By Chip O’Brien
It was a foregone conclusion that I would love the Shasta Caverns tour. First, you find it off the O’Brien exit north of Shasta Lake. Somewhat less obvious is the fact that I’ve spent so much of my life wandering around in the dark, both literally and figuratively. The funny thing is, the cave is only a part of the adventure.
The tour begins with a long; long downhill hike to the patio boat that carries you to the other side of the McCloud River arm of the Shasta Lake. With so little water behind the dam this summer, the hike takes longer than usual. 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.
When you reach the other side, you are instantly reminded that the cave is another long hike back uphill, only you aren’t quite at the cave entrance yet. The hike takes you to a staging area where you climb aboard vans that transport you to the cave entrance. Along the way the guide talks about some of the fascinating history of the cave, how it was used by Native Americans, “discovered” by white people, made safe for tourists and opened to the public. It was no small feat.
At the cave entrance you pick up hardhats and flashlights and use the restroom before heading into darkness. It takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust, but the cave is dramatically lit and well equipped for safety. The cave is deliciously cool and just the kind of thing to do on a triple-digit day. If you think you are finished with hiking up and down hills, think again. What allows access to the many chambers is an elaborate infrastructure of sturdy metal stairs and rails. Hiking boots are a great choice.
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.
Emerging from the cave, the sunlight seems dazzlingly bright. When your eyes have readjusted, you may notice the terrific views of the lake and even pick out the Pit River Bridge, officially named the Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Bridge. Constructed in 1942, it is still the tallest combination road and rail bridge in the world.
I’m frequently amazed by how many NorCal locals have not visited Shasta Caverns. Then again, Parisians are seldom found in the Louvre. There may be a notion that something so close to home cannot be spectacular, which begs the question, “Who’s really in the dark?”