Say “down under” and you might think you’re bound for Australia, but not so fast—or far. California has a wacky-cool mix of ways to get down—way down. At Shasta Lake in the state’s northeast corner, step into stalagmite-filled grottoes you can only reach by boat. In the Central Valley, descend into a mind-blowing, 4-hectare compound, all of it below the surface and all of it dug by hand. Or shrug into your leather jacket and join the hipster crowd in a subterranean speakeasy that’s being called one of L.A.’s sexiest bars.
Step into a stalagmite-filled grotto you can only reach by boat, or join the hipster crowd in a subterranean speakeasy.
Going underground is even a part of California’s history. In the late 1840s, emigrants in search of their fortunes flooded the Sierra foothills before the state was even created. Some of these “forty-niners” panned for gold; others dug mines deep into the earth in search of the Mother Lode. You can go there too, on special guided tours that take you down, down, down. Here are some of our favorite ways to go underground in the Golden State.
Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some four hectares, hidden just beneath the surface. This underground maze is the handiwork of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere. From 1906 to 1946, the visionary builder, using only shovels, picks, and other hand tools, created this catacomb-like compound, allegedly as a cool subterranean retreat from the region’s soaring summer temperatures.
“He just kind of wanted to get out of the Fresno heat,” says Lyn Forestiere Kosewski, great niece of Baldassare and now owner of Forestiere Underground Gardens, which is open for fascinating tours nearly year-round. “He understood that it was cooler underground (from) the cellars back in Sicily.”
Far from a grim underground chamber, this is a subterranean home, with sky-lit rooms, a chapel, and even a fishing pond.
But this is no somber collection of barren caves. Forestiere was building a home, and the hand-chiseled underground complex includes such seemingly incongruous touches as an underground fishing pond and a chapel. There are also open-air skylights, so that Forestiere’s collection of fruit trees and grape vines could thrive and bear fruit, even underground. It’s an ironic achievement, given that the young immigrant originally bought the parcel where the tunnels now hide as potential land to start a citrus empire, yet it proved to be all wrong for growing the lush groves Forestiere originally envisioned. So, with otherwise worthless land, he went down, using no plans other than the ideas in his head.
“Baldassare had to physically dig through this—three to five feet [0.9 - 1.5m] of sedimentary rock—not an easy task,” says Lyn Forestiere. “He got a lot of negativity from people who didn’t understand what he was doing.” According to historic reports, Forestiere once said that the visions he had for building his underground wonderland overwhelmed him. Seeing the results on a guided tour, you can’t help but be moved by the seemingly Herculean achievement of this humble Sicilian immigrant.
Insider tip: Forestiere Underground Gardens are closed December through February, and Monday and Tuesday of every week.
Dirty Laundry Bar, the trendy subterranean speakeasy on Hollywood Boulevard dubbed by Thrillist as “one of the sexiest bars in L.A.,” makes you feel like you’ve slipped into L.A.’s underworld. Dimly lit below-ground spaces aim to make you feel like you’ve time-warped to Prohibition; in fact, the basement-level warren is rumoured to have once been the secret bar of silent-era actor Rudolph Valentino, with forbidden liquor smuggled around in laundry baskets. The bar, created by twins Jonnie and Mark Houston (owners of some of L.A.’s hottest after-dark watering holes), includes suspender-clad bartenders and zero cell service (just like Prohibition). Finding Dirty Laundry—hidden beneath another bar called No Vacancy—is only half the challenge; to get in, you have to know the daily password via the bar’s Twitter account (@dirtylaundrybar).
For another subterranean after-dark retreat in L.A., head to the Crocker Club. A century ago it was the basement-level vault room of Crocker Citizens National Bank. Now it’s a swankified bar, restaurant, and DJ-driven nightclub. Walk through a maze of rooms still sporting Deco-era designs and features, including the bank’s original vault and its still-working multi-ton door. (Don’t worry, it’s permanently wedged open.) Sidle up to the Ghost Bar—rumored to have spirits both in and out of the bottle—and order The Brinks Job, with Hendrick’s Gin, St. Germain, lime juice, simple syrup, and fresh muddled basil, mint, ginger, and cucumber. Then relax in one of the club’s chamber rooms, where decades ago wealthy bank patrons stashed gems and secret valuables in their safe deposit boxes.
California’s capital city first began in the mid-1800s as a settlement along the Sacramento River. It marked the spot where gold seekers heading for the Mother Lode in the Sierra foothills would leave their sailing ships and continue east on foot. In response to the flood of gold-fevered adventurers, a settlement began to grow along the river’s southern banks—a place bustling with shops, eateries, and lodgings.
