“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit,” nature essayist Edward Abbey wrote 50 years ago in Desert Solitaire, “as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
Two desert institutions carry on where Abbey left off, educating visitors and residents, connecting them with the outdoors, and creating defenders of this majestic, albeit fragile, wilderness.
At the heart of the Coachella Valley is the dramatic Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, supported by the Friends of the Desert Mountains. The organization’s goal is to stoke a passion for the environment through recreation programs, like monthly full-moon hikes, weekly interpretive walks, citizen science experiences, and annual festivals.
“The common misconception about the desert is that it’s a barren wasteland,” says Colin Barrows, conservation coordinator for Friends of the Desert Mountains. “You might think there’s nothing alive out there, but once we get you out on the trail, there’s so much to discover. You just have to get into it.”
In addition to preservation through land acquisition, Friends of the Desert Mountains hosts programs free to the public. Even the smallest conservationists can participate in children’s story time or the young explorers group, while adults can enjoy lectures, nature-themed film screenings, or star tours in collaboration with the Astronomical Society of the Desert.
The organization’s signature event is the annual Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival, a free, daylong celebration of springtime blooms, held the first Saturday in March. Combining wellness, recreation, and outdoor fun, the festival features wildflower hikes, a kids’ zone, and exhibits by local artists and conservation groups.
“As much as possible we like to have family-friendly events, so we can start building that love of the desert at an early age,” Barrows says. “And the idea is that we want to have free activities, so there is no barrier for people to enjoy the natural environment.”
Taking a budding passion for nature one step further is the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park, founded by the park to provide adult education programming. Many classes offer credit through the University of California, Riverside Extension.
The distinctive park has long captured the imaginations of outdoor adventurists, artists, and visionaries, but more recently its popularity has soared among millennial vagabonds, hipsters, and families. Director Kevin Wong says the Desert Institute’s offerings are designed to engage everyone by showing off lesser-known locales and providing instruction in wilderness skills.
“We get out into nature and go find those hidden gems of the desert,” Wong says. “Our classes are a hell of a lot more fun than taking an online class.”
Some of the popular courses are night photography, hands-on science lessons, and backcountry hiking excursions.
“Part of the idea was to create a community here, so we’re constantly working on our educational offerings,” Wong says. “We already have a great crowd of conservationists and environmentalists, and we’re building on that existing relationship with the natural world.”
Due to overcrowding issues within Joshua Tree, the Desert Institute recently increased the number of programs offered outside the park’s boundaries. Some workshops take place at the Salton Sea or along Route 66, conservation classes are held at Copper Mountain College’s preserve, and geology classes explore the volcanic Amboy crater and vast sand dunes of the Mojave National Preserve.
“We have the full range of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts,” Wong says, “and we take full advantage of that.”