Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, billed as California's most remote state park, hides in the midst of what some call the "Lonely Triangle" -- a four-million-acre spread of Mojave Desert landscape bounded by Interstate 15, Interstate 40, and the eastern California border. No tourist in his or her right mind, it would seem, would want to visit the place during midsummer -- but I've done it and do recommend it. It helps that one of California's best limestone caves -- Mitchell Caverns -- is onsite, offering a year-round interior temperature of about 65 degrees.
These days, a big chunk of the Lonely Triangle goes by the name "Mojave National Preserve." That's only a step or two below national-park status. Because the state recreation area and caverns lie within the border of this newly recognized national treasure, they have begun to attract more notoriety and visitors.
You must join a guided tour to visit the interior of the caverns. The tour, homespun and personal, visits two interconnected caves, El Pakiva and Tecopa. Both caves are somewhat short on cavernous space but long on intricate decorations. Stalactites, stalagmites, and columns -- plus shield, helictite, and coral-pipe formations -- are well displayed with the help of electric lighting.
To get to Mitchell Caverns, drive 100 miles east of Barstow on Interstate 40, and exit on Essex Road. (Don't miss that exit or any other exit in these parts; it's a long way to the next one.) Drive 10 miles north on Essex Road, bear left at a road fork, and continue another 5 miles uphill to the end of the road, where you'll find the Mitchell Caverns ranger station and a six-unit campground. Both are perched high on an alluvial fan, 4300 feet above sea level, right beneath craggy ramparts of the Providence Mountains.
At this slightly rarefied height, midsummer temperatures usually peak in the 90s -- distinctly cooler than on the lower-elevation flats you see spread below you. An overnight stay in the campground can be downright pleasant, but only after about 6 p.m., when the sun disappears behind the mountain ridge to the west.
Summer visitors, few in number, are offered just two tours a week -- Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Each tour starts at the ranger station, beginning with a half-mile walk to the cave entrance along a trail carved into the mountainside. After that little trek in the hot sun, you'll greatly appreciate the time you spend in the cool caverns.
Tickets for the tour are $4 for adults, $2 for kids, and free for children under age 6. It's wise to call first for reservations, 760-928-2586. Camping, which costs $9 per night, is available first come, first served.