Though the area was convenient for river access, it had a problem: It flooded—a lot. To get above the river’s incessant rising flow, the town began to raise its streets and buildings. Recent excavations have uncovered the former first floors of Old Sacramento, a maze of hidden underground spaces and streets. Sacramento History Museum guides in period costumes lead you down sloped alleyways and narrow passages into some of these gloomy spaces, all the while sharing details on the town’s early history and citizens. Special “Underground After Hours” tours, offered on select evenings for ages 21 and over, delve into the city’s darker past. Guides shed light on Old Sacramento’s shadiest characters, sharing the early town’s gossip of murder, mischief, and madams.
Just off the Central Coast, there’s a remarkable, record-holding natural cavern that almost no one sees. This enormous sea cave—the longest in North America and one of the lengthiest in the world—plunges a 400 metres into the side of Santa Cruz Island, within Channel Islands National Park. “When the tide is right, the cave opening is big enough to drive a 18 metre boat almost halfway into the tunnel, and kayaks can slip in even deeper,” says Grant Cunningham of Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which along with other outfitters leads regular guided kayak trips into Painted Cave. “During the rainy season there’s a waterfall at the mouth of the cave too—it’s really amazing.”
“It’s hard to describe because it’s such a surreal thing: to be in a pitch-black chamber, with barking sea lions, under an island.” —kayak tour guide Grant Cunningham
Cunningham’s favorite feature to share with guests lies deep within the cave. “When you get about two-thirds of the way back, the cave narrows,” he explains. “You paddle through and enter a huge, pitch-black chamber.” Back there, he notes, you’ll often find a dozen or more barking, bawling sea lions holed up in the darkness, resting on an invisible rocky beach.
“Sometimes people are freaked out, but most of the time they’re just speechless,” says Cunningham. “It’s hard to describe because it’s such a surreal thing: to be in a pitch-black chamber, with barking sea lions, under an island. Some people want to stay for a long, long time.”
Guided full-day trips include transport (via Island Packers boat service from Ventura) to the island and all paddling gear. You should have some paddling experience, and know how to swim. Cunningham says it’s usually a 3.2km downwind paddle to reach the caves (you get a boat ride back), and there are plenty of other, smaller caves to explore, plus snorkeling in the surrounding Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Caves aren’t often thought of as romantic retreats, but California’s wine caves can be surprisingly appealing. In a growing number of the state’s wine regions, naturally cool subterranean caverns have been created to store barrels of wine as they age. Many wineries now open their caves for guided tours or special events, such as seasonal barrel tastings and elegant wine pairing dinners (reservations required, so call ahead), and even rent them out for private parties and weddings.
Enjoy lavish presentations pairing food and assorted wines—including signature bubbles—in the caves at Gloria Ferrer.
Sonoma Wine Country has several wineries with caves open to the public. In the Dry Creek Valley, family run Bella Vineyards has some 7,000 square feet of caves hidden beneath its hilly Lily Hill vineyard. While there’s plenty of room for wine barrels, the maze also includes a tasting room and elegantly decorated entertainment spaces that beg for a candlelit dinner. The wine caves at Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery, opened in 1857, are officially designated as historical landmarks; step inside to join educational barrel tastings (reservations required). Enjoy lavish presentations pairing food and assorted wines—including signature bubbles—in the caves at Gloria Ferrer, in the town of Sonoma.
Along Napa Valley’s celebrated Silverado Trail, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, once the site of a fashionable country resort, offers reservation only tours that visit wine caves, as well as the original 1892 stone manor house. Another one of the region’s most historic wineries, Inglenook, open since 1879 and now owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, includes a visit to its Infinity wine caves as part of its reserve-ahead tours.
East of San Francisco, the Livermore Valley wine region has several wineries with wine caves, such as the impressive sandstone caverns at Wente Vineyards. And in the Temecula Valley in Southern California, about an hour’s drive north of San Diego, step inside the region’s first wine cave at Oak Mountain Winery.
Discovered by miners in 1851, this vertical chamber near Angels Camp is so massive it is the largest public cavern in California—big enough to hold the entire Statue of Liberty. Early visitors would climb into a large bucket and then be slowly lowered to the chamber’s floor. Nowadays, a spiral staircase provides easy access, or, if you prefer to get in touch with your inner Spiderman, consider rappelling the 165 feet/50 metres from the top of the chamber to the bottom. For intrepid explorers (prepare to belly crawl), a 2½-hour adventure tour delves into the cave’s deepest burrows, roughly 280 feet/85 metres below the floor of the main chamber, through narrow passageways with names like Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal.
