Reap the Wild Wind

The San Gorgonio Pass provides a natural corridor for plants, animals, and a forceful current of air and water

Ann Japenga Hiking

Coulter pine cones pop as they hit Glo Smith’s deck. Several thousand feet below, windmills spin madly. All this wind is fine with Smith. She greets guests with bubble wands and invites them to send bubbles sailing into one of the deepest passes in the lower 48.   

“I think of the wind as a kind of music,” she says. In fact, the original owner of her John Lautner-designed residence high up Highway 243 in the San Gorgonio Pass named the house “Windsong.”

The pass — stretching from Snow Creek to Redlands — encompasses the cherry orchards of Cherry Valley; Morongo Band of Mission Indians Reservation; and One Horse Spring near Cabazon, where Willie Boy rested in 1909 while outrunning one of the most determined posses in Western history. On both sides of the pass, mountains rise abruptly 9,000 feet. The gap between the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio ranges narrows to only about two miles.

“Everything comes to a nexus right in that pass,” says David Myers, Wildlands Conservancy director. “Every infrastructure of Southern California that you can imagine — from freeways to cross-continental gas lines to 550 KB power lines to major water lines, freeways, and the railroad — it all comes together there.”

It’s a critical junction for plants and animals, too. South Coast Wildlands found the San Gorgonio-San Jacinto linkage to be one of the most vital wildlife crossings in Southern California. Species such as the mountain lion, badger, little pocket mouse, and coast horned lizard depend on an open route between the ranges so they can disperse as climate conditions change.

“Of all the linkages, Whitewater is one of the most unique, because it represents such a drastic change from desert to mountain,” Myers says. “It’s been called a laboratory of evolution. Plants, lizards, rodents, and quail all hybridize here. It’s really an amazing place.”

Once early Indians looking for a trade route from the Arizona deserts to the sea discovered the pass, it was forever after in use. “The mountains were a great obstacle to travelers, says Pinyon archaeologist and historian Harry Quinn. “This was one place you could get through the mountains with a wagon.”

Expeditions to mine salt from the Salton Sea basin came through in 1815. In 1821, Coco-Maricopa Indian couriers ran through the pass to deliver mail. In the 1860s, the Bradshaw stagecoach hauled prospectors through the pass to gold fields by the Colorado River. Later, in 1876, came the wood-burning Southern Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific). Grading, spiking, and lumber crews set up their own small city — called Hall City — south of today’s Cabazon.  

Railroaders respected the pass for its legendary Beaumont Hill, a tough grade that called for multiple helper engines. In a poem by an anonymous poet who called himself The Helpful Helper, an engineer runs Beaumont Hill only to declare:

I’m quitting this job
It’s not fit for a rat
And I’m going back to Texas
Where the land is flat.
In the late 1960s, the massive Interstate 10 freeway bored through the pass. These days, container cars from Asia are loaded onto trucks and trains in Los Angeles ports, then squeeze through the cut en route to the East Coast, along with thousands of cars daily. A great hum emanates from the divide; you can sometimes hear the rumble five miles up in Whitewater Canyon.

The roar of commerce is not the only sound. Here where cool ocean air collides with hot desert air, wind gathers force when it’s squeezed through the mountains. Anyone who lives in the Coachella Valley knows the pass generates a tooth-grinding, edgy wind. (Smith is the rare person who seems immune to its effect on the nervous system.)

One man who has lots of experience with gap winds and other quirks of pass life is Frazier Haney, manager of the Whitewater Preserve for the Wildlands Conservancy. In 2006, the biology graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz moved into a house on the former trout farm property, built in 1939 by John Shearer. At the pond right outside his door, he has seen 50 Nelson’s bighorn sheep (the peninsular bighorn on the Palm Springs side are a subset of this species). For neighbors, he has bobcats, bear, roadrunners, 220 bird species, and the restless Whitewater River.

During the floods of 2010, river boulders were tossed around his back yard “like a thundering billiards game,” Haney says. (The river continues through the Coachella Valley and into the Salton Sea, but it sinks into percolation ponds and is rarely seen on its journey except during floods.)

For Haney, living in the pass means veering between urbanity and wilderness. To get home, he travels through one of the busiest utility corridors in California and under groves of windmills. Yet he can duck down a side canyon and walk alone under alders, sycamore, and 50-foot tall cottonwoods. “There are forests and riparian areas all over the place in the bottoms of these canyons,” he says.

The land grows wilder if you follow Whitewater River. Haney is one of the few who has been to the natural collecting basins at the headwaters of the river high on Mount San Gorgonio. There are few trails up there; a concrete plant, Indian reservation lands, and private property block most of the access.

Haney’s beloved Whitewater would be named a Wild and Scenic River as part of the Sand to Snow National Monument proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The designation would mean the river remains free flowing in its upper stretches and the pass lands protected, creating a monument contiguous to the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. Maybe then there will be new trails, but for now the pass is somewhat hard to explore. There is no sign reading “Now entering the pass.”

“People don’t even know where it is,” says Keith Herron, historic preservation officer for Riverside County.

Still, you don’t have to climb all the way to the headwaters of Whitewater River to get a feel for the place. Visit the library at Nicolet Middle School in Banning to view its history in a mural painted in 1939 by Pauline Hirst and Edwin Frank.

Herron also suggests visiting one of his favorite places: Gilman Historic Ranch in Banning. Take the trail that goes up the mountain where spring water bubbles out. “The hero of [the pass] is the geography and geology,” he says. Or take a drive up Highway 243. Stand on a pullout and feel the power of the place — the movement, the energy, the tension.

The Cahuilla Indians called the pass “the place where there were so many people trying to get through.” It’s not just people anymore; it’s freight trains; gas lines; I-10 commuters; Pacific Crest Trail hikers; mountain lions; and, always, the wind.

Thirty-three percent of the total freight tonnage transported across the country from Los Angeles ports travels on Interstate 10 through the San Gorgonio Pass, according to the National I-10 Corridor Study. More than 40 percent of all goods entering the United States comes through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

585 billion – gallons of San Bernardino Mountains water has been diverted to Whitewater recharge ponds, where it percolates into the aquifer to help replace the groundwater.

4,500 – windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass harness 650 megawatts of clean energy — enough to power 195,000 typical homes.

7.3 million – kilowatt hours per year (enough energy to supply the electrical needs of nearly 600 homes) are generated by the hydroelectric plant fed by the Whitewater River.

60,000+ trucks a day pass through the I-710/I-10/SR 60 corridor linking San Pedro Bay ports and the Inland Empire, making it one of the highest-use trade corridors in the nation.

3 million – gallons of water per day from mountain streams, including the off-limits Snow Creek/Falls Creek watershed, help supply Desert Water Agency reservoirs.

2,650 miles – comprise the Pacific Crest Trail, which zigzags from Mexico to Canada, cutting through the San Jacinto Mountains in Palm Springs.

77% – of the 108 million metric tons of goods that arrive by ship in Los Angeles ports each year is destined for areas beyond the Southwest by way of Interstate 10 through the San Gorgonio Pass. Additionally, commuter rail services operate on tracks owned by Union Pacific.

35% – of the San Gorgonio Pass Wildlife Corridor is either protected and managed by the San Bernardino National Forest, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or state parks or preserved by groups such as Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, Friends of the Desert Mountains, and Wildlands Conservancy. The rest is on private land is part of the Morongo Indian Reservation.