By Ryan Loughrey
It is one of the locations that is close enough to make a day trip, and one I have done many times before. However, I’ve only been to Subway Caves in the middle of the summer, when the cool air of the caves offered a nice break from the heat of our Northern California sun. Usually, the parking lot is full and everyone and their pets are out.
Going in the winter is a very different experience. For one, I couldn’t even get to the parking area. No doubt due to winter conditions, the road was gated off. However, I was able to park off the road, and judging by all of the footprints in the snow, I wasn’t the only person who kept walking past the closed gate. The walk to the trailhead is short, maybe a half mile at the most. The first thing that struck me was the ice that had accumulated on the road and on the trail. I had to pay attention. Even though it was a warm and sunny day, there was still a bit of snow.
When I came to the mouth of the cave, I did not see the usual welcoming entrance. Instead, daggers of icicles dangled from the roof, resembling the sharp and jagged teeth of some subterranean beast. The stairs down were covered in a layer of thick ice, and I held the handrails tight to make sure I didn’t slip down. Once I got inside the mouth of the cave, I was rewarded with a beautiful sight. The ice near the entrance had been frozen in time, and with it the swirled white and grey and opaque designs that looking like topographic maps of the rocky surface beneath. All around, I could hear the dripping of the melting icicles, and the cave that was usually so welcoming and family friendly seemed sinister.
Of course, I had to walk through it. It is about 1300 feet long, and I had brought two flashlights and a Luci Light. The Luci Light is an inflatable, solar powered lantern that came to me as a Christmas gift from my parents last year. I attached it to my backpack, so that at any moment I could see behind me. I walked farther into the cave, until I was out of sunlight and only had my flashlight to see. I had to walk slowly over the icy ground, and watch my head for protruding icicles.
For some reason, even though I have done this short hike many times before, this time was different. The cave was sinister and eerie, and the fact I was alone didn’t help. The darkness around me and constant dripping tapped into some primeval fear of the dark that I didn’t know I had. I tried to turn off my flashlight, but could only stand for a moment. Even as I walked, my flashlight would flicker and I would have small moments of panic. It didn’t help that occasionally, the noise of the dripping and my steps would be interrupted by a CRACK of an icicle snapping and falling. At one point, I had to actually duck under a wall of icicles to keep going. This might surprise those who know me, because I am vertically challenged. The hike seemed longer too, and I was glad to see the sunlight at the other end.
At the far end, the icicles were longer and at one point even almost touched the ground. I climbed the icy stairway out, and stood in the warmth and comfort of the sun.
The way back was not so bad. I knew the icy spots to avoid, and I knew I was the only person or animal crazy enough to be in this cold hole in the ground. I tried to take some photos, and enjoyed seeing the fog of my breath in the circle of light that emanated from my flashlight. It was much less frightful, much more enjoyable. When I got out on the other side, I ate the lunch I had brought. As usual, it was warm outside, so I had to peel off a few layers that I needed in the cave.
I drove home as the sun was setting, towards Redding and away from the snow. This local spot is definitely a perfect place for anyone to escape the heat during the summer, but it is an entirely different, eerie, and more surreal experience in winter. 10 out of 10, would recommend. Just make sure to bring an extra flashlight, just to be safe.
From Redding, follow 44 east, past the turnoff to the entrance to Lassen National Park on Hwy 89. At Old Station, follow 89 north for about a quarter mile and it will be on the right.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine