The Golden State is a diverse place, and the caves in California truly reflect that diversity. There are limestone caves, lava caves, sea caves, and even rare mud caves to explore across the state.
Here are 25 caves in California that visitors are allowed to enter and explore. Some must be visited on a guided tour, while others are open for independent exploration. Whether you walk, climb, crawl, or kayak, you will want to check all these California caves off your list.
Awesome Caves in California You Can Explore
Caves in Northern California
Recently given the distinction of “National Natural Landmark”, Lake Shasta Caverns have been drawing in folks as they road trip along Interstate 5 for generations.
These Northern California caves have been welcoming visitors since 1964, but they had been used by the Wintu Indians for hundreds of years prior. They were officially “discovered” by an employee of a fish hatchery along the McCloud River back in 1878, long before Shasta Lake existed.
Shasta Lake was formed in 1945 when the Shasta Dam was completed, flooding the area below the carverns. These days, the only way to reach them is via a 10-minute catamaran ride across the McCloud arm of Shasta Lake, followed by a 10-minute bus ride up to the cave entrance.
These limestone caverns can only be explored via a guided tour, and there are several daily. Each tour lasts about 45-60 minutes and on the tour you will see plenty of stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies as well as flowstone and soda straws.
The paths inside the cave are as wide a regular hallway, so you won’t have to do any crawling or navigate tight squeezes. You will, however, have to navigate some stairs during the tour.
You may want to bring a light jacket because the caverns are rather chilly. They are constantly at 58 degrees with around 90% humidity.
Subway Cave is a great place to visit when exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is not located within the park boundaries (it’s about 15 miles north) but it is within Lassen National Forest. It is less than half a mile from the junction of Highway 89 and Highway 44 in Old Station.
This cave is only open for exploration April or May (dependent on snowfall) through October, but it is free to visit. There is a small parking lot near the cave entrance.
Subway Cave is actually a lava tube created during a lava flow 20,000 years ago. The lava on top was exposed to cool air and hardened while the molten lava continued to drain out below, leaving a tube behind. The entrance to the cave was formed when a portion of the lava tube collapsed.
We love Subway Cave because it is self guided but not too difficult to explore, making it perfect for beginners. You will want to bring flashlights and a sweatshirt (it is 46 degrees inside the cave), but you won’t need a hardhat or any special equipment. You will be walking on cooled lava which can be jagged in a couple spots, so sturdy shoes are recommended.
There are some informational plaques to read along you 1/3-mile journey inside the lava tube which will provide a good lesson in geology and the region’s rich volcanic history.
Lava Beds National Monument
If I were to pick a top caving destination in California, it would be Lava Beds National Monument in far northeastern California. Lava Beds is home to the largest concentration of lava tubes in North America and many of them are open to the public for exploration.
This is a remote part of the state. The closest city is Klamath Falls, Oregon. Make sure you have plenty of gas before heading out and keep in mind that there are no services (pack your own food and water) within the park. There is one campground within the park but no lodging.
Your first stop at Lava Beds National Monument should be the park’s visitor center. This is where you will pay your entrance fee, and check out flashlights and hard hats if you don’t happen to have your own.
Flashlights and sturdy shoes are a “must” while exploring the caves of this park. Most of the caves are pretty cool, so a long shirt, long pants, and a sweatshirt are recommended.
You will also need to get a sticker for your car indicating you have not been any caves in the east which might have exposed you to White-nose syndrome. This syndrome is caused by a fungus that kills bats while they are hibernating and it is important to prevent it from spreading.
There is no doubt that this a volcanic landscape. In some ways the landscape reminds me a bit of the scenery on the dry side of Hawaii’s Big Island. Lava rock and scrub brush dominate the scene. The weather outside can be quite warm in the summer months with very little shade, but luckily it is cool inside the caves.
There are lots of caves to explore but the ones listed below are among the most popular. Even on a busy day you will likely have some of these caves all to yourself. Grab a map at the visitor center so you know where to find them. You can also print one out ahead of time.
Mushpot Cave: This is a paved and lighted cave next to the visitor center. It is the only developed cave within the park. Mushpot Cave has information displays to help newbies get an idea of what they are looking at.
Skull Cave: This cave is good for people concerned about claustraphobia because it is pretty wide open. It is only 580 feet in length and has a pretty smooth path and tall ceiling that doesn’t required ducking. The highlight of this cave is the ice floor on the lower level creating by the cold winter air trapped inside.
Valentine Cave: A nice, long cave (1,635 feet) that does require some ducking but nothing too challenging. There are even spots where you can crawl if you want to see the entire cave. Still, nothing too challenging.
