Restoring Public Access to a Mojave Desert Masterpiece

From the June 2013 issue of Desert Report.

In 1929, on the east-facing rise of a range known as the Providence Mountains, a part-time miner, named Jesse E. “Jack” Mitchell, was drawn to explore an intriguing earthen grotto, a wondrous cavern. Years before, these mountains in the eastern Mojave were known for the mineral wealth of the Bonanza King Mine, where silver had been mined and milled, primarily between 1882 and 1885. Now, filled with curiosity, Mitchell explored this chasm for a new wealth, and found a different kind of providence – that of the human spirit.

Girl Scouts on tour of caverns during the 1950s-1960s. Carrol (Timberlake) Arrington Collection, Mojave Desert Archives
Girl Scouts on tour of caverns during the 1950s-1960s. Carrol (Timberlake) Arrington Collection, Mojave Desert Archives

In a state blessed with abundant natural riches, from high mountain lakes and trees whose size defies imagination, to a resplendent coastline and regions of vast desert solitude, Mitchell Caverns has also earned recognition as one of California’s true gems. This cavern was created when first layers of calcium carbonate, once animal bodies on an ancient ocean floor, formed limestone strata. Later, when these strata became part of the continental crust, these soluble calcium-rich layers were slowly dissolved by the subsurface ground water during wetter eras, leaving a flooded hollow cavity in the womb of the earth.

As California’s climate grew drier, the water table dropped revealing a limestone hollow. Groundwater, now percolating downward, transported dissolved calcium from the surrounding ceiling of limestone, which slowly dripped into this hollow cavity, precipitating into artful, growing majestic stalactites and stalagmites. Against the cavern walls, ribs, draperies, pleats, and curtains formed creating a place of unearthly beauty. Here, incased in total darkness, the artistic hand of nature crafted a superb and surprising new world.

Upon his discovery, Jack Mitchell himself was inspired to share what he had witnessed. In 1932 he and his wife Ida initiated what has become a long tradition of public enjoyment, by opening these caverns for public tours. Since then, countless visitors have marveled at this subterranean theater. Ultimately, by 1954, Mitchell Caverns took its place as one of our State’s cherished and unique resources. As the years progressed, Mitchell Caverns became a portion of the larger Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. Although located within the remote eastern Mojave Desert, visitors from all over the world venture to see its intricate famed beauty.

Then came the modern era. Due to competing interests and largely unnoticed by the public, our public parks were year after year placed on increasingly austere budgets. Park stewards warned of failing infrastructure, while patching together the park system as the best they could to keep the doors open. But this past was to catch up with our community when in recent times, economic conditions turned globally sour and the bonds of sustainable funding were broken. Seventy State Parks were identified for indefinite closure, one of them Mitchell Caverns. Faced with years of postponed repairs, the water system at Mitchell Caverns, necessary to serve the public, had failed. With funds to repair this critical infrastructure lacking, the park closed, a casualty of years of lean budgets. With the gates locked and staff expenses cut, the unimaginable happened. Vandals broke through the gates, stole copper wire, broke windows at the historic cabins, and caused $100,000 worth of damage before being arrested. Fortunately, despite the devastation, the limestone features themselves appeared to be spared from destruction. Today, Mitchell Caverns and Providence Mountains State Recreation Area remain closed, and, the fate of this mothballed park remains uncertain. The intricate splendor of Mitchell Caverns, which is the only limestone cavern operated by our State Park System, hangs in the balance.

This limestone cavern, which is the only one operated by our State Park System, represents a lost opportunity for educators. In the words of Dr. Janice Gillespie, a professor of geology at CSU Bakersfield: “This is my favorite limestone cavern in California. I used to bring my students here. In addition to its intense majesty, Mitchell Caverns represents the only California limestone grotto that displays the entire “life-cycle” of a cavern, with each of its intricate phases. From emerging, growing features like stalactites and columns, slowly adding and morphing their designs over time, to chambers now drying and slowly dying, portraying examples of eventual death and collapse, Mitchell Caverns provides everything a student of geology desires. As such, these caverns wonderfully illustrate every stage of the so called ‘life’ of a limestone cave.” And the richness of Mitchell Caverns extends beyond its geology. During the Ice Age giant Shasta ground sloths, which fed in part upon Joshua Trees, used this cavern as a refuge. In turn this cavern can be related to other caves and shelters throughout the Great Basin, some of which contain sloth dung.

