Go Spelunking in Orange County

Costa Mesa is known as the “City of the Arts", famous for the Orange County Fair, South Coast Plaza, and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Yet, underneath Costa Mesa's flourishing city life, we must not forget the intricate system of tunnels right below our very feet. Have you ever dropped something just as you walk over a gutter? It's easy to visualize your keys floating down a pipe filled with waste, never to see the light of day again. You may be surprised to know that your keys wouldn't have fallen into the sewerwell, not really anyways.

Storm drains are tunnel systems that run underneath cities to collect excess rain and groundwater to help prevent flooding. They don't typically carry waste. Even so, traversing stagnant puddles is certainly going to be gross, and if you enter at the wrong place or at the wrong time the least of your worries will be a trespassing ticket. We certainly do not condone spelunking, but because I was a dumb kid once it would be a shame not to share some safety tips and fun stories.   

Getting in

If you’re going to throw caution to the wind, there are some important things to know before you decide to go "tally-ho!" into a storm drain. First of all, try to find a tunnel that isn’t fenced off. I can’t vouch for the legality of venturing into any tunnel, but it will be a lot tougher to convince a cop you “didn’t know you weren’t allowed in here...” standing on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. I have found tunnel openings with and without gates, so just as a rule of thumb be do some research and ask around before hopping any fence.

One of the most important things to understand is that there are different types of storm drains for different things. Do your research and make sure you’re not going to enter into a compound Storm drain, at least if you want to live. Lastly - and this goes without saying - Storm drains are made to prevent floods, so don’t go in if you even think it’s going to rain. Even if you’re sure it’s not going to rain, you still have to take your chances as flash floods are not out of the realm of possibility. Again, another reason you might want to let me and my friends be the stupid ones. 


  • Don't go alone. You never know about the possibility of squatters. Besides, it’s slippery and wet and if you hit your head you want some people there to carry you out. 
  • Don’t wear your Sunday's best. Although I’ve never sustained an injury, I, as well as many other friends of mine, have fallen into a puddle of street runoff or garbage. 
  • Bring a flashlight and some water as you would a hike. It’s very dark down there, so be sure to have extra flashlights and batteries.


Once you’re inside it may be tough to go very far at all without some perseverance. In my experiences, the tunnels have been small tubes with streams of water running down the middle. This means you’ll be trekking with your feet at a 30 degree angle the entire time. I would take a few breaks to squat down and switch sides once in awhile to soothe the cramps your ankles. 

My favorite part of spelunking is finding hidden art scrawled on the walls. We have much more in common with our cave dwelling ancestors painting petroglyphs than you might assume! Plus, the deeper you go, and the more sparse the graffiti, the older it gets. About a mile into a drain pipe I often visited when I was young, “Estancia Class of 1988” was sprayed in black. Around it were names of many people who have long since moved on and away from that place. The more you read people’s long-lost messages on the walls, the more you begin to feel like a part of a long standing tradition.

Another interesting part or spelunking is delving deep enough to start seeing natural light from grates up above. A ladder made of cement and rebar (or a simple boost from your friend) can give some insight as to where you are in relation to the city. 

One last word of caution is to remember that the further you travel into the intestines of your city, the more rancid garbage and cockroaches you’ll find. The furthest I’ve gone into a drainage pipe while urban spelunking was about 4 miles deep. Soon after the four mile mark, someone pointed the flashlight to the ceiling only illuminate hundreds of crawling cockroaches. I don't think I have ever run so fast in my entire life. 

In the end, tunnels aren’t the nicest, nor the cleanest, and certainly not the safest place to explore, but some of my fondest memories come from seeing the light in the distance and laughing as the sun kisses your skin once again. I have gained a large appreciation for all the things hidden in plain sightthe things that make our cities tick.


Would you venture into the storm drains in your city? Have you explored some before? Let us know in the comments below!