Sunshine Cave: This cave is fun to explore because it has a couple holes in it where the top has caved in. This allows sunlight to pour into the cave and plants to grow inside the cave.
Hopkins Chocolate Cave: A cool cave with a funny name, Hopkins falls in the challenging category due to one passage with a three-foot ceiling height that requires ducking or crawling. But it also has some cool arches formed by collapsed portions of the cave which are fun to explore.
Golden Dome Cave: You get to enter and exit this cave via a ladder, and there is infamous “headache rock” to watch out for as you make your way down, so helmets are encouraged. It is a long cave at 2,229 feet in length. It does have some narrow tunnels and portions of the cave require a bit of “squat and shimmy” action. The gold color on the ceiling of this cave is caused by light reflecting off water droplets coated in bacteria.
Tip: If you visit on Saturdays in the winter, try to snag one of the six tickets to enjoy a ranger-led tour of Crystal Ice Cave which has large ice stalactites and stalagmites, and even ice waterfalls!
Located in Klamath National Forest, not far from Weed and Mount Shasta, Plutos Cave is a cave that goes a bit under the radar thanks to its remote location.
Pluto’s Cave is a partially collapsed lava tube is 1,200 feet long. It is about 20 feet wide and 10 feet high. It was discovered by a rancher in 1863 who was looking for some stray cattle.
Definitely bring a flashlight when exploring this cave and be aware that there are bats and rats living in the caves (there are three in total). Expect to get dusty and dirty when scrambling inside the cave, this is the real deal and not maintained. Long pants, long sleeves, and even gloves are recommended.
Here is a link with more details about Pluto’s Cave as well as directions.
Black Chasm Cavern National Natural Landmark
There are a few different caves in California’s Gold Country that are fun to visit. The first one is Black Chasm Cavern National Natural Landmark in tiny Volcano, California. This cave gained its “National Natural Landmark” status from the National Park Service due, in part, to its large display of rare helictite formations.
Cave formations that many of us are familiar with, like stalactites and stalagmites, are formed by dripping water while helictites are formed by through hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure is caused by water pushing crystallized minerals through porous cavern walls.
While the cave had been used by Miwok Indians for many years, it was “discovered” and explored during the California Gold Rush in 1854. It was open to public guided tours in the 1990s.
The guided walking tour is about 50 minutes in length. It visits three different chambers of the cave and descends about 100 feet. There are five flights of stairs to navigate. One of the highlights, beyond the helictites (which look much like spun glass) is the beautiful blue lake in the second chamber.
Like most caves, it maintains a consistent temperature. This one is at 58 degrees, so bring a sweatshirt if you are prone to chill.
California Cavern State Historic Landmark
The second Gold Country cavern is California Cavern State Historic Landmark in Calaveras County. This cave has quite the history. It was the first cave open to the public, opening way back in the 1850s. Before that, it is said to have been used by as a jail by the local Miwok Indian Tribe.
It was originally called “Mammoth Cave”, piggybacking off the fame of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, said to be the largest in the world. It was visited by both Mark Twain and John Muir during the 1800s.
There is still a Mammoth Cave Expedition tour you can take inside this cave system which explores the historic “Mammoth Cave” area and “Jungle Room”. This is a great option for those who want to do more adventurous things, like crawling and squeezing through tighter passages.
Want even more adventure? Check out the Middle Earth Cave Expedition. This includes the Mammoth Cave areas as well as the Middle Earth are which was discovered in 1980. You will get dirty as you make your way through knee deep cave clay. You will also get to go rafting across Tom’s Lake. This tour ends with a well-earned shower.
If that all sounds like way too much- no problem. This cave still has guided walking tours which vary in length between 45 and 80 minutes in length dependent on the season. These tours utilize mostly flat walkways that are well lit. There are only about 60 steps to navigate.
Mercer Caverns is another Calaveras County show cavern which is located near the town of Murphys. The cave was discovered in 1885 by its namesake, Walter J. Mercer.
Some things have changed- there is now electric lighting and clear pathways- but some things have stayed the same, like the 55-degree temperature inside the cave.
One interesting fact about Mercer Cave– the skeletal remains of six different people have been found inside! Four adults, one child, and one infant skeleton were found during the early exploration of the cave. Remains of an extinct Sierra gound sloth and a giant anteater have been found here as well.
The 45-minute tour of the cave involves 208 stairs down into the cavern and 232 back up. In all, you will be climbing what is equivalent to a 16-story building. There is no crawling involved but there are some tighter squeezes and you might have to stoop to avoid hitting you head in spots. Cave enthusiasts visit this cavern to see its argonite crystals.
