California Cave Trips Offer Exploratory Plunge Into Abyss of Ancient Earthly Delights

If you’re looking for a pristine getaway that promises unforgettable beauty, the lure of the abyss and the rare exhilaration of discovery, spend a weekend underground--exploring caves.

“Caving is about the spirit of adventure,” said John Scheltens, a civil engineer and president of the National Speleological Society based in Huntsville, Ala. “You’re constantly asking yourself what’s around the next corner . . . the next bend.”

Schelten’s wife, Pat, values the friendships she has made in more than 12 years of caving. “It’s an uncommon group of people--nuclear scientists, engineers, plumbers, teachers and so forth--who share the common goal of exploring and preserving one of our last frontiers,” she said.

Perhaps the best place to start is at a meeting of the Southern California Grotto of the National Speleological Society. Members meet at the Pasadena Library the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. to show slides of recent outings and to preview upcoming trips.


The Right Direction

“Local grottoes can point novices in the right direction so they don’t endanger themselves or the environment,” Scheltens said. “Caving is like anything else. To enjoy it, you have to know what you’re doing. We certainly don’t want people out there with just a flashlight.”

Grotto members show a willingness to share information with those who express a serious interest in underground exploration, although some hard-core spelunkers are tight-lipped when asked to disclose their favorite caves. They worry about vandals with spray cans and curiosity seekers who stray from clearly marked paths inside the caves for picture-taking or mischief-making.

“Living caves are extremely vulnerable to any form of human intrusion” said Eldon Hughes, past chairman of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The oil from the touch of a single fingertip can abruptly halt the growth of a 20-foot stalactite that has been forming at the rate of 1 inch per 100 years.”


Cave Allies on the Hill

Cave conservationists are recruiting powerful allies on Capitol Hill. Last November, Congress passed the Cave Resources Protection Act (100-691), which authorizes the aggressive protection and conservation of the nation’s underground caverns. And the California Cave Protection Act (Section 623 of the California Penal Code) is another example of the new measures now on the books. If a souvenir hunter snaps off a stalactite, he is breaking not only a bridge to the past but also the law.

“Everybody who’s in it (caving) is trying to keep it as pure as it was,” said Lisa DeLuchia, a Southern California Grotto member and television publicist for KCOP.

In addition to their concern for conservation, many members of the underground believe caving is in danger of becoming the next yuppie sport.

“We don’t want to go snow skiing with the rest of L.A.,” said DeLuchia, who spent a recent holiday with her husband, Don, 1,000 feet underground in Lechuguia Cavern in New Mexico.

If you get below the surface to probe some of the planet’s deepest and darkest mysteries, take precautions: Any cave that is not commercial--one without benefit of a guided tour, professional lighting systems, well-marked paths and the like--can be extremely hazardous. Even seasoned cavers rarely travel in groups of fewer than four and with fewer than three sources of light. And always remember the caving credo: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time.”

For those who are eager to be underground, here are some places to go:

Mitchell Caverns


Spring is an ideal time to visit Mitchell Caverns, which are part of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Park in the Eastern Mojave Desert.

At an elevation of 4,300 feet, the limestone caves retain a temperature of 65 degrees and feature a wide variety of spectacular formations.

The Chemehuevi Indians settled on the Providence mountain slopes about 500 years ago. Charred cavern walls and hidden caches of food and tools are evidence of their frequent visits to the caves. The Indian way of life began to change in earnest in the mid-1800s as miners, explorers, settlers and the Army began arriving in large numbers.

Today, the Chemehuevis live on a reservation next to the Colorado River, but members of the tribe occasionally return to the place of their ancestors and even take the Mitchell Caverns tour, according to George Hernandez, who leads visitors through the caverns.

“They always add some personal stories and remembrances that you won’t find in any official history of the area,” Hernandez said.

The Mitchell Caverns owe their name to Jack and Ida Mitchell, who in the 1920s ran a successful construction and real-estate business in Los Angeles. Then Jack inherited a silver mine in Kingman, Ariz., and on one of his frequent trips to work the mine, he stopped in Essex, where a rancher told him about the caverns in the Providence Mountains 23 miles away.

With grand visions of the West’s newest tourist attraction, Mitchell soon gained the rights to the caves by staking claims in the area.

Bottom Fell Out


The Great Depression dried up Mitchell’s financial resources and his potential pool of sightseeing customers. Disconsolate, he returned to Los Angeles.

The couple eventually moved

back to the caverns and in 1934, began offering tours to the public.

Alas, Jack was killed in 1954 when a car he was working on rolled off its jack.

