Potter Creek Cave: the Coolest Northern California Cave You Can’t Visit

It’s larger than Shasta Caverns. Extinct ground sloths were found there, the first ever in California. Sharp-faced bears, the most powerful carnivorous mammal to walk the North American continent, once lived there. Thousand-year-old manmade weapons were excavated there, and the debate about even earlier human habitation goes on to this day.

Potter Creek Cave is named for I.B. Potter, the 1855 landowner. Where exactly is it? Well, we prefer to keep that secret. Unless you’re a well-connected scientist with a darned good reason to go there, the cave is off-limits to the general public. It’s in the same general grey rock limestone formation where Shasta Caverns and Samwel Cave are found. While it was probably known to area Natives, the first exploration by a white man was in 1878 by J.A. Richardson, who quickly found the skull of an extinct sharp-faced bear, minus the lower jaw.

Personally, after having visited Shasta Caverns and Samwel Cave numerous times, I think it’s rather cool the Potter Creek Cave secret is kept by the scientific community, who says we still have a lot more to learn about some of Shasta County’s earliest residents.

In a series of excavations often led by University of California scientists, thousand of specimens have been recovered at the site. Remains of fifty two different species have been recovered there, twenty one of which are now extinct. In addition to the short-faced bear, remains of shrub oxen, Shasta ground sloths, horses, mammoths, bison and camelids (extinct species related to camels and llamas) have all been recovered there. While no human remains have been found, an atlatl (a lever used in throwing spears), and parts of spears or arrows and obsidian points have been found that may be a thousand years old. This isn’t especially surprising because humans have been in the area for as long as 8,000 years that we know of. Humans remains much older than that (115,000-130,000 years old) have been found in other parts of the state. Since sharp-faced bears went extinct around 11,000 years ago, they might have encountered the first Californians, but given the aggressive and ravenous nature of the beasts, it’s certain they wouldn’t have lived anywhere near each other, especially in the same caves.

Scientists find limestone caves exciting because of the burning question when did human being first come to North America. Some of the oldest human remains found to date have been found in similar environments. 

There has been a lot of controversy over potential signs of much older human habitation in Potter Creek Cave. Early excavations found broken and split bones consistent with how humans in other places might have extracted bone marrow from harvested game. Bone fragments were discovered in Potter Creek Cave with pointed, beveled and polished ends, notches and even perforations (holes) in them, all potential signs of human manipulation. Unfortunately scientists have also shown there are a number of other ways these could have happened naturally, without human intervention, so no one knows for sure.

In a February 3, 2011 article in the Redding Record Searchlight titled “Travelin’ in Time: Potter Creek Cave is older than dirt,” historian Dottie Smith wrote, “The cave is on Forest Service land and is not open to the general public. Only those with a need to know, such as anthropologists, geologists, and archeologists are allowed entry.” It’s the coolest Shasta County cave you cannot visit.

While we may not be able to actually go there, the interesting thing is science is far from done studying Potter Creek Cave. Expeditions have yet to dig deep enough to reach the cave floor, meaning there is still much room for further investigation and discovery. I like to think the cave is not at all finished whispering to us her mysteries.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

77 Comments

  1. Is it short-faced or sharp-faced bear? And I’m pretty sure there is no evidence that has been found of humans being in California (or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere) 115,000 to 130,000 years ago. Do you just make this stuff up or is an editor needed?

  2. I think you might have an extra zero in a couple of those dates: ” Humans remains much older than that (115,000-130,000 years old) have been found in other parts of the state.”

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