Explore the Subway Caves & More
Story: Thom Gabrukiewicz
Creepy is cool. And cool is creepy.
A sultry September wind blows warm through the Hat Creek Valley. But that hot breeze cloaks a cool secret that lies under the lichen-flecked, dark-black basalt rock formations.
It is another world: a dark, subterranean realm where the beam of a single headlamp can dance off formations that are some 20,000 years old.
Sometimes, water drips from ceilings and walls and a single drop echoes like time suspended on the rough rock floor. It’s always cool here – around 46 degrees year-round – and once inside, you get the feeling you're the first person ever to visit.
This is Subway Cave.
And it is a whole network of caves – know what you’re looking for and you’ll find more as you hike through the valley – that lie beneath the surface.
From the north state’s violent volcanic past, a world of tunnels spread like gnarled fingers across the Hat Creek Valley near the tiny community of Old Station, some 50 miles east of Redding. These are ancient lava tubes, formed when huge volumes of molten lava poured from cracks in the Earth’s surface and flowed east and north.
For about 16 miles, hot angry magma bubbled. It belched toxic gases and pushed a lava cap on the valley until stopped by the solid Hat Creek Rim. This cap cooled to form a crust of basalt, a dark rock that’s rich in iron and magnesium.
Insulated from the rock plug as thick as 24 feet in some spots, the lava inside continued to ooze downhill in tubes. A network of tunnels is all that remains of those flows.
Over time, cracks in the basalt lead to cave-ins, and that’s how people have gained entry into the tubes.
Subway Cave is the U.S. Forest Service-managed site where less adventurous cavers can walk through a lava tube filled with informational placards. It’s located one-quarter mile past the junction of highways 44 and 89, across from the Cave Campground. The cave, and its self-guided tour, is open from late May through October. The Subway Cave trail is one-third of a mile in length, with an interior height that varies from 6 to 17 feet.
Bring a flashlight or a headlight; you’re going to need it.
The cave’s length is 1,300 feet and it’s not in a straight line. Toward the middle, you’ll get to experience what it means to experience pitch-black. Just turn off the flashlights and headlights.
And try and stay as quiet as you can. Even for adults, that blackness can get truly unnerving.
Exit Subway Cave and that’s just the start of this caving adventure.
From the exit, cave hunters can access the Pacific Crest Trail and hike back toward Old Station. About a quarter-mile after crossing Highway 44, look for two black basalt rock openings on either side of the PCT – the gateway to two twisted conduits through the solidified lava.
To find more openings – there are many – explorers need to pick up clues from the surrounding terrain.
Look for the mountain mahogany, a plant in the rose family (you can look up a photo at the University of California at Berkeley’s Web site at http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/flora). It always grows near a cave opening. Find it, and you’re probably found an opening.
Still, a person can walk right past an opening and never know it’s there. And that’s the fun of meandering.
There’s Cowboy Cave, so named because it has the feel of a great place for outlaws to hide. The opening is huge – there’s no need to crawl or stoop – but oak trees form a picket that shields the entrance.
And there are the stories, the rumors, that go with the caves.
Five caves are listed on the Old Station USGS quad topographical map. As rumor has it, the caves were added to the map when the federal government studied the tunnels as possible nuclear air raid shelters.
There are other, fanciful tales.
There’s a lava tube that’s rumored to be filled with U.S. Cavalry rifles, stockpiled to combat a Native American uprising.
Another is said to contain a bank robber’s loot.
Yet another tunnel, Christmas Tree Cave, supposedly got its name from the creepy remains of stacked pine trees near the cave’s only entrance (it’s pretty small). Yes, they’re still there.
The story goes that there was this guy in the 1950s who was illegally cutting Christmas trees from the area. Rather than get caught, he stashed them in the cave and promptly forgot them. True tales or not, the lave tubes are a fantastic playground for cautious and responsible cavers. Start with Subway Cave and see where that leads.
For more information on Subway Cave, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/lassen/recreation/hatcreek/subway.php; or for more information on lave tube cave formations, visit The Virtual Cave Web site at www.goodearthgraphics.com/virtual_tube/ virtube.html.