Sea Caves at Van Damme State Park
Not all caves in Northern California are underground; some are in the ocean! The Van Damme sea caves in Mendocino County are best explored via a kayak tour, and Kayak Mendocino is happy to lead your paddling expedition.
The sea caves are located in the waters off Van Damme State Park in the small Mendocino County hamlet of Little River. The park is known for its beaches, redwoods trees, pygmy forest, and day hiking. It is also the home of some terrific sea caves that you can paddle through.
Guides will help keep you safe out on the water and provide information about the area as you paddle. Harbor seals are typically seen on the sea cave tour as well. There are no age restrictions and beginners are welcome.
Caves in Central California
Pinnacles National Park Caves
Pinnacles National Park is home to two different sets of caves, Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Caves. The park is located in southeastern Monterey County, surrounded by rural, rolling hills. There are two entrances to the park, East and West, and the roads do not interconnect.
The East Entrance is accessed either via King City from the south or Hollister from the north. This is where the park’s visitor center and campground is located. It is also the side of the park home to the Bear Gulch Cave.
Take the Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Cave Trail to access the caves. The trail will lead you into large talus caves which are formed by the humongous boulders which are incredibly fun to wander, climb, and scramble through. Definitely bring flashlights or headlamps because it can get very dark in some spots.
Portions of the cave are closed during bat breeding season so that the bats are not disturbed. Check the park website for up to date information before visiting.
The West Entrance is near the city of Soledad. It is accessed via Highway 146, a narrow and winding road not recommended for RVs or large vehicles. This portion of the park is home to Balconies Cave, another talus cave complex.
There is 2.4-mile loop trail which takes hikers into these caves. Balconies Cave is darker and longer than Bear Gulch Cave. As with the Bear Gulch Cave, flashlights or headlamps are necessary. Partial cave closures do take place during bat breeding season.
Boyden Cavern in Kings Canyon
There is a wonderful cavern to visit alongside Highyway 180 as it winds its way down into Kings Canyon. Boyden Cavern is technically in both Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sequoia National Forest and not Kings Canyon National Park, but it should definitely be on you vacation itinerary when you are visiting the park.
Boyden Cavern is a seasonal cave because Highway 180 is closed during the winter. The road is generally closed between mid-November and late April, but exact dates are dependent on weather.
This tour is manageable for most able-bodied people. There is a steep, five-minute walk up to the cavern but once inside, you won’t face anything too strenous. You will need to duck and turn sideways to get through a few spots and navigate some stairs, but you will never be on your hands and knees during the 50-minute tour.
While inside Boyden Cavern, which is a constant 55 degrees no matter the weather outside, you will see lots of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as flowstone, pendants, and shields in this marble cave.
Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park
Kings Canyon’s sister park, Sequoia National Park, is home to its own marble cave that is open for tours. It is a popular tour, and it is recommended that you purchase tickets two months in advance of your visit. Tickets must be purchased online at least 36 hours in advance.
From the parking area you will have a steep, 1/2-mile walk down the hill to the Crystal Cave entrance. This will likely be the most strenuous part of your cave tour (unless you choose the Wild Cave Tour). You may want to bring a sweatshirt since the cave is a chilly 50 degrees.
There are a few different cave tour options to choose from:
- Family Tour: A 50-minute tour that welcomes all ages.
- Thirteen and Older Tour: Like the 50-minute Family Tour but designed for those 13 years and older.
- Discovery Tour: 90 minute tour for 13 and up. It is a flashlight tour that is designed to go more in depth than the regular tour.
- Family Wild Cave Tour: For families with kids as young as 10, this is a tour where you get to put on helmets, kneepads, and headlamps to get dirty and explore more of the cave. You will be climbing over rocks and through tight spaces.
- Wild Cave Tour: Still want more? Take a 4.5-hour journey into the cave where you will be getting dirty and experiencing portions of the cave few other due while learning about this incredible ecosystem from a cave naturalist. This tour is for ages 13 and up and you should be in good physical condition.
Important note: The road and trail to Crystal Cave were impacted by the KNP Complex Fire and will be closed for 2022. It will reopen in May 2023.
Sequoia National Park is also home to General Sherman, one of 75 California Landmarks you should see before you die.
Millerton Caves are located by Millerton Lakes and are a great example of a rare, granite cave. They were formed by years of erosion caused by a creek. Most people simply hike to these caves and peer in, because getting inside these caves requires some serious gear and experience.
Accessing these caves requires a 2.1-mile hike into the San Joaquin Gorge which was carved by the San Joaquin River. The trail is a spur off the river access trail which is identified by huge piles of boulders on either side of the trail.
