In Southern California's Mojave Desert, Jack Mitchell's caves are unforgettable

Michael Tennesen

The caverns he made famous almost cost Jack Mitchell hislife, or at least his sanity. Lowered hundreds of feet below groundin a boatswain's chair, the spelunking Mitchell became trapped indarkness when the three ropes that supported him twisted into one,jamming the pulley his friends were using to hoist him into thedaylight.

Mitchell was eventually pulled back above ground. Undaunted, hegathered enough funds to build a resort near the caverns' mouth andled his visitors on tours through them. Today, 69 years later,Mitchell Cavern is still worth visiting. Two hours east of Barstow,California, 4,300 feet high in the eastern Mojave Desert'sProvidence Mountains, it may be remote, but it provides anexperience of unparalleled beauty.

Mitchell Cavern is actually two caves: El Pakiva and Tecopa,joined by a manmade tunnel and seen on ranger-led tours. At first,as you walk into El Pakiva's main cavern, you may find yourselfstaring into the dark, thinking, "No big deal." Just wait until thelights come on. Here is every cave formation you could hope to see:stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and curtains, all created frommineralized water that drips off the cavern's limestone ceiling andpuddles on the limestone floor.

From this main cavern, you're led into a smaller room called theQueen's Chamber, whose formations offer an impossible-to-refuseinvitation to conjure up figures from the rocks. Mitchell used hisimagination when leading the tours, says park ranger Paul Pettit."We invite visitors to do the same."

Of course, adds Pettit, sometimes Mitchell employed showbusiness skills to fire up his visitors' imaginations. When he ledgroups to the back of El Pakiva, he would drop a flare ―doctored to burn out quickly ― down a hole. He'd chant, "It'sfalling, falling, falling into a bottomless pit," as the flare diedin the darkness. The ruse made it seem as if the pit were endless;in fact, it was all of 30 feet deep.

Disappointing? No way. Mitchell Cavern is so spectacular, even alittle trickery can't hurt it at all.

GETTING THERE

Mitchell Cavern Natural Preserve is part of Providence MountainsState Recreation Area. From I-40 100 miles east of Barstow, takeEssex Rd. 16 miles northwest to the caves.

WHEN: 1 1/2-hour tours run weekdays at 1:30, weekends at 10,1:30, and 3, from Labor Day through Memorial Day. Check with parkfor summer tour schedule.

COST: Parking $3, cavern tours $4.

CAMPING: Six campsites are available on a first-come,first-served basis.

CONTACT: Information center, www.parks.ca.gov (click on"Find a Park," then on "Providence Mountains SRA") or (760)928-2586.

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