Exploring Mitchell's Caverns
One of California’s most spectacular wonders lies deep under the ground at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. The Mitchell Caverns are formed from limestone that was once plant and animal materials that formed when this area was the bottom of a shallow sea.
In 1929, when Jack Mitchell, a Los Angeles house painter, visited the desert seeking silver to mine, he became fascinated with what was then being called the “Crystal” or “Providence” caves. His imagination soared, considering the possibilities of these beautiful—but hidden—spires, draperies and other intricate formations.
Mitchell built a road and provided food, lodging and guided tours of the caverns to groups that grew as word of this unique attraction became known. Until his death in 1954, Mitchell led tours of as many as 100 visitors at a time through the narrow, winding passages and crawl spaces of the caverns.
Geology of the Caverns
The creation of the caverns dates back to the Pleistocene epoch. Earth’s surface buckled and shifted along the now-extinct fault lines that cross the Mojave Desert, creating mountains and moving the limestone formations above the surface of the ancient ocean floor. As the deposits moved upward, water flowing through the fractured rock began to form the caverns.
Hundreds of stalagmites, stalactites and other natural formations adorn the caverns. These formations resulted from mineralized water seeping down into the underground caves over millions of years. As rainwater trickled down through the soil, it absorbed carbon dioxide released by tiny microorganisms that live in the organic subsurface. The water, now a weak solution of carbonic acid, passed through the cracks and pockets of the layered beds of limestone, dissolving it away.
As the mineralized water dripped down from the cave’s ceiling, stalactites slowly formed, covering the ceiling and the walls with natural “draperies.” Stalagmites formed after the ceiling’s drippings landed on the cave’s floor. This caused a buildup of mineral deposits, creating vertical rock formations that resembled spires. In rare cases, the stalactite drippings and the stalagmite buildup merged, creating a column that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Until recently, it was believed that the cavern’s formations had stopped growing. Studies illustrated that years of heavy rainfall brought mineralized water down into the caves, continuing the growth of the cavern’s rock formations.
Cultural artifacts discovered in the caverns, dating back several centuries, indicate that the Chemehuevi and Mojave people were the predominant indigenous groups here. Soot-blackened walls and hidden caches of food, tools and other objects attest to their use by the Chemehuevi and Mojave during ceremonial events and seasonal hunting expeditions.
These people lived along the Colorado River, and were known to grow some of their food. Both groups were skilled craftspeople—the Chemehuevi women were skilled basket makers, and the Mojave were prolific potters.
Today the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance, which includes the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Quechan and Cocopah groups, are actively preserving the river as an aquifer and as a living, vital habitat.
Although an impressive tourist destination, Mitchell Caverns is currently closed to the public. To learn more about Providence Mountains SRA and Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve, go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=615