These caves are best suited for those with rock climbing and spelunking experience. You will need ropes, a headlamp, gloves, and a hard hat to explore these special caves. Since there is water running through the bottom of the cave, many wear full wetsuits as well.
During the rainy season these caves aren’t accessible due to the sheer volume of water passing through. In many ways, they are akin to a granite slot canyon.
There has been discussion over the past several years about a new reservoir, called Temperance Flat, to be put into place. If this happens, the caves will be submerged under hundreds of feet of water.
Caves in Southern California
Channel Island Sea Caves
The sea caves at Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California are some of the largest and deepest in the world!
In order to access these incredible caves, you will first need to book a trip out to Santa Cruz Island via Island Packers. Then you will also want to book a kayak tour so that you can paddle inside the caves.
Channel Islands Adventure Company will meet you at Scorpion Anchorage on the island and then take you on a three-hour paddling adventure. You will paddle atop pristine kelp forests and have the chance to spot wildlife as well. Of course, the real highlight is paddling through the sea caves.
Channel Islands Expeditions also offers a day trip to Anacapa Island where you can paddle thorugh this island’s sea caves and have the chance to see dolphins and sea lions.
Catalina made our list of our favorite Southern California weekend getaways.
Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves
Most caves are either limestone or lava rock. These caves in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are made out of mud!
The Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves are the largest mud cave system in the world. They survive because Anza-Borrego is such an arid place, so water erosion is minimal.
In order to reach these caves you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle since you are going to have to navigate eight miles of dirt roads. Definitely do not go if rain is in the forecast or has recently occurred. You will want to bring a light and helmet while you explore.
In all, there are about 22 known caves as well as nine slot canyons to explore. It is best visit in the cool season because it can get dangerously hot out in the desert during the summer. It is important that you do not walk on top of the caves because this can cause them to collapse.
Desert USA has some great information about visiting these caves.
Mitchell Caverns are located in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area within the Mojave National Preserve. Truth be told, they are pretty out in the middle of nowhere. The caves are off of Interstate 40,15 miles northwest of the Essex Road exit. The nearest major towns are Needles 56 miles away, and Barstow 115 miles away.
Tours are offered Friday through Sunday, except for in July and August. There are two tours a day for most of the year and only one tour at 10am in June and September. Tours can currently be booked by phone only on Mondays between 8am and 5pm, (760) 928-2586.
These caves were named for Jack and Ida Mitchell who ran a resort in the area from 1934 through 1954 and also led tours of the caverns. Unlike most limestone caves in California which maintain constant temperatures in the 50’s, these caverns do vary a bit in temperature and hover in the 60’s.
Mitchell Caverns are filled with great formations including draperies, curtains, popcorn, helictites, lily pads, and the ever-popular stalactites and stalagmites. They also have small clusters of knobs, called coral pipes, that are found in only seven caves in the world!
Unlike most limestone caves in California which maintain constant temperatures in the 50’s, these caverns do vary a bit in temperature and hover in the 60’s.
There is a really cool 3D tour of Mitchell Caverns on the state park website.
The Lava Tube in Mojave National Preserve
Also located in Mojave National Preserve, the Lava Tube is one of the most popular destinations inside the park. It was created by molten lava 27,000 years ago. There is a beam of light that shines into the lava tube at certain times of day (usually early afternoon in the summer) making it a beautiful spot for photos.
In order to reach the Lava Tube you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance. There is a five-mile washboard road that is narrow and rough in spots. Once you arrive you will find a ladder in place to help you climb down into the cave.
Bronson Caves in Griffith Park
In the heart of LA sits Griffith Park, home to the LA Zoo, Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Sign, miles of hiking trails through urban wilderness, and the Batcave. That’s right- the original Batcave from the 1960s tv show Batman starring Adam West is in Griffith Park and you can visit it for yourself!
Officially known as Bronson Caves, these caves are a set of man-made caves and tunnels in Griffith Park that has been used in countless movies and television shows throughout the decades. The caves were created by Union Rock company in the early 1900s who had a rock quarry in Bronson Canyon.
It is an easy, 2/3-mile round trip hike over to the caves beginning at Canyon Drive on the southern side of the park. From the top of the road, backtrack down a bit until you see a dirt road heading southeast. Follow the dirt road until you come to a junction where you will head left and a tunnel in the rock wall will appear ahead of you.
Feel free to walk around inside. You won’t need any special equipment to explore this fun, California cave filled with history. Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek: Yoyager, and Wonder Woman are among the shows that have used Bronson Caves as a filming location.
