By Ryan Loughrey
After exploring Lassen’s Subway Cave, my spelunking desire wasn’t quite satiated. Subway Cave in Lassen was wild, eerie, and strangely sinister, which led me to wonder how Pluto’s Cave would look around this time of year.
I’ve been to Pluto’s Cave once before a few years back, but managed to get a little lost and run out of time, so I didn’t get to do as much exploring as I would have liked. This time, I allocated plenty of time, brought warm weather clothes and flashlights, and headed in the direction of Mt. Shasta with my guide and girlfriend, Kiva.
Finding it is not easy. We were looking for different signs, but in the end it was a vertical sign on a power line (it reminded me of the lamp post in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for it’s location significance). (Directions at the end of this story). After following the dirt road, we found the undeveloped parking area, and followed the scant trail.
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.
Didn’t go chasing waterfalls this time, went chasing caves instead. Photo credit: @kivviee . . . #funwithcaves #daytrippin #spelunking #pnw #californiaexplored #molepeople #activenorcal #adventuresinwanderlust #california #cascadia #stateofjeffferson #getout #pronetowander #pnwexplorations #exploreyourworld #cascadiaexplored #worldwidewander #getoutthere #explore #wayfarer #travel #hike #nature #california
The third cave can be found by following the trail up and around the brush, and this is the most expansive and arguably the most fun to explore. In the previous two, daylight would seep through so no extra gear is necessary. In the third, flashlights and warmer clothing is recommended. This tube is estimated to be 1200 feet long, and will require some rock hopping, sliding, and light climbing. The walls at parts are covered in graffiti, like a subway train station, and it is evident that this is a popular cavern for all ages. (Luckily, we only found one piece of litter – an empty beer can that we carried out with us).
The temperature wasn’t too cool, and our sweaters served us well. My flashlight worked decently, but in the end the flashlight on my phone proved to be a brighter light, so I precariously climbed over rocks with one hand and had a death grip on my phone with the other. We made it as far as we could, until we could go no further without crawling on our hands and knees. All sorts of graffiti surrounded us, ranging from Boy Scout troops, to initials and names, to false signs telling people the exit is deeper in the cave. We did see a warning for bats, but luckily didn’t encoutner any.
“Caution go no further without head cover. BATS”
Kiva and I found a suitable boulder in this cavern, and shut off our lights. There is something oddly peaceful in the silent darkness. Our minds struggle to see any light where there is none, and we might even think we can make out shapes in the darkness. At Subway Cave, I was surrounded by the dripping of ice melting, here in Pluto’s Cave there was only overwhelming silence. It is strangely serene, considering how I always am surrounded with some sort of noise – road noise outside my apartment, the pleasant chatter at the coffee shop, or just music when I have headphones plugged in. To be surrounded by a dark silence is a kind of embryonic out of body experience. When we felt ready to head out, we turned on our flashlights, adjusted to the sudden light and climbed out.
The way back proved to take much less time, and in actuality the difficulty came in finding our car. For some reason, the landscape near the caves looks like a thousand trails, and every hill is deceptive because it looks like the one we parked on the other side of. It is strange, this part of northern California is characterized by low brush and hardy trees, resembling almost a chaparral or desert. Eventually, our sense of direction guided us to the road, which we followed to our car.
The hike is suitable for all ages who are comfortable with slight climbs and rock hopping. The true difficulty lies in navigating the landscape and remembering flashlights or photography gear. This lava tube feels remote, despite being a popular spot for locals, and speaks to the area’s rich geologic history as it is estimated to be nearly 190,000 years old and is separate from the more popular Lava Beds National Park.
In addition, it offers an escape from reality, and a reality check in common sense navigation. Maybe I’m the only person who has been lost twice here, but be aware and be ready to do some light spelunking.
From Redding, CA: Head north on 15 until Weed. Take the second Weed exit, and follow US 97 towards Klamath Falls. Follow past Lake Shastina, and take a left on County Road A12. Keep an eye out for the power line on the left side of the road that will guide you to the parking lot.