“Has anybody ever died in here?” one of the boys on our tour asks.
“Not a single person,” answers our guide. The boys look disappointed. “We have found some mouse skeletons.” This seems to satisfy them.
The question must be one often asked in Black Chasm, a National Natural Landmark located just outside of Volcano, California. Still, it isn’t the dead bodies or lack of them that has made the cave system a landmark. It is the helictites growing from the walls of the cave. Caused by water building up behind the rock walls, instead of growing up from the floor or down from the ceiling, helictites grow outward from the walls of the caves, in straight lines, curls, and strange formations. Our guide explained that helictites are very rare, only appearing in about ten percent of the caves found in the U.S. Most of these caves only have two or three examples, she told us. Then she led us into the Landmark Room, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stunning helictites grew out of the walls. One, shaped remarkably like a dragon, is the cavern’s mascot, Mushu.
Helictites aren’t the only thing to see at Black Chasm, either. It has the standard underground fare of stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones, and from the platforms visitors can see down through holes in the floor to lower caverns, unexplored by any but the guides and scientists who study the cavern. Through one, a clear blue lake is visible, home to the cavern’s only living creatures, eyeless, clear shrimp that have adapted to the lightless environment.
While the Landmark Tour only visits three of the rooms in the extensive cavern system, many more are visible from the platforms. If this doesn’t satisfy the true cave-lover, video footage of the other explored rooms plays constantly in the Visitors Center.
Aside from the stunning rock formations, Black Chasm has another claim to fame. The Zion Temple in the Matrix movies was researched there, and pieces of the cave-like set can be viewed in the Visitors Center.
After touring the cave, visitors can request maps for a free nature hike, or children can pan for gemstones and gold in the mining flume outside of the Visitors Center. Inside the Center, those interested can find more information about Black Chasm, dragon-themed and cave-related merchandise, or information about nearby attractions such as the Sutter Gold Mine, California and Moaning Caverns, Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock State Park, Daffodil Hill, or the historic gold rush towns of Volcano, Sutter’s Creek, and Jackson. Nature lovers can find abundant hiking, camping, fishing, and swimming in the area, and the truly adventurous can go whitewater rafting on the south fork of the American River or skiing at Kirkwood Resort.
Black Chasm’s summer hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Winter hours are 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays, and 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekends and holidays. The Landmark Tour is $12.00 for adults and $6.00 for children, and prices for additional activities are listed in the Visitors Center. More information can be found at http://www.caverntours.com.