Desert Treasures: Make a pit stop for critters at California's Amboy Crater

View of Amboy Crater.

Scott Hassler

Editor's Note: Jennifer's blog is part of a four-part series in which our staff explore some of the desert treasures we're working to preserve and protect from potential energy and other development.

It was a visit to Amboy Crater in the California desert that reminded me of the old saying, “take time to smell the roses.” While there wasn’t a rose in sight during my time in the dusty desert, it was the sentiment that struck a chord with me. Rushing along to the pinnacle of hikes, like the rim of Amboy Crater, often means we are missing out on the true treasures around us.

In the case of Amboy, a slowed journey unveiled an abundance of desert wildlife baking in the warm California sun. A warm spring day had brought out huge populations of desert iguana and others lizards who call the region and this landmark home.

Stopping to check out the critters helped me better understand why we have to be careful about the places we develop and the places we protect in the California desert.  At a quick glance you might miss the cultural, biological and historical value of the little-known places that make the desert unique. Places like Amboy Crater.

Amboy Crater sits just southwest of the Mojave National Preserve along the Route 66-National Trails Highway. The crater is said to have been a popular sight and stop for travelers who could “boast that they had climbed a real volcano.” In 1973 the Crater was named a national landmark and has been designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), due to its unique landscape and the importance of the many desert species it supports.

Hiking toward Amboy Crater. Photo: Jennifer Dickson

The cone of the crater has drawn the most attention thanks to its very symmetrical volcanic cinder cone, which drew early Route 66 travelers who could later boast of their climb atop a real volcano. It is one of many natural features around the volcano that really make this place special.

While a view from the top of Amboy Crater reveals small lava lakes within, you can also view the 24 square miles of lava flow that leaked from the cone approximately 79,000 years ago. Spring months from March to May are the best times of the year to catch desert wildflowers, including desert primrose and sand verbena. It is also the time of year that the desert colored reptiles mate and sun in the lava fields below.  My trip to the crater in March couldn’t have been at a more ideal time.

Chuckwallas and desert iguana are common sights in the desert and at Amboy Crater. For those unfamiliar with the chuckwalla, they’re a large desert lizard that can be identified by their thick, tapered tails and prominent bellies. I saw more of these two than one could count. A trip to the landmark could also land you a sighting of the long-tailed brush lizard or a horned lizard.

(Above) One of Amboy Crater's desert iguanas. Photo: Jennifer Dickson

A chuckwalla suns itself on a lava rock at Amboy Crater. Photo: Scott Hassler

I wasn’t lucky enough to spot a horned or brush lizard during my visit but am hopeful I will make it back again soon. Amboy Crater is just one of the many places being considered for more permanent protection and a place The Wilderness Society holds dear.

Currently, Amboy Crater and other areas are being looked at through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which will help identify the right places for renewable energy development while also identifying lands that should be off-limits and set aside for protection. 

The key to these protection efforts sits with knowing and understanding the values and hidden treasures within the desert. Slowing down and smelling the roses will give us all a better appreciation of the splendor of the California desert. With spring right around the corner and temperatures climbing there is no better time than the present to get out and visit Amboy Crater and other desert treasures. 

Also in the desert blog series: