Visiting Lake Shasta Caverns
Don't miss Lake Shasta Caverns near Redding, California
Lake Shasta Caverns is a Natural National Landmark located in northern California. The natural caverns are formed from limestone, and the site makes a great day trip from either Sacramento or the Bay Area. The tour of the caverns not only includes a view of some amazing geologic formations, but also a leisurely ride across Shasta Lake to reach the caverns, and a bus ride that might just help you spy some native wildlife such as bears (if you're lucky!). If you live in or are visiting the Redding area, you shouldn't miss the Lake Shasta Caverns.
(Photo by Lisa Howard)
History of Lake Shasta Caverns - An attraction 200 million years in the making
It can be hard to find really ancient attractions in the United States. We don't have Egypt's pyramids or China's Great Wall, and most of the historic buildings in the US only date back to the 1700s. But if you visit any cavern in the US, you'll be visiting an attraction that has been millions of years in the making.
Scientists say Lake Shasta Caverns have been forming for about 200 million years. The caves are made from limestone that was dissolved by water, leaving behind magnificent stalactites, stalagmites, columns and flowstone.
But while the amazing underground caverns were being created deep inside the mountains for millions of years, it took a long time for humankind to discover the treasure. Early Native Americans apparently know of the caverns, but it wasn't until 1878 that the first known white explorer stumbled upon them. James A. Richardson discovered a natural entrance in 1878 while hunting. The small entrance, which is barely large enough for a person to squeeze through, is located at the top of a rocky peak, effectively discouraging discovery. Richardson marked his claim by using carbide from his miner's lamp to write his name and date on the wall. The signature is still clearly visible on tours today.
For many years, only hardy spelunkers who were willing to hike the steep hills and descend through the small natural openings were the only people who could enjoy the beauty of these caverns. But eventually a new entrance and passageways between the rooms were created, and the caverns were opened for public tours. Since 1964, more than two and a half million people have visited Lake Shasta Caverns.
(Photo of James Richardson's signature by Lisa Howard)
Photos of Lake Shasta CavernsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Inside Lake Shasta Caverns
An amazing tour
You can tour Shasta Caverns 363 days a year. (They're closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.) You'll first take a boat ride across the lake and then be ferried 800 feet up the mountain in a bus. After disembarking and walking through a small visitor area, you'll enter the caverns through an unassuming door cut into the side of the mountain.
When you step inside, particularly if it's a warm day outside, you'll immediately notice the difference in temperature. The caverns stay a cool 58 degrees Fahrenheit with 95% humidity all year long. It's always damp and wet, so watch your step inside!
A guide will take you through the cavernous rooms, pointing out all the natural formations insides, including stalactites (that hang "tight" to the ceiling), stalagmites (that "might" reach the ceiling some day), columns, soda straws and flowstone, and explained how they were formed.
The tour winds up and down (be prepared for plenty of stairs!) through several rooms where you can see all the formations and learn more about the history of the caverns. There's plenty of light on the walkways and in the large rooms, and the guides carry flashlights to shine on the walls and help point out interesting features. In fact, they make all the "science lessons" a bit more fun by pointing out imaginary figures in the stones. For instance, there are rock formations that look like Chewbacca, Indiana Jones, a Native American and Hogwarts Castle... if you've got a good imagination and can follow the guide's description to see them.
The caverns are also home to a colony of bats, which you'll likely see sleeping on the ceiling in the final room you visit. Don't worry - they're not vampire bats! The tiny flying mammals sleep during the day and leave the caverns at night through a special grate that is large enough for them to get out, but not large enough for anything else to get in.
At the end of the tour, you'll leave the cool, dark caverns to emerge onto a steep cement staircase that winds down the side of the mountain and will take you back to the upper visitor area where the bus arrives and departs. You'll get spectacular views of the lake from up here!
Then it's back on the bus, back down the mountain, and across the lake. The entire tour lasts about two hours, and is well worth the investment of time!
(Photo by Lisa Howard)
The Details: Getting to Shasta Caverns - Walk, boat, ride... and walk some more
A boat takes you across the lake. Then a bus takes you up the hill.
See the big peak on the left? That's where the caverns are located.
Getting to Lake Shasta Caverns isn't exactly easy, but the current method sure beats climbing all the way up the rocky mountains as Richardson and other intrepid explorers did.
Today, you can reach Shasta Caverns by driving north from Redding on I-5. It's about 15 minutes outside Redding. Once you've reached the gift shop/departure area and have your tickets, you hike down to one of the waiting boats which will take you across the lake. After disembarking, you then you climb a steep ramp to reach a bus, which will take you the rest of the way up a very winding road to the entrance of the caves. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as jackrabbits, deer and even bear. The bus drivers will stop so everyone can get a good view.
When I recently visited with my son, we were lucky enough to see a black bear on the bus ride back down. Our driver stopped, and everyone in the vehicle jumped up to take photos from the windows. The bear ignored us for 2-3 minutes before wandering off into the woods. It was a great bonus for everyone on the trip that day!
A word to the wise about the bus ride -- If you don't like heights, don't sit in a window seat - you're going to go up about 800 feet in just a few minutes to reach the visitor center near the cavern entrance. But don't think you're done once you step off the bus. Once you're inside the caverns, there is plenty more exercising to do!
(Photo by Lisa Howard)
If You're Lucky, You Might See a Bear
What Else Can You Do in Redding? - Watch this free video to find out!
If you're visiting Redding and have more than a single afternoon to spare, there's a lot more to do there than simply tour the caverns. This episode of "Weekend Explorer" can show you some of the highlights of the area. If you've got Amazon Prime, you can watch the video for free. For others, there's a $1.99 rental fee. The 23-minute video takes a look at a variety of activities to enjoy while you're in the Redding area, from houseboating on Lake Shasta to playing at a local water park to visiting Turtle Bay Exploration Park or exploring the Lake Shasta Caverns.
Emmy Award-winning host Jeffrey Lehmann takes you around Redding, CA in this episode of "Weekend Explorer," a series that airs on on over 200 PBS stations nationwide.
Lake Shasta is an artificial lake created in 1948 after the construction of the Shasta Dam.
It's California largest reservoir and the state's third largest lake.
You can find a variety of Lake Shasta gifts on Zazzle featuring this beautiful lake, such as mugs, T-shirts, mouse pads, cards, and more, including the sticker shown at right.
A National Natural Landmark
Lake Shasta Caverns was declared a National Natural Landmark in 2012
Thanks for visiting!