If there is one measure that separates those who know the region and those who do not, it is knowledge of cool, quick getaway trips. You know the occasional complaints heard from the newbies in Las Vegas, such as, “It’s like an island in the desert!” Well, not exactly—at least not to inquiring minds. One case in point: Mitchell Caverns.
Located in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve, which, as you hopefully know by now, is a glorious, sprawling 1.6 million acres of sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones and Joshua trees. Standing tall as the sweetest attraction in the endless series of photo ops is Mitchell Caverns, a series of limestone caves situated at 4,300 feet in elevation in the most eastern part of the preserve.
The caverns get their name from Jack Mitchell, the first owner (not counting the Chemehuevi Indians and the long-extinct ground sloth). A tireless promoter for tours of his find, Mitchell created the first paved roads that led to the caverns. The California State Park System took over in 1954 and continues the promotion to this day.
The site is a mere two hours away, and it offers an amazing respite for those willing to be caught off-guard. The visuals as you ascend in elevation could rival anything on the Discovery Channel, including the array of looming yuccas, the burning hues of red rhyolite and the wry demeanor of wandering bighorn sheep.
Yet there’s no doubt what the main attraction is. These caverns are the result of sedimentary limestone and marble being dissolved by groundwater high in carbonic acid content. After the dissolution, the caverns were formed. They consist of three basic caves that he called El Pakiva (a.k.a. Devil’s House), Tecopa (after a Shoshone chief) and the deeply vertical and quite aptly named Winding Stair Cave, a dangerous cavern that is off-limits to the general public. Adding to the allure is the cool crispness of underground air and some artful formations of the stalactites (dripstone deposits extending downward from the ceiling) and stalagmites (those building upward from the floor) that make these caverns a playful labyrinth.
The tours are well-organized walks with sharply informed tour guides who can answer a list of questions ranging from the historical to the environmental. They last 90 minutes, and the walk is not terribly strenuous (there are even stairs), save for the half-mile walk from the visitors’ center to the caverns. The temperatures inside the caves are cool (about 65 degrees), with the air normally warming up in July and August, but given the cool weather in recent months, now’s a great time to visit.
If you go …
Directions: The recreation area is in the eastern Mojave Desert, 56 miles from Needles, Calif. From Las Vegas, head south on Interstate 15, past the state line, and get off at the Nipton exit. Turn left on Nipton Road and head 3.5 miles before making a right on Ivanpah Road. Drive three miles and turn right on Morning Star Mine Road. Drive 18 miles to Cedar Canyon Road, then head east six miles to Black Canyon Road. Turn right and drive south till you hit the T-intersection with Essex Road. Turn right and drive six miles to the end of the road.
Tours: 1:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. weekends. Admission is $6 for adult; $3 for child under 16. Call (760) 928-2586.
Nearby places of interest: Head back down to Morning Star Mine Road and make a left and drive for another 18 miles to the Kelso Train Depot. Kelso, a once prominent railroad stop that provided water for steam locomotives, has turned the depot into a very colorful museum. Best of all there is a diner in the depot that serves good comfort food such as soup and sandwiches, and great root-beer floats. Another dining option is, if you find yourself back on Nipton Road, head a few miles in the other direction from the I-15 to the Nipton Café (right next to the general store), where Chef Bill will make you some of the best blue-cheese bacon burgers in the West—and, yes, they serve beer.