Bruce and I took a journey to Lake Shasta Caverns last month in Lakehead after we accepted an invitation to attend media day by Matt Doyle, the Caverns general manager.
Sad for the Caverns, Bruce and I were the only media folks who showed up.
Lucky for us we got a private tour.
We learned all kinds of interesting things, such as the fact that more than 2.5 million people have visited the Caverns since it opened to the public in 1964, which might have been the first and last time I set foot inside there.
Doyle said a lot has changed – for the better – at the Caverns since then, way back when I was a kid.
For example, he said Lake Shasta Caverns boasts new, air-conditioned buses that navigate smoothly upon on paved roads, not the chip-sealed, pot-holed roads of my childhood recollections.
We saw all these things for ourselves during the boat ride across the lake, which led to a visitors center with restrooms and picnic tables, a lookout and a friendly mascot, no doubt as photographed as the caverns themselves.
From there we took our private bus ride to the cave entrance, which led to the reason we were there: a tour inside the caverns, a place that stays a perpetually pleasant 65-ish degrees. We heard of real bears (unlike the one above) who’d sometimes crowd the cave entrance, perhaps in hopes of coolness and shelter, and of the occasional rattlesnake on the trail outside the caverns exit, which never caused harm, only a flurry of excitement from spectators.
The more we saw, the more interested we became in this incredible natural wonder – a destination that sat patiently in my own backyard all my life.
I’d neglected it.
I chastised myself for not having visited Lake Shasta Caverns sooner, and for not having brought my own kids there when they were younger and would have really enjoyed it. I never suggested the Caverns to visiting friends or relatives, or out-of-town company.
Maybe at the at the time I thought the tour was too expensive.
Now, when I consider that the $22 fee includes not just the tour, but the peaceful boat ride and guided tour, $22 seems like a steal. For that matter, so does the admission fee of $13 for kids (3 to 15).
Maybe I’d held a grudge all these years against the harrowing ride aboard an ancient bus with tires that seemed ready to slip off the narrow road’s edge and into the lake below.
Now, the buses are new and air conditioned, and the road didn’t look so scary.
And the 600 stairs inside? Once you get beyond the dreaded 81 stairs, the rest is totally manageable. (Though our guide said it’s not unusual for some visitors to opt to turn back at that point rather than finish the tour. By the way, there is the option to take just the boat and bus ride and skip the cavern tour.)
Our tour began at 4 p.m. and we were back in the parking lot by 6 p.m.
We were so glad we went.
We enjoyed our time with the young boat captain Joshua Francis, and Cavern guide Christi Ricker. (You can hear her voice on the slideshow below.)
We admired the view of Lake Shasta from the cavern entrance where we stopped to take pictures.
We learned that tourists from all over the world visit Lake Shasta Caverns every year, and that hundreds of north state schoolchildren participate in the caverns’ educational programs each month.
We heard tales of the caverns discovery in the late 1800s, and how men used lantern soot to claim their finds. We even saw skinny metal ladders left behind that led to dark, tiny openings into which those explorers crawled.
We learned how others would later try to erase those original names and replace them with their own.
We marveled at the labor required to make the cavern “rooms” available for visitors, from the dynamite to blast openings to bringing in three hand-carried buckets of cement inside for each of the 600 stairs, and the patience required to allow the concrete to cure in the cool, damp interior.
We were dumbstruck to learn of the caverns’ early naive days, when tourists were allowed to “play” the precious “pipe organ” formations to elicit sounds, but which also destroyed millions of years’ worth of growth.
And we were shown examples of how seemingly innocent oils from curious human hands literally killed what Mother Nature created, and how those oils halted any further growth, and blackened the smooth, wet surfaces as reminders of every tourist’s touch and every spelunker’s rope, footwear and hardware.
Sometimes interesting things came from those people, because as recently as the ’70s, a new room was found by a couple of spelunkers and their 10-year-old son when the boy squirmed through an opening no adult had reached before – a room included as part of the tour today.
Here we are years later, beyond raunchous weddings inside the caverns and concerts and lighted torches. Today’s cavern guardians know so much more about the delicate balance between tourism and stewardship, which is why guides are charged with the mission to teach every guest – including thousands of children each year – how to help preserve and protect this gift of minerals and air – droplets, darkness and time.
This leads to the proud news that Lake Shasta Caverns has applied for the well-deserved, long-overdue National Natural Landmark status. (Stay tuned for more information about that.)
And while you’re at it, listen for more information about the first-ever “Haunted Caverns” tours around Halloween, and eventually even some dinner cruises on the lake.
Maybe I’ll see you there. And if you do visit Lake Shasta Caverns, please say hello from everyone at anewscafe.
Lake Shasta Caverns is located at 20359 Shasta Caverns Road
Lakehead, Calif. Tours operate every day, and depart every half hour from 9 a.m until 4 p.m. For more information click here on Lake Shasta Caverns or call 1.800.795.CAVE or fax 530.238.2341.
For general information email LSCinformation@aol.com.
For reservations email LSCreservations@aol.com.
To contact Doyle, the general manager, email him at ShastaCav@aol.com.
Top photo and slide show images courtesy of Lake Shasta Caverns.
Other photos by Doni Greenberg.