Into The Wild

Ann Japenga Hiking 0 Comments


The tribal ranger unlocked the Indian Canyons gate at 4:30 a.m., swinging open the bars to admit a white camper van carrying photographer Tom Brewster and his assistant. Sand lashed the empty parking lot as the two unloaded their gear. They slogged up the switchbacks of the Maynard Mine trail, shielding their eyes from the wind and grit. Finally, the sky lightened. The assistant clutched the tripod legs to keep the camera from toppling and Brewster got off 50 shots. Only three were in focus — not the most productive morning, Brewster concedes.

But he was elated. After three decades of photographing the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains (you have probably seen his images on billboards and in magazines), he was finally seeing it as it’s meant to be seen. He had ventured only to the edges. But in the last six months, he has immersed himself in the backcountry and learned its secret: You have to go out and get it. In the dark, in the wind, in the cold. Go to it.

As the monument celebrates its 10-year anniversary, people are still confused about this place Brewster reveres. Where is it exactly? What is it?

Established in October 2000, the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument covers 280,000 acres and is managed by a consortium, including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Mount San Jacinto State Park, and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

That hardly concerns you, the visitor. What you do need to know is that the monument is the mass of mountain that dominates Palm Springs and all the Coachella Valley cities.

It begins as you enter Palm Springs on Highway 111 from Interstate 10 and stretches south past Indian Wells to the Salton Sea and the borders of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The divide between the two namesake mountain ranges is Palm Canyon. To the north are the San Jacintos; to the south, the Santa Rosas.

From almost anywhere on the valley floor, you can view the pivotal peaks — San Jacinto and Santa Rosa — and the great gashes of the major canyons: Chino (home to Palm Springs Aerial Tramway), Tachevah, Tahquitz, and Deep Canyon (where Highway 74 winds up the mountain in south Palm Desert). Farther south, where the land is even drier, you’ll find Martinez Canyon and some of the least-traveled paths in California. Parts of the southern Santa Rosas are so remote that, not long ago, a BLM computer-mapping expert got lost there and had to be airlifted out.

Think of a national monument as a national park — but with fewer logo mouse pads and key chains. Because of these mountains’ exemplary history, topography, and plant and animal life, they are deemed important to the nation. The monument designation links the Coachella Valley to the grand history of American conservation — to John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Henry Thoreau.


If you look back far enough, you’ll see the precursor to this 10th anniversary was the collision of tectonic plates and the rising of molten lava millions of years ago. Geologic unrest formed the Peninsular Ranges Province, a chain of mountains reaching 900 miles from San Jacinto peak south to the tip of Baja.

When everything settled down, the new landform sported an unusual range of elevations and habitats, from below sea level to nearly 11,000 feet, from sand dunes to mesquite, willow, and cottonwood forests, palm oases, and timberland. Almost anything a species wanted it could find here in five distinct life zones.

The plants and animals living here include many threatened or endangered species, some hanging on in the isolated “island” habitats of the high San Jacintos. They range from the well-known Peninsular bighorn sheep to the little-known Hidden Lake blue curl and the mountain yellow-legged frog. The frog dwindled perilously in recent years, but is being reintroduced to the mountains by scientists from the University of California and San Diego Zoo.

Humans also found plenty to like in the diverse landscape. The Cahuilla Indians settled in villages along streams and near groves of native Washingtonia filifera palms, migrating to the higher elevations to harvest edible agave and pinyon nuts. The first Europeans to see the ranges included explorers Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774 and Captain Jose Romero in 1823. Later came gold miners and cattle ranchers, and still later the nature-loving hermits like songwriter eden ahbez, who wrote his hit “Nature Boy” in Tahquitz Canyon. The Desert Riders horse club, active since 1930, made and maintains many of the trails we hike today. (Cahuilla Indians were the original architects of many trails.)

