Lake Shasta Caverns provides interesting underground excursion

Seventy-three steps. Ha!

My wife’s cousin swore there were 73 steps on the Lake Shasta Caverns tour. He was mistaken. There are hundreds.

First, stairs lead down from the gift shop entrance and parking lot to the shores of Lake Shasta. I didn’t count, but we easily surpassed his estimate before reaching the 65-foot catamaran that ferries visitors across the crystal blue waters of the lake’s McCloud arm.

I’m probably the only person in the world who dons sunblock for a cave hike. But 10 minutes is enough to scorch my fair skin and the boat ride is about that long. I didn’t realize it was a covered boat.

At the far shore, tour groups ride small busses for the 15-minute drive up the winding road to the cavern entrance. Guides encourage people to keep an eye out for wildlife such as bobcat, bear and … “squirrel!” Tour guides. Nice people, but sometimes a bit corny.

There are some nice views of the glittering water 800 feet below.

The tour entrance is from a route blasted and bored in 1964 to provide easier access than the mountain-top hole original explorers used a century earlier.

The area Wintu Indians knew of the caverns for a long time before they were officially “discovered.” Federal fisheries employee J.A. Richardson, who worked at the nearby fish hatchery, officially discovered the caverns in 1878, after hiring a native guide to take him to what was then became known as the Potter Creek Cave. Richard’s and his guide’s names and date are inscribed on a cavern wall with the soot of their lanterns.

The idea to preserve the natural phenomenon has a Washington tie. Chehalis attorney Grace Tucker obtained ownership of the caverns in 1955 and in 1958, along with Roy Thompson and his two brothers, formed Lake Shasta Properties, inc. in 1959.

The narrow hole early spelunkers used to access the caverns is visible on the tour, but a new route was blasted in 1964 to open it up to tourists.

Workers hoped to access the lowest room then known, the Basement, and by accident located an even lower room, the first on the tour: the Discovery Room. The room contains a panoply of cave formations: stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flow stone, “peanut brittle,” cave coral and draperies and more. As all cave guides point out, stalactites hang “tight” to the ceiling, stalagmites “might” reach the ceiling one day.

To get to the room, however, requires climbing more than 73 stairs through the manmade tunnel. Stairs, handrails and lighting were added to provide easier access. Though the caves are a steady 58 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, the high humidity makes it rather comfortable and I was fine in sandals (though sturdy shoes are recommended), shorts and a T-shirt.

The guide points out the various cave features that formed over hundreds of thousands of years as acidic water dripped slowly through the limestone bedrock to hollow out the rooms and grow the various formations.

One of the more interesting rooms was discovered by a 10-year-old boy who wriggled through a narrow tunnel in the days free-roaming tours were allowed to find a formerly water-submerged room. The room shows its history of flooding and emptying over the course of many millennium through the various formations at different levels in the chamber. Today, most tours are guided through the known areas, though workers and a handful of other special explorers are allowed to sign waivers and explore the depths of the caverns in search of new discoveries.

There are eight known rooms on the tour: They’re your typical cave rooms with formations common to more well-known cave systems, but still rather interesting. The most impressive room is the Cathedral Room near the end of the tour. Massive draperies, stalactites, columns and flowstone cover one wall, stretching high into the darkness like pipes of a massive church organ grown from living stone. We were told people sometimes hold weddings in the chamber.

We climbed more stairs to exit and still more outside to come back down to the level of the tour entrance, where busses waited to carry us back down to the ferry.