No one visits this far outreach of the wild eastern Mojave by chance, but once you do, you will never forget it. The Providence Mountains nestled within the state-run recreation area, in a region otherwise surrounded by National Preserve land, is its own unique desert destination, distinguished by a range of mountains that bring cooler air and a botanic garden of cacti and pinyon.
The bright red rhyolite in the higher elevations is home to Bighorn sheep and pinyon pines. Edgar Peak soars 7,000 feet above the desert floor and is populated by oak trees. Although once a coveted hiking area, it might not be the mountain temperatures and flora that bring you to this remote haven. It will most likely be the re-opening of a California treasure: Mitchell Caverns.
Tours Begin of Mitchell Caverns
After a nearly seven-year closure that was due to a tightening of state funds together with the mounting need to fix years of wear and followed by tragic acts of vandalism, the Mitchell Caverns opened once again in November 2017 for public tours. As the only limestone caves in the California State Park system, the natural attraction offers fascinating stalactite and stalagmite formations going back to the Pleistocene epoch when ground water ate into the surrounding marble and sedimentary limestone.
There are three caves in all, but only two are available to the public. Winding Stair Cavern has long been regarded as unsafe for most explorers, but El Pakiva (Devil’s House) and Tecopa (named for a Shoshone Indian chief) caves that are connected by a man-made tunnel reward present-day explorers with a rare desert experience.
Take the Tour
When: Fridays through Sundays (plus holiday Mondays); tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (15 people per tour); arrive 15 minutes prior to tour.
Cost: $10 per adult; $5 per child (16 and under); $5 per senior (credit card or exact cash).
Reservations required: By phone only on Mondays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., (760) 928-2586 (speak with a staff member; messages not accepted).
Tour Details: The ranger-led tour of Mitchell Caverns involves a 1.5-mile moderate roundtrip hike to and from the caverns and an hour guided tour of the cave.
The history of the Mitchell Caverns is almost as interesting as the tour itself. Numerous paleontological and archaeological finds, from prehistoric animals (namely the sloth) to Chemehuevi Indian tools and fire pits, have been made through the years both in the caves and in the surrounding area. Considered a sacred place for the tribe, the Chemehuevi referred to the caves as “the eyes of the mountain” due to the two prominent entrances atop the mountain.
However, the caverns did not acquire their name from the tribe but from the caves’ first owner, Jack Mitchell, who operated the caves from 1934 to 1954 as a rest stop and attraction magnet for travelers on Route 66. Mitchell took visitors on cave tours and also held mining rights to the property, digging holes and tunnels that can still be seen. The enterprising Mitchell learned about the caves while prospecting for silver and moved his family from Los Angeles to live on the property. Although Mitchell later built a series of paths through the main cave for his tours, his first brave tour-goers were lowered on ropes to reach some of the most scenic chambers. During WWII, the rationing of gasoline meant few visitors for Mitchell’s Crystal Caverns, and, after the war, Mitchell approached the State to take over 82-acre site for a state park.
Stories or lore prevail about former cave days, but two stand out. It seems Jack Mitchell was too tired to lead a tour for two men arriving late in the afternoon one day. He handed them two lit “candles” and headed them down cavern paths alone. It seems the “candles” were actually sticks of dynamite. When the men discovered they were not only on the wrong paths, but holding dynamite, the tour ended and vowed that Mitchell was trying to blow them up.
In 1991, the caverns gained some unwanted movie notoriety when they were used as a movie site when part of the motion picture “The Doors” was filmed there. A scene that has singer Jim Morrison examining cave drawings required temporary drawings placed on the walls. The removal of the “art” did damage to the fragile cave walls and since then, no filming has been allowed.
Touring the Area
The recreation area, located between Barstow and Needles, offers a Visitors Center that was once the historic home of Jack and Ida Mitchell. A hiking trailhead to Eagar Peak is located nearby, and a campground will be available later in 2018. The nearest campground now is Hole in the Wall in the Mojave National Preserve.
A detour to Hole in the Wall, whether camping or exploring, is a spectacular side trip, filled with dramatic red volcanic formations that have been formed by ancient eruptions that spewed layers of lava and ash. Cooling gases formed holes in the rock and erosion has enlarged the openings to create caverns of their own sort. Two trails offer explorations, one for experienced hikers only leaves the picnic area and travels west through the volcanic rock to Banshee Canyon.
Looking for more? Discover even more adventures in the Northern California deserts here.