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Far Below and High Above | Three Ways #1

We didn't plan to go to the Mojave. In fact, I've felt as though - over the last year - I've spent too much time in California, and I've had an urge to find myself back in places like Utah and Colorado. Alas, with a fantastic trip planned to hike the canyons of the Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa, the weather did not cooperate. Snow - and lots of it - blanketed southeast Utah; rain spread across much of the lowland south. And so, at the last minute, I whipped up an itinerary to the only place I could find with clear skies: the Mojave Preserve.

The signs into the Mojave Preserve are really something special.

Of course, there's always plenty to do in the Mojave, and having last visited in 2020 I had no shortage of places that we'd missed on previous visits, that fellow explorers had suggested I'd enjoy, or that I'd seen mentioned in a trip report I'd read online.

With less than 12 hours to departure, I'd pulled together a loop that would:

  • take us to some pictographs,
  • expose us to the highest concentration of petroglyphs in the preserve,
  • and have us wandering through wonderlands of rock and rock formations.

It would be a trip full of rocks. And art. Rock Art Three Ways.

Into the Preserve, Out of the Preserve

For the last few years - as a result of Covid-19 - a small slice of land within the Preserve has been closed to the public. Technically run by the state of California, the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area is the site of Mitchell Caverns - a series of caves and passageways that extend deep into the hillsides.

Looks like the Mojave Preserve. Is not.

The catch with Mitchell Caverns is that you can only explore the caverns at 11:00am or 2:00pm on Friday, Saturday or Sunday as part of a guided tour. And, you can only sign up for a tour via phone between 8:00am and 5:00pm on Mondays. Confusing much?

Naturally, it was Tuesday when I realized this, but naive as ever, we showed up at 9:30am, hoping that there was still room in the 11:00am tour.

With the Providence Mountains rising behind, the bright stars and stripes looked great waving in the breeze.

While I'm a firm believer in hard work, it's also important to acknowledge that sometimes it's just better to be lucky. As we strode up to the counter and announced that we hoped to get our name on the roster for the tour, I could see the smirk appear on the park ranger's face. Clearly, tours - which were limited to 15 people - generally filled up well in advance of our measly 90-minute buffer. Prepping ourselves for disappointment, the ranger was nearly as surprised as we were when he said, "It's your lucky day, a group of Boy Scouts came with fewer people than they expected, so you can join their tour."

It's hard to underscore how lucky we really were. For the next hour-and-a-half - as we ate breakfast and wandered around waiting for the tour to begin - we watched as several other folks made their way into the office, only to be turned away for the entire weekend - all tours spoken for long before. Perhaps a lottery ticket would have been the appropriate way to celebrate.

While my non-video story format likely sports very few young audience members - if there are any - this is a device that allows one to insert small metal pieces of money (called "coins") and then carry on a short "voice text" with another person.

Shadows played over the Providence Mountains as we waited for the tour to begin.

This cholla seemed to have fewer spines than others we usually see. Still evil though.
(anyone know the variety?)

At 11:00am sharp, the Scouts - Troop 1814 - wandered up from the campground where they'd spent the previous evening, and it was time to get started. After a quick set of ground rules - most importantly, "do not touch anything," - we headed along a significantly improved old mining trail to the mouth of the caverns.

Dual portals.

Named for Jack and Ida Mitchell - who owned and operated the caves between 1934 and 1954 - the caverns were discovered long before the Mitchell's converted them to a tourist attraction and rest stop for travelers on nearby U.S. Route 66.

Scientists have found the remains of several prehistoric animals, including a 9-foot tall, 500 lb. Shasta ground sloth inside the caverns. Today, several species of insect are endemic to the caverns, and a single family of packrats has maintained a nest for more than 90 years.

The caverns were also a special place for the Chemehuevi Indians, and a number of tools and material culture have been found. wikipedia

The Chemehuevi knew the caves as "the eyes of the mountain" due to their easily spotted dual entrances located on the side of the mountain.

Expansive desert view from "the eyes of the mountain."

We were assured that it was 100% totally safe to enter the caverns. You know, just like mine adits.

As it had on the way to the caverns, once inside the tour progressed slowly. I'm sure this is deliberate - to accommodate less nimble visitors, to make it seem like you're really getting your moneys worth - but both @mrs.turbodb and I found ourselves yearning for the self-guided nature of our absolutely amazing experience at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Still, the interior of the caverns was pretty darn cool.

Some stalactites hanging near the entrance.

A ceiling of daggers. Careful where you walk.

Petrified waterfall. (Flowstone.)

A rare parachute cave shield, where water exits the cave wall horizontally instead of vertically, creating a shield-like stalactite.

The main room and its columns (left). | A narrow, winding passage (right).

Ceiling carrots.

The dungeon.

Even in here, they're using LEDs! (Well, in this case, black lights.) Eat your heart out, Mike @mk5!

Because, blacklights.

After a long couple of hours - and way too many corny jokes by our guide - we emerged from the caverns into the early afternoon shade. A strong westerly wind was pushing an atmospheric river across southern California and towards Utah; we could only hope that it'd dumped all of its moisture along the coast. Ready to get going a little faster, @mrs.turbodb headed for the Tacoma and the promise of turkey sandwiches and Fritos.

