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, 10-acre 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 in Los Angeles.
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 cool ways to go underground in the Golden State.
1. Forestiere Underground Gardens, Fresno
Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some 10 acres as the city of Fresno bustles above. This Forestiere Underground Gardens, created from 1906 to 1946, is the handiwork of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere. 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. But this is no somber collection of barren caves. The hand-chiseled underground complex includes an underground fishing pond and a chapel; there are open-air skylights, all created using no plans other than the ideas in his head. (more)
2. Old Sacramento
Get a sense of the raucous Gold Rush–era years of Sacramento in renovated Old Sacramento, now a 28-acre National Historic Landmark. In addition to excellent museums, such as the California Railway Museum and the California Museum, visitors are treated to docents in period costumes leading tours of some of the notable historical locations. It’s a great way to experience the underground passageways and chambers that were created when the city was raised a level due to frequent flooding. (Kids especially love the spooky ghost tours, offered in October.) (more)
3. Scorpion Anchorage, Channel Islands National Park
Just off the Central Coast, there are a number of remarkable, natural caverns that almost no one sees. Scorpion Anchorage, on the eastern tip of Santa Cruz Island, within Channel Islands National Park, is home to several. Explore them via the guided, 2.5–3-hour Adventure Sea Cave Kayak Tour. Suitable for kayakers of beginner through advanced levels of experience, these trips offer an experience like no other—keep an eye (and ears) out for barking, bawling sea lions holed up in the darkness, resting on an invisible rocky beaches. (more)
4. Wine Caves, San Francisco Bay Area
Caves aren’t often thought of as romantic retreats, but many wineries now open theirs 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.
In Sonoma’s 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. 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. And East of San Francisco, the Livermore Valley wine region has several wineries with wine caves, such as the impressive sandstone caverns at Wente Vineyards. (more)
5. Moaning Caverns, Calaveras County
Discovered by miners in 1851, Moaning Caverns, a vertical chamber near Angels Camp, is so massive it could hold the entire Statue of Liberty. Take a spiral staircase (or consider rappelling) the 165 feet from the top of the chamber to the bottom, where you’ll find beautiful, otherworldly rock formations glistening with moisture. For more daring explorers (prepare to belly crawl), a 2.5-hour adventure tour delves into the cave’s deepest burrows, roughly 280 feet below the floor of the main chamber, through narrow passageways with names like Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal. (more)
6. Burro Schmidt Tunnel, Mojave Desert
If there were ever a perfect example of the proverbial road to nowhere, this route through the heart of a remote mountain in the vast Mojave Desert might just be it. The tunnel is a roughly 2,000-foot-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 4,000 feet. 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 40 miles north of the town of Mojave. (more)
7. Lake Shasta Caverns, Shasta Lake
A remarkable find on the north end of Shasta Lake, just north of Redding, the series of natural limestone caves known as Lake Shasta Caverns 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.
Inside, there’s plenty of cave-ish eye candy, including bulbous stalagmites and spindly stalactites, glistening limestone curtains with bacon-like bands of color, and helictites, delicately twisted straw-like cave formations. Tours are offered year round. (more)
8. Lava Beds National Monument, Siskiyou & Modoc Counties
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 10,500–65,000 years ago, when the outer edges of flowing lava began to cool, forming tubes. When molten lava stopped flowing, hardened tubes were left behind.
You can explore the tubes on your own (no spelunking experience is needed). The trek can be a workout as you duck, twist, and even crawl through natural tight squeezes. Some two dozen tubes are open for exploring along Cave Loop Road, a two-mile road near the visitor center. Also near the visitor center is Mushpot Cave, which houses exhibits and is the only lighted cave at Lava Beds. (more)