave City
The limestone cave system was discovered in 1850 by Captain Joseph Taylor. He was target shooting on the rocky outcropping and noticed that a breeze coming from the rocks were moving his targets. After closer investigation, he found the entrance to the cave, which he named Mammoth Cave. Not long after, the cave opened for public tours, making it one of the earliest officially recorded caves in the region, and the first show cave in the state of California.
Early visitors included Bret Harte, Mark Twain and John Muir.
By 1894, the cavern was known as Cave City Cave. Cave city began as a mining town and at one point, residents installed wood floors and wooden walkways in the caverns and held parties, dances, church, meetings, weddings, concerts, and dinners inside various rooms in the cavern system. They even had a bar inside the cavern!
Know Before You Go
- California Cavern is located at 9565 Cave City Road, Mountain Ranch, CA 95246.
- The temperature inside the cavern is 55°F year round, but it’s humid. If you get cold easily, you may want a light sweatshirt or jacket. If you’re doing the Mammoth Cave Expedition or the Middle Earth Expedition, you’re going to get hot and sweaty so don’t dress to warmly!
- The cavern walking tours do not require advance reservations. Depending on when you visit California Cavern, your tour will either be the Tour of Lights (summer season) or the Tour of Lakes (winter season), both are suitable for your whole family.
- Pack a picnic lunch! There are several picnic tables (but only a few in the shade) and it’s the perfect place to have a picnic. Plus there is no food for sale at the park except bottled drinks and a few snacks.
- Buy the kids a bag of mining rough (dirt) from the Visitor Center. They can choose between gemstone, fossil, arrowhead, or pyrite rough. Plan for at least 15-30 minutes of mining/panning in the flume system. But beware, the mining flumes at Moaning Caverns are in the shade, but at California Caverns, they are in the full sun.
- Wear tennis shoes or boots. Trust me. The ground inside the cave is at times wet, steep, slippery, and muddy, and sturdy shoes will be much safer than flip flops or sandals.
Mammoth Cave Expedition And Middle Earth Cave Expedition Tours
- Make reservations. Both cave expeditions at California Caverns require advance reservations and they do book up, especially on holiday weekends. (Mammoth Cave Expedition minimum age is eight. Middle Earth Cave Expedition minimum age is sixteen.)
- Caving equipment is provided. You will be provided with everything you need to go spelunking inside the cavern, including gloves, a helmet with a headlamp, knee pads.
- Plan on throwing away your clothing. Wear long sleeves and long pants that you don’t care about. They are going to get covered in thick, mineral rich, clay mud — and it sort of smells gross. (Thankfully you don’t notice the smell until you’re out of the cave.) Bring a change of clothes and after your cave adventure, change and just throw your caving clothes in the trash.
- High-top boots are a must for the Middle Earth Expedition, as at one point, you wade through deep mud and ankle-high shoes will pull right off.
- Tennis shoes are okay for the Mammoth Cave Expedition. We all wore tennis shoes and it was just fine; no need to buy boots just for this. But if you have high-top boots, wear them. When we were climbing through one particularly muddy part of the cave, our tennis shoes got stuck in the mud and our feet came right out of them! (Muddy socks = gross!)
- Showers are available. Showers are available to use after your guided cave adventure is over, so pack toiletries and shower supplies (including a towel) with your extra clothes and extra shoes. We went straight home after our adventure, so we did the minimum clean up in the restroom and just showered at home.
- Eat breakfast. There is no eating or drinking on the expeditions — not even water — so be sure to eat a big breakfast or lunch before you go.
- There are no restrooms on your expedition. Once you go into the cave, there are no restrooms available until your tour is over. No biggie for a short walking tour, but a bigger deal for the multi-hour cave adventures. Avoid problem foods and excessive liquids before your expedition.