I set up my tent at Whitewater Preserve, a scant 16 miles northwest of downtown Palm Springs, and marvel at this gemstone tucked away in our backyard. Thanks to its location, the weather is milder than in town, 10 to 15 degrees cooler on this early summer afternoon. The quiet is pervasive. I hear a trickle from the stream, welcome in the arid desert, along with the paper-bag rustle of wind in the cottonwoods. I lie on a picnic table staring up at the cotton-white clouds suspended, not moving, looking like they have no plans to change shape or be on their way any time soon. The wind down here, meanwhile, is making the cottonwood leaves jitterbug, moving all in one direction for a moment and then turning on a dime, like a school of fish.
Only two other campsites at Whitewater are occupied today, one by a father with preteen boys who are off exploring, and the other by a retired couple playing cards on a picnic table next to their camper van. The breeze keeps their hushed words from reaching me, 50 yards away. The loudest sound is the whispering of leaves combined with the murmur of my breath, slowing, releasing the tension of day-to-day life, and then serenely filling my lungs.
What is the good of your stars
and trees, your sunrise and
the wind, if they do not enter into
our daily lives? — E.M. Forster/
Big Morongo Nature Preserve in the Little San Bernardino Mountains is one of the 10 largest cottonwood and willow stream habitats in California. With the upstream portion of the habitat originating in the Mojave Desert and its downstream ending in the Colorado Desert, the habitat is a unique bridge between two distinct climatic zones.
We all have an idea of what Palm Springs is. Visitors and locals alike believe we recognize, if not the complete parameters of this place, at least its general outline. It’s like a familiar home: We know what’s stocked in the kitchen, which shower has the best water pressure, which bedroom offers the superior mattress, and which porch seat is ideal for reading. We know the place’s beauties and its boundaries. Or so we think.
But thanks to an Antiquities Act proclamation by President Obama in February this year, the blueprint of this region and its splendors has been enlarged. It’s as if a new door has opened to a room-upon-countless-room expansion, offering vistas and experiences beyond our imaginations.
I am lying in Palm Springs’ vastly extended backyard. The Sand to Snow National Monument is a 154,000-acre preserve that extends from the succulent-rich floor of the low desert, through stunning lava flows, petroglyphs, and Joshua trees of the high desert. It rises with the magnificent San Bernardino Mountains to encompass the entire pine-rich San Gorgonio Wilderness, including densely forested lands populated with bobcats, mountain lions, and bears, and offers bragging rights to the tallest peak in Southern California, Mount San Gorgonio.
Sand to Snow is one of three national monuments created in California this year, encompassing nearly 1.8 million acres of landscape. The president invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906 after protective legislation was thwarted by quarreling environmentalists, mining companies, and hunters. It’s interesting that the designation of the monument occurred just one day after the end to the armed occupation of federal lands in Oregon.
There’s no debate, though, about the richness of this land, its incredible biodiversity, and what it offers Coachella Valley residents and visitors. The opportunities for recreation are nearly endless — camping, hiking, hunting, horseback riding, photography, wildlife viewing, and even skiing — while the ecological need to protect this land is urgent.
Sunrise at the Whitewater Preserve, where the Sonoran Desert meets the Mojave, a stream of life-sustaining water runs year-round.
This wonderland boasts “the most botanically diverse mountain range of its size in all of North America,” according to Jack Thompson, director of Desert Preserves at The Wildlands Conservancy, the nonprofit group that acquired more than 60,000 acres of the land and gave it to the public to be part of this monument. Its diversity is the result of the three distinct ecosystems that merge here. To the west is the magnificent California coast, the east houses the Mojave Desert, and the south introduces the Sonoran Desert.
Although the designation of the monument was at times contentious in Washington, D.C., among locals there was no real opposition, according to Frazier Haney, conservation director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust. “This is a major compliment to our community.” If one also considers the other protected areas nearby — the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument and its mountain ranges, and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — the Coachella Valley is now basically ringed by protected lands.
“The people here are not miffed,” Haney says. “The public wants public lands.”
The monument is noteworthy because it offers enormous topographic change in one compact region, says Robin Kobaly, botanist and former manager at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. “The name is a clue to the importance,” she explains. “Huge ecological gradients support a vast array of plants, insects, and animals. Every time you move from a lower elevation to a higher one, diversity increases in the number of species and biomass.”
