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Squirming and Slithering at California and Moaning Caverns
Photos and story by Lee Juillerat
High on Adventure, October/November 2013


We squirmed and squiggled, slithered and wriggled.

The first day we emerged from California Cavern slathered in mud. Our orange overalls, which looked like they'd been borrowed from the state prison, along with our helmets and exposed body parts, were colored a mud-oblique brown.

Squirming in California Cavern    Squiggling in Calfornia Cavern

Wriggling in Calfornia Cavern
Squirming, squiggling, wriggling in California Cavern

For five hours, our group of three shimmied through passages like reptiles, sometimes emerging in spacious, elaborate limestone rooms decorated with walls of crystals, stalactites, soda straws, glistening flowstones, cave draperies and cave bacon. There was even a subterranean lake that we crossed in a raft.

California Cave crystals    

California Cave boat

The next day we spent three hours submerged at nearby Moaning Cavern Park, named not for the sounds we uttered grunting through impossibly teeny you've-got-to-be-kidding-me! passages, but for the “moaning” sounds made when, under certain conditions, water drops from the cave's main chamber.

Instead of traipsing down the spiral staircase's 144 steps, Joan Holliday, with considerable cajoling and assurances from our watchdog guide Paul Groh, and I entered that expansive chamber by roping up, stepping into a small opening and rappelling 165 feet. I purposely twirled and rotated in circles as I lingered during the descent, taking time to gawk and goggle at the massive limestone room below the entrance slot.

Rappeling into Moaning Cavern     Rappeling into Moaning Cavern
Rappeling into Moaning Cavern (Photos by Lisa Boulton)

During both days we played follow the leader, sometimes hands over our heads as we dropped into toilet bowl sized openings or, lieing stretched out on our backs, variously used toes, hips and shoulders to gain precious millimeters worming through passages with descriptively evocative names, including Pancake and Birth Canal.

I've explored many of the lava tube passages at Lava Beds National Monument in far northern California and taken the deliciously sloppy off-trail tour at Oregon Caves National Monument. I've ducked into Shasta Caverns near California's Shasta Lake, the Lava River Cave near Bend in Oregon Kartchner Caverns in Arizona and cenotes in the Mexican Yucatan. But two days of underground explorations at California and Moaning caverns left me exhausted and exuberant—and delighted to be above ground.

Located in California's Mother Lode Gold Country, the caves were discovered by gold miners seeking other riches in the Sierra-Nevada foothills.

California Cavern Registry Chamber  California Cavern Registry Chamber
Signatures dating back to 1849 are signed onto "registry chamber"

California Cavern proved a bonanza for Captain Joseph Taylor, who discovered the cave in 1849 and began taking visitors into the cavern for a pinch of gold dust a year later. Some of its larger rooms have served other purposes: Catholic masses have been held in the Bishop's Palace, occasional weddings have been held in the Cathedral Room. It's believed the Odd Fellows held secret meetings in the Odd Fellows Hall. Several areas are tattooed with signatures, some elaborately carved into the walls and ceilings.

With guide Christine Wueste providing commentary, Joan and I explored subterranean rites of passage in places like the Bed of Nails Room, Hersheys Crawl, Jungle Room, Tall Man's Misery, Cork Screw, Fools Folly, Seal Rock Room and, with lights turned off, felt our way along a section nicknamed the Braille Trail.

California Cavern draperies   California Cavern flowstones
Draperies, soda straws, flowstones decorate cavern rooms

Cave formations included a wall of tacos, slices of bacon, draperies and Romeo and Juliet, named for a set of stalactites and stalagmites that, for centuries, have almost merged into one. When I popped out of the squeeze hole called the Birth Hole, Christine announced, “It's a boy!”

California Cavern Birth Hold
"It's a girl!"

In some sections water dribbled over our ankles, in some we sloshed through deep mud, or pressed our bodies along pasty, often slippery, mud walls and passages. We got literally and figuratively down and dirty in California Cavern, but it was clean fun.

Our overalls stayed cleaner in Moaning Cavern.

Moaning Cavern's Adventure Tour is remarkable for its seemingly impossible passages—the Pancake squeeze, Joe's Adventure, Roach Motel, Birth Canal, and The Chimney, the more difficult of two routes—Godzilla's Nostril is the other—that leaves the claustrophobic series of earlier mostly horizontal, often slippery passages.

California Cavern creepy crawling
Creepy crawling

Even with a helmet, my head felt bonked, beaten and battered. Trying to follow the others—our trip included our guide Paul and two young cavers celebrating a birthday—was often difficult because the light was swallowed at creepy crawly turns and bends. In some squeeze holes, which required twists and rolls, sliding belly flat or on our backs, we shifted shoulders, hips and toes to gain fractions of inches, seemingly willing our way through.

California Cavering slithering   California Cavern slithering2
Slithering through the "Pancake"

Calaveras County offers other caves, but after two days of appreciating my inner lizard, Moaning and California caverns satisfied our squirming worming cravings. The next day we hiked the trails through towering redwoods at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. We were outside, breathing fresh air, standing upright. That afternoon we stopped in the historic community of Murphys, which offers a series of wine tasting rooms along its Main Street.

Would I visit Moaning or California caverns again? With only a gentle prod, I'll cave in and go.

When You Go

Christine Wueste invites visitors inside California Cavern
Christine Wueste invites visitors inside California Cavern

California Cavern is located near San Andreas, California, offers a choice of guided tours. The lighted Trail of Lights tour lasts about an hour and travels a lighted half-mile through eight rooms connected by easily negotiated passageways. The cave temperature is about 55 degrees. More challenging are two wild cave tours, the 2- to 3-hour Mammoth Cave Expedition suitable for people age 8 and older, and the more advanced 4- to 5-hour Middle Earth Expedition for physically fit people age 16 and older. Because California Cavern floods every year, winter operating dates vary.

For information call toll-free 866-762-2837 or visit their website at www.caverntours.com .

Moaning Cavern is about seven miles from Angels Camp, Calif. The basic guided tour lasts about 45 minutes and provides people with a view of the large room and rappellers descending 165 feet on ropes. The Adventure Tour, which includes an option to do the rappel, takes about three hours and goes through a labyrinth of passages and chambers.

For information call toll-free 866-762-2837 or visit the website, also at www.caverntours.com .

For information about the region, contact the Calaveras Visitors Bureau & Film Commission at www.gocaslaveras.com or 209-736-0049.

About the Author

California Cavern writer Lee Juillerat on the job
Author Lee Juillerat on the job


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