I am not a big fan of heights.
I’ve done the Half Dome hike. I’m planning to charge Mt. Whitney next summer. But when it comes to rock climbing, and rappelling, it’s typically not my thing.
I grew up on the coast, and currently live at an elevation of a whopping 800 feet, so whenever friends or family want to go “climbing,” my heart tends to “rappel” into my stomach.
Nevertheless, I let my parents talk me into rappelling into Moaning Cavern following a whitewater rafting trip on the North Fork of the American River in Northern California.
Moaning Cavern, located in Vallecito, is California’s largest public cave chamber at 165 feet.
About Moaning Cavern
Now this is Gold Country, so when you visit, throw your fear of heights, white water rafting, and mountaineering out the window.
The original forty-niners and prospectors who came to California in the 1840s and 50s were tough sons of guns as you’ll come to learn at the local museums, landmarks, and the strategically-placed gift shop at the entrance of the cavern.
That’s right, at the Moaning Cavern, you Enter Through the Gift Shop.
Outside the fact that there’s a gift shop stocked with Gatorade, PowerBars and outdoors supplies at the entrance of the cavern, much of the massive, underground cave is as it was in the 50s when it was first discovered by gold miners.
Moaning Cavern is named for the moaning sounds the cave is said to make during the rainy season, when water dropping onto the flagstone emanates a low moan at the entrance.
The infamous cave site is located between Vallecito and Columbia State Park, near historic gold sites such as Jamestown, Sonora and Angels Camp. But none of those golden getaways offer an adventure like this, a cavern that’s so large it could hold the Statue of Liberty.
Exploring the Cave
Cave-goers can descend into the cave via two routes:
First, the cavern offers a walk-down staircase for children and folks who would rather not rappel.
Second, there’s a 165-foot rope for thrill seekers who are up for dangling in the dark cave like a spider hanging from a web.
Either approach you take, it’s an exhilarating trip.
I opted to descend by rope, because, well, how often do you get the opportunity to play Spiderman in real life?
Rappelling Moaning Cavern
After watching a safety video and getting harnessed in, you feel your way through the cavern entrance, which is more of a wormhole than an entrance.
After wiggling your way through the hole, you quickly find yourself dangling high above the cavern floor (there are technically two major drops, one of about 30 feet and another of 60 feet).
When you let go of the cavern wall on the way down for the first time, you really have to trust the rope, and yourself for that matter, or you’ll freeze up and hold up the other climbers.
Being this was a first for me, it took me a second to gather myself before I slowly lowered myself over the first ledge.
I remember my dad, who was two climbers above, asking how I was doing and I was so focused on the task at hand I could barely reply.
But that uneasiness soon gave way to awe as I became more comfortable with my surroundings and appreciated just how magnificent the open cave was.
It was something straight out of a National Geographic episode: dangling in the middle of the cave, gazing up at calcite deposits and formations that resembled chocolate waterfalls running down the walls of the cave.
As I soaked it all in, I finally had the guts to look down to the cave floor, where the tourists and guides appeared no bigger than a handful of mice.
Over the final 40 feet, I finally started to get the hang of the rope ‘n’ carabineer setup, but it was at that point that I hit paydirt.
As I dusted off my backside, I was a bit bummed the rappel was over. Then I looked back up toward the entrance and realized just how far we’d rappelled.
And with my legs still wobbling and my arms tingling at my sides, I quickly realized I couldn’t have gone much further … not with 234 stairs between me and the cave entrance.
Did I mention I’m not a big fan of staircases?