Mercer Caverns



Elevation: 2,171 feet


Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

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    Drink fine local wines in Old West saloons.

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    Come in fall to see a pretty Gold Rush town awash in autumnal colors.

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    Choose your favorite California history-maker at the Comparative Wall of Ovations. We like the saber-tooth tiger, wounded buffalo, madam and Virginia City treasure Julia C. Bulette, Snowshoe Thompson, Emperor Norton and Sir Francis Drake for the Great Hi-Ho.

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    Go to Calaveras Big Trees State Park and take a very comfortable rest on the reclining bench while gazing at the Mother and Son trees on the North Grove Trail.

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    Collect your Mercer Caverns bumper sticker after braving the below-ground tour of great big stalagmites and world-famous aragonite crystals. Consider it a reward for bravery if your guide decides to switch off the lights and give you a brief taste of just how dark it can be in a subterranean Sierra wonder.

A Lesson in Sibling Relations

Murphys is a testament to sibling relationships. Brothers Daniel and John Murphy established a mining camp here in 1848. They were very successful, as miners but even more so as merchants, and the story goes that they argued over who was ultimately the owner of what they had created. It escalated into a brawl, and the ensuing wrestling caused them to fall into a 30-foot mine pit.

That wasn’t terribly deep as far as mine pits go, but it was slippery, too. Try as they might, neither man could escape on his own — working together was the only way. It still took some doing, but they did haul each other out and apparently learned a lesson about sharing. The settlement would be called Murphys — no apostrophe — and no implied sense of possession for one brother versus the other.

An Early Tourist Trade

Murphys stands out as unique among Gold Country towns for early and very savvy promotion as a tourist destination. The lures have been nearby treasures that have nothing to do with gold: trees, caves and, later, wine.

The Big Trees

A short drive from Murphys — just over 15 miles — lies Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It’s home to two groves of giant sequoias, which are unique to the Sierra and found only on its western side. Augustus T. Dowd happened upon the area in 1852 while tracking a bear. He wasn’t the first to see the mighty redwoods but he sure spread the word, and the idea that they not only scraped the sky but stretched upward from positively massive trunks soon made newspaper headlines. That in turn attracted both visitors who wanted to see the biggest trees in the world (by trunk volume, not height) and entrepreneurs who wanted to take advantage and showcase them as spectacles akin to circus attractions.

The park consists of two groves – the South Grove has the largest trees, and the North Grove is the one found by Dowd. The first tree he spied was the first to be cut down. Soon after news of the sequoias spread, a group of men made Discovery Tree a stump. It would take 22 days for them to fell it since it was too big for a traditional axe or saw. When they were done, part of the trunk went on display in San Francisco and then New York to demonstrate just how truly immense the sequoias were. What was left in the forest was used as both a dance floor and bowling alley. Another tree would soon meet a similar fate, sent off in pieces for viewing on the East Coast and abroad.

At the same time, towns around the groves happily received the visitors who came to see the trees for themselves. The sequoias were actually one of California’s first tourist attractions, gaining popularity before Yosemite.  (The home of Half Dome and El Capitan didn’t receive sightseers until 1855 when James Hutchings and Thomas Ayers made the first recreation-minded tour — a trip on which they also made a stop to see the Calaveras Big Trees.)

Murphys was one of the places to benefit from the influx, becoming a popular stopover enroute to the Big Trees. The historic Murphys Hotel was built in 1856 to accommodate them. First known as Sperry & Perry Hotel, it still looks much the same as it did then. When a fire nearly wiped out Murphys in 1859 — an occurrence in nearly every major Gold Rush town — the hotel already had the iron shutters and stone walls that others would adopt in construction to prevent future building losses.

Efforts to protect the trees — some thought to be as old as 2,000 years — began in the early 1900s when the land was sold to a lumberman. The hope was to establish a national park, but there would be a protracted struggle to acquire the groves. It wasn’t until after Californians voted in 1928 to formalize the state park system (in an overwhelming show of support for the idea) that the Calaveras sequoias would eventually come under government shelter. The North Grove became Calaveras Big Trees State Park in 1931, but the South Grove wouldn’t join it until 1954 because the Great Depression limited funding. Today the park remains enormously popular, still drawing visitors from around the world along the self-guided trail among some of the largest living things on earth.

The Caves

Not long after the giant sequoias made Murphys a tourist destination, another natural wonder would strengthen the trade: underground caves and caverns. In 1885, Walter Mercer was exploring near Murphys in search of water after a hot day spent prospecting. When he felt cool air coming from below, he traced it to a deep cavern — that was also an Indian burial ground. After brazenly descending some 30 feet into the dark for the first time, he would find human bones. Altogether, the remains of six people rested there.

That discovery was rather grim, but the cavern was vast (with several chambers) and also beautiful, holding an array of sparkling stalagmites and stalactites and one of the largest collections of aragonite flos ferri (flowers of iron). The rare frosty-looking crystal formations would later win Mercer Caverns a prize at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

Mercer had the foresight to put a claim on the land surrounding his find, paving the way for it to remain a privately owned enterprise. Tours commenced in 1887 and were very popular. But experiencing the caverns required some bravery. Those taking the tour descended by rope and lit their own way, which they did with candles that were mounted on boards so that they could be clasped between teeth and not in the hands they needed for their rappelling session. Today, visitors drop into the Earth using stairs, and the lights that have been installed free their hands to take pictures, but the rest of what they see is largely unchanged from when Mercer first lowered himself in.

With the Sierra’s above-ground beauty so striking, most likely give little thought to what else might be inside or below (besides gold). Caves are more synonymous with New Mexico (Carlsbad Caverns) and Kentucky (Mammoth Cave). But there are in fact hundreds here as well, with large concentrations at the southern end of the range and also in the Gold Country foothills, particularly Calaveras County. Other “show caves” in the area that are open for public touring include Black Chasm Cavern near Volcano, California Cavern in Mountain Ranch and Moaning Cavern by Vallecito. And of course, there are countless others that are not commercial enterprises but instead remain secret among spelunkers who do not want to share their limestone playgrounds with the masses.

The Wine

Long after the Gold Rush, Murphys has had perhaps one of the best reinventions among Gold Country towns. The buildings maintain a classic Gold Rush-era look, but they house modern amenities that give the town an upscale feel: boutiques, bakeries and perhaps most noticeable of all, several tasting rooms highlighting local wines from the roughly two dozen wineries nearby. Instead of bellying up to the bar for moonshine, Murphys visitors can opt for several locally produced varietals.

Some Specialized Murphys Retail: The Bathroom Store

Amidst the charming shops and tasting rooms on the Murphys Main Street is a more unusual business: DEA Bathroom Machineries. Located in a former Odd Fellows Hall, it specializes in “Vintage Plumbing, Lighting & Hardware Needs.” Think high-tank toilets with pull chains, clawfoot tubs, parts for other historic plumbing and antique Victorian keys.

A Wall of Fame: The Comparative Wall of Ovations

Another popular stop along Main Street is the ECV Wall of Comparative Ovations on the exterior of the Murphys Old Timers Museum. The work of fraternal order E Clampus Vitus, its portraits and descriptions detail early California history and a varied collection of denizens. Honorees include: Snowshoe Thompson, Lola Montez, Jedediah Smith, John Murphy, Mark Twain, Emperor Norton, Chinese immigrants, a group of Chilean miners stricken by small pox, the saber-toothed tiger, wild horses and buffalo.

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