Exploring Calaveras with Kids: Natural Bridges Hike (& Swim)

Exploring Calaveras with Kids: Natural Bridges Hike (& Swim)

If you thought the major caves in the Calaveras County area were impressive (like Moaning Caverns Adventure Park or Mercer Caverns), you have to see the cave at Natural Bridges. This all-day adventure involves a two-mile round-trip hike, refreshing wade through the creek, and an impressive natural limestone cavern!

Hiking to Natural Bridges: What to Expect When Exploring with Kids


According to Go Calaveras, the hike to Natural Bridges is two miles round trip, but let me be completely honest: it feels way longer with kids. I can’t argue with the mileage, but my five-year-old struggled a bit on the way back.

It could be partly because of my poor choice of footwear for him (we all wore water shoes to avoid changing them a bunch), but it could also be the uphill climb was tougher than downhill.

Next time we hike, I’ll make sure he’s wearing his Keens or one of our other top choices of shoes for kids’ healthy foot development. We’ve never had a blister with our Keens, Livie & Lucas, or Pedipeds!

Anyway, here are the top things you should know about exploring Natural Bridges with your kids:

  • The trail is steep in places (especially the wood stairs on the way up), and there are a few cliffs that might make moms like me nervous.
  • There’s poison oak along the trail (but the trail is wide enough you shouldn’t have any close encounters).
  • Bathrooms are in the parking area only (and Go Calaveras cautions visitors against weeing in the woods as this highly-trafficked spot is threatened by human behavior already).
  • The water is super cold, even in 100-degree-plus heat.
  • It’s so worth it!!!

Getting to Natural Bridges

The trailhead begins off of Parrotts Ferry Road in Vallecito, CA (but don’t use your phone’s GPS to get there!). After you turn onto Parrotts Ferry, there’s a small brown sign marking the day-use area (on your right a couple of miles in). My phone had me pass the day-use area, directing me toward another turn instead…

It took us about an hour to arrive from our home in Ione, making this the type of trip I’d allow the entire day for. We got there around 11 and left before 3 PM, which feels short all things considered. My kids were wiped out for the rest of the day, though!

Parking is limited here, and you’ll need to pull off to the shoulder and parallel park (but there are no fees!). Per the county website, dogs are not allowed, and neither are bikes.

You’ll see the trailhead along the parking area (with a handrail and everything). Load up your raft and swimming gear, bottled water, and sunscreen and hit the trail!

The view from the Natural Bridges trailhead. Where’s the water?!

Our Experience at Natural Bridges

First off, if you don’t know me in person, let me explain: I am in no way an avid outdoorswoman. As the mama friends I hiked here with can confirm, I am not in the best shape for hiking nor do I enjoy being sweaty.

That said, however, this was an amazing trip and one I would totally be willing to repeat. Just as soon as my calves stop burning.

Here’s what we loved (and didn’t) about this local adventure.

The Amazing Parts:

Heading back up the trail! You can see a bit of the creek at the bottom right.

The views were gorgeous. Even on the way back up, my sweaty and exhausted kiddos remarked on it.

Plus, the limestone cave was totally worth the trials. The homeschool mom in me wanted to sit the kids down and do some research on limestone formations and geology as soon as we got home. But alas, it’s summer break.

We didn’t float or swim through the cave (the highlight at this attraction!) because the water was so darn cold. But plenty of other kids were having a ball in there, and my kids said they were “scared” simply because the water was frigid.

Inside the cavern! Check out how reflective the water is.

I’d love to go back (and bring a raft) and experience the full interior of the cave. The photos I took didn’t do it justice, especially since I couldn’t capture the water trickling down the overhang at the “mouth.”

The formations were spectacular. And see that tiny face in the background? That’s the passageway through the cave.

We did find an area for the kids to swim a bit farther down Coyote Creek (a few hundred feet). It was waist-deep on the grownups and the water was still clear enough to see tiny fish nibbling on the underwater growth.

On both sides of the narrow creek, there was plenty of space to sit and watch the kids splash while keeping them within arm’s reach.

The Not-So-Great Parts:

Honestly, I do feel a bit misled by the reviews and websites I perused before we went! The county calls the hike “moderate,” but I wasn’t prepared for what that meant in the context of a one-mile jaunt.

A view of the creek from up above on the trail. The cave is to the right!

If your kiddos aren’t used to climbing and hiking, I might try something a bit tamer to begin with. Mine did fine, all things considered, but I felt really bad for my little guy.

I really wish I had not only had my kids wear better footwear (we were ready for water play, not hiking, my mistake) but also packed actual hiking equipment! My backpack was the same one I’ve used and abused over a decade of having kids, and our water bottles are a mix of stainless steel and plastic. Read: not ideal (or lightweight enough) for hiking!

My boys were already asking for water reservoir equipment like their friends had (I’m eyeing this 100-ounce option). Clearly, if you’re already a hiker or adventurer, this is a “duh,” but for moms like me who are making an effort to be adventurous, it’s a worthwhile note!

Final Thoughts on Natural Bridges

Though I grew up in Amador County, I have only been to the Murphys/Vallecito area a handful of times. I’m glad to say I’ve experienced one of the amazing sights Calaveras has to offer, and I’d love to plan a return trip to Natural Bridges.

What about you? Have you been to Natural Bridges or another natural wonder in the Gold Country? Share your experiences in the comments!

Hi I'm Erynn! I love writing about (and obsessing over) homeschool curriculum and stuff for my kids, consuming way too much coffee, and reading everything I can get my hands on. Thanks for joining me!

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