From the start, anyone with an eye for beauty and nature could see this special habitat needed protection. Carl Eytel, an impoverished local artist, lived only for the timeless solace of the hills. “Men come and go, but the Tahquitz Creek goes on forever,” he wrote in a 1918 letter. Mount San Jacinto State Park (a state park within the monument boundaries) was established in 1928. Around the same time, there was a proposal to make the Indian Canyons a national park (the proposal failed). A series of state game refuges and ecological and wilderness areas followed. More and more people were coming to a bedrock conviction that — to borrow a slogan from historic preservationists — “This place matters.”

The momentum culminated in the 1980s when a select group of advocates converged in the valley. These monument forefathers and foremothers still live here: Buford Crites, Joan Taylor, Bill Havert, Jim DeForge, Cameron and Katie Barrows, Ed Kibbey, and Richard Milanovich. Another key player, Russ Kaldenberg, was hired in 1989 as the BLM area manager. The state BLM director, Ed Hastey, and Desert District Manager Gerald Hillier asked him to find a project the public could embrace.

Thanks to meetings with locals and a developing friendship with Crites, archaeologist Kaldenberg quickly realized the public embraced — above all — the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains. Hillier and Hastey ran the idea of a “national scenic area” by the Department of the Interior. After meetings upon meetings upon meetings, the Santa Rosa Mountains National Scenic Area was dedicated in 1990.

Invigorated by the victory, boosters began dreaming bigger. Hastey was the first to broach to U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack the idea of a national monument. In his view, the Coachella Valley was a “string of pearls” unusually blessed by natural areas — Dos Palmas, Big Morongo, Joshua Tree, etc. A prize pearl was the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. (Evidence of Hastey’s persuasiveness: A trail at the monument visitor center in Palm Desert was named for him.)

When the monument designation was granted, Hastey took pride in the fact the decree came by legislation, not the usual presidential dictate. To him, that means the honor was not handed down from on high. “The locals wanted it to happen,” he beams.


Ten years have passed since the monument gained its designation. It’s fair to ask what difference that status has made. Snowmelt still stains the face of Dry Falls each winter, the same as it did in 2000 or 1900. The bighorn rams still retreat to their bachelor pastures after breeding season ends. “Sometimes success is defined by things not being different,” says Crites, president of Friends of the Desert Mountains, a nonprofit group dedicated to mountain conservancy and education.

Sierra Club’s Jeff Morgan says the monument has stayed the same because it has been successful in bringing in funds to acquire land that otherwise might have been developed. “Most of the threat of development has gone away,” he says.

A few things have changed, of course. The popular Cahuilla Tewanet Overlook on Highway 74 is being revamped with new signage. And there’s a new Frank Bogert trailhead in Palm Springs and a fledgling Trail Steward program starting up through BLM. In a new outreach program, monument Ranger Tracy Albrecht is taking fourth-graders into the Indian Canyons, where they learn to tell igneous from sedimentary rocks and observe the metamorphosis of a giant palm-boring beetle.

Manager Jim Foote says the monument status has raised awareness that the local mountains are anointed — an awareness that leads to better backcountry manners. When people know they’re in a monument, they’re less likely to toss energy gel packets among the cholla.

“We want people to go from ‘I don’t know anything about this place’ to ‘This is ours,’” Foote says.

One of the successes at the 10-year mark has been the ability of so many organizations to work together. At the beginning, no one was quite sure if the forest service, BLM, state park, and myriad cities and agencies could manage this place as a whole. “We’re now a pretty cohesive group of stakeholders,” says Laurie Rosenthal, San Jacinto district ranger for the forest service. “It’s a huge success.”

So successful is the partnership model that BLM State Director Jim Abbott shows it off to bigwigs who come to see how it works. Among the distinguished visitors: Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “This is a model for other places in the West,” Abbott says.

Of course, it hasn’t been 10 years of unadulterated triumph. As the valley grows, monument managers deal with more and more “urban edge” problems: crowding on the Bump and Grind Trail, controversy over dogs on trails, and other issues. Program funding also has been a problem, with a tiny staff to oversee the very big mountains. Moreover, Bighorn Institute has cut back its helicopter surveys and is operating in the red. DeForge, the executive director, says the sheep are doing fine for now, but another crisis could come at any time. That’s his job: to worry about the lambs.


