Now that we’re a few days into November and the holiday spirit is rapidly spreading like a deadly contagion, I must finally admit that Halloween is over. With the spooky season behind us – unless you consider the very real possibility of a Thanksgiving coma or holidays with the in-laws to be as ghoulish as a ghost – I must find my frights in more unexpected places. Which means we’re once again talking about caves! Specifically, the caves of Calaveras County.
Calaveras County: Skulls Galore
Deep in the heart of California Wine Country lies Calaveras County. Snuggled down in the foothills, it’s the perfect place to take a break from wine tasting and head a couple hundred feet underground. Known for its profusion of caves, Calaveras County has something to offer everyone. From the most adventurous spelunker to the casual day-tripper, from the chills-chaser to the family-friendly. The county takes its somewhat spooky name – calaveras means skull in Spanish – from the Calaveras River. But the caves themselves are also morbidly fascinating.
Moaning Cavern is perhaps the most infamous and draws many tourists to the area. Home to the largest open cavern in California, the Moaning Cavern offers walking tours, rappelling tours, and even a super adventurous tour that ends 300 ft. down in the earth, strictly for non-claustrophobes. That’s only part of its draw, though: littering the cavern floor are human remains.
Not fresh human remains, of course.
The local Native Americans have legends about the cavern. They warned their children away from it, believing it to be alive and always hungry. According to the native tales, the cavern lured people to it by mimicking the sound of an injured child, moaning in pain. Not seeing the concealed cave mouth until it was too late, the hapless victims would fall 165 ft. to their deaths. These ancient bones are all that’s left of them. Unless you believe that the moaning coming from the cavern is actually the restless spirits of those victims. It’s easy to say that these are just stories. But there are quite a lot of bones down there and when the wind passes over the cavern, it does sound chillingly like a child crying for help.
Not in the mood for creepy crawling?
Perhaps Moaning Cavern isn’t your speed. Even without the creepy history of the cave, that’s understandable. Most casual cavern-goers aren’t looking to get down and dirty, wiggling through tight passages and wrestling with rappelling gear. But the walking tour might not be suited for casual cavern-goers either, considering it’s more of a climbing tour. Climbing 247 rickety metal stairs, that is. After a climb down into the earth that will leave your head reeling, the tour guide tells the spooky ghost story, highlighting the skulls and bones with his flashlight, points out some of the more interesting rock formations, and then it’s back up the spiral staircase which shakes and creaks under the weight of you and thirty other tourists. That staircase is perhaps the most frightening thing on the tour.
If you’re not looking for year-round paranormal parkour, there are actual walking tours. Like those offered at California Caverns, located outside of the aptly named Cave City. While California Caverns also offers adventure tours for those who suffer from neither claustrophobia nor a lack of athleticism, their 60 and 90-minute walking tours are marketed as suitable for all families. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to do in Cave City. For a more well-rounded experience, just head a little northeast to Murphys.
Murphys and Mercer Caverns
With several vineyards right in town, Murphys is truly the best place to combine a wine tasting weekend with experiencing the caves of Calaveras County. And, bonus: Murphys is simply adorable. The Gold Rush era vibe of the little town is charming but not kitschy. Historical buildings sit side by side with trendy wineries; an antique store brushes elbows with a high-performance outdoor gear emporium; classic Irish pub fare is bountiful but so too is the artisan (and heavenly) ice cream at JoMa’s ice cream parlor.
Just outside of town, are the Mercer Caverns. It’s a much smaller operation than either Moaning Cavern or California Caverns. You won’t find any high-octane spelunking adventures here, but the walking tour is the perfect addition to a relaxing day of wining and dining. 45-minutes long and involving nothing more strenuous than ducking your head occasionally, Mercer Caverns’ walking tour allows you to enjoy the true star of the show: the history of the cave itself. The tour guides are well-armed with geological knowledge and corny jokes, and they’re intimately familiar with the story of Walter J. Mercer.
W. J. Mercer: an Entrepreneur Extraordinaire and So-So Spelunker
W. J. Mercer found the caverns in 1885 after a failed gold prospecting endeavor. Overjoyed at his luck, he quickly monetized his discovery by hosting tours into the caverns. If you visit Mercer Caverns today, the stairs and railing added for guest safety make the walking tour a bit easier. But in 1885, Mercer brought his guests in the same way he explored the cave: by letting them down on a rope. During his early exploration of the caves, he discovered several skeletons and the caves gained the name New Calaveras Caves. There seem to be plenty of calaveras to go around. He also found the skeletal remains of an extinct Sierra Ground Sloth, the giant herbivore native to the Sierra Nevada forests during the last ice age.
None of these skeletons are still hanging out in the caves, unlike their bonely companions over in Moaning Cavern. Mercer seemed to think it bad for business to leave them lying around. But if you’re looking for a fright, Mercer Caverns won’t disappoint. The guides conduct most of the tour with the lights on, so that you can see the stunning rock formations. But towards the end of the tour, if you haven’t brained yourself on some low-hanging rocks while clambering up from the depths, you’ll get to truly experience the caverns. The natural state of the cave is darkness, utterly absolute. Standing there in that darkness, you begin to wonder what it would be like to be alone down there, for hours.
That’s what happened to ol’ Walt. His rappelling rope snapped and he fell, severely injuring his back. This was back before spelunking helmets, and all Mercer would have had with him was a glim – a candle stuck down to a piece of wood he’d have held between his teeth, leaving his hands free to work the ropes. After the fall, the candle guttered out and he was left in the dark, waiting for rescue. Rescue that never came…
Walter Mercer didn’t die in the caverns. However he did fall about thirty feet while working on a new exit for the cave. He developed spinal meningitis due to complications from the injury and died some years later. Not as spooky as dying alone in the dark, I know, but spinal meningitis is no joke, either.
So if you’re looking to have some frightening fun and don’t want to wait until next Halloween, I recommend Calaveras County. Bonus: You can get day drunk on California wine to settle your rattled nerves if the caves prove too much for you.