story: Gary VanDeWalker photo: Monica VanDeWalker
SISKIYOU COUNTY'S PLUTO'S CAVE
Nelson Cash stared long into the gaping entrance of the cave, looking for his lost cows. Wondering if the earth had swallowed them, he entered the cave, not knowing how deep it would bring him under the countryside. He took his candle and took cautious steps into the darkness. A few hours later, he returned to the sunlight of the Shasta Valley, and named his discovery Pluto’s Cave.
Pluto’s Cave is an ancient lava tube stretching underneath the valley floor in three sections, the last more than 1,500 feet. Since its discovery in 1863, spelunkers, teenagers, geologists and the curious have made the journey into the dark recesses. The trails are well defined, yet the cave remains wild and untamed. The tube is the result of a lava flow which began from a vent on Mount Shasta eight miles to the northeast and continues north to the present town of Grenada.
The entrance to the cave is large. The sidewalls mark the heights of numerous lava flows. The half-mile trail meanders through three sections lined with volcanic boulders, the first which opens to a skylight, created by the collapse of the ceiling. The second section ends again in open air. The final third is the darkest and longest. Cash wrote, “In some places the arch overhead was so high that we could hardly distinguish its outlines with our two candles and would so continue for hundreds of feet; and at other times the arch would not be over 15 or 20 feet high.”
Watch on the walls for the graffiti left in 1917 by the “International Order of Red Men” who used the cave for a rite of initiation, leaving their names and ranks. The trip to the cave would have been arduous, as no roads existed in the area at the time.
Deer, ground squirrels and other wildlife call the cave home. Above, you can see the homes of nesting owls. Twilight reveals swirling colonies of bats who live here. Watch for tracks on the trails for sign of the animals who visited the night before you. Carry flashlights, as each section of the cave gets progressively darker. The floor becomes more uneven, requiring good shoes. If you are brave enough to reach the end, graffiti on the wall will tell you just that. Be prepared for the coolness of the cave anytime of year.
Unlike the cave’s namesake, Cash emerged from the cave to return home. He never recorded if he found his livestock. When writing of his discovery he notes: As we were the 1st explorers, of course we had the right to give the cave a name, and we christened it ‘Pluto’s Cave.’ The reasons why…I reserve for a future communication.”
To reach Pluto’s Cave, drive 12 miles north of Weed on Highway 97, taking the Grenada turnoff. After 3 miles turn left at the Pluto’s Cave sign and go to the parking area 1/4 mile away.