Moaning, Black Chasm, Crystal and more: A descent into California caves

A man walks on an ancient creek bottom through a narrow opening with stalactites overhead in Boyden Cavern in Kings Canyon at Giants Sequoia National Monument.
A man walks on an ancient creek bottom through a narrow opening with stalactites overhead in Boyden Cavern in Kings Canyon at Giants Sequoia National Monument. Associated Press file

Need to get away? Here are weekly tips on places to visit outside the Sacramento area.

Taking those first few steps inside a cave can inspire the most primitive parts of our imaginations.

Maybe it’s all those millennia that our evolutionary ancestors huddled around fires in the sides of mountains and cliffs for warmth and a little safety. There’s also a womb-like feel to that isolation deep inside the earth’s crust. The stillness can be both calming and frightening. At the very least, it’s otherworldly.

Central and Northern California, as it turns out, has some of the most fascinating caves in the U.S., and many of them make for good weekend trips from the Sacramento region.

One of the most massive is the Moaning Cavern in Calaveras County, with a main chamber standing 165 feet tall – as big as the entire Statue of Liberty. Hundreds of human skeletons dating thousands of years old have been found at the bottom of that chamber, likely the remains of people who fell or were thrown in over the centuries. Be warned that many steps must be climbed to get back out of the cavern and into sunlight.

Also in Calaveras County is Mercer Cavern, which reaches 3,389 feet into the ground with all manner of marble and aragonite formations waiting along the way.

For sheer quantity, the hundreds of caves at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks reign among spelunkers, aka cave-explorers. Half of the state’s caves that stretch more than a mile can be found in the parks, with the Crystal Cave among the most visited. The walk into the cave takes visitors through chambers made of ornate marble and festooned with stalactites (hanging down from the ceiling) and stalagmites (growing up from the ground).

Guided tours are the only way to see Crystal Cave, which reopens to the public in May.

Closer to home, there’s Black Chasm in Volcano, with its network of rare helictites, which look like moss or bean sprouts growing across ceilings and walls.

Finally, visitors can get in some Gold Rush history during a visit to one of the cave-like mines open for tours in the Sierra Nevada foothills (think Gold Bug in Placerville, for example). It goes without saying, but flashlights, warm clothing and water are must-haves on all these trips.

Cookie celebration

What: A celebration of all things sweet, the Los Angeles Cookie Con features baking demonstrations, vendors and competitions. Meet Duff Goldman from the Food Network’s hit show “Cake Masters,” among other celebrity chefs.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19

Where: Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles

Cost: $12 to $60


Giant pillow fight

What: Let the feathers and fluff fly during this flash-mob event, which has previously drawn thousands.

When: 5:50 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Justin Herman Plaza, Embarcadero Center at Market and Steuart Streets, San Francisco

Cost: Free


Bring your dog to the movies

What: Bring your furry friend to the Dog Film Festival and watch short films about human-canine connections.

When: Noon and 2 p.m. showings, Sunday, Feb. 19

Where: Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., San Francisco

Cost: $15


Jessica Hice