Next week marks the anniversary of a big day for US public lands. Five years prior, on February 12, 2016, President Barack Obama extended national monument designation to three Mojave Desert sites in eastern California: the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. Collectively, these areas make up the California Desert Monuments, encompassing 1.8 million acres of desert landscape originally inhabited thousands of years ago by the Chemehuevi, Kawaiisu, Mohave, Serrano, Cahuilla, Southern Paiute, and other Native American tribes.
To mark the designation’s fifth anniversary, a group of Mojave-based nonprofits, led by the Mojave Desert Land Trust and the Native American