Gold is not the only treasure hidden underground in this part of the world. Natural caves, some of them with rare formations, are another remarkable find in the Gold Country region. Black Chasm Cavern, a National Natural Landmark located a little more than an hour’s drive east of Sacramento, has been wowing visitors since the 1850s—back then, admission was just the price of a pinch of gold dust. Today, it still dazzles with its displays of marble monoliths, draperies, stripey “cave bacon” formations, and helictites. Unlike fairly common stalagmites and stalactites, the twisty, delicate helictite crystals seen here are found in only about five percent of caves.
Children love scrambling into an unseen world of these strange formations and, when you switch off the flashlights, experiencing total darkness. Naturally cool caves—the caverns here, for example, maintain a relatively stable 58 degrees year-round—can also be an inviting escape from the region’s hot summer days. Black Chasm offers a children-friendly 50-minute walking tour, as well as a self-guided tour of the Miners Trail, an aboveground path that takes you past marble formations that were exposed as a result of hydraulic mining operations.
For tamer discoveries, try gemstone mining, using screen-bottomed boxes to sift for treasures, and gold panning, which is also offered at the on-site sluice. At the gift shop and museum, many artifacts from the Gold Rush era are on display, as well as monstrous crystals and fossils.
While in the area, leave time to visit Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, located just a mile and a half down the road. Created to preserve a huge outcropping of stone with 1,185 mortar holes ground into it by Native Americans, the park also has a regional Native American museum and a recreated Miwok village, complete with a ceremonial roundhouse.