Explore limestone caves at Mitchell Caverns, a hidden gem in the Mojave Desert

Who knew a fun family road trip could be found ‘down in the Devil’s House’?

Assume you’re driving to Needles.

Okay, you’re probably not going to Needles. But suppose you’re driving to Las Vegas or Lake Havasu and want to stop somewhere interesting along the way. Or maybe you’d like to plan a road trip, the kind that whisks you away from the daily grind and whisks you whooshing down wide desert roads to a destination that seems to exist outside of time, a place where you won’t be bothered because cell service is spotty, and you’re too awed by nature to answer a call anyway.

This is the journey for you.

Mitchell Caverns is a hidden gem in the California State Parks system, with magnificent limestone caves and rare wildlife. Despite its remoteness, the 5,900-acre Providence Mountains State Recreation Area is a two-hour drive from Barstow – a place to be savored.

The rugged mountains, cactus-dotted canyons, and gnarled pine trees all work together to inspire awe. The habitat shifts dramatically with elevation gain on this sky island, so the dry low desert surrounds relatively lush mountain forests of juniper and pinyons, oak and manzanita.

Mitchell Caverns is named after Jack and Ida Mitchell, prospectors who purchased land claims in the early 1930s with the intention of mining for silver. After learning about the caves from local ranchers, the couple decided to turn them into a tourist attraction. For context, this was around the same time that another cave destination, New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, was thriving, and Jack hoped to replicate it in the California desert.

On the property, Jack and Ida handcrafted stone cabins. They made room for campsites. The 22-mile road from Route 66 to the caverns was even bulldozed by Jack, and given the number of potholes, it’s possible the road hasn’t been touched since.

Jack, who looked like a sun-kissed version of P.T. Barnum, led tours. He roped visitors into the canyons, crawled through candlelit tunnels, and then made a spectacular display of the “bottomless pit,” where he dropped flares that vanished into the darkness. (In reality, the pit is about 40 feet deep.)

From 1934 to 1954, the resort chugged along until the aging Mitchells arranged for the state to take over and preserve the land, making these the only limestone caves in the California State Park system.

Tours nowadays are less about showmanship and more about natural wonder and adventure. The caverns require a guide, which must be reserved in advance through the park. El Pakiva (the Devil’s House) and Tecopa (named after a Shoshone chief) are the two main caves on display. There is a third cave, but it is deep and dangerous, and it is currently closed to the public.

Tours enter through the “eyes of the mountain,” El Pakiva’s dual opening, and then proceed through that cave into the next. The winding path is lit by small LEDs, except for a brief moment when the guide switches off the lights, leaving visitors in the dark. Because there is such a complete erasure of light, the air feels immediately empty and disorienting, like falling through space.

“This is the same view you’ll see in every cave around the world,” the tour guide said.

Mitchell Caverns are notable for their unusual formations dating back to the Pleistocene epoch. A stalactite from the ceiling connected with a stalagmite that formed upward from the ground to form an impressive column.

You’ll also see cave popcorn, which is formed when water seeps through pores in the limestone, resulting in shapes that resemble popcorn; draperies, which look like icicle curtains along the cave walls; and a rare cave shield, a large disc attached to the cave wall that was formed over time by a horizontal fissure in the rock.

The caves are home to two endemic species: the golden Niptus beetle and the cave-dwelling pseudoscorpion, a tiny arachnid smaller than a pencil-top eraser with no stinger. Townsend’s big-eared bats, the most common bat species, may also be seen.

The caverns, of course, existed long before the Mitchells arrived. For thousands of years, the Chemehuevi people, a branch of the Southern Paiute, have lived in the Providence Mountains. Tools and evidence of ceremonies have been discovered within the caves, and the Chemehuevi are still present.

Unfortunately, because the limestone is soft and shifting, any petroglyphs have degraded over time. (Notable exceptions are the petroglyphs that were painted in the caves during the production of the 1991 Oliver Stone film, “The Doors.” The ostensibly temporary paint was difficult to remove, and filming at the site has since been prohibited.)

Make time to explore some nearby trails to make the most of your Mitchell Caverns experience. The Mary Beal Nature Trail is a half-mile self-guided loop that showcases the amazing high-desert flora. The Nia Mora Trail is a more moderate half-mile loop with panoramic views.

Aim for Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, about 15 miles from the caverns within Mojave National Preserve, for nearby camping. Campsites ($12, first-come, first-served) are surrounded by otherworldly volcanic rock formations near several trailheads. Don’t miss the 1.3-mile Hole-in-the-Wall Rings Trail, which involves climbing up mounted rings and rock scrambling along a cliffside that resembles Swiss cheese.

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