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