If that hasn’t boosted your adrenaline enough, strap yourself in for a thrilling ride on a 1,500-foot/457-metre-long zip line. Check the website for a schedule of Concerts in the Cave, when the natural acoustics and sound of water dripping into the cave system (the so-called moaning that gives this site its name) is accompanied by live music and a light show or a singing choir.
Okay, so this one isn’t technically underground. But settle into this dimly lit den, its walls paneled with faux rock and furniture decorated with animal prints, and you can’t help but feel that you’re in a cave-like quarry. Get your Bamm-Bamm on with Stone Age clubs (actually, we’re not really sure what you should do with them), or check out your reflection in the in-room rock pond. And, in the words of the Madonna Inn, “Caveman has a king bed and will accommodate two primates.” As in many of the inn’s rooms and suites, the Caveman Room has a theme-driven bathroom, with a waterfall spilling into the stone shower and water flowing from rocks into the stone sink.
If there was ever a road to nowhere, this route through the heart of a remote mountain in the vast Mojave Desert might just be the most head-scratching route you’ll ever visit. The tunnel is a roughly 600-metre-long tube dug out of solid rock by miner Burro Schmidt; it starts at his still-standing cabin compound, then heads through Copper Mountain to emerge on the other side, on a remote ledge at an elevation of 1200m. What’s even more bizarre is that Schmidt, who started the tunnel in 1902 and kept digging for more than three decades, scooped it all out by hand, with just a bit of help from a few well-placed explosives.
The site, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is about 64 kilometres north of the town of Mojave. Follow State Highway 14 northeast for 32km, then, at the fork, keep right on Redrock Randsburg Road. (Redrock Canyon State Park is on your left.) Continue 17 kilometres northeast to Mesquite Canyon Road (a dirt route best traveled via high-clearance 4WD), then left onto dirt EP15 for 4.3 kilometres to the 800m spur road that leads to the fenced but visible Burro Schmidt Tunnel and homestead. “We don’t encourage people to go in the structures or the tunnel,” says BLM field manager Carl Symons, “but you can see his cabin and where he was trying to get through the mountain—no one knows why.” The BLM office in Ridgecrest offers informative flyers and can share details on road conditions and access; stop by or call (300 S. Ridgecrest Rd.; 760/384-5400).
A remarkable find on the north end of Shasta Lake, this series of natural limestone caves reveals an underground world some 250 million years in the making. And to make them even cooler, the caverns are only accessible via guided tours that include a boat ride across the sparkling lake—the only way the public can reach the site.
Though the local Wintu Native Americans likely knew of the caves long before Shasta Dam created the lake in 1945, it was local fish hatchery employee J.A. Richardson who got the honours of “officially” discovering the caverns in 1878. Inside, there’s plenty of cave-ish eye candy, including bulbous stalagmites and spindly stalactites, glistening limestone curtains with bacon-like bands of colour, and helictites, delicately twisted straw-like cave formations.
Opened in 1964 as a local attraction, Lake Shasta Caverns offers tours year round. It’s a moderately strenuous 45- to 60-minute visit inside, with some 600 stairs accessing different parts of the labyrinth, but it’s well worth the effort.
A surreal landscape sculpted by molten earth, Lava Beds National Monument contains volcanic tablelands punctuated by cinder cones, pit craters, and spatter cones, plus more than 700 caves. These strange features were formed when the outer edges of flowing lava began to cool, forming tubes. When molten lava stopped flowing, hardened tubes were left behind.
Though the scene can seem barren and desolate, look closer. The scrabbly earth and dark rocks of the rugged lava flows are dotted with sagebrush, mountain mahogany, and Western junipers, creating habitat for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, rabbits, and bird species, including bald eagles. Bring binoculars and see what you can spy, especially early mornings and evenings.
You’ll also want to bring a good headlamp or flashlight—and a jacket—for exploring the lava tubes. In summer, this part of California can get pretty toasty, with daytime temperatures of 100°F/37°C or more. But inside the lava tubes, it’s remarkably cool; you may even find year-round ice.
You can explore the tubes on your own (no spelunking experience is needed, and kids flip out at the thrill of entering these mysterious formations). And although you won’t cover much ground, the trek can be a workout as you duck, twist, and even crawl through natural tight squeezes. It’s easy to see how these caves were used as hideouts during the Modoc War in 1872-73, the only fight against Native Americans in California, in which Native Americans fought U.S. Army troops in defense of their homelands.
