Wednesday, October 26, 2011

California has Caverns? Really? Exploring the California Underground

They are not as well-known as some other tourist attractions in the state, but California has a marvelous selection of limestone and marble caverns that are open for tours. Most of the tourist caves are privately owned, but one is in a national park (Crystal Cave in Sequoia), and another is in a state park (Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains; soon to be closed due to budget cuts). There are wild caves in the Klamath Mountains, the Mojave Desert, and even a few in the Coast Ranges, but most of California's caves are found in the Mother Lode of the western Sierra Nevada and in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. There are around 1,000 known caverns, and some are world class in their features: one has more than 17 miles of passageways (Lilburn Cave in Kings Canyon).
Last weekend I returned to a cave that I haven't visited in a decade, California Caverns near the town of San Andreas in the Mother Lode. We were on geology field studies trip, and 26 students were along for the ride. I've always liked California Caverns, but scheduling considerations have usually made Black Chasm Cave our preferred choice. I looked forward to returning after a long absence. There are certain things about California Caverns that make them pretty special.

The caves were among the earliest to be discovered, in 1849 or 1850, and under the name Mammoth Cave became the first commercial cave in the state. John Muir visited in the 1890s, and found the experience inspiring:

"It was delightful to witness here the infinite deliberation of Nature, and the simplicity of her methods in the production of such mighty results, such perfect repose combined with restless enthusiastic energy. Though cold and bloodless as a landscape of polar ice, building was going on in the dark with incessant activity. The archways and ceilings were everywhere hung with down-growing crystals, like inverted groves of leafless saplings, some of them large, others delicately attenuated, each tipped with a single drop of water, like the terminal bud of a pine-tree. The only appreciable sounds were the dripping and tinkling of water falling into pools or faintly plashing on the crystal floors."

We hiked to the shed at the cave exit where we donned hardhats (for good reason it turned out), and turning around I saw a number of turkeys wandering by. I snapped a quick shot, and later on found what camouflage is. How many turkeys can you see in the picture? I count two...
After a few comments by our guide outside the cave, we entered the historic entrance, used since the original discovery of the cave by miners. No matter how many times I walk into a cave, I get a sense of anticipation, the knowledge that I about to see something new and different. And I always seem to.
With a history of 150 years of visitors, more than a few left behind evidence of their passing; one of the outer rooms has lots of historical inscriptions, otherwise known as old graffiti. I think that this is the first time I have ever seen a chandelier in a cave...

I was beginning to be disturbed by something. The cave seemed to be lacking decorations, the stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone features that one expects to be lining the walls and ceilings of the cave.
There were certainly a number of speleothems (cave decorations) in several spots; there was an ornate cave popcorn feature in one passageway. The origin of popcorn is not completely understood; it may form when the cave is still immersed in water.
A particularly beautiful cave decoration is a drapery. These form as water flows along the edge of a fin of rock. The thin formations are often translucent, and are sometimes referred to as "cave bacon".
Overall, though, the passageways seemed bereft of the stalactites and soda straws one would expect to see. In the Bishop's Palace (below), one can see a few large stalactites hanging down, but few delicate ones. It's not too hard to understand why...a century ago, it was considered OK to break off a stalactite to take home as a souvenir. I wonder how long it took before cave operators realized their visitors were destroying the very thing that made caves an interesting place to explore?
As we went deeper into the cave, I could see some delicate soda straws on the ceiling. This may have been in the Bed of Nails Room (corrections welcome if I am wrong in my cave geography). I was pleased to see these fragile features remaining from the depredations of the early cave explorers. A closer look told a different story...
Many of these inch-long soda straws were the growths of new material starting to replace those that were broken off a century ago. These small speleothems show the infinite slowness with which these features develop. Once a stalactite has been broken off, it will never be replaced in our lifetimes.
Still, a fascinating sight, and a challenge to photograph without a tripod! One thing I have learned is to take the shots on a two-second delay, so my finger doesn't shake the camera in the dim light. I try to avoid using the flash, as it washes out colors and shadows.
In the back of the historical reaches of the cave, we found the Bridal Chamber, where a massive stalagmite-slash-flowstone monument dominates the room. It is one of the cleaner, more interesting speleothems that we had yet seen, but there was still a certain sadness in my mind. The unfortunate cave has suffered a lot of abuse over the years. It certainly is not the fault of the present operators; they have worked hard to protect what is left, and have allowed many of the damaged features to start recovering (note how clean the flowstone is in the picture below). But the damage is still there, from decades of ignorance and even vandalism.

We had reached the back of the cave, at least as far into the cave as the miners and early tourists ever explored. Something special that was about to happen...which we will talk about in the next post!
California Cavern is operated by the Sierra Nevada Recreation Corporation. Information about tours can be found here.
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