Enjoy New Desert Monuments While They Are Untouched

Mojave National Monument Dunes

National Parks are More Popular than Ever

In 2016, more than 2.5 million people visited Joshua Tree National Park. This attendance was more than 2 million higher than the previous year. In fact, all of the famous parks around Palm Springs can suffer from overcrowding. Below are a few places you can go to get closer to nature, avoid the crowds. All of these monuments remain rugged; they don’t offer the amenities you find in the more well-known parks. Yet, these monuments are majestic and worth a look. Keep reading if you’re looking to find somewhere new to hike, camp, and unwind.

New Monuments

Less than a 1 hours’ drive from Palm Springs, Castle Mountains National Monument, Mohave Trails National Monument and Sand to Snow National Monument are among the newest federal parklands in the US. They were designated in February 2016 by then President Barack Obama, under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Between them, they encompass some 1.7 million acres, and they remain largely pristine. Not much has been done to them in the two years since their designation. All three lack visitors’ centers, major paved roads crisscrossing the land, or newly designed trail systems.

Most importantly, what they lack is people. Traffic to these sites remains quite small. In fact, Castle Mountains lacks a direct road entry. You must hike in or drive over rough dirt roads to visit. For the most part, these monuments are untrammeled, unspoiled and under-utilized.

When you visit these new desert monuments, make sure to prepare as you would for any desert excursion. Wear sensible clothes and shoes for hot days and cool evenings, bring sunscreen and other sun protection, food and ample water, a map and compass, first aid kit and anything else you could need. Remember, these sites lack the same type of US park ranger coverage you’ll find at other wilderness areas near Palm Springs. Safety needs to be among your utmost concerns.

Most importantly, practice wilderness conservation. Leave no evidence of your visit and if you pack it in, bring it out. Keep them in the pristine state in which you found them.

Castle Mountains National Monument

Castle Mountains is the smallest of the three monuments at just over 21,000 acres. It sits adjacent to the Mohave National Preserve, from which it was originally excluded to allow access to a gold mining operation. The mine has since closed, but evidence of human habitation is all over the park, from the abandoned mining town of Hart to Native American sites. But the true beauty of the monument is in its desert grasslands and the towering spires of Castle Mountain, from which its name is derived.

During your visit take time to enjoy the flora and fauna that cover the landscape as you meander towards the nearby peaks. You’ll find:

  • Joshua Tree forests
  • 28 species of buffalo grass, including some very rare species
  • Herds of desert Bighorn sheep
  • Pinion Pines

Castle Mountains can be accessed from California State Road 164 or via dirt roads through the Mohave National Preserve. As such, it’s not the kind of place you visit if you’re looking for a short excursion. If you go, plan to spend a better portion of the day there. If that isn’t enough time, there are primitive camping sites that can be reserved from the National Parks Service on a first come, first served basis.

Mohave Trails National Monument

Mohave Trails is the largest of the new monuments at some 1.6 million acres. It offers a plethora of diverse outdoor experiences.

  • Trace the route of the Pisgah Lava Flow to understand how ancient volcanos created this unique terrain
  • Climb the 944-foot Amboy Crater and scramble down the scree fields to the hidden lava lake within
  • Trek through the nearly 4,000-foot high Cady Mountains in search of Bighorn sheep.
  • Keep your hands to yourself while investigating the wooly haired cacti of the Cholla cactus garden, which is the largest such garden in all of California
  • Keep your eyes on the ground searching for 550-million-year-old trilobites, while meandering through the Marble Mountains Fossil Beds
  • Feel the wind on your face as it blows through the sand of the Cadiz Dunes.
  • Dip your feet in the Mojave River while surveying the sunlight and shadows playing across the walls of Afton Canyon
  • Enjoy a snack, or indeed, linger the whole day, watching a sluggish, endangered Agassiz’s desert tortoise plod along its path
  • Settle in for the night, listening to the distant cries of coyotes, while keeping your eyes peeled for jackrabbits and fringe-toed lizards.

If human activity is more to your liking, Mohave Trails offers experiences covering the entirety of peoples who have lived and worked (or still live and work) in the area:

  • Paiute, Shoshone, Mohave (among many others) history and Native American paleo-history can be traced through cultural sites and archeological locations at this park.
  • Learn about America’s westward migration through abandoned towns and railroad history.
  • Walk in the steps of General George S. Patton at the Desert Training Center; a site used to train tank drivers during WWII.
  • Spend a day traveling through the 1950s on a long, unimproved section of Route 66.
  • Visit Roy’s Cafe in the not so ghost town of Amboy.

Plan multiple visits to Mohave Trails, as each trip will provide a unique experience. Focus on a specific activity for each visitation, or stay for multiple days and take in much of what the monument has to offer.

Sand to Snow National Monument

The 154,000 acres of Sand to Snow features many highs and lows. No, this does not mean it’s a bummer, far from it. Within its borders, it holds low altitude deserts and chaparrals along the coast. These are contrasted by the 11,502-foot summit of Mount San Gorgonio, the tallest point in Southern California. In between, Sand to Snow has almost every other type of environment:

  • Joshua Tree forests
  • Stands of quaking aspen
  • Lush swamps and wetlands around Big Morongo Canyon
  • The dormant volcanic hill at Red Dome
  • The alpine wilderness along the Vivian Creek Trail, which requires snowshoes during winter.

Not surprisingly, all of these diverse habitats make Sand to Snow a wonderful place for viewing wildlife. Birders will relish in the calls and sites of over 240 avian species including the threatened California spotted owl. The California spotted owl is one of the twelve threatened or endangered species that reside here.

From world-class hiking trails (25 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail run through the monument) to diverse environments, to the chance to view endangered species, Sand to Snow National Monument offers abundant unique experiences. Like Mohave Trails National Monument, a single visit will just scratch the surface of what this park has to offer.

The Monuments Face an Unknown Future

As mentioned earlier, now is the time to visit these parks. As they are worked into the National Park system, they will be improved for human visitation. Camping areas will be built, more roads, parking lots, camper areas and visitors centers. But, these conveniences will be built with preservation and protection in mind. These amenities are not necessarily a bad thing, but they will change the character of the new monuments.

The future of these parks is also not guaranteed. Mohave Trails National Monument and Sand to Snow National Monument, being over 100,000 acres, are on the list of parks being reviewed for exploitation by the Department of the Interior. They could lose acreage to mining and oil firms. The loss would not just be measured by an increase in traffic, but significant degradation of the land due to runoff, pollution, noise and loss of wildlife habitat.

So, get out to Castle Mountains National Monument, Mohave Trails National Monument and Sand to Snow National Monument before they are “found.” In a few years, they may be just a shadow of what they are today. You don’t want to regret that you miss the chance to explore these amazing wilderness areas.

Share your pictures of your visits with us. Tweet us at @XPLORzine using #XPLORzine.

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