A Virtual 3-D Tour of Mitchell Caverns, Southern California’s Only Show Cave

Welcome to the tenth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of off-the-beaten-path Southern California spaces, created by Craig Sauer of Reality Capture Experts using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

We’re passionate about all of these virtual tours, but this one is pretty special: seven months in the making, comprising the largest, most ancient, most collaborative and most geographically remote scan in the series. (It also comes sprinkled with a smattering of mystical fairy dust.)

There we were, celebrating Kim’s birthday with a private guided tour of the newly-reopened Mitchell Caverns show cave, high in the Providence Mountains near the Arizona border.

Dedicated State Parks ranger/interpreter Andy Fitzpatrick unlocked the gates and took us on a trip back and forward in time, from the limestone cave’s violent geological prehistory, its fossil deposits, ritual use by the native Shoshone people, reinvention as a Route 66 roadside attraction, vandalism by Oliver Stone’s The Doors crew and amateur jackasses, then down into the dust by the side of the pathway to dig the miniature current inhabitants (Niptus beetles and pseudoscorpions).

He even turned out all the newly installed LED spotlights, allowing us a moment in the complete darkness at the center of the earth, then switched on a black light to reveal delicate streams of bat urine on the cave walls. It’s quite the “gross… but cool!” show stopper that nicely echoes the showmanship of the roadside attraction era.

There’s nothing we enjoy more than exploring a completely unique environment with someone who knows and loves it intimately, and you can hear Andy talk about these amazing caverns in episode 126 of our podcast, You Can’t Eat The Sunshine.

And to learn more about the wacky, bush wacking roadside attraction days, check out the posthumously published Keepers of the Caves: A True Account of Twenty Years of Modern Pioneering by Jack Mitchell, a weird and wonderful tale of an iconoclast and his incredibly tolerant wife in Depression-era Southern California.

Like all good roadside attractions, the Mitchell place had a novelty building, a nifty stone hut meant to suggest an igloo, and traditionally offered to honeymooning guests.

The sonic qualities of the curved interior are said to be… amusing. Take a virtual tour of the space here.

That evening at the caverns, as the sun slipped behind the mountain and the wide desert plain and historic stone houses purpled, Richard had an idea. “Hey, Andy–do you think our friend Craig could do a 3-D scan of the cave?” And as is Richard’s way, he was already phoning Craig before Andy had a chance to reply. And this is where the fairy dust sparkled.

As Craig tells it, “The morning before Richard called me (from the Caverns!) I had been taking with my barber about the especially cool places I’ve scanned, including JK’s Tunnel and Jergins Tunnel. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and Googled ‘Southern California caves’ and up popped Mitchell Caverns, which I had not heard about before. I learned that they had recently been reopened and thought how amazing it would be to get access to them. But then I saw how far away it was and how unlikely it would be for me to convince someone there to let me scan it. Not one hour later, I got the call from you and Richard, standing there with Andy!”

Apparently, whatever happy spirits inhabit Mitchell Caverns are eager to spread the word.

It took a little fiddling to get approval from the state and coordinate a block of scanning time, but soon the project was a go. Craig’s colleague Michael Asgian joined him in creating the digital file, each starting from one end of the caverns. In addition to the speedy Matterport camera, they used the new Leica BLK 360 camera, which records 3D data with a laser scanner, and better captures the vast open spaces in the caves, as well as the sunny entrances.

While the public can once again book a tour of Mitchell Caverns, the remoteness of the site and limited capacity makes it a difficult place to explore. But thanks to new 3-D scanning technology and a lucky collision of interested people, you can virtually visit at your convenience.

Just click the cave entrance below and prepare to be humbled by the awesome power of water, wind and time. Along the way, you’ll find some pop-up windows, offering information about some of the curious creatures who have been captured by the trail cameras, notable mineral formations and stories from the caverns’ history.

The results are truly astonishing, and we’re thrilled to be able to share Mitchell Caverns with you.

 

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