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The Shasta Cascade region of Northern California is full of beautiful outdoor gems. From active volcanos to massive waterfalls, there’s so much to explore above the ground. There’s also plenty to see underground.
The wilderness areas surrounding Redding are what is known as the Shasta Cascade, which hosts a unique location on the valley floor below Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak and the Trinity Alps. The geologic and volcanic history of the area is a fascinating endeavor that you can see up close if you try hard enough. From the tourist-heavy destinations to the hidden gems, there are a few different options to go underground and see the rich science of the area.
Here are 5 underground adventures in Northern California’s Shasta Cascade:
Lake Shasta Caverns
While most people head to the lake for sunny vibes, there’s also an awesome experience you can find underground. Lake Shasta Caverns are a network of caves located near the McCloud arm of the lake and is one of the most unforgettable cave adventures found in the country.
The tour begins with a long downhill hike to the patio boat that carries you to the other side of the McCloud River arm of the Shasta Lake. Once you arrive at water level, the boat ride is wonderful. Though Shasta Caverns is only a short drive north of Redding, you may be shocked by how otherworldly it really is. Maybe that’s the point.
Once in the cave you are ushered through chambers of all sizes, some up a flight of stairs, some down. Each cavern has a name, and a story. Though I have been known to get claustrophobic in tight places, I’ve never felt that way inside Shasta Caverns. There is so much to see and too many great stories to listen to. The tour takes at least an hour, and the time flies.
When most people visit the Lassen area, they head directly to Lassen Volcanic National Park to see the many mountains, lakes and hydrothermal areas that make the park famous. But just outside the national park, sitting in the Lassen National Forest, sits a lava tube formed thousands of years ago that outdoor adventurers can hike through today.
Subway Cave now has stairs at the mouths of the cave enabling adventurers to make the hike through the entire lava tube. The entire trail through the cave is about 1/3 of a mile and includes different “rooms” to look at the smooth walls of the lava tube. The cave is dark and the floor is jagged, so be sure to bring a light in order to navigate the hike. The cave is nice and cool on summer days, and you can even make it a frozen experience during the winter.
The evidence of Mount Shasta’s volcanic history can be see up front and personal at Pluto’s Cave, a 190,000 year old lava tube. The cave is full of big skylights allowing hikers to descend underground without a flashlight and offer some stunning lighting for any photographer.
Pluto’s Cave is actually comprised of several caves, due to the original lava tube collapsing in parts. It now resembles three smaller caves that are easily accessible. The first cave is dusty, and smells faintly musty, no doubt due to the water seeping through the cavern roof. The second tube has a collapse that forms a hole in the roof, allowing for light to pour into the relative darkness. This is a popular location for photographers, as it bathes a subject in a cone of light or can be used to shoot photos of the night sky through.
Located on the uppermost McCloud arm of Shasta Lake is a little known cave that is only to be visited by the most hardcore spelunkers.
Samwel Cave isn’t popular tourist attraction since it’s difficult to find and can be dangerous to explore. In 1972, the forest service put a gate at the entrance to protect the public from its dangers. Today, you can access the cave by checking out a key at the Shasta Lake Ranger Station in Mountain Gate. Be prepared to be properly informed by a ranger upon checking out the key.
Deep inside the cave lies spectacular limestone formations of various color. Excavations inside have located fossils dating all the way back to the Ice Age, although some have been damaged over the years by vandals or careless explorers. It’s illegal to remove anything from the cave.
The cave also sits as an important location for the Wintu tribe. The name Samwel means “holy place” and the tribe believes the pools deep inside possess magic restorative powers. Legend even has it that an Indian maiden fell to here death into a 90-foot-deep hole.
Lava Beds National Monument
Sitting in the the tippy-top of Northern California is one of the most beautiful, historical parks in all of California. Combining geology with history and just good ol’ fashioned outdoor beauty, this rugged terrain is one of NorCal’s most fascinating and underrated outdoor destinations.
Although the scenes above ground are beautiful in their own right, the main attraction in the Lava Beds National Monument is its 20 developed lava tube caves that are open to the public.
Many of the developed caves contain trails through the cave and stairways or ladders into the cave. Most of the developed caves are located along Cave Loop, a 2-mile road near the visitor center. Just a short walk from the visitor center, Mushpot Cave contains exhibits and is the only lighted cave at Lava Beds. Developed caves are divided into three groups based on their varying levels of difficulty in the hardest section of the cave: least, moderate, and most challenging.