When hard times during the Depression in 1932 forced Ida and Jack Mitchell to leave Los Angeles, they headed to the Mojave Desert. A new home was established 4,300 feet in the Providence Mountains, where Jack had been prospecting for silver and had bought some caverns.
The Mitchells thought tourists might pay to look at the stalactites, stalagmites and other intricate limestone formations, so they built a dirt road to the site and erected stone buildings where visitors could spend the night.
Illuminating the way with kerosene lanterns and flashlights, Jack led his guests into a pair of caverns that the Chemehuevi Indians used for ceremonies and food storage in the previous century. Bones of a Pleistocene-age ground sloth indicated that the huge chambers had visitors thousands of years earlier.
State Buys Caves
The state bought the caves in 1954 and established Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve. They are the featured attraction of the 6,540-acre Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in the high desert.
This is the 30th year of ranger-led tours. The caverns are illuminated by electric lights, Mitchells' home has become the visitors' center and the access road is paved.
At 118 miles east of Barstow, the caves are easily reached from the freeway to Needles. Drive east from Los Angeles on Interstate 10 and join Interstate 15 to Barstow, then continue east on Interstate 40 to the Essex Road exit and follow the Mitchell Caverns/Providence Mountain signs.
After crossing the freeway, look for the turnout with an interpretive sign describing the 1.5-million-acre East Mojave National Scenic Area. Legislation is before Congress to designate the area as Mojave National Park.
The road to the caverns winds 16 miles into the Providence Mountains. From the parking area at the road's end you'll have a panoramic view of the desert that extends for 300 square miles.
On weekends and holidays, guided tours begin at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.; weekdays at 1:30 p.m. only. No tours are offered from June 16 through Sept. 15 because of high temperatures. But groups of 10 or more can make special tour arrangements during that time by calling the state park's Mojave River District office at (619) 389-2281.
Tourists outside the visitor center hear rangers George Hernandez or Paul Pettit describe the lives of Ida and Jack Mitchell and how they turned the caverns into a commercial attraction more than 50 years ago.
Past the Cactus
Afterward the rangers lead people along a rocky trail past cacti and other desert plants to a hole in the mountain. The ranger carries a pole with a hook to move aside any rattlesnakes that might be sunbathing on the trail.
The ceiling of the cavern's entrance has been blackened by fires formerly built by Indians. After eyes adjust to the caves, remarkable limestone formations created thousands of years ago come to light. Unfortunately, stalactite and stalagmite tips have long since been broken off by souvenir hunters.
In the first chamber, called El Pavika, Indians held some of their rituals, including testing the bravery of young boys who were left there in darkness.
Man-made tunnels lead to the second and larger cave, named Tecopa after a Chemehuevi chief. There the Indians stored food and were sheltered from high winds that blow across the mountains. On display is the bone of a prehistoric ground sloth found during archeological searches.
Arrowheads, pottery and other Indian artifacts are on exhibit at the visitor center, along with a large stalactite that fell from the ceiling of Tecopa Cave. Also displayed are mementos and minerals from pioneer ranches and mines in the area, including an old ore wagon.
To reach the caverns from the visitor center is a 1 1/2-mile round-trip hike. Guided tours last about 90 minutes. Adults pay $3, children 6 through 17 years $1.
Visitors also can explore the area on two hiking trails.
Pick up a booklet guiding visitors along the Mary Beal Nature Study Trail that identifies a variety of desert plants and animals. You'll see barrel, pancake, hedgehog and prickly pear cacti, as well as Mojave and banana yucca. Pinon pines also grow on the Providence Mountains.
Campers can choose from six primitive sites on the mountainside for RVs and tents for $6 a night. Another spot is Hole-in-the-Wall campground off Black Canyon Road at the base of the mountain.
Limited water from a mountain spring is available at the caverns, but campers and picnickers should bring food and other supplies.
The caverns maintain a temperature of 65 degrees. Breezes usually keep outside temperatures moderate, too. However, nights in winter and spring can be cold and windy; the strongest gusts have been clocked at 85 m.p.h.
Desert wanderers also can visit such places as Kelso Dunes, one of the highest sand dunes in North America. Return west on Interstate 40 to the Kelbaker Road exit and go north to a bumpy three-mile side road to the dunes trail.
For a description of 25 sights in the East Mojave National Scenic Area, get a copy of a recreation guide map ($3.50) available in Barstow at the California Desert Information Center, 831 Barstow Road (exit north on Barstow Road from Interstate 15).
The center, open daily, has lodging and restaurant information. Phone (714) 256-8617.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Mitchell Caverns is 490 miles.