Old and new memories forged at Mitchell Caverns

by Rachel Norton, Executive Director

One of the best parts of my job is spending time in parks, and I’ve had a great time in the last six months visiting at least a half-dozen state parks for the first time. However, one of the most meaningful and fun visits I’ve taken was to a place I’d actually visited as a teen 35 years ago.

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With my friends and classmates in the Mojave Desert in 1984

Mitchell Caverns, the only limestone caverns in the state park system, reopened to the public on November 3. Named after Jack and Ida Mitchell, a couple who operated a resort at the site from 1934- 1954, the caves offer spectacular limestone formations like stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, lily pads, draperies, curtains and cave coral.  Recently, the Department of Parks and Recreation hosted a private reopening ceremony for park supporters and members of the Mitchell Family, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. Representatives of the indigenous Chemehuevi people were also on hand to bless the Caverns, a place they regard as the sacred eyes of the mountains (you can see why as you approach the Caverns from the trail).

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The openings to Mitchell Caverns at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, October 2017

Providence Mountains State Recreation area, the home of Mitchell Caverns, is in the eastern Mojave Desert, one of the more remote places in the state park system (let alone the country). The easiest way to get there from my home in San Francisco is to fly to Las Vegas and then drive three hours southwest to the park. There are campgrounds in the park, but the closest indoor place to stay is in Needles, an hour away. Once you leave Interstate 40, it’s not uncommon to have the entire two-lane road to yourself for long stretches.

When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to have a biology teacher who had studied herpetology (reptiles) and was passionate about desert wildlife and ecology. Each year she took a group of students to the Mojave for a week on spring break, and I was lucky enough to go three years in a row (I loved the trips so much she let me tag along even when I was no longer her student). It was an incredible learning experience that introduced me to the beauty and vibrancy of a place that is often misunderstood as being devoid of both qualities. And as I walked into Mitchell Caverns on my visit several weeks ago, I realized I’d been there before!

Sure enough, when I looked back at my high school photo album (from the days when we used actual film and waited days to get our vacation photos developed and printed!) there was an identical shot of the Caverns from one I’d taken days before. Though interactions with the carbon dioxide from our breath and oils from our fingertips degrade the caverns over time, they are in remarkably good shape – I’m proud that the California State Parks Foundation was able to provide $10,000 from our grants program to help restore the caverns and reopen this remarkable place to the public.

If you visit, you must have a reservation – you cannot enter the caverns without a guide. Essential information about planning your visit is available on the state parks web site.

State Budget Paves Way for Solar Energy at Malakoff Diggins

After a four-year effort, CSPF and state park supporters throughout California are celebrating that the current state budget includes the necessary funding to install a cost-effective, clean solar energy system at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

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Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park (c) Craig VanZante

This project is critical to the future of Malakoff Diggins SHP because this remote state park does not have access to conventional electricity, and currently relies on an expensive diesel generator to power the lighting and security systems that protect an estimated 100,000 historical artifacts.  The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) has stated that it spends $70,000 annually to run the generator alone. PG&E has estimated the cost to bring conventional electricity to the park at over $2 million.

By bringing solar to Malakoff Diggins, the park will not only rely on a cleaner energy source, but will significantly reduce its operating costs and allow money currently spent on running the generator to be used for other purposes.

In 2008, Malakoff Diggins was one of 48 state parks identified for closure in the first of many park closure proposals due to state budget cuts. Some state park administrators felt Malakoff Diggins didn’t produce enough revenue to offset its operating cost, a major portion of which was the cost of running the diesel generator.

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Grizzly Hill School students march to protest closure of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

Between 2008 and 2013, CSPF led statewide advocacy efforts to stop the closure of state parks – organizing rallies, petition drives, press conferences and visits with policymakers. In April of 2008, CSPF organized a march for state park supporters from Sutter’s Fort SHP to the State Capitol. Students from Grizzly Hill School joined the march, helping raise awareness of the importance of Malakoff Diggins to their community.

In 2012, CSPF provided $25,000 in critical funding to the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) to help the organization enter into a donor agreement with the State of California in order to keep the park open.

“This generous stop-gap funding from the California State Parks Foundation gives us the breathing room to work with local State Parks staff to develop a long-term solution to save the historic Malakoff Diggins,” said Caleb Dardick, Executive Director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, in 2012, after his organization received a CSPF Park Partnership Grant to help keep Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park open. “With this welcome reprieve, we will focus on long-term solutions such as getting a comprehensive solar power system installed at the park, which could save $60,000 to $80,000 per year in diesel fuel costs for generators and benefit the environment as well.”

Although the doors of the state park stayed open, efforts to bring solar to Malakoff Diggins kept going. In 2013, CSPF was pleased to award another $4,000 to SYRCL for the evaluation of solar power options at the park.

After thorough analysis and evaluation, the cost to bring solar power to Malakoff Diggins was estimated at $700,000, including preliminary plans, working drawings, and construction. Earlier this summer the funding proposal was adopted by the Legislature and signed by Governor Brown. Solar energy is coming to Malakoff!

Learn More and Plan Your Visit

Malakoff Diggins SHP is located in the historic town of North Bloomfield, 26 miles northeast of Nevada City, and encompasses 3,200 acres in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills region.

The park was created in 1965 by concerned citizens to preserve the largest hydraulic gold mining operation in the United States, an operation that devastated the area from the mid-1800s on. Visitors to Malakoff Diggins can view the hydraulic mining pit, which showcases the appalling scale of environmental impacts caused by hydraulic mining throughout northern California. Huge cliffs have been carved into the mountains by the gold mining technique of washing away entire mountains to find the precious metal. The destruction resulted in the first environmental protection law handed down by the federal court in 1884 to control further mining efforts.

Malakoff Diggins SHP offers over 20 miles of recreational trails. Swimming and fishing are also available, and a popular Kids Fishing Derby is held each May. Miner’s Cabins and Campgrounds are very popular.

This park is a very popular destination for students learning about California Gold Rush history and offers teachers an overnight Environmental Living Program where students learn period crafts and experience living in the Gold Rush era.

Learn more at DPR’s Malakoff Diggins web page and Friends of North Bloomfield and Malakoff Diggins.