Goodbye, sun. Please come back soon.

Uh Oh, Rain

As afternoon wore on, we found ourselves at the northwest corner of the preserve. A place we've passed by several times - but always in a rush to "get somewhere else" - it was only after seeing a photo from Ken @DVExile that I fully realized what we'd been missing.

This is not an uncommon occurrence for me - it seems that any time Ken goes somewhere, his photography skills result in my desire to see the location for myself - and this little mountain, surrounded by a vast wilderness was no different. Plus - I hoped - it would afford us a slightly sheltered camp site given the windy conditions that were sweeping through the Mojave.

With it looking like it might they sky might shed a tear or two, we decided to setup the tent while we weren't getting wet.

Heading up the sandy slopes to the ridge.

Almost immediately, there were signs of spring. Not from above - where winter still seemed in full control - but from below, where the smallest of desert dwellers were beginning to put on a show.

Brilliant bloom. (Fishhook Cactus, Mammillaria tetrancistra)

Colorful cage. (Barrel Cactus)

Even as a light rain began to fall, the hike to the top of Little Cowhole Mountain was delightfully pleasant. The grade wasn't steep and the moisture in the air helped to compact the usually-sandy surface. And the views. All along the ridgeline, the views were everything we'd hoped for and more.

A striking series of contrasts. Desert rain. Green hillsides and sandy slopes. Sprawling desert and rugged ranges.

Below, an old mining cabin has seen better days. (El Lobo Mine; copper)

We reached the summit just before 5:30pm - perfect timing given sunset 25 minutes later. Clouds rushing overhead, the intensity of the rain showers ebbed and flowed as I hopped from position to position, trying to find the perfect photo to capture the dramatic landscape.

Much more put together, @mrs.turbodb perused a peak log she found tucked away in an old tin can, its pages filled with those few who'd come before us.

Looking out towards Cowhole Mountain to the south.

This small notebook was less than 5% full, though it'd been here since 2006!

To the west, Soda Lake was looking a bit squishy.
(The road across was closed by NPS at this time.)

With all the clouds and wet stuff falling from the sky, we were reasonably sure that we weren't going to get any type of show as the sun dropped below the horizon. But - as had been the case earlier in the day - luck was on our side!

And again, we neglected to pick up a lottery ticket.

Pink rain glowing in the distance.

A purple light blanketed the land.

Bracing ourselves against the gusty winds, we stood there for several minutes enjoying the private show that nature seems to unveil as often as we're willing to watch. It wasn't what I'd pictured - or rather, what Ken had literally pictured "for me" - but I couldn't have been more pleased. Though, some handwarmers would have been nice, I suppose.

It was a quick trek back down the ridge to camp, the rain picking up a bit as we arrived back at the Tacoma under the cover of (nearly) darkness.

Making a quick check of the weather - we were still close enough to civilization to have a single bar of service - we were delighted to see that the rain would let up during the night. That would mean falling asleep to the pitter patter of drops on the rain fly, while allowing plenty of time for the tent to dry before we had to put it away in the morning.

And so, after munching on a few snacks - to avoid cooking a full dinner in the rain, and reading for a bit in the cab - we climbed up into our nest for our first night in the Mojave.




The Whole Story


  1. Darlene
    Darlene April 26, 2023

    I am so glad I subscribed to your blog and sometimes I can't wait to comment.

    That is a silver cholla, I think. Of course I have known to be wrong. Maybe. I think. Could be. Nah. It could be a golden cholla.

    I have been in a few caverns, but that's the first I've seen of a parachute shield. Do you think Mike will quit talking to you for a bit when he sees the black lights in the caverns?

    Ooh, I love the pink rain.

    I've been on three superblooms, March, February and April (the last two in the same year). It is impossible for me to go on another one at this time, and I'm jealous of those who are able to go with only 12 hours notice. The quickest planning I did was six weeks. I usually start planning the day I get back from a trip. The flower trip in March was exciting. I got home and every major highway/freeway in Colorado was closed the next day because of huge state-wide snow storms. I wouldn't have made it home for a couple of days had I waited. Interstate 70 can be real cranky in the winter.

    Eagerly waiting for the next episode.

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 26, 2023

      I'm glad you are here as well Darlene - it's always nice to find like-minded folks with which to gush over the fantastic beauty of nature.

      I have yet to make it to a single super bloom, so with three in your pocket, count me jealous! I was hoping for one this year (given all the rain last Aug/Sep), but apparently the rain needs to fall more in the Nov/Dec timeframe for the spring bloom. At least, in DVNP, which is where I'd most like to see it.

      That cholla is not a sliver (here's a silver), but could be a gold!

      • Darlene
        Darlene April 27, 2023

        The first super bloom I went to was 2016, Death Valley. Two huge storm cells sat over the park in October 2015 dumping nearly 3 inches all at once. There hadn't been one since 2005, they occur every 10 to 15 years, give or take a decade. The second was 2017, so they don't always follow a set schedule. The second was Anza Borrego, February. I'd actually gone too early, but did catch quite a bloom in Ocotillo Wells. It was exciting to catch a desert lily and desert lupine. So I returned in early April and it was better. Joshua and Mojave were awash with the yucca in full bloom.