The act of connecting all these public lands is crucial to plants and animals that live here. The monument provides an uninterrupted corridor for animals to move to more favorable conditions. “As the environment changes,” Kobaly says, “species will have to move north for water and will need corridors to get there.” With the naming of this monument, “Those species won’t have to go through eight lanes of traffic, like crossing the 405 at rush hour [in L.A.], to get food.”
ABOVE: Sunrise on Black Lava Butte as seen from a trail on Flat Top Mesa. Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa are two of the singular landmarks in the newly designated monument. This seemingly sculptured landscape is composed of tan, brown, and beige piles of extraordinary and unlikely shapes tumbled together. BELOW: A waterfall on Vivian Creek near High Creek campground on the trail to San Gorgonio Peak. The Vivian Creek Trail delights hikers with its waterfalls, rushing water, and deep pools. Although the hike covers only 16.8 miles, the switchback trail climbs 5,500 feet and is rated extremely difficult.
Today, I hike through and around Whitewater Preserve, the closest and perhaps most accessible gateway into the monument for people coming from Greater Palm Springs. From here, I see how the corridor of protected land steps up from the austere low desert and climbs to mountains that promise trees, water, and vibrant plant life. I can’t quite reach them from here without a guide and bushwhacking skills, but I can get a sense of what lies beyond.
The chaparral and layered geology are stunning in their own way, but most notable is the deep and abiding solitude. This quality recently was the subject of an NPR report about acoustic biology, about how the federal government is studying the value of silence as part of the national park experience.
It’s pondering the challenge of inviting the public to share special land without compromising one of its signature features that, on this day, allows me to breathe in and experience the wild character of the canyon.
I return from my hike to the Whitewater Preserve visitors center. It used to be a lodge and trout-fishing farm. It’s a well-outfitted, educational, and interpretive hub staffed by friendly experts. Whitewater Preserve offers maintained trails ranging from easy to moderate, from 3.5 to 16 miles round-trip. You can also access the Pacific Crest Trail, a Mexico-to-Canada trek dating to the 1920s.
As the day’s heat is wrung from the air, I prepare to bed down in a campground that charges no admission fee. The sky is inky, the moon not yet risen. Frogs at the nearby creek engage in a call-and-response fugue. I might lose track of that fact in my daily urban life, but here is where I reconnect. The wind has picked up so much that I have lodged rocks inside my tent to keep it rooted, and now, as I settle down, the breeze whips my tent, sounding like rain, lulling me to sleep.
With a year-round river flowing through, Whitewater is a way station to rare and endangered birds like the southwestern willow flycatcher, as well as migrating summer tanagers, and vermilion flycatchers. Nelson bighorn sheep, deer, and bear ply the preserve corridor between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. I don’t see any such wildlife during my visit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they see me.
If Whitewater is the most accessible entry point for Coachella Valley residents, it’s only one of the many vistas to experience within the monument. I ask a few experts which is their favorite.
“That’s impossible,” says Haney of the Mojave Desert Land Trust. “It’s like having to pick a favorite between your children.”
TOP PHOTO: A view of Mission Creek Preserve during sunrise on San Gorgonio Peak. Sand to Snow Monument spans from the low to high desert and tops out at the 11,503-foot summit of San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. Early Spanish missionaries named the peak after Saint Gorgonius, a fourth century Christian martyr. Because San Gorgonio is surrounded by relatively low terrain in this southern end of the Sierra Nevada, it is one of the most topographically prominent peaks in the United States.
These petroglyph-covered boulders are located between Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa near Pioneertown. An estimated 1,700 indigenous petroglyphs, along with sacred archaeological and cultural sites, are found in this area.
The Wetlands at Big Morongo Preserve
Big Morongo Canyon, 17 miles north of downtown Palm Springs, is located in a transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. This is where Big Morongo Creek rises to the surface and creates an oasis that attracts hundreds of bird species, including the endangered least Bell’s vireo, the rare yellow-billed cuckoo, and vermilion flycatcher. “We happen to be located at the edge of several different habitats, climates, topology, and biological zones,” says Kobaly. “Because we’re in an overlapping ecotone [transition where two communities meet and integrate], we see animals and plants from both deserts, as well as from the coastal region.
“Just think of it,” Kobaly says. All these birds are moving along the Pacific Flyway, some migrating from the tropics in the winter or from the arctic in the summer. They’re flying over a vast desert when they see this massive, lush green oasis. “Wouldn’t you stop?” she asks me. “Wouldn’t you want to come down, maybe find a mate, breed, make a nest?”
