Most cliff faces are carved by nature over millions of years. Wind and water can cut through and tear down a landscape or a mountain, but it takes a very, very long time for the elements to create something like the Grand Canyon or the sandstone arches of Moab, Utah. Then humans come along and go, “hold my beer.”
Welcome to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park in Nevada City, California, featuring beautiful orange and white cliffs that took humans all of 30 years to create. Let’s just make it very clear up front, though, that the humans who made this place didn’t do it because they looked at the mountains and said to themselves, “Those would be prettier if they were cliffs.” They did it because they were looking for gold.
Homo sapien is the species that turned a wolf into a chihuahua, so it’s not really super surprising that we can do similar injustices to entire mountainsides. Incredibly, the geologic features at Malakoff Diggins were carved by water, just like the Grand Canyon, only instead of a river it was water canons operated by human miners. To turn the mountains into cliffs, the miners simply pointed their canons at the rock and watched it crumble at a couple of hundred thousand times the speed of geologic time.
The gravel that fell from the mountains got washed into sluice boxes, the miners extracted the gold, and then the debris got sent down Humbug Creek and into the Yuba River, with the finer stuff eventually reaching the San Francisco Bay. En route, it caused catastrophic floods, took down homes, and wiped out entire crops. In 1884, a judge finally ruled that hydraulic mining was simply too destructive to go on, and the mine was closed.
Eventually, the area recovered, sort of. Mountains can’t grow back, but trees can. Today, you’ll find Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and manzanita growing at Malakoff Diggins, which became a state park in the 1960s.
Anyway, we went there. We got lost. Kids were unpleased. The end.