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Day Hike

An Illuminating Visit to Limestone Caves

December 12, 1987|JOHN McKINNEY

Today's trail trivia question: Where in Southern California can you explore some stunning scenery, be assured that it won't rain, and know that the temperature for your hike will always be a comfortable 65 degrees?

Hint: One of the overlooked gems of the California state park system.

If you're in the dark, then you're on the right path--the trail through Mitchell Caverns State Reserve, part of Providence Mountains State Recreation Area.Ranger-led walks through the dramatic limestone caves offer a fascinating geology lesson.

In 1932, Jack Mitchell abandoned his Depression-shattered business in Los Angeles and moved to the desert. For a time he prospected for silver, but his real fascination was with the Providence or Crystal Caves and their potential as a tourist attraction.

A Teller of Tales

He constructed several stone buildings for lodging. (Today's park visitor's center is one of these buildings.) Mitchell and his wife, Ida, provided food, lodging, and guided tours of the caverns until 1954. By all accounts, Mitchell was quite a yarn spinner. Older Southern Californians still remember his tall tales of ghosts, lost treasure and bottomless pits.

Now that the caverns are part of the state park system, rangers lead the tours. They are an enthusiastic lot and quite informative. Visitors walk through the two main caves, which Mitchell named El Pakiva (the Devil's House) and Tecopa (after a Shoshonean chieftain). You will get a close-up view of stalactites and stalagmites, cave ribbon, cave spaghetti and flow stone. And you'll learn about some of the caverns' former inhabitants--the Chemhuevi Indians and a Pleistocene ground sloth that stumbled into the darkness about 15,000 years ago.

During Mitchell's day, visitors had to be nimble rock climbers and wait for their tour leader to toss flares into the darkness. Nowadays, the caverns have been equipped with stairs and lighting.

Guided tours are conducted Monday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, tours begin at 10 a.m., 1:30 and 3 p.m. There is a $3 tour fee for adults, $1 for children 6-17. A tour takes 1 1/2-2 hours depending on your group's enthusiasm and collective curiosity.

No Phone in Park

The park has no phone, but you may call the state park area headquarters at Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area for more information: (619) 389-2281. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 40, about 80 miles east of Barstow, exit on Essex Road and drive 16 miles to the road's end at the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area parking lot. Sign up at the Visitors Center for tours.

The drive to the caverns is lengthy, so you might want to consider taking a whole weekend--or more--to visit this part of the desert.

The park is surrounded by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's East Mojave Scenic Area, an awesome land of dunes, badlands and Joshua Tree forests. If Sen. Alan Cranston's California Desert Protection Act passes Congress next year, much of this land will be included in a new Mojave National Park.

After exploring "the great indoors," allow some time to explore the park's outdoor pathways.

Pick up an interpretive booklet from the visitor's center and walk the half-mile Mary Beal Nature Trail, which offers a great introduction to high desert flora. Cliff rose and blue sage share the hillsides with cholla, catsclaw and creosote.

Librarian Honored

The trail honors Mary Beal, a Riverside librarian who at the turn of the century was ordered to the desert for health reasons by her doctor. For half a century, she wandered through the Providence Mountains and other remote Mojave Desert locales to gather and classify hundreds of varieties of plants and wildflowers. The trail was dedicated in 1952 on Beal's 75th birthday.

The short Overlook Trail leads from the park's tiny campground to a viewpoint that offers vistas of Clipper Valley, the Marble Mountains and hundreds of square miles of basin and range.

The mile-long Crystal Spring Trail goes into the pinyon pine- and juniper-dotted Providence Mountains by way of Crystal Canyon. Big horn sheep often travel through this canyon.

Mitchell Caverns Trail

1 1/2 miles round trip

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