Natural Bridges has been on my list for quite some time. When the opportunity finally presented itself (i.e. when I discovered a free night on my Best Western card and the calendar was blissfully clear), I jumped at the chance to explore this surreal cave.
We’ve been to the Angels Camp area before to explore Moaning Caverns, and I didn’t realize Natural Bridges is in fact just two miles down the road. Crazy!
This whole area is known for its caving (in addition to wineries, gold rush museums and big trees). Within about 15 minutes’ drive time, you can find three unique cave systems with tours. Natural Bridges with its carved limestone structure fits right in there, but this cave you can actually swim through (or take your giant swan float and glide through the cave in style).
Directions: If you’re using GPS, type in 4988 Parrotts Ferry Road, Vallecito, California. It’s about an hour and a half southeast from Sacramento or two and a half hours east of San Francisco. There’s actually quite a bit to do in this area, so make a weekend out of it and explore the neighboring caverns, go whitewater rafting, hug a giant sequoia, sample local wines or, if you time it right, hang out at the frog jumping festival or watch people stomp grapes like I Love Lucy (it’s classic).
If you’re heading to Natural Bridges in the summer, might I suggest you go early? As in, park your car at 8 a.m. The lot (I use this term loosely) holds about 20 cars, with overflow parking along the side of the road. If it’s off season (late spring or early fall) you’ll have more luck with mid-day parking. This is a popular local hangout.
This is the roadside parking. At 6 o’clock on a Saturday in September, it’s thinned out. At 3 o’clock, it was a madhouse. But sooo worthwhile. Even for me, the master of the 14-point turn in parallel parking.
This is the official trail head. The “lot” for Natural Bridges is just to the right here, alongside the road. There’s a bathroom (not super clean but handy) at the end of the road. If you’ve parked alongside Parrots Ferry, you may see people throwing blankets over a barbed wire fence and reaching the trail by their cars. I’d urge you to just walk the extra few yards to the official trail rather than blatantly disregard someone’s property this way – it’s a gorgeous spot and it’d be a shame to see the landowner by the roadside limit use.
The trail itself is under a mile each way. The first section is easy breezy, then it starts getting steep. The trail is very well maintained, but if poison oak loves you like it does my husband, stick to the center of the trail. The poison oak does quite well here, and lines both sides with its leaves just glowing with itchy oil.
Once you reach the end of the trail, there are steps leading down to the river. Cross a downed tree, and voila, Natural Bridges! It will be crowded at the bottom, but 95% of the people go two or three feet into the cave, splash around and turn back. It is dark and foreboding if you don’t have a headlamp (or your phone in a baggie with the flashlight feature on). I’m telling you, my fellow gypsies, be brave and venture forth! Yes, the water is freezing. Yes, it’s dark in there and the water gets a little deep in the middle. Yes, it’s completely worth it, because if you just swim forward for about two minutes, you will pop out at a very quiet, blissfully green wonderland with little soaking pools.
It “rains” year-round inside the cavern. The water trickles through all that limestone, and it smells like ozone, all crisp and clean. And freezing, but again, worth it.
Ally freaked out once we passed that three-foot threshold where most people stop. Suddenly there were no people around us, none of us could touch the bottom, and, hey, it’s a cave. Little freaky to swim through. We did pack headlamps, thank goodness. Without some light source, it’s pitch black. I also packed my dry bag for the car keys, my camera and a towel.
After you round a corner in the cavern, you can see daylight again, and if you swim through, you reach this little wonderland.
See how bright and green everything looks, even in September?! There are also all kinds of little pools at the mouth of the cave here carved into the limestone. Some of them have water rushing through a narrow opening, making a natural (icy) Jacuzzi.
Ally was very glad she stuck it out through the cave, as she had her own little pool to sit and watch the chipmunks frolic.
From inside the cave, the light hits the closest pools here just right, and the water looks like swirling mercury. We also discovered the cave has great acoustics – you can sing just about anything in the central chamber and it sounds like people should be lining up for your record deal (according to my hopeful children).