        There was a haboob occurrence in August 2022 over the Mojave, but instead of dust, it brought massive rains and a lot of damage to the Preserve. It will be interesting to see what the Preserve looks like later in the summer. The Mojave Road may still be closed in spots by then.

        I took a detour to the north to Antelope Valley-California Poppy Preserve, but was too late for that one. The poppy fields that spring were show offs, but there aren't many flowers left in bloom.

        DesertUSA website has a wildflower report every year. There are reports from Northern California across Arizona, and includes Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas. Readers send in reports. Check out the website. It really is a good resource to plan superblooms.

        I'm thinking the California rains and snow were too early and too far up north. The 2016 bloom in March occurred after the 2015 rains in October that caused flooding damage in DV. Scotty's Castle is still closed. Of course the downpour of August didn't help. There is always one or two flowers in bloom no matter the year, but those winter rains make it a sure thing.

        There's been a lot of destructive flooding in the southwest desert the past few years. Climate Change?

  2. Bill Rambo
    Bill Rambo April 29, 2023

    As usual, a great read with great scenery. I did the cavern trip in mid-90s at Carlsbad and enjoyed it. Loved caving throughout Texas too. But always wanted to head in your direction to see those caves. Was this a dry cave? Never seen a parachute shield, but this cave seemed to have lots of sticky uppys and hangy downies.

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 29, 2023

      Thanks Bill! We really loved Carlsbad Caverns as well, which we visited just before we ran the New Mexico Backcountry Discovery Route (NMBDR). In fact, when we were at Mitchell Caverns - which are dry by the way, or at least, drier than Carlsbad - that while we thought the were cool, we really liked the ability to "self-guide" ourselves through Carlsbad Caverns. Here, at Mitchell Caverns, you have to stay with the guide the entire time, and they are very particular about the ways in which they go about preservation. To some extent I get this, because if you let enough people into a place like that, it's bound to get semi-ruined, but the guide wouldn't - for instance - allow me to use a tripod for photography.

      Anyway, that's not to say that they aren't worth seeing - they totally are - just that the experience is a bit different than Carlsbad, which was one of the coolest experiences I've had!

    JOHN D MORAN April 29, 2023

    It's sad what the state has done with Mitchell Caverns. I visited there many decades ago but now, like some other places here in CA, the state has made it difficult to visit. I've wanted to take my wife there for several years but we try to avoid crowds and Fri-Sat-Sun places seldom fit our plans. In any case the Mojave is a very large area (we live here) so unlike parks in Utah (and also Yosemite, etc. in CA), there is plenty of room in the Mojave to visit places that are not crowded. This year we've had huge amounts of rain which, unfortunately, have made some of the best areas inaccessible due to washed out roads.

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 29, 2023

      Yes, it is certainly a difficult place to visit, and we really just lucked out on this particular day - that we were able to "show up" and get a tour. Like you, the F/Sa/Su doesn't generally work for us, and wouldn't have even on this trip if we'd followed our planned itinerary.

      As for the Mojave and rain situation: my experience this year - albeit mostly in the DV area, but with a bit of Preserve and Joshua Tree/Dale Mining District thrown in - is that the roads aren't really all that different/worse than other years. Sure, there are a few major ones that are closed due to washouts, but I've found that they are usually easy to work around or that there are plenty of other places to explore that make it a "non-issue." Because, as you mention, the absolute best thing about these places is that there is plenty of room. My trip to the "populated" areas of Joshua Tree really underscored for me how wonderful the lesser-populated areas are, and how I've been spoiled by spending the vast majority of my time in those places when I'm out on trips.

      • JOHN D MORAN
        JOHN D MORAN April 29, 2023

        Yes, 100% correct. As much as I love Yosemite, we won't be going there again, it's turned into one big parking lot and the hikes are like one long line at Disneyland at the most popular rides, never ending. Utah has been my favorite for hikes and parks for a couple of decades and, so far, the crowds aren't bad. I think we are going to start looking at Arizona more also, maybe New Mexico too, we'll see. As always, enjoy your journeys and photos.

  4. Trish Brown
    Trish Brown May 11, 2023

    you've probably talked about it before but what kind of tent set up do you have. Nice photos and writing. Thanks

    • turbodb
      turbodb May 11, 2023

      Hi Trish, Glad to hear that you're enjoying the photos and stories!

      The tent setup I have is a CVT (Cascadia Vehicle Tents) Mt. Shasta. I wrote about my decision to purchase it (and what I had prior) in this post, and I put together a post about Things to Consider When Choosing a Roof Top Tent a bit more recently.

      In general I've enjoyed the tent (I still have it and it was one of my first purchases!) but like all soft-shell RTTs, it has some issues. The two major ones are that it's noisy in the wind and that the zipper on the cover deteriorates over time (dirt/dust are the culprits, so keeping it clean can help prolong its life).

      Hope that helps. If you have specific questions, please feel free to ask. ?

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