Beyond its impressive educational attributes, this cave’s architecture touches the human spirit. To Native Americans, such as the Chemehuevi, this ground is sacred, a special terrain where place and spirit are locked as one. This same reverence inspires modern artists. As an example, a powerful new photography exhibit entitled “Mitchell Caverns: Hidden Treasure” opened on April 20th at the neighboring Mojave National Preserve’s historic Kelso Depot Visitor Center. This unique exhibition, in the Desert Light Gallery, is available for public viewing through July 21st. Photographer Guss Louis Vopalensky captures the mysterious, ethereal and inspirational persona of this surreal chamber’s superb drapery, spires and architecture.

These photographs are now but haunting reminders of what is locked and closed from public access and experience. In this era of ever competing needs, the issue of how to fund our precious State Parks is complex. Dedicated citizens and groups around the State have stepped up to fill this void, raising money to help keep parks open, while optimistically we, as a community, figure out how best to preserve these treasures. We recognize that these parks are not merely areas of refreshment and rejuvenation, but are critical to our State’s tourism marketplace, contributing up to $6 billion dollars annually to our economy. Closing parks is obviously bad for California’s business community.

As Californians, we all have a voice and choice in deciding the precious fate of this masterpiece. Mitchell Caverns deserves to display its renowned architecture once again.

Recently, a state funded think tank, the Little Hoover Commission, issued a controversial blueprint for resolving our State Park funding crisis. Many park advocates are concerned with this report’s simplistic abandonment of a previously recognized statewide value and its failure to hold our elected officials accountable. They are troubled by the report’s failure to discuss how California meets the needs of an ever-expanding population by shrinking our available State Park System. This report’s first solution to the complex problem of funding sustainable parks is to divest an unspecified number of parks, through an expensive new process of public hearings. Parks which were previously recognized as significant would have to justify their continued existence. The Little Hoover report, which praises the work of State Park Partners, seemed oblivious to any knowledge of how their report would undermine the very efforts they laud. Non-profit efforts across the state are now faced with trying to raise moneys for parks that may or may not be jettisoned via the Little Hoover Commission’s concept of a shrunken system. This report failed to prudently address the potential impact on California’s tourism economy of their proposed actions. In the Mojave Desert a group of Park Partners emerged to rescue Mitchell Caverns. Within the last year, concerned citizens formed the Committee to Reopen Mitchell Caverns (CMRC). This group raised seed money and signed a contract with California State Parks to reopen the limestone formations for very limited weekend tours starting in the autumn of 2013. Since the park’s water system still requires repair, no camping or extended visits can be enjoyed. Momentum is gaining. Efforts are progressing to secure funding to repair the park’s water infrastructure. Unfortunately, the fundraising efforts to extend the number of days Mitchell Caverns might reopen have been hampered by the concurrent release of the Little Hoover Commission report.

Fortunately, as Californians, we all have a voice and choice in deciding the precious fate of this masterpiece. Mitchell Caverns deserves to display its renowned architecture once again. Ultimately, we determine the outcome. In fact, it is no one other than ourselves who cradle those precious keys that both “unlock” the gates of Mitchell Caverns as well as a promising new future for our beloved and magnificent California parks.

Recent Developments

Public sentiment combined with the Legislature’s commitment to a two-year moratorium on state park closures helped focus attention on the plight of Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. This enabled California State Parks to propose and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to approve funding to repair the park’s failed  water infrastructure. If repairs go well, Mitchell Caverns might  reopen for public tours by autumn 2013. Public support remains essential to lengthen the days and hours the park can provide access and tours. Visit to find out more about  this unique California treasure.

A native of northern California, Mark Faull moved to the eastern Kern County region in 1984. For 20 years Mark worked at Red Rock Canyon State Park before retiring from California State Parks in 2004. His passion for and understanding of park values continues, as well as his study of the fascinating local human history and its connection to the desert environment.