Those who heed photographer Brewster’s advice and see this monumental place for themselves may be surprised that — far from Palm Canyon Drive and El Paseo — there’s a lot happening. If you’re up near the Sawmill Trailhead and see a rangy man watering a Parry pinyon pine sapling with near-maternal care, that’s forest service archaeologist Daniel McCarthy. He has planted hundreds of pinyon seedlings in the mountains to replace plants disappearing due to drought.

Back in Bradley Canyon, you might run into bighorn researchers keeping track of surviving spring lambs (26 in May). Closer to upper Palm Canyon, you could be lucky enough to see a Wellman-family Texas Longhorn calf with the old 101 brand.

You could see Mike Schuler with pick and hoe cleaning up a trail. He built portions of Lykken Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, which cuts through the edge of the monument, in his vintage Morrison tractor, specially made for trail busting. For his contributions, Schuler has a trail in Palm Desert named after him.

Go out and you might meet Keith Bartleson tip-toeing into Pinyon Flat. He likes to sneak in quietly, picking up his hiking poles to avoid clatter, and then sit silently for a half-hour or so. When he does that, bighorn sheep or deer invariably show up, he says.

A longtime Desert Riders member, Bartleson learned the trails from horsemen like Bogert and Boo Hoff, but now prefers to go on foot. When he meets you on the trail, he’ll urge you to forget all about the trailblazers. Forget de Anza and Muir, forget the politicos and the agencies, too. When you’re out there, it’s just you and the mountains; you become the story, he says. “Today it’s your day.”


Photographer Tom Brewster has developed a special relationship with the mountains

Tom Brewster has long been the premier landscape photographer of the Coachella Valley. His photos of our canyons and peaks are instantly recognizable in ad campaigns for Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and on billboards and magazine pages.

So when the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument was born in 2000, it was natural that the man and the monument would evolve together.

Still, the St. Louis native was a tourist in the outdoors. He would mountain bike down Palm Canyon or drive up Dunn Road with a photo crew and models. He had a casual bond with the hills; it was not yet a relationship.

Something changed that: his 60th birthday. Brewster, who moved to the desert in 1977 for a job at Palm Springs Life, began obsessing over what would become his “Legacy” project: He has set out to document the mountain range like no one had ever done.

“It’s such a huge place, and I realized I really didn’t know what’s out there,” Brewster says, nursing a sore toe after a 13-mile hike. “I want to document these mountains in a way that will help preserve them.”

His project picked up steam after he met Jim Foote, who manages the monument for the Bureau of Land Management. Foote, who had been looking for a way to commemorate the monument’s 10th anniversary, liked the idea and became Brewster’s No. 1 supporter.

With limited backcountry chops, Brewster enlisted Keith Bartleson, a monument volunteer and longtime Desert Riders member, to help him learn the land. Bartleson sizes up people before guiding them into the mountains. At first, he was unsure whether the photographer would make it.

He may still have had doubts after the duo’s Cactus Spring hike. Brewster, an inexperienced backpacker, took along a $5 tube tent. “Well, I thought it was a tube, but it was really a ground cloth,” he says. When he unfolded it, the wind ripped the plastic out of his hands. “I threw it away.”

The two forged on, camping atop Santa Rosa peak, hiking on an old Indian trail near the Salton Sea at 3 a.m. On their marathon hike down the Jo Pond Trail into the west fork of Palm Canyon, the canyon walls closed in on both sides, the water ran low, and the rocks radiated 120 degrees. Still, after the ordeal, Brewster detoured back up the long, bumpy Santa Rosa Mountain road to catch a sunset shot.

Bartleson no longer doubted. “Tom proved he’s a mountain man,” he says.

In the five months since he started this “Legacy” project, Brewster has seen more of the Santa Rosas and San Jacintos than he did in the previous three decades of casual day-tripping.

While still recovering from his latest romp, Brewster already had maps out on his coffee table, planning a trek into Martinez Canyon to photograph a 1930s rock house. “I’m starting to find my way around,” he says. “I’ve only scratched the surface of this monument.”

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