Editor's Note: Since publication, the Interior Department announced a plan to release large swaths of the California desert for development. This stands in opposition to the land conservation plan approved by the Obama administration in 2016.
California’s desert treasures are bustling with life, culture and history. These delicate gems are the soul of the American West, and they need to be preserved for future generations.
The California desert is a land of stark contrasts: extreme heat and bitter cold. This harsh environment may seem inhospitable at first glance, but plants and animals flourish in the jagged desert peaks and endless valleys.
These wild lands are home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, hundreds of bird species and many other animals. Their Joshua trees, spiny cholla and yucca are more akin to whimsical Dr. Seuss characters than stately pines. Summer rains transform the landscape into a fleeting panorama of vibrant wildflowers and blooming shrubs.
This is the American West, where the ecological splendor is matched by a rich cultural history. The vibrant landscape set the stage for thriving cultures throughout time. Here visitors can see the remnants of prehistoric peoples, Spanish and stagecoach trails, and the origins of the first U.S. highways.
Residents and visitors alike are drawn to the unique character and history of the California desert. These delicate wild lands can continue to be places of discovery for future generations as long as they are protected from renewable energy and other development.
Spring wildflowers in Panamint Valley. Photo by John Dittli.
This vast and photogenic valley spans 65 miles north to south and offers many opportunities for exploration. Much of the valley can be enjoyed by car, where Highway 190 to Death Valley offers spectacular views.
In the southeastern end of the valley, visitors can discover both wildlife and history in Surprise Canyon. Desert bighorn sheep are common in the area, and seasonal rains spawn wildflower fields in an unusual desert setting. Panamint Valley’s historic mining legacy can still be explored today near the base of the canyon.
Volcanic cinder cone near Fossil Falls in California's Owens Valley. Photo by Powerhouse55, Wikimedia Commons.
This fascinating volcanic landscape is a true geologic wonder in the southern end of Owens Valley. Ice age lakes fed a mighty Owens River that rushed over black basalt from volcanic eruptions as little as 20,000 years ago. As fiery lava pushed into the river, the rushing water sculpted and polished the rock into waterfall-like formations.
To the north of the now-dry Fossil Falls looms a red cinder cone. The cone formed when underground magma and gas exploded into the air from a vent on the Earth’s surface.
First light on the mysterious spires of Trona Pinnacles. Photo by Miles Morgan.
Visitors to the Trona Pinnacles may find it hard to believe that water played a key roll in sculpting these cryptic spires. Between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, this part of the Mojave Desert was part of the alkaline Searles Lake. Over time, calcium carbonate, in a form known as a tufa, formed underwater pinnacles before the lake went dry.
In 1968, Trona Pinnacles was designated a National Natural Landmark by the Bureau of Land Management to protect these rare tufa formations and their curious shapes.
Cliff on the bank of the Amargosa River. Photo by John Dittli.
The Amargosa River is a rare perennial waterway in the Mojave Desert. While much of the river is underground, some parts surface in Amargosa Canyon. Lush marshes and “hanging gardens” attract bobcats, badgers, endangered Amargosa voles and more than 200 different species of birds.
Humans also have a long history in this area. What are believed to be prehistoric paths later evolved into overland routes including the Old Spanish Trail used by 1820s traders in the former Spanish territory. Early American explorers and later Mormon settlers favored this route.
A carpet of wildflowers line the floor of Silurian Valley. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.
The remote and beautiful Silurian Valley is named for an ancient geologic period, when plants and animals began to emerge from the sea onto the land. Traces of the Old Spanish Trail can be found in the valley. It’s also a place where winter rains foster spring wildflower blooms and temporary lakes draw migratory birds.
The sheer size of the landscape is impressive in itself. Stretching between the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, Silurian Valley connects the parks with nearby wilderness.
A full moon rises over the colorful striations of Rainbow Basin. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.
