Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve
1.5 mile guided hike of caverns
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 Natural Preserve, part of Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. Ranger-led walks through the dramatic limestone caves offer a fascinating geology lesson, one the whole family can enjoy.
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 what he called the “Providence” or “Crystal Caves” and their potential as a tourist attraction. He constructed several stone buildings to use for lodging. (Today’s park visitor 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, Jack Mitchell was quite a yarn-spinner. Old-timers 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’re 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’ll 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 Chemehuevi Indians and a Pleistocene ground sloth that stumbled into the darkness some 15,000 years ago.
During Jack Mitchell’s day, visitors had to be nimble rock-climbers who waited for their tour leader to toss ﬂares into the darkness. Nowadays, the caverns are equipped with stairs and special lighting.
For guided tour times vist the Providence Mountains SRA page page. A tour takes 1.5 to 2 hours depending on your group’s enthusiasm and collective curiosity, and a fee is charged.
Directions to trailhead: From Interstate Highway 40, about 80 miles east of Barstow, exit on Essex Road and drive 16 miles to road’s end at the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area parking lot. Sign up at the visitor center for tours.
Because you can only tour the caverns with a park ranger, and because you wouldn’t want me to spoil the many surprises of the cave walk with a step-by-step description, I won’t further detail the Mitchell Caverns Trail. However, after exploring “the great indoors” allow some time to explore the park’s outdoors pathways.
© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author. To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at www.thetrailmaster.com.