Some two dozen tubes are open for exploring along Cave Loop Road, near the visitor centre. Most of the park’s caves are rated for difficulty, and first-time explorers should start with the Hopkins Chocolate Cave (1,405 feet/428 metres) or Blue Grotto Cave (1,541 feet/469 metres). For the ultimate challenge, consider entering the remarkable Catacombs Cave, one of the park’s longest and most complex, with a total length of 6,903 feet/2,104 metres.
Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to this remarkable site in Grass Valley, roughly 60 miles/92 kilometres northeast of Sacramento. First, spend time in the visitor center to learn about one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines, where, in the course of a century, 5.6 million ounces/159 million grams of gold were mined—enough to fill a box 7 feet/3 metres long, 7 feet/3 metres high, and 7 feet/3 metres deep by the time the mine shut down in 1956. To get a sense of the size of the mine, see the scale model representing the mine’s 5-square-mile/13-square-km network, then walk outside to visit the entrance of the actual shaft—a tiny peak into a staggering underground maze of 367 miles/591 kilometres.
Now shift gears—mentally and physically—with a walk through the grounds of William Bowers Bourn Jr., who took over management of the mine in 1879. Bourn Cottage—a humble name for this magnificent country estate, where no expense was spared to create a two-story stone citadel patterned after the noble estates of 19th century England, complete with redwood interiors, and leaded-glass windows.
Guided tours are offered May through September. The Mine Yard Tour sheds light on the rough lives of the miners who worked here. Get the flip side on the Cottage Grounds Tour, which includes a visit to the sumptuous Bourn Cottage.
Pinnacles’ caves are nothing like the limestone caverns found in many places in the U.S. Technically, they are not caves at all. Over thousands of years, running water slowly eroded deep and narrow chasms amid the Pinnacles’ giant rocks. Huge chunks of these rocks fragmented, broke off, and fell into the chasms. Sometimes these rocks were too large to fit inside, so they were caught, forming a “roof” and creating these rocky tunnels, known as talus caves.
“Wow, it’s dark in here.”
The park has two sets of these caves open to visitors. Balconies Caves, on the park’s west side, stay open year-round, except after very heavy winter rains (call ahead to check status). Bear Gulch Caves, on the park’s east side, are sometimes closed to are protect the Townsend’s big-eared bats that live and rear their young (usually mid-May to mid-July, when the caves typically close). Check status in advance.
No matter where you want to explore, no spelunking skills are needed, but bring your sense of adventure. As you enter, turn on your headlamp (or cell phone light), then squeeze through narrow clefts, duck under ledges, and twist through narrow passageways. Listen and see if you catch your fellow visitors saying this common refrain: “Wow, it’s dark in here.” Yup.
Behind Crystal Cave’s spider-web-like gate lies Sequoia National Park’s secret underground world, a landscape of glittering mineralogical features. It’s one of more than 200 marble caverns found within Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. The parks contain half of California’s caves that are more than 1 mile/1.6 kilometres long, as well as the state’s longest cave. Most of the caves have limited access for research purposes, or require experience and equipment. But not Crystal Cave, which is open for guided walking tours mid-May through November. (Note: no strollers or wheelchairs.)
Crystal Cave, first discovered in 1918, is hardly a secret: thousands of people explore it every year, and the underground route has paved paths and solar-powered electric lights. The standard 50-minute tour is a great choice for the mildly curious and families with young children, but it doesn’t rate high on the adventure scale. For a more exciting experience, sign up for the summer evening “Explorer’s Lantern Tour,” when the lights are turned off and visitors carry candle lanterns. The biggest thrill is found on the Saturday-only “Adventure Tour,” a 4- to 6-hour belly-crawling trek. Headlamps, kneepads, and elbow pads are provided, and participants should be prepared to get dirty as they stoop-walk, crawl, and climb through off-trail passageways. Only in caves like this can you experience the eeriness of total “I can’t see my hand in front of my face” darkness.
The cave is located at the end of a winding 7-mile/11-km road off the Generals Highway near Giant Forest. For all tours, advance planning is required. Buy tickets at Lodgepole or Foothills visitor centers (tickets are not sold at the cave). Driving to the cave from either visitor center takes about an hour, plus you need additional time to hike the steep half-mile/0.8-km to the cave entrance. And don’t forget a jacket: It’s about 50 degrees inside Crystal Cave no matter what the temperature is outside.