Hiking the trails and exploring the limestone caverns in one of California’s most rugged and remote state parks.
I’ve been meaning to explore Mitchell Caverns for quite some time but never got around to visiting them prior to 2011, when due to budget and infrastructure issues, California State Parks was forced to close the 5,900-acre state recreation area (SRA), which includes the caverns. Fortunately, after a nearly 7 year closure, one of California’s most isolated state parks is once again open to visitors.
Since reopening on November 3, 2017, tickets for Mitchell Caverns have been difficult to obtain due to the limited amount of tours that are given during the week. Tour reservations are taken by phone only on Mondays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Walk-in tickets can sometimes (but there are no guarantees) be obtained when cancellations occur, this is especially true during the warmer months of the year. Contact a ranger during the week prior to the date you want a tour and they will let know what the chances are for obtaining a ticket in this way. Your chances are much better if you only have 1 or 2 people in your party.
If you attempt to do a walk-in reservation, arrive when the gate opens at 8am, drive to the visitor’s center and have a ranger put your name on the list. Since you’ll most likely have some time to kill before the tours begin, enjoy the visitor’s center (and bathroom) before everyone else starts arriving.
There’s also two very easy short trails within the park that can be hiked while waiting for your tour to begin. The Niña Mora Trailhead begins across from the bathrooms located in the lower parking/camping area. The campground is currently closed (as of June 1, 2018) because they are using it as a staging area for rocks that are being used to stabilize the trail to the caverns.
The trail is named after the child of a Mexican silver miner who worked near the area in the early 1900s.
The half-mile moderate trail passes near the child’s grave marker. RIP Niña Mora
“Like the New York Mountains to the north, the first discoveries made in the Providence Mountains were for silver. These discoveries, made in 1863, transformed the Macedonia Canyon area into the mining camp of Providence City. In 1880 another significant silver discovery was made at the Bonanza King. With the decline in silver prices, however, attention was turned toward gold, and the Hidden Hill, Gold Valley and Out West mining camps sprang up. During World War II, the immense iron deposits in Foshay Pass were mined, and silver, gold and copper mining has occurred at various places in the range during this century.” – Source
These colorful desert blooms were found along the trail.
Some of the bird species found in this section of the Mojave National Preserve include gambel’s quails, piñon jays, roadrunners and cactus wrens.
Vegetation along the trail includes wildflowers (during the spring), Mojave and banana yucca, cholla, and barrel cactus. Be aware that most of these plants protect themselves with thorns or spines and are often found close to the trails.
Some rather interesting scat found along the trail. Looks like they’ve been eating well.
The view of the Providence mountains and visitor’s center from the end of the Niña Mora Trail.
The other trail, the Mary Beal Nature Trail, is located near the park’s visitor’s center parking lot. Mary Beal was a pioneering botanist who spent most of her life in Daggett, California. She also wrote a regular botany column for Desert Magazine from 1939-1953.
The hike is only a half-mile long. Short, sweet, and especially doable earlier in the morning when it’s not as hot outside.
“The SRA and the Providence Mountains that contain it are a classic desert “sky island,” an oasis of diverse plant life made possible by the relatively cooler temperatures and greater moisture atop many desert mountain ranges. The range’s summit, Edgar Peak, tops out at 7,162 feet above sea level — high enough above the searing desert floor to support live oaks and manzanitas. Below the summit, a veritable botanic garden of Mojave upland plants thrives, from barrel cactus and Mojave yucca to pinyon and juniper.” – Source
Missed the bloom on this one.
While you probably won’t need to take a break while hiking along this easy trail, the bench does provide nice views of the Mojave National Preserve in the distance which can be seen in the picture below.
Pretty nice, huh?
Informational kiosks are strategically placed throughout the hike. Some of the animal’s found within the park include badgers, antelope squirrels, cottontail rabbits, small rodents and various lizard and snake species. Bighorn sheep and predators such as mountain lions, coyotes, gray foxes and bobcats may also be seen hunting during the evening hours.
I found this spiky Mojave cross towards the end of my hike.
“Jack Mitchell, a Los Angeles businessman who lost almost everything in the 1929 stock market crash, initiated an early attempt at recreational tourism in the present-day Preserve. Mitchell became interested in three magnificent limestone caverns after a local rancher, Mark Pettit, showed him the caves. By 1932, Mitchell had explored the caves, offered tours, and set up signs along Route 66 to direct visitors to the site. He continued to guide visitors for the next two decades.” – Source
Four of Jack’s original buildings, made from found materials, still stand within today’s park.
This rounded stone structure was known as “the igloo” which the Mitchell’s rented out to tourists as the Honeymoon Cottage. The rocks he used for the buildings included geodes, petroglyphs (crazy, huh?), speleothems, limestone with fossils, and bits of glass.
The other two former guest cottages are now used as employee housing.
The Mitchell’s original native stone home was turned into the parks visitor’s center, which is also where the tours to the caverns begin.
