Tour caverns at Providence Mountains park

Perched halfway up the eastern slope of the Providence Mountains surrounded by the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve, a remote California desert park invites visitors to enjoy varied pursuits. Activities in Providence Mountains State Recreation Area include cavern touring, hiking, camping, wildlife watching and scenic viewing.

Located about 150 miles from Las Vegas, this intriguing enclave lies a few miles off a main route through the Mojave National Preserve. Although several approach routes may be used, most Southern Nevadans follow US 95 south into California to Interstate 40. Drive 33 miles west on I-40 to exit the freeway at Essex. Follow Essex Road north about 12 miles to a major fork. The road to the left climbs about five miles to the small California park, while a right turn follows Black Canyon to National Park Service facilities within the preserve.

At 4,300-feet elevation, the state recreation area offers panoramic views over hundreds of miles of desert and mountains. Its 5,900 acres include beautiful limestone caverns, a rustic visitor center, picnic facilities, a six-unit campground, three established trails and access to the rugged Providence Mountains.

Visitors drive to a small parking lot near the stone and timber visitor center, once home to early developers, Jack and Ida Mitchell. Exhibits inside include Native American artifacts, pioneer implements and mining memorabilia Adjacent vintage outbuildings date from the days when the Mitchells operated a remote resort and guided visitors into the nearby caverns from the early 1930s until California purchased the property in 1954.

Providence Mountains State Recreation Area welcomes more guests during the cooler months of the year. From September through May rangers guide tours daily through El Pakiva and Tecopa Caverns, limited to 25 people. On weekdays, one tour a day begins at 1:30 p.m. On weekends three tours begin at 10:30 a.m.,1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. In June and July, the tours operate weekends only at 1:30 p.m. The park will be closed for maintenance work during August.

Although California charges no entrance fee at this recreation area, visitors pay to tour the caverns and to use the campground. Call the park at (760) 928-2586 for tour reservations. Tour Mitchell Caverns for $5 for adults and $3 for children aged 6-16. Campers pay $12 per night to use the campground, available on a first-come basis. The small campground boasts lovely views, tree-shaded sites with tables and grills and central access to water and flush toilets.

The tour of Mitchell Caverns begins with a three-quarter mile hike with the ranger to the closed entrance. Now a nearly dry cave system, Mitchell Caverns creates its unique formations at a very slow rate of about an inch every 10,000 years. The seasons never change underground, where temperatures remain a constant 65 degrees. Visitors should wear layered clothing and closed foot gear.

Only one in 40,000 caves contains as many different kids of decorations as those found in the Mitchell Caverns. Flowstones, dripstones and erratics all occur there. Flowstones create curtains and draperies, while dripstones from stalactites and stalagmites, some joined into columns. Erratics include weird and delicate formations such as straws, hairs and twisted tubes. One kind of pipe seen there occurs in just seven caves worldwide.

During the springtime, the park above ground becomes a desert garden with wildflower and cactus blossoms peaking around Mother’s Day. Two half-mile round trip trails offer views of the wide variety of plants that grow on these mountain slopes first identified by hobby botanist Mary S. Beal. A self-guiding nature trail named for her begins near the visitor center. Pick up a printed trail guide to identify plants along the route. The Nina Mora Trail, named for the deceased infant daughter of an early miner, begins at the east end of the campground. The short trail climbs to a nearby vantage point with splendid views.

The longest and most challenging hiking route in the recreation area is the two-mile round trip Crystal Spring Trail. It begins along the trail to the cavern entrance. Outstanding views reward hikers for the route’s 600-foot altitude gain.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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