California Caverns at Cave City

Useful Information

Location: Cave City, Calaveras County, California.
Located on Cave City Road near Mountain Ranch, off Mountain Ranch Road, near Hwy 49.
(38.203023, -120.509020)
Open: Trail of Lights Tour: JUN to NOV daily 10-17.
Trail of Lakes Tour: DEC to MAY daily 10-17.
Fee: Adults USD 22, Children (3-12) USD 14, Children (0-2) free.
Mammoth Cave Expedition: Adults USD 89.
Middle Earth Expedition: Adults USD 189.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Guided tours: Trail of Lights Tour: D=80 min, St=60.
Trail of Lakes Tour: D=60 min, St=60.
Mammoth Cave Expedition: MinAge=8, D=2-3 h.
Middle Earth Expedition: MinAge=16, L=1.6 km, D=2.5-4 h.
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: John Muir (1984): The Mountains of California. New York: Century Co. OCLC 557924162 "Chapter 15, In the Sierra Foot-Hills". online
Address: California Caverns, PO Box 78, Vallecito, CA 95251, Tel. +1-209-736-2708.
California State Parks - Office of Historic Preservation, 1725 23rd Street Suite 100, Sacramento, CA 95816, Tel: +1-916-445-7000, Tel: +1-916-445-7053. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


1849 or 1850 discovered by Captain Joseph Taylor.
1850 cave recorded.
1854 opened as a show cave by Captain Joseph Taylor and named Mammoth Cave.
1853 a hotel was built to house the many visitors to the cavern.
1859-1875 a mining camp, called Cave City, was established around the cave. The cave was called Mammoth Cave this time.
1894 John Muir writes about his cave visit in his book The Mountains of California, cave named Cave City Cave.
1910 show cave closed.
1980 re-opened as California Caverns.
MAY-1983 declared California Historical Landmark No. 956.


California Caverns was one of the first registered caves in California, and was the first commercial cave in the State. The cave was discovered by Captain Joseph Taylor who was digging for gold in the area. According to legend he was setting up target practice during some downtime, while not prospecting for gold, when he discovered the entrance to the cave by accident. His targets were being moved by a breeze which seemed to emanate from the rocks. He immediately opened the cave as a tourist attraction under the name Mammoth Cave. It became quite well known and popular, early visitors included Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and John Muir. John Muir actually wrote about the cave visit in his book The Mountains of California in 1894.

We guess Mammoth Cave in Kentucky became quite famous and as a result there was the danger to mix the two up. So people started to call this cave Cave City Cave after its location, the nearby town Cave City, just to avoid mixing up. At some point the cave was renamed Cave City Cave around 1890. It was known under this name when John Muir visited in 1894, but the exact time the name changes is unknown.

The cave was closed in 1910 and when it was reopened 70 years later in 1980 it was named California Caverns. We are not convinced this name qualifies as a good name for a cave. Even Joseph Taylor Cave, after the discoverer, would have been better.

The tours at the cave are strange, because they depend on the time of year. The regular tour is called Trail of Lights Tour and is offered during summer and autumn. The Trail of Lakes Tour is offered during winter and spring and is a little shorter. The reason is quite simple, there are pools in the cave which fill with water during the rainy winter, when the water table rises, and block some parts of the trails. As a result the tour is changed using only the dry parts of the trails. But on both tours you wikll learn about the rich history of the cavern and the surrounding countryside, cavern formation and geology. The trails are nearly level and well lighted, but there are still 60 steps.

The cave also offers two different cave trekking tours. The Mammoth Cave Expedition is named after the historic name of the cave, and it shows the section which was first opened to the public. This extended cavern trip is more tourist tour, but less stamina is needed than on a regular cave trekking tour. Mammoth Cave area and eight chambers including Jungle Room are explored by walking, stooping, and crawling. But all tight crawl ways and squeezes are optional.

Middle Earth Cave Expedition is a true caving trip exploring about 8o% of the cavern system from the east entrance to the west entrance. The Middle Earth area, after which it was named, was discovered in 1980. After the Cave of the Quills there is a 22 m long rafting trip across Tom's Lake. The tour is noteable for massive cave clay deposits, ao you will definitely get dirty. Trip time varies depending on the number of participants.