If you’ve never explored a cave before, then these 4 incredible California caverns near Murphys are the ideal places to start. In fact, they’re 4 of the largest cave systems in Northern California. Buried beneath the earth, a network of caves reveals a lesson in science and history, and an otherworldly beauty that must be experienced first-hand. The caves maintain a steady temperature of about 55 degrees year-round and many contain steps or ladders, so pack a jacket and comfortable walking shoes. Book your overnight stay at the Dunbar House Inn & Event Property in downtown Murphys for the adventure of a lifetime.
#1 – Black Chasm Cavern
Part of the California Cavern State Historic Landmark, Black Chasm was officially discovered in 1854 by a group of explorers. Their adventurous spirit was rewarded with a bright blue lake below the surface and millions of sparkling crystals known as “helictites”. Helictites are rare and unusual mineral deposit formations that grow throughout the cavern. Only 5% of all known caves contain these gravity-defying crystals.
Black Chasm Cavern is known as a “dissolution cave” because of the dissolving of the rock due to chemical corrosion and physical erosion. The cavern is made up of several lakes in the lower levels, as well as many impressive formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, ribbons, angel’s wings, and more.
The Cavern Tour
During your guided tour, an experienced Cavern Naturalist will take you through three chambers in the upper levels, including the beautiful blue lake that sits about 80 feet below the viewing platform.
The Miners Trail
The Cavern also offers an historically significant, self-guided Miners Trail that offers a glimpse of the infamous Gold Rush. This trail is ecologically fragile and so may be closed during the time of your visit.
#2 – California Cavern State Historic Landmark
Also part of the California Cavern State Historic Landmark, California Cavern is a limestone cave that is believed to be California’s longest cavern. Once called “Mammoth Cave,” it was California’s first “show cave” offering public tours.
California Cavern offers several tour options depending on the season and your skill level.
- Trail of Lights Tour — Available during the dry summer and fall seasons, this 60 to 80-minute tour will take you through well-lit and mostly level passages and walkways, including about 60 steps. Experienced guides will also lead you into the “Jungle Room”, which is named for the vine-link crystalline formations covering the ceiling.
- Trail of Lakes Tour — Available during the wet winter and spring seasons, this 45 to 60-minute tour is very similar to the Trail of Lights tour except you’ll witness pools of water that form throughout the cavern as the water table rises. These hidden lakes reflect the crystalline formations along the trail offering twice the beauty. A few of the rooms may not be open depending on the water levels.
- Mammoth Cave Expedition — Explore the historic “Mammoth Cave” area and “Jungle Room” by walking and literally crawling and squeezing (optional) through naturally tight passages connecting 8 chambers. Open mid-summer.
- Middle Earth Cave Expedition — Spend 2-½ to 5 hours exploring nearly 80% of the cavern system covering about 1 mile – this is not for the faint of heart! The first hour of the trip includes walking, crawling, and wriggling through the “Mammoth Cave” section before heading through the “Middle Earth” area, which involves walking knee-deep in clay (high top shoes are a must). The rest of the expedition takes you past horizontal fissures and on a 70-foot rafting trip across “Tom’s Lake.” The scenery is stunning. At the end, you’ll ascend ladders to encounter warm sunshine and much-needed showers. Open mid-summer.
#3 – Mercer Caverns
Named after the gold prospector, Walter J. Mercer, who discovered and claimed the caves in 1855, this “show cave” features many speleothems, stalactites, stalagmites, and aragonite frostwork. However, Mercer Caverns began forming long before that – as far back as 12 million years. Located only 1 mile north of Murphys, the caverns are a short trip from our Dunbar House Inn.
During early exploration, the skeletal remains of six people were found. Experts determined them to be members of the ancient Mi-Wuk tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area anywhere from 1500-2000 years ago. They also found the remains of an extinct Sierra Ground Sloth from the Ice Age that measured 7’ long.
Mercer Cavern Tour
During the standard, moderately-strenuous, 45-minute tour, you’ll descend down 208 steps and 160 feet, and climb up 232 steps. Summer tours are available from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day beginning at 9am and ending with the last one at 5pm. During the rest of the year, tours are open from 10am until the last one at 4:30pm.
#4 – Moaning Caverns Adventure Park
Moaning Caverns is a “solutional cave”, which means it’s formed in the soluble rock limestone and is the most frequently occurring type of cave. Gold miners first explored these caverns in the 1840s and 1850s, although arrowheads, artifacts, and remains dating back thousands of years have been discovered in the area.
The caverns were named for the moaning sounds that once echoed out of the cave. The Mi-Wok Indians believed the source of these spooky sounds to be supernatural. However, the true source was later discovered to be holes in the floor caused by water droplets. When the water level in these holes was low enough and a water drop landed in one, it produced a hollow thumping sound that echoed out of the cave thanks to the amazing acoustics of the cavern.
Moaning Cavern Tours
- The Spiral Tour — On their most popular year-round tour, you will enter the cave by climbing 65 feet down wooden stairs to the first landing, and then descend another 100 feet to the floor of the main chamber. You’ll return back up the same way.
- The Expedition Crawling & Spelunking Tour — This year-round 3-hour trip takes you through the undeveloped passages deep within the cavern, and is extremely challenging since there are no lights, stairs, or even walkways. An experienced cave guide will lead you through a maze of tight passages and small rooms that literally twist and turn. You will explore by climbing and crawling on your stomach while wearing lighted hard hats to keep your hands free and light the way..
In addition to these two tours, you can peruse the gift shop for unique gifts, stroll the nature trail, or even try your hand at panning for gemstones and axe throwing.
California Cavern Accommodations
Located in the heart of downtown Murphys, CA, Dunbar House Inn & Event Property offers charming guest rooms in a grand Victorian home that was built in 1880. Before heading out, fuel up with an unforgettable gourmet breakfast. After a day of exploring, return to the Inn for rest and relaxation on your private balcony or our wrap-around porch. Check availability.