“As Mitchell grew closer to retirement age in the early 1950s, he began deliberations with California’s state park system to take over operation of the caves as a state park. Mitchell was killed in an accident before negotiations could be finalized, and the California state park system added Mitchell’s Caverns to its holdings in 1956. The state promoted the tourism and development of the caverns and the surrounding Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, and dug a connection between the two main caves to produce a single-loop tour experience.” – Source
The trail that Jack originally used to take tourists to the caverns was a little more treacherous than the 1.5 mile round trip trail that is used today.
Beautiful blooms like this could be found along the trail throughout the hike to the caverns.
“Beginning in the 1860s, prospectors began to flood into the area in search of minerals—silver, lead, gold, and copper—embedded in the Providence Mountain range, so called by the Americans for its proximity to abundant water supplies. Local miners prospered most greatly between 1870 and 1893, a period when the federal government purchased silver ore at high prices. In 1883, the Southern Pacific Railroad established a route through the eastern Mojave Desert, granting local mining interests access to national markets. However, after the turn of the twentieth century, when the U.S. stopped purchasing silver in bulk quantities, the industry quickly declined. By 1907, a year of economic recession, major mining investments ceased entirely. In the 1920s and early 1930s, individuals occasionally attempted prospecting in the abandoned mines. One such would-be silver miner, Jesse E. “Jack” Mitchell, was so impressed by his 1929 visit to the Providence Mountains (specifically “Crystal” or “Providence” caverns) that he returned and struck a claim the following year. But Jack Mitchell and his wife Ida, whose Los Angeles-based real estate business went bankrupt during the Great Depression, soon grew more interested in the terrain’s potential for tourism than for mining. In order to maintain his claim’s validity according to mining law, Mitchell demonstrated ongoing progress by building tunnels, shipping ore, and filing patents on the claims.” This is just one of the many prospects that Jack worked in order to maintain his claim. – Source
From a distance, the two entrances to the caverns resemble menacing eyes on a fractured cliff face — blackened by smoke from the fires of Chemehuevi Indians, who used them for shelter, storage and ceremonial purposes. The Chemeheuvi people called them Kaiva Pui — the Eyes of the Mountain.
Loose skin, granular scales, and a distinctive paunch, Chuckwallas are the second largest lizard in the US next to the Gila Monster. Fond of yellow flowers, such as those found on brittle bush, 10-16 inch chuckwallas are observed along lava flows and rocky areas throughout the preserve. During breeding season, adults will develop a pinkish hue. Elusive and evasive, chuckwallas can foil predators by trapping themselves in crevices through inflating their bodies.
“Mitchell Caverns are primarily the result of sedimentary limestone and metamorphised limestone (marble) being dissolved by ground water high in carbonic acid content. After the dissolution, caverns were formed; the continued dripping of highly mineralized ground water into the caverns produced stalactites (dripstone deposits extending downward from the ceiling) and stalagmites (dripstone deposits building upward in mound-form from the floor).” – Source
Visitors on the Mitchell’s tours entered the first cave, which the couple named El Pakiva or the Devil’s House, by rope. Today, visitors use a paved path that winds through two cave systems connected by an airlock tunnel to separate temperatures and humidity levels.
Each cave features a large 30 to 40 feet high chamber, with walls, ceilings and floors filled with stalagmites, stalactites, columns and flowstone hundreds of thousands of years old.
Visitors also pass speleothems — fantastic formations such as cave coral, draperies and a flowstone waterfall.
Average caves live to be 1-2 million years old and follow three stages: 1) a hollowing-out period that forms the system, 2) an era filling the cave with calcium-carbonate features deposited as water flows, and 3) instability and collapse.
Mitchell Caverns are believed to be 10-12 million years old, making them one of the oldest cave systems in the world.
While looking at the handout for the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, I noticed a map showing the location of a third limestone cave located in the park that not many people are aware of, the Cave of the Winding Stair(s). This vertical limestone cave is so technical that it is not open to the public, however permits are occasionally granted to cave rescue and SAR teams for training purposes.
An account of Jack Mitchell’s first descent into the “Winding Stair Cave” during the period of his early explorations read’s like fiction. It was a chilling experience as he lowered himself into the unknown depths with the use of a bosun’s chair that constantly turned in the darkness, causing him to virtually lose all sense of both time and direction. His signature on the cavern wall, dated July 1, 1931, indicates that he had penetrated this cave at least as far as the portion he called “Dog Leg Room.” As you can see in the diagram above, there were still two more levels to go before Jack would’ve reached the bottom of the cave.
After years of having no access to the caverns and the state park land that surrounds them, I was thankful that I finally got a chance to see this beautiful section of the eastern Mojave Desert. Mitchell Caverns and the Providence Mountains SRA are a great stop when traveling through the Mojave National Preserve or enjoying some of the nearby attractions along Route 66. For a first hand account of what life was like back when Jack and Ida ran the park as a Route 66 roadside attraction, check out “Keepers of the Caves” by Jack Mitchell which is available for sale inside the visitor’s center. More information about the park and cavern tours can be found on the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area website.