Caving In: Tourist traps are everywhere, but a select few are so fun that a visit is practically mandatory. Tucked back in the hills near the town of Murphys, Moaning Cavern is a stunning showcase of nature’s subterranean architecture. Truly adventurous types can don a jumpsuit and helmet with a headlight, then rappel down into an enormous 165-foot-high underground ballroom. Dropping in with just a rope and harness will make you feel like Batman crashing a party—and you’ll seem a little more bad-ass than the people who take the winding (and cage-enclosed) stairs. Super-adventurous and—we stress—non-claustrophobic types should continue venturing even farther below the surface, exploring the veins inside the caves by worming through tight sections such as the aptly named “pancake squeeze” and “Godzilla’s nostril” (you get the idea). If you like testing the limits of human origami, this cave experience is for you.
Moaning Cavern, 5350 Moaning Cave Rd., Vallecito; 866-762-2837.
Disappearing Act: Where do locals go to explore the underworld? Head three miles south of Moaning Cavern to Natural Bridges, a place relatively untrampled by tourists. After a .75-mile descending hike from the parking lot, you’ll arrive at a mysterious land “bridge” carved by a river over a million years ago. Here, you can explore by foot the mossy limestone cave under the bridge; the water may rise as high as your knees (wear water sandals). During the hot summer months, people—swimming or floating—disappear into the cave before emerging 270 feet later on the other side. You can explore as far as you want; just remember to bring a flashlight—and a camera. This place has to be seen to be believed.
Look for the Natural Bridges sign three miles south of Moaning Cavern on Parrotts Ferry Road.
Walk Among Giants: Contending as some of the tallest, mightiest, and most muscular spectacles in the state are the hulking (and beautiful) trees just twenty minutes up the road from Murphys inCalaveras Big Trees State Park. Grab your fleece, a snack, and a bottle of water, then hit the trail. The cool autumn air changes the color of the dogwood trees to yellows and oranges, and the fallen leaves scatter like pieces of gold around enormous groves of giant sequoia redwoods. Escape the crowded North Grove by going eight miles deeper into the park on Memorial Parkway Road to the South Grove. It’s a 3.5- to 5-mile round trip (depending on your route; you can pick up a map on-site for $1). We recommend a loop hike out to the Agassiz Tree—at 25 feet in diameter and 250 feet tall, it’s the Barry Bonds of these giants.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is about twenty minutes east of Murphys on Highway 4.