Dripping Cave in Aliso Viejo
Surrounded by suburban sprawl in Orange County is Aliso and Woods Canyons Wilderness Park, a destination popular with local hikers and mountain bikers. Long before million-dollar homes surrounded these canyons, Dripping Cave had a colorful history.
Also known as “Robber’s Cave”, Dripping Cave was used as a shelter by Native Americans who once lived in the area, as well as a hide out for the Juan Flores gang who were known stagecoach robbers.
Today, you can reach this cool, sandstone cave via an easy, five-mile hike to the cave by following the Aliso Creek Trail to the Woods Canyon Trail to the Dripping Springs spur trail. Be sure make the detour to explore Cave Rock along the way, which has several cave-like alcoves to climb inside.
Dripping Cave itself is more like a large alcove than a cave, but it is still really fun to hike to and explore. It is easy to imagine being on the run and using it as a shelter. There are dark marks on the ceiling of the cave that look like they are fire scars. In actuality, they are microscopic plant life surviving on the moisture seeping in the sandstone of cave.
Sunny Jim Cave in La Jolla and the La Jolla Sea Caves
One of my favorite things to do in San Diego is head to La Jolla Shores and go on a kayak tour of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve and its caves. There is one cave, Emerald Cave, that you can paddle inside of as long conditions are safe.
If you time your visit correctly, you can swim with leopard sharks which use this area as their nursery. Fear not, these sharks are harmless and the experience is one you won’t forget. Prime time is August and September, when there are hundreds of sharks in the cove but there are still plenty anytime between June and October.
If kayaking isn’t your thing, you can still visit one of the La Jolla sea caves. Sunny Jim Cave is acessed via the Cave Store, a gift shop that has an entrance to the cave which you pay to access. You will have to navigate 145 steps to reach the bottom of the sea cave which is submerged in water.
The experience is a bit campy, but it is also quite historic and unique. The Cave Store (once a residence of a German artist and entrepreneur) has been operating cave tours since 1905, and it is said that bootleggers once used the tunnel down to the sea cave to smuggle alcohol.
Cave of Munits
This next cave was once an important ceremonial site for the Chumash Indians. The Cave of Munits is located in the Simi Hills near Castle Peak, and was said to once be the home of a Chumash shaman who was killed for murdering the son of a chief.
The cave is located inside of Ahmandson Ranch (now known as Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve) which became a park in 2004. It is an scenic, 0.8-mile hike from El Escorpion Park to the entrance of the Cave of Munits. Visit during the late winter or spring to be surrounded by gorgeous green hillsides.
Climbing inside the cave is a bit of a scramble, but it is worth your efforts. The inside of the cave is quite large, and there are several little side caves to explore.
Many people extend their hike to climb to the top of Castle Peak, making for a 2.1-mile loop in all.
Grant Sea Caves at Leo Carrillo State Park
Malibu is well known for being home to the rich and famous, but it is also home to a couple sets of impressive sea caves.
The first set are at Leo Carrillo State Park. This beach is a destination for surfing, camping, and tide pooling. And, of course, there are the caves.
This sea cave is located at rocky point that separates North Beach from South Beach. It should be visited at low tide, and you should always be mindful of the tide as it begins to come in.
El Matador Beach Sea Caves in Malibu
You can find even more caves at El Matador Beach. This beach is south of Leo Carrillo and home to more rock arches and sea caves than any other beach in Southern Caifornia.
Come during low tide and walk up and down the beach to explore. There are plenty of enormous boulders which help form these cool sea caves.
The only bummer about this beach is that there are only 20 spots in the parking lot, so visit during offpeak times to have your best bet at scoring a spot. You will have to navigate a series of stairs to reach the beach.
Little Corona Del Mar Beach Sea Cave
Down in Orange County near popular Corona del Mar State Beach is a much smaller (and in my opinion, better) beach just to the north. It is accessed via a steep path that leads down from the ritzy neighborhood above, which transports you to a cozy little piece of beach away from the hustle and bustle.
Little Corona del Mar Beach is one of the best beaches in Orange County to explore during low tide. There are several great tide pools filled with sea anemones, urchins, crabs, and the occassional octopus.
On the south end of the beach around the bend you will discover several small caves in the bluff. There is also a cool arch rock in the water you won’t want to miss. The caves are small but they are perfect for playing “pirate” in.
Thousands Steps Beach Sea Cave in Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is home to the final sea cave on our list, located at Thousand Steps Beach. This beach is located just off Pacific Coast Highway at 9th Avenue. You won’t have to climb down 1,000 stairs to reach this beach but you will have to make it down 223 of them.
Visit this beach at low tide, head south, and you will be rewarded with several large tidepools and a sea cave.