On September 1, 1885, Walter J Mercer, like so many before him, went to California looking for gold. And he got it, but in a most unexpected way. Under a tree, he found the enterance to a huge natural made cavern. Immediately thinking he found a gold cavern, he staked a claim and had his friend come out and take a look. His friend let him know it was a limestone cavern, and gold is not found near limestone. So instead of looking for gold, he started giving public tours. It became famous when rare crystals were found in the cavern and won a prize at the Paris Wold’s fair in 1900. Today, for $18 you can still take a tour and see the same amazing structures that Mr. Mercer showed people at the close of the 19th century. But with stairs, electric lights, and safety railings, something that wasn’t available when he first started his public tours…
My husband loves underground caverns. He’s been to a few across the country, and is fascinated with the geological structures, fractals in nature, and any form of science. And since it was his birthday trip and he found the brochure, we were all going. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that excited to attend. Especially when I found out we would be descending and then climbing back up the equivalent of 16 stories. But he was so excited so how could I say no?
We managed to make it for the 10:30 AM tour, the first tour of the day. These tours can fill up quickly so make sure to get there early and with plenty of time. After paying for the tour and listening to the safely warnings, we went to the courtyard and listened to the introduction by our tour guide. Then, we headed into the cavern.
The stairs were very narrow and a bit daunting to go down. We annoyed everyone in the group by insisting on keeping the children between my husband and myself. I wanted to make sure that we could both catch one if they fell, and push them along if they started to dawdle. The first trip down was a bit harrowing, but we were rewarded with a platform, and a spectacular view. This deep cavern had spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. Thanks to precautions taken from the very early days of this tour, much of these were still in tack and untouched by human hands. So you could see the translucent stone, and the stones were left to continue to grow year after year into the impressive towers they are today.
Not only could you see these impressive pillars, but there were also flowstone cascades, curtains of stone that looked like angel wings. The stone was almost translucent, and with it’s beautiful wavy pattern, you could imagine breaking them off, attaching them, and flying away. But I try not to be an awful human so I left them there.
This cavern is also known for it’s different crystal formations. We saw many impressive crystal formations, but the award winning crystallization, aragonite crystals, was right at the bottom of the stairs. Aragonite is a calcium carbonate that is so rare, it has only be found in a few places in the world, and this is the only location in the United States. It’s extremely delicate, and due to the calcium, if it breaks in your hand, your body absorbs it and you can never take it out. Stories say that people who have gotten it stuck in them have had pain for the rest of their lives. There was safety glass between us and the crystal, but I pulled my kids closer to me and away from it when I heard that.
So, this cavern is so deep that they have never found the bottom. They had send down some equipment to find the bottom, but it’s always been deeper than the range of what is available. The caverns are a cool 55 degrees Fahrenheit year round, and their theory is that the cool air is coming from an underground spring. But until they get money for equipment that can go even deeper, we may never know.
One of the best parts of this tour was on the way back up. We all stopped at one platform to experience what it was like for the original tour attendees. When Mr. Mercer originally gave his tour, people went down the rocks, and used ropes to climb and pull themselves back up. They were required to wear pants and gloves to protect the rocks. But this was pre-electricity everywhere. So they wen down with special paddles to hold candles. Our tour guides actually turned off the lights and showed up the paddles they used and the candles. It was crazy because there was so little you could see, and you had to hold it up to the walls to see the formations. Then, she actually blew out all the candles so we could experience how dark it really was. I’m not kidding, it’s the darkest I’ve ever experience. I tried to see my hand in front of my face and failed miserably. Even though the kids were warned, my daughter and son were quite frightened, holding on tight to us. My husband and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
Unfortunately all good things have to end. For us it was a quick climb up several more flights of stairs until we came out into the bright sun light. For Mr. Mercer, it was not as quick. On his final tour, he fell down several hundred feet but survived. They pulled him up with ropes, which they believed may have actually caused more damage. He ended up with broken legs and a broken back, and was never able to return to his beloved caverns. But he would sit on his porch and watch and wave at the tour groups as they went in. Future owners added the stairs, safety class, and electricity. And today it’s safe for all to go down (as long as you can do that many stairs. I won’t lie, my legs did not like me later it’s the day). But we emerged seriously impressed with what we saw and never expected to find in California’s Gold Country.
- Address: 1665 Sheep Ranch Road, Murphys, CA
- Hours: Memorial Day – Labor Day 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, Winter House 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM
- Costs: $18 per adult, $10 per child 3-12 years old
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