Way down under

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

Michael Tennesen

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

Mitchell was eventually pulled back above ground. Undaunted, he gathered enough funds to build a resort near the caverns' mouth and led 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's Providence Mountains, it may be remote, but it provides an experience 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 yourself staring into the dark, thinking, "No big deal." Just wait until the lights come on. Here is every cave formation you could hope to see: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and curtains, all created from mineralized water that drips off the cavern's limestone ceiling and puddles on the limestone floor.

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

Of course, adds Pettit, sometimes Mitchell employed show business skills to fire up his visitors' imaginations. When he led groups to the back of El Pakiva, he would drop a flare ― doctored to burn out quickly ― down a hole. He'd chant, "It's falling, falling, falling into a bottomless pit," as the flare died in 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 a little trickery can't hurt it at all.

GETTING THERE

Mitchell Cavern Natural Preserve is part of Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. From I-40 100 miles east of Barstow, take Essex 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 park for 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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