Later that year, the State of California purchased 97 acres from the Mitchell family. The official grand opening as part of the state park was in 1959.

The caverns are open Sept. 16 through June 15 . Tickets: adults , $3 ; children 6-17 , $1 . From Los Angeles, take Interstate 15 north to Barstow, head east on Interstate 40 to Essex Road turnoff. Go north on Essex Road for 17 miles, park below the visitors’ center. Campsites are $6 a night.

The park also is the home of the Cave of the Winding Stair, 1 1/2 miles north of Mitchell Caverns. Because of its level of difficulty, qualified cavers must make reservations at least two weeks in advance, sign waivers and undergo a sort of dress rehearsal in front of the ranger before he hands them the keys to the cave gate.

Write Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, Post Office Box 1, Essex, Calif. 92332-0001. There is no phone.

Pisgah Lava Tubes

Described as caves only a geologist could love, the Pisgah lava tubes are, nonetheless, examples of caves created by volcanic action. The lava that spewed from the volcano cooled and solidified on the surface and also hardened along the ground. Streams of molten rock then flowed through the slowly hardening channels and drained away, leaving a network of tunnels behind.

The horizontal passageways here are small and cramped, unlike some of the lava tubes in Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. The lava tubes are on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and the Twin Mountain Quarry Rock Co., about 35 miles east of Barstow.

For access, call Ken Schulte of the BLM at (619) 256-3591, Monday through Friday.

La Jolla Sea Caves

For thousands of years, the fury of waves blasting into the sandstone cliffs has carved out the seven sea caves of La Jolla. The largest cave is called Sunny Jim, which at the entrance looks like the profile of a man’s head. While it’s not known who “Sunny Jim” was, one popular theory suggests he was a comic-strip character at the turn of the century.

Access to Sunny Jim is through a man-made tunnel from the La Jolla Cave and Shell Shop, 1325 Coast Blvd. Visitors descend 133 steps, then cross a walkway to a platform near the ocean entrance of the cave. Take a moment to contemplate the great natural forces at work, because there’s only one way back--the same 133 steps you came down.

Construction of the tunnel began innocently enough in 1902, when Gustav Schulz, a German professor, began digging with a pick and shovel for fossils in the sandstone. About halfway up, he decided to complete the tunnel so that it would exit into his cabin, which is the present-day curio shop. The next year, visitors were hauling themselves up and down the 125-foot tunnel with ropes to meet Sunny Jim face to face. While there are no man-made tunnels to the other six caves, they can be viewed from the sandstone bluffs above.

Fee: adults, $1; children 3-11 , 50 cents . Exit the La Jolla Village Drive turn - off and head west to Torrey Pines Road. Turn left and proceed to Prospect Place. Turn right and continue to Coast Boulevard.

The Northern part of California is honeycombed with caves. A few of the more popular ones that are well within the reach of Southern California are:

Crystal Cave

Discovered in 1918 by two trout fishermen, Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park sparkles with delicate crystals, translucent pastel draperies and pencil-thin stalactites. The Sequoia Natural History Assn. conducts 45-minute tours Friday through Monday, May through June 16, and daily through Sept. 11. There’s a long waiting list for the extended tour--limited to eight people who are outfitted with overalls, knee pads and helmet lights--which takes visitors to little-known areas of the cave. Cost: $35 per person, by reservation only.

For information and reservations, write the Sequoia Natural History Assn. of Ash Mountain, Box 10, Three Rivers, Calif. 93271, or call (209) 565-3341, Ext. 234.

Boyden Cave

Boyden Cave in Kings Canyon National Park, open May through October, is a 1,000-foot marble cave that runs beneath part of the massive Kings Gate. The 50-minute walking tour is $4 for adults, $2 for children 6-12.

Write Boyden Cave, P.O. Box 78, Vallecito, Calif. 95251, or phone (209) 736-2708.

Moaning Cave

Located near Angel’s Camp in the Mother Lode, Moaning Cave is a limestone cave dominated by one room that is big enough to house the Statue of Liberty. For the daring, a 180-foot rappel into the cave is offered for $20.

“We’ve taken almost 20,000 people down into the cave with a perfect success record,” manager Jim Algeo said.

For the fainthearted, a walking tour via the spiral staircase is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children 6-12. There’s also a three-hour general spelunking trip for $35 that includes the rappel and the deeper exploration of the caverns. Reservations are required.

Write Moaning Cave, P.O. Box 78, Vallecito, Calif. 95251, or phone (209) 736-2708.

For more information, write the Southern California Grotto at 1828 Alpha Ave., South Pasadena, Calif. 91030.