Exploring the ancient Martis Valley cave

Views from the Martis Cave. | Mark McLaughlin

If you’re one of the countless people who drive State Route 267 past expansive Martis Valley south of Truckee and consider it just a flat spot along the road that hosts a few hiking and biking trails, along with an airport, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The 70-square-mile scenic basin offers uncrowded, multi-use trails with panoramic views of Mount Pluto, Martis Peak and the rugged ridgeline of the Sierra Crest. An added plus is that there are virtually no cars to contend with on the limited number of roads open to motor vehicles.

It’s not far to the cave eroded out of volcanic basalt, where there are exhilarating views of Martis Valley and distant snowcapped mountains. Archaeologists have dated artifacts found in the cave to 15,000 years ago.

State Route 267 slices Martis Valley into two parts: east and west. I will focus on the eastern portion where Martis Dam Road provides access to many hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The area is rich in human history and dynamic geology and its drier climate supports a transition to lodgepole and red fir trees, along with sage and rabbit brush. On a hot day, the air is redolent with the pungent aroma of these hardy plants that thrive in poor soil and semiarid conditions. Native Americans employed the healing properties of sagebrush to cure illness and in spiritual ceremonies for blessings and prosperity.

The Martis Reservoir wetland habitat. | Mark McLaughlin

Martis Valley may get less snow due to its distance several miles east from the main range, but it’s one of the coldest locations in California — even the United States — with recorded temperatures as low as 40 degrees F below zero. Dense frozen fog — Native Americans called it pogonip or white death — is common during winter months when cold air gets trapped in the basin between storms.

The Trail
2 miles roundtrip | Easy-Moderate
Leashed dogs OK.

Martis Dam Road provides access to the 1,462-acre Waddle Ranch Preservation Area, purchased with local fundraising by the Truckee Donner Land Trust and The Trust for Public Land. The area is now protected from development and can be freely accessed by all.

There is little information about the origin of the name Martis, although in his classic tome, “Saga of Lake Tahoe,” Edward B. Scott refers to an early rancher in the area. Scientists have adopted the term Martis when referring to Native Americans who lived on both sides of the central Sierra Nevada 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. These indigenous people of the Martis complex roamed across the region seasonally. Utilizing a hunter-gatherer economic system, they summered in the mountains and wintered in lower valleys. These early Martis people are considered the historic ancestors of the relatively modern Washo.

Views of the Sierra Crest. | Mark McLaughlin

The valley, surrounded by ancient volcanoes, is still active with earthquake faults, also part of its geomorphic uplift. The seismically functioning fault lines, combined with observed leaks and seepage from the Martis Creek Dam when previously filled, have forced the Army Corps of Engineers to abort operating the basin to its designed storage capacity of more than 20,000-acre-feet of water.

The earth-filled embankment, completed in 1972, can safely capture and store only a fraction of the flow from Martis Creek, a tributary of the Truckee River. Failure of the dam would put downstream communities such as Reno, Nev., at great risk. The water that the embankment does impound supports amphibians and fish, migratory waterfowl such as white pelicans and osprey, and raptors such as hawks and bald eagles.

On the southeast side of Martis Creek Dam there is a little-known cave used by Native Americans for untold centuries for weather protection and to spy out game animals. The cave is commonly referred to as the Martis Valley Cave or the Martis Indian Cave, but the Army Corps of Engineers, who oversees the dam, along with the Tahoe National Forest refer to it as Ratchet Cave.

To get there, turn onto Martis Dam Road off State Route 267 to the Waddle Ranch Preserve trailhead. There is a gate blocking road access to the dam, so park and walk or bicycle down the old asphalt road that’s closed to motor vehicle traffic (don’t block the gate). Leashed dogs are welcome within the preserve. It’s about 1 mile to Martis Dam.

Along the way, opposite a weather station, is a left turn that reaches the bottom of the dam and its outlet. Cave access, however, is at the top of the dam on the far side near the trailhead to the Waddle Ranch Dry Lake. Follow this trail for about 150 yards. The cave is above you at this point, but access from here is up a very steep, hands-on pitch of loose rock and gravel.

Better to continue on until you see two orange survey markers facing each other. Turn left and locate the discrete, unmarked path that leads to an easier grade. It’s not far to the cave eroded out of volcanic basalt, where there are exhilarating views of Martis Valley and distant snowcapped mountains. Archaeologists have dated artifacts found in the cave to 15,000 years ago.