There are two kinds of explorers: those who like to get up high and those who like to go down low.
You’ll find some Southern Californians summiting mountain peaks, gazing out from the tops of towers, and climbing up on rooftops and other overlooks; and yet you’ll find others plummeting into mines, bunkers, tunnels, and other underground hideaways, away from the rest of the world.
So while there are a great many rock formations in our Southern California landscape to climb and explore, some people just want to get inside them.
For the subterranean sort of outdoor adventurer, here are six great sites of hollowed-out earth to hide from the sunlight, work on your night vision, and discover an underground world that few others get to see.
1. Bronson Caves, Griffith Park, Los Angeles
This is the one you surely already know about: the Batcave. Otherwise known as the Bronson Caves, Batman’s infamous domicile is located in Bronson Canyon in the southwestern section of Griffith Park, not far from Beachwood Canyon. You can find the main trail, Brush Canyon Trail, at the end of the road past Camp Hollywoodland, where hikers share the land with horses and equestrians. The caves themselves are presumed to be manmade, largely because this area of the park was home to the Los Angeles Stone Company's rock quarry. Now, don’t expect to walk in the footsteps of Christian Bale, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, or Michael Keaton while you’re there – because this is where the 1960s Batman TV series was filmed with Adam West and Burt Ward. These caves have also been featured in a number of other TV productions, including Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, and even Star Trek: Voyager. Getting there is a relatively short, easy, family-friendly hike – but as with other areas of Griffith, it can get incredibly dry and dusty, so bring water and wear shoes with good tread.
2. Santa Cruz Island Sea Caves, Channel Islands National Park
Out of all of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz is probably the most famous for its sea caves – because not only is Santa Cruz the largest island of California, but it contains one of the largest (and deepest) sea caves in the world. It’s actually illegal to set foot inside of the caves, but you can kayak your way in with the help of a number of park-authorized outfitters based in Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, and Goleta. The beaches are easily accessed and make a good launching point for your vessel. Expect clear waters, lots of birds, and colder and windier conditions than you might think. Sea kayaking isn’t for first-timers, as the ocean can offer unpredictable swells and rougher waters than if you were in a bay or a cove. Because of that, you’ll need to wear a helmet – particularly while you’re actually in a cave. Painted Cave is the most famous of those on Santa Cruz, with its colorful rock walls, lichen, and algae; but the entire shoreline is riddled with caves, giving you lots of chance to explore.
3. La Jolla Cove, San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve
Another well-known cave, the Sunny Jim Sea Cave, seems like it might just be a tourist trap. After all, you can only access it by paying five bucks at a place called “The Cave Store”. But when you walk down into the cave and peer out at the ocean from a platform inside of it, it feels like one of those great roadside attractions of local lore: Reportedly, this used to be where mob-related bootleggers brought booze in by rowboat during Prohibition. While you’re in La Jolla, don’t end your spelunking with just one cave – because there are seven sister caves in La Jolla Cove that are accessible by kayak, and several tour companies that will take you in on a guided tour. Even without the caves, this is some great kayaking – traversing an underwater canyon, a reef, and a kelp forest that lurk in the deep waters below. Sidle up to the caves in your kayak and hang out and float. It’s calm enough there to snap some photos, observe the cormorants, and gently bump up against the other kayaks in your group. Once you pass some sunbathing sea lions and dodge some snorkelers, you’ll paddle your way into an opening in the rocky shoreline and through a straightaway. Look up at the wet rocks above and let out a battle cry to hear the echo of your own voice.
4. Mitchell Caverns, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area
I mention Mitchell Caverns and Providence Mountains State Recreation Area – located inside the Mojave National Preserve – despite the fact that you can’t legally get into it right now. Although the official reason for the park closure was initially California State Parks budget cuts, Mitchell Caverns unfortunately fell victim to destructive vandalism while it was left unattended. It’s easy to say that it wouldn’t have happened if rangers were still being paid to be on premises and shoo away trespassers. But given some of the recent acts of vandalism that other parks – including national parks – have suffered, that may not be true. Still, if only more people knew how incredible these limestone caverns are, wouldn’t they demand them to reopen? For one, they’re the only limestone caverns in the California State Park system. They’ve got not only stalactites and stalagmites, but also limestone draperies, curtains, and a formation referred to simply as “popcorn.” Jack Mitchell first opened the caverns for tours in 1932, and they were operated by the State of California from 1954 to 2012. If you’d like to walk through "the eyes of the mountain" (that is, the cavern entrance) yourself, you’ll have to petition to get them to plow through any remaining red tape and reopen the park.
5. Circle X Grotto, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
To get to the talus caves at Circle X, you’ve got to take a reverse hike through the “Camp Circle X” former Boy Scout camp, once settled by Spanish rancheros, where sandstone formations loom in the distance. You have to shimmy down a tree to get yourself down there, and it would help to have someone spot you (or bring some rope, and know how to use it). The upper grotto features a cave formed when a boulder fell on top of a waterfall 8000 years ago, but don’t stop there. Continue on to the lower grotto, scrambling the boulders as you go. In times of a drought, you won’t find much water down there, but be ready to get at least a little wet – especially if it has recently rained (in which case it will be slippery, too). Enjoy the ferns, the wading pools and the shade before you’ve got to climb your way back up and out to return to your car.
6. El Matador State Beach, Malibu
There are beaches that are good for sunbathing, and there are beaches that are good for ocean swimming. El Matador is neither of those. Walking into the Pacific Ocean from this beach is like walking on broken glass – and if the surf is up and you lose your footing, you’re likely to draw blood out of a foot or a leg. But this stretch of beaches in Malibu – which includes its sister beaches, El Pescador and La Piedra – is fabulous for those who prefer to spend their beach time out of the water, climbing and exploring. You’re not likely to see the tourists here that you might find at better-promoted spots like Leo Carrillo and Zuma, but of course the trail here is far more rugged and there’s no boardwalk to be found. Watch where you step – there may be some sea anemones hiding in tiny pools of water, covered by seaweed. It’s best to go later in the day once the marine layer has burned off and stay to watch the sunset.
Bonus: Crystal Cave, Sky Village Swap Meet, Yucca Valley
Amidst the blooming cactus flowers at the former Sky Village Drive-In Theater in Yucca Valley (now known as the home of the Sky Village Swap Meet), you’ll find The Crystal Cave. But it’s not a rock formation, nor a cavern or a burrowed-out tunnel. It’s a legendary piece of folk art made primarily out of foam – but not just any foam, It’s that insulating stuff that you spray out of a can to fill up holes in your attic and basement. And it's all the brainchild of Bob Carr, who owns Sky Village Swap Meet and who almost singlehandedly designed and built The Crystal Cave. When you visit, there's no guarantee that Bob himself will be there to let you in; but if you’re locked out, you can still peer in through its windows. This is sort of the second version of The Crystal Cave, the original one having been partially bulldozed by Bob himself in 2008, when he thought he was losing the swap meet property to the City of Yucca Valley under eminent domain. In 2010, a rebuilt version of The Crystal Cave reopened with the additional fanfare of being part of High Desert Test Sites. The water features are relatively new, as are perhaps some of the other interior features, judging by the fumes of paint, foam and glue.