April 7, 2013

Rare visit to the Mitchell Caverns

Naturalists from the SCV push back the desert to earn a rare visit to the now closed, historic, cave

Deep in El Pakiva Cavern are numerous formations over which the imagination can take flight. One docent saw in this formation “A woman with a flowing gown with crossed arms and a Poodle’s head.”

By Jim Harris
Santa Clarita Valley Signal

It nearly takes my breath away.

Billowy, white cotton candy clouds march eastward, covering the top of Fountain Peak; its red sentinel spires pushing through feathery cloud-fog.

Descending the mountain are wide, uneven strips of crimson, gray and green; rhyolite and limestone.

“See the three layers?” asked Brian Miller, organizer of our trip to the currently closed Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area.

“The gray band—that’s where the caves are,” he says.

The caverns are opened to us in exchange for work to push back the Mojave Desert at the Mitchell Caverns Visitor’s Center.

Brian Miller, an employee of the state parks system, enticed his fellow docent/naturalists from Santa Clarita with the chance to be the first in three years to descend into the limestone caverns in exchange for pushing back the encroaching desert.

More than 20 volunteers from Placerita and Vasquez Rocks Nature Centers drove up to the remote site, 116 miles east of Barstow on Highway 40 for the chance to go into the deep, historic caverns.

The volunteers spent hours rooting out desert vegetation that was pushing into buildings, as well as intruding on concrete walkways and planters at the Mitchell Caverns Visitor Center.

“I’m tired,” said Laneita Algeyer, school trips coordinator at Placerita Nature Center. She and her husband Bill are veteran hikers who haunt places like Mitchell Caverns, looking for the historic and the unusual all through the West.

Jim and Toni Crowley brought a wheel barrow and extra tools in their pickup. They haul out the vegetation when the work ends.

Exhausted after hours of work, and a hearty lunch including soup provided by Sue Wallendar, the Placerita/Vasquez group was fired up once more when Miller announced, “Time for the Caverns.”

Suddenly, a Grounds Keeper appeared to lead us into the cave. So remote are the caverns in Fountain Peak that he had to turn on a generator to provide lighting for us as we descend into the caverns. The Caverns are off the grid.

We followed a craggy, rocky trail under Fountain Peak’s red spires, dug into the Mountain’s gray limestone band. On the left the trail plunged hundreds of feet below.

But, we were safe with a solid chain guard rail installed during the heyday of park building after the state park system took possession of the Caverns.

The safety rails were among many improvements Jack Mitchell, the original owner of the caverns, could not have imagined when he ran tours there on his own property.

Mitchell started the tours during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Mitchell played at mining, but what he really excavated was the imaginations and spirits of people who wanted to see and experience unique and mysterious works of nature.

And in that spirit, as we descend into the caverns, many among us gasped as the lights turned on. The upward lighting cast strange shadows on bizarre, outlandish limestone formations.

“Breathtaking,” said Dolores Olson, fellow docent/naturalist.

Stalagmites, stalactites, shields, helictites, draperies, curtains and popcorn form intricate, sensational formations that illuminated our imaginations. Like children looking at clouds, we could see in our mind’s eyes that which are not there.

“Do you see the Queen washing her face in the basin, her hair hanging down?” asked the caretaker as he pointed to a complex formation of curtains, and stalactites in a section of the Caverns known as “The Queen’s Chambers.”

“Those formations will continue building. This is a living cave, when it rains,” continued the Grounds Keeper.
He pointed to a single trickle of water hanging on the end of a stalagmite, and then down at a tiny stalactite exactly below the motionless drip. This is at the beginning of our descent into the Caverns beginning at El Pakiva, “The Devil’s House” Cavern.

“This is how the formations grow over the years,” said the Grounds Keeper.

To me it was fantastic to think that such a small thing will grow like the enormous formations surrounding us as we continued.

Through El Pakiva we continue down state constructed steps, a far cry from the days when Mitchell and his visitors had to wriggle and climb over and around rocks and boulders.

After El Pakiva, we move in single file through the “Solution Tube” and are stopped abruptly at “The Pit.”
Here, in the 1930s, Mitchell dropped flares which would slowly go out, never to be seen again, said the Grounds Keeper.

“Jack (Mitchell) called it the ‘Bottomless Pit’,” smiled our guide. “It’s not bottomless; it’s about 40 feet deep.”
In those days the tour had to stop, go back, wriggle again through the entrance and walk the trail to the second cavern, Tecopa, named after one of the last Shoshone chiefs.

Now, there is a bridge and an opening to Tecopa, both built by the state.

There was also air-lock doors between the two caverns to eliminate a steady draft that blew through the caves once the state connected them together.

Archaeologists have found the remains of prehistoric animals, including a pre-historic sloth in Tecopa Cavern.
Throughout these caves there is evidence of Native-American life. The caverns were a sacred place for the Chemehuevi Indians, and a number of tools and fire pits have been found.

The Chemehuevi people called the caves the “the eyes of the mountain” because of their double entrances located near the top of Fountain Peak Mountain.

Much later, Jack Mitchell owned the caves (from 1934 to 1954) and operated them as a tourist attraction and rest stop for travelers on nearby U.S. Route 66. He held mining rights to the area and mined several holes and tunnels, which can be seen today.

In 1956 the caves became a state recreation area.

“They are an island of state owned land within the federal Mojave National Preserve,” said Miller.
The Caverns were closed in 2011.

Like the closing of Mitchell Caverns, we ended our tour as we emerge from Tecopa Cavern into the sunlight of Fountain Peak Mountain, and thread back along Jack Mitchell’s old cavern trail, sadly leaving behind our fantastical experience.

And back to our normal lives in the Santa Clarita Valley.