Earlier this year we visited Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and Columbia State Historic Park on a gold rush themed day trip to Calaveras County. Throughout the day we saw signs and brochures for underground cavern tours nearby in Pine Grove, Mountain Ranch, Vallecito, and Murphys, including:
Hiking through Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave in Pinnacles National Park over spring break, was our first taste of cave hiking and we had a blast! So when I saw that we could hike through caverns too, and that they are all day trip distance from our house, I was sold. When we got home I immediately researched the caverns in Northern California, where they are, what the cavern tours include, and what else there is to do nearby.
During my research, I discovered Natural Bridges, another awesome cave hiking adventure. Two family-friendly cave hikes — Moaning Cavern and Natural Bridges — right next door to each other in the same town?! Um, yes please. It would be the perfect family day trip to celebrate Natalie’s birthday.
Moaning Cavern Adventure Park
Located in the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills of California’s historic Gold Country, Moaning Caverns has cavern tours, zip lining, rock climbing, and gem panning, as well as a Visitor Center and store, a picnic area, a talking and dancing bird named cuddles, and a walking trail. But the cavern is the gem of this park.
Moaning Cavern holds the largest vertical chamber in a public cavern that you can see in California. It’s so big, that the entire Statue of Liberty from toes to torch can fit inside.
The giant single cave chamber drops 180 feet before funneling into several narrow passageways named the Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, Birth Canal, Santa’s Worst Nightmare (a 30 ft chimney) to its full depth of 410 feet. It is also an archaeological site, where some of the oldest human remains known in America were discovered.
Part of the Calaveras Formation, Moaning Cavern has one natural entrance — a 30 foot vertical chimney dropping into the center of the room. It is named for the moaning sound that echoed from of the cave entrance. Later to allow more people to visit the cavern, dynamite was used to expand a nearby natural crack in the ground so stairs could be built. This new entrance changed the cave’s dynamics and the moaning sounds ceased.
We bought tickets for the 45 minute, family-friendly Moaning Cavern Spiral Walking Tour, that descends down 235 stairs to a depth of 165 feet below the surface, through well-lit marble passages down steep staircases.
- Our tour began in a small room adjacent to the Visitor Center where we learned about the original, natural cavern entrance, the history and geology of the cavern, and the scientific excavations that revealed bones of prehistoric people who had fallen into the cavern thousands of years ago.
- We then entered a small passageway and climbed down steep, narrow wooden staircases to a man-made platform. We were 65 feet below the surface and looking at simply stunning views of the inside of the cavern.
- Our tour guide pointed out several cavern formations, shared more facts about the cavern with us, and answered everyone’s questions before we continued our descent down a steep, narrow, 10-story spiral staircase made from a recycled WWI battleship.
- The tour stops again at a second platform with expansive views of the cavern and additional formations, including a rock with human bones encrusted in it.
- While on the second platform of the cavern, our tour guide shut the lights off so we were in complete darkness. She then lit a candle and shared some of the mining history from the area and the early exploration of the cave.
- Soon it was time to climb back up the 165 steps and 16 stories was climbed down. Yikes! Luckily we were the last people the leave the cave, so we could take breaks and take photos along the way.
32 Foot Rock Climbing Tower
The Moaning Cavern Rock Climbing Tower has several rock climbing routes to choose from, and while the climbing options range from easy to hard, all are suitable for the whole family.
All participants wear climbing harnesses and are clipped on to the route of their choice so you or your kids can just climb to the top and then make use of the built in belay system to jump away from the wall for a smooth, automatic descent back to the ground.
With life-like rock features and overhangs, the tower can accommodate 10 people at a time, which means shorter lines and less waiting. (Hooray!) Several kids were climbing at the same time as Carter and no one impeded his space, and his climbing ticket was good for two different climbs, so he got to try to different routes up the rock wall, without a long wait in between.
I am so happy Moaning Cavern has a climbing wall and zip lines. My son didn’t want to ride the zip lines, but he also didn’t want to miss out on something fun. The rock climbing wall was the perfect thing for him to do while Natalie and I got suited up in our gear for the zip lines.
California Zip Lines At Moaning Cavern
Also part of Moaning Cavern Adventure Park are the above ground twin zip lines. Natalie has wanted to ride a zip line forever, so when we planned the trip to Moaning Cavern for her birthday adventure, we also planned to surprise her with a race down the zip lines.