Bristlecone pines, known for their fascinating, twisted shapes, are among the oldest living organisms on Earth. Many bristlecones in the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Another view of the lush riparian environment of Big Morongo Canyon. The preserve encompasses 31,000 acres and rises from a low elevation of 600 feet to more than 3,000. Because of the fault line in the canyon, the mountains cause water to drain and create a marshland in the middle of the desert.
Some birds come to nest, others just to refuel. Biologists who study migrating birds blow air onto their breast feathers to assess their health when they arrive. “If the breast is pink, they’ve run out of gas,” Kobaly explains. Some birds stay for a week, others for two or three. After the birds have been here a while, the biologists find exactly what they are hoping to see: breasts that are yellow, a sign that the birds have taken on fat for their journey.
The diversity of birds at Big Morongo Canyon attracts birdwatchers and naturalists from as far as Europe and Asia for the 240 species that can be viewed here.
Big Morongo Canyon is an avian Ellis Island. “We get species and subspecies that don’t normally occur together,” says Kobaly.
Lava Buttes by Pioneertown
Near the high desert toward Pioneertown, the volcanic tabletops and boulder-strewn valleys, Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa appear. Archaeological records indicate that human settlement here goes back several thousand years. The Serrano people, who inhabited these lands before the Spanish mission period, called it “Ate ‘ivyat,” or rocky place. Prehistoric rock art can be found at 40 sites bearing more than 1,700 petroglyphs. Rock climbers and historians find endless terrain to test their skills and knowledge.
Over the last decade, residents rallied to protect Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa from private and public development as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the private sector tried to develop transmission lines and wind turbines atop the 4,000-plus-foot formations. Now, as part of the Sand to Snow Monument, these areas are protected.
Vivian Creek and Mount San Gorgonio
Mount San Gorgonio marks the southwestern extent of the glaciers that covered the mountains along this side of the continent about 18,000 years ago and is now the primary drainage site for the Coachella Valley. Looking toward it from the Whitewater area, you see steep cliffs and the dramatic distant landscape.
Hiking to Mount San Gorgonio summit, where the “snow” part of the monument’s name comes into play, is a rite of passage for serious hikers in Southern California and a training ground for those planning to summit Mount Whitney. At an elevation of 11,502, Old Grayback is the tallest mountain in Southern California and revered by the Luiseño Indians.
The Sand to Snow National Monument’s 154,000 acres include the headwaters of the Santa Ana River, the Whitewater River, Morongo Creek, and San Gorgonio River. Because it links such diverse environments as oak woodland, coniferous forest, chaparral, Sonoran and Colorado deserts, it is one of the most botanically rich environments in the country.
The Vivian Creek route is the most traveled path to its summit and also the steepest, with an elevation gain of 5,840 feet over fewer than eight miles. To undertake the hike, it’s vital to be in good shape and well-outfitted, including extra food and lots of water. It’s also necessary to obtain a permit at the Mill Creek Visitor Center, as the number of hikers on the trail is restricted to protect against overcrowding. Set out early: You’re in for a long day.
The trail begins with a gentle warmup through wooded Mill Creek Canyon, then takes a steep mile of switchbacks climbing 1,000 feet through forested lands into the Vivian Creek area that is rife with impressive pines, lush greenery, and a gushing creek — the highlight of the hike. Then the trail angles up even more steeply and the effects of elevation are apparent. In the winter, you’ll probably encounter snow. At the top, views of Mount San Jacinto to the south and the Inland Empire to the west roll out. The summit is a wind-scoured pate of rock and gravel providing unobstructed 360-degree views.
Sand to Snow Monument is a “treasure that will continue to serve as an irreplaceable resource for archaeologists, geologists, and biologists,” says Joan Taylor, vice chair of the California/Nevada Desert Committee of the Sierra Club. “Now, in essence, both wildlife and people can travel through the Santa Rosa, San Jacinto, and San Bernardino mountains, and the desert lands that connect them in a continuous swath of protected lands.”
It’s also where the human species can go to reconnect with the natural world, to become aware of how we belong to it.
Sand to Snow Monument creates a ladder enabling humans, plants, and animals to move up and down the rugged and at times challenging terrain. Prior to the 19th century, when the area was settled, Cahuilla Indians — in sync with the natural world — moved their camps higher and lower on the mountains by season. As global warming changes our ecosystems, plants and animals must adapt, migrating north, little by little, to survive. This national monument not only provides humans countless opportunities for recreation and reflection, it does something even more vital: It creates a path into the future for all species.