Spelunking isn’t just a fun word to say; it’s also a fun thing to do. And Santa Cruz has just the cave for adding a little spelunk to your giddyup! Tucked between UC Santa Cruz and Bonny Doon, the entrance to Empire Cave and its multiple caverns is unimpressive at first glance: a graffitied concrete block with a gaping hole in the center. (The university has tried to cover this entrance a few times, but cave enthusiasts continue to dynamite it open.) You don’t have to be an experienced spelunker to explore this underworld, but good judgment and comfort with claustrophobia are helpful. Autumn is a great time to go as curious college students have had their fill and winter rains haven’t pooled in the caverns. Take the ladder down to the main cave and flip on your flashlight, heading deeper into the earth via a slippery path to your right. The air is musty down here, and earth tones abound with brown and gray rocks—some glossed by water, others dry, and others covered in lichen. Feel your way along slick limestone walls down to the second room. There’s another passageway hidden in a corner of this room, but ropes are required and it’s not for novices. Go ahead, cave in to the urge to yell “hellooooo!” and hear your voice echo through the chambers. Roamin’ Empire.
Head up Empire Grade past the West Entrance to UCSC. Less than a mile past the turnoff to UCSC is a dirt turnout to the left. Park here. A 10-by-4 block of concrete sits off the right side of the road, about 20 yards away. This is the entrance to the cave. Bring flashlights, extra batteries, and clothes you don’t mid getting muddy.