When I first moved to Northern California in 2006, I was surprised to find how many interesting spots there were within distance of a short day trip. Such a transition from hectic Southern California life where two hours on the freeway meant you only went five miles.
Sacramento was a stone’s throw from the Gold Country, which contained a wealth (no pun intended) of spots to check out on a leisurely weekend. One that I found interesting was a series of caves and caverns that many of my local friends hadn’t even visited!
Moaning Cavern is one of the more intriguing spots in the California Gold Country and is located in Vallecito, about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Sacramento. It’s a limestone cave discovered by gold miners in 1851, but its history is known to date back to prehistoric times.
The cave’s name comes from the moaning sound made by the water dripping into small holes at the bottom of the “chocolate waterfall” flowstone formation. This in turn causes a drumming sound, which is echoed off the walls and carried to the natural entrance of the cave by the wind.
Would you believe the Statue of Liberty could fit in the Moaning Cavern?
It’s the largest public cavern you can see in California and offers a variety of tours, including a 165-foot rope rappel into the main chamber. There is a three-hour caving adventure that begins with the rappel, and even ziplining on the premises.
Here are a few points of interest on the tour, once you get down in the cave itself:
Since the cave is still “living”, formations continue to grow. As water drips, it deposits calcite at the end of formations, causing them to grow in tiny amounts each year. Draperies can be different colors because of the different minerals present. The reddish brown color is an indication of a high concentration of iron.
One of the more interesting formations is “The Igloo”. It’s a 25-foot tall igloo formation that dates back over 1 million years.
The chocolate waterfall gets its obvious name from the dark brown streaks that look much like chocolate flowing down the cave’s walls.
I only did the walking tour. I suck…I know.
Even for the less adventurous types, the walking tour gives you a really good view of the cave from 165 feet below the ground…and you still have to descend and then climb back up 234 stairs!
You descend through the marble passages, ultimately ending where scientific excavations have revealed prehistoric bones of people who must have fallen through the cavern thousands of years ago. The guides provide a lot of background information, including the geology and explorations that have led to determining its current dept of 410 feet.
Regrettably, I do wish I had done the rappel or the adventure tour. We watched the few brave souls rappelling and they looked like they were having a blast. The adventure tour includes the rappel and then up to two hours exploring the cavern’s passages and chambers. Most of the areas are dark and lack any modern conveniences like staircases. Expect to be crawling on your belly and climbing over things on this one.
I guess I can always make the excuse that the adventure tour requires reservations and since this was a spur of the moment visit, no time to prepare. Darn.
Just a note even if you plan to only do the walking tour — it can be rather chilly down below (average of 61F year round, and it’s slippery and muddy, so bring a jacket (or sweater) just in case, and wear shoes that have good grip soles, otherwise you might be the one falling down the hole!