We bought out tickets for the climbing tower, the zip line, the cavern tour, and the gem panning inside the Moaning Cavern Visitor Center and store. After finishing the walking tour inside Moaning Cavern, Natalie and I headed to the California Zip Line counter to check in and get suited up in full-body climbing harnesses — and luckily we didn’t have to wait very long. They’ve got this process down and run it very smoothly.
- While we waited for our ride to the launch tower, the Zip line staff took photos for us and pointed out the best places to stand to get the tower in the background.
- Soon we rode up to the start of a short trail to the launch tower. Our legs were burning a bit at this point from just walking up 16 stories of stairs on the cavern tour and carrying the heavy zip line rigging.
- Then we reached a 60-foot long sky bridge that took us to the launch tower with spectacular views of Coyote Creek Canyon.
Once atop the zip line launch platform, we were rigged to the cables and quickly got to practice hanging from the zip line. Natalie and I were looking at each other with our eyes wide — we were both hooked to the zip line, both nervous and excited, and both ready to race. In a zip line race, I figured I’d beat her hands down because I weigh more, but then they hooked a few bags of rocks to her harness, and the winner was up in the air!
The staff atop the zip line launch tower counted down and with one small step off the platform, Natalie and I were zooming down the 1,500 foot zip line over the trees, rocks, trails, and brush at speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour, in a 1/4 mile race to the landing tower. It was so awesome! But they don’t let you bring your phone or your camera. You can’t hold it, even if you have a wrist strap. But they will let you borrow a GoPro and then sell you the footage.
Natalie and I, because we were both big enough to zip alone, rode the zip lines in the regular seated style. But the family ahead of us has a little boy who looked to be about 5 years old who was riding the tandem zip with his dad. In the tandem zip, two people, both in full rigging, zip together sharing a trolley — this way little kids who aren’t big enough to zip alone can still do it.
After our zip line ride was over, we were hoping the same little truck that took us to the launch platform would pick us up and take us back to the Visitor Center area to meet Brian and Carter, but nope. You’ve got to walk back. It’s not a terrible walk, but it is about a quarter mile and in the middle of a late August day, in the sun, it is really, really hot.
If you go on your birthday — the actual day and you must have proof — you can zip for free.
After the cavern tour and the zip line race, we were hungry! We grabbed our ice chest and food out of the truck, grabbed a picnic table in the shade, and enjoyed a delicious lunch before trying out the gem panning.
Now we’ve done the gold panning and gem panning at other places before — and it was okay. But this was totally different. At Moaning Cavern, you first purchase a bag of prepackaged “rough” (dirt) — it’s seeded with treasures so every kid is guaranteed panning success. They have small, medium, and large bags of gemstones, as well as bags with fossils, arrowheads, or gold. Along with our bag of gemstone rough, each kid got an identification chart to help them figure out the names of the gems they discover.
Just outside the Visitor Center are 100 foot long mining flumes that are supplied by 12 foot tall water towers. We took our large bags of gem rough to the flume, we each grabbed a screen-bottomed mining box, and poured our rough, little by little, into the boxes, swishing them around in the water to reveal gems in a variety of sizes and colors.
We all found treasures and both kids were thrilled to be leaving with a bag full of beautiful gems.
Know Before You Go
- Moaning Cavern is located at 5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito, California 95251 in Calaveras County, right next door to the Natural Bridges Day Use Area. Plan on making an entire day of it. You won’t regret it.
- The cavern is 61 degrees year round and humid, so you really don’t need a jacket or sweatshirt. After climbing all of those stairs, I regretted bringing a sweatshirt.
- Pack a picnic lunch! There are several picnic tables under the trees 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.
- No reservations are needed for the walking tour, but the Adventure Tour that takes you even further into the cavern, through the Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, Birth Canal, and Santa’s Worst Nightmare does require reservations.
- Buy the large bag of gem mining rough (dirt) and plan for at least 30 minutes of gem panning in the Moaning Cavern flume system. Even I had fun doing this!
- Wear tennis shoes or boots — no flip flops. Trust me. You don’t want to be navigating those staircases in flimsy footwear.
Oh… Have fun too!