Monday, November 16, 2015

The Karst Topography...of California? A Look at California Caverns

We took a field studies trip a few weeks ago, and it turned into a mini-series on the karst terrain of California, a landscape that forms over limestone and marble. The development of caverns leads to distinctive features on the surface above, including sinkholes and disappearing streams. I've covered the sights we saw on that trip, but there are plenty of other caverns across the state, more than a thousand of them. I've only explored a relative handful, but the ones I've seen are spectacular. I'm going to explore a few more of them in coming posts.
Today's post is about some caverns in the Mother Lode of the Sierra Nevada named after the state. California Caverns have been known since the Gold Rush days, and etchings in the cave dating to the 1800s attest to the long history of human exploration. To no one's surprise, the well-traveled parts of the cave have been used and abused. It was standard practice in the old days to break off stalactites as souvenirs, and to use a cavern wall as a register.

This fact is what makes California Caverns a special treat. In the Gold Rush days, only about 300 feet of passageways were known, and the worst damage occurred in those passages. They are rather barren and unremarkable.
The deeper passageways are somewhat less damaged, and the cave becomes more interesting. Some of the higher ceilings escaped vandalism and retain some marvelous examples of cave bacon.
Our guide takes us into the deeper passages to the Bridal Chamber. There is an immense mountain of flowstone in the back that is just stunning. It is noticeably cleaner and white than speleothems in the previous passageways. In older days, this was the end of the cave. A debris-filled passageway behind the Bridal Chamber went unnoticed for many years. Several decades ago, spelunkers started moving the debris, and squeezed through an extremely narrow hole (which would have caused me to become unhinged, given my tendency towards claustrophobia in certain situations).
The explorers emerged into a stunning chamber, now called the Jungle Room. No human had ever set foot here before. I can barely imagine what that was like. Luckily, they kept the room a secret for years, safe from vandalism, before preparing the cave for public tours. Now, anyone can see what a pristine cave looks like. It's true that pristine caves don't have carefully placed lighting, but one can think of the situation as being like a museum exhibit: the art is carefully managed, and lighting is used for highlighting the best perspective.
The room is filled with incredibly delicate stalactites and soda straws, the kinds of speleothems that are the first to be broken off by vandals and souvenir hunters. There are thousands of them, each one a treasure. They are pearly white, having never been grimed up by torches and sooty lanterns.

Dark corners hint at additional passageways, and indeed California Caverns are now known to be one of the longest caves in California, at 1.4 miles (the longest in the state is Lilburn Cave in Kings Canyon National Park at 21 miles, 28th longest in the United States).
Every corner of the Jungle Room is a revelation...I could almost feel the joy that John Muir felt when he visited the caves before they had been so badly defaced:

Here we lingered and reveled, rejoicing to find so much music in stony silence, so much splendor in darkness, so many mansions in the depths of the mountains, buildings ever in process of construction, yet never finished, developing from perfection to perfection, profusion without overabundance; every particle visible or invisible in glorious motion, marching to the music of the spheres in a region regarded as the abode of eternal stillness and death.
The caven is still active. In wet years the lower passageways are filled with water and must be pumped to provide access. Seeing the water flowing across the surfaces of the cave decorations provides greater depth to their appearance.
California Caverns were in the center of the area that burned during the Butte Fire in September, and they lost power and water. Amazingly, the visitor center survived, but vegetation in the area was severely affected. The caves are open for visitation, however, and are being done temporarily as lantern tours. You can get updates concerning the caves by clicking here
California Caverns are another treasure of the state's karst topography. They are worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity of San Andreas in the Mother Lode.

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