North of Barstow, Rainbow Basin exhibits nature’s palette in subtle, multicolored layers of sandstone, tuff and siltstone. The striations of pink, sienna, green and cream change from early morning through dusk.
Hidden within these layers lies a significant trove of mammal fossils dating back 15 million years. These fossils hint at an ancient landscape far different from today: tree-filled hills by a lake, populated by giant bear dogs, rhinoceros, early camels and horses. In order to protect this rare and important site, only researchers with a special permit can collect fossils.
Sun setting over thie historic Route 66. Photo by John Dittli.
Also known as the National Trails Highway, Route 66 was named by Smithsonian Magazine as one of 10 Must-See Endangered Cultural Treasures. The largest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66 in eastern San Bernardino County offers spectacular and serene desert vistas of Old California.
The area that surrounds the famous “Mother Road” offers spectacular desert vistas and is home to hundreds of plant species, some of them rare. This area is also an essential corridor of desert tortoises and desert bighorn sheep.
A hiker looks into Whitewater Canyon from the desert peaks above. Photo by Jack Thompson / The Wildlands Conservancy.
Dubbed “agua blanca” or “white water” by Spanish explorers in the 1800s, the Whitewater River has drawn explorers, wildlife, and visitors for centuries. Whitewater River’s year-round flow sustains rich habitat for bighorn sheep, bears and endangered species including Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard.
One of the best places to explore this area is in the 2,851-acre Whitewater Preserve, nearly hidden in a canyon north of Interstate 10 near Palm Springs.
A rich color palette in the oases of Big Morongo Canyon. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.
Big Morongo Canyon
The 31,000-acre preserve is one of the 10 largest river habitats of its type in California. It is a unique transition zone and wildlife corridor connecting the higher Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park to the lower Colorado Desert. An internationally recognized bird-watching destination, the Audubon Society identified Big Morongo Canyon as one of California’s most important bird habitat areas.
The rich desert forest of Chuckwalla Bench provides habitat for over 150 different bird species and many other animals. Photo by Sam Roberts.
This flourishing desert woodland is a cornucopia of wildlife. More than 150 bird species can be found here, including hawks, warblers, tanagers and hummingbirds. The rarely seen burro deer, desert bighorn sheep, a thriving population of endangered desert tortoise and the namesake chuckwalla also call this remarkable area home.
For history buffs, Chuckwalla Bench is a path back in time. The Bradshaw Trail was once part of a 70-mile-long stagecoach route from the 1860s named for miner William David Bradshaw. The route was quickly dubbed the “Gold Road” for the many miners traveling to the Arizona gold fields from San Bernardino in search of fortune.
Palo verde trees thrive in the Upper McCoy Valley. Photo by John Dittli.
Upper McCoy Valley
The McCoy Valley is a sanctuary flourishing with ironwood and palo verde trees. The upper end of the valley contains one of the lushest and largest ironwood forests in the California desert. Burrow deer, coyote, bobcat, gray fox, desert tortoise and mountain lions are all residents of the valley.
These ironwoods once provided valuable resources for the area’s Indian inhabitants. Indians made tools and weapons extensively from ironwood because of the wood’s durability, and its seeds were a key food source for local tribes. Remnants of these cultures can still be found in the petroglyphs throughout the valley.
The desert sun sets over the jagged peaks near Indian Pass. Photo by John Dittli.
Indian Pass/Milpitas Wash
Deep slanted canyons rise to jagged desert peakswhere a diverse variety of wildlife resides in the palo verde, mesquite and ironwood trees of Milpitas Wash. The washes and rocky slopes are home to the desert tortoise and mule deer. Signs of mountain lion and bighorn sheep are also evident in nearby crags and canyons.
These scenic lands were an important part of the traditional homeland of the Quechan tribe (formerly known as the Yuma Indians). Ancient trails, intaglios (large ground etchings), rock alignments, sleeping circles and stone tools are still found throughout the area. It is still possible to detect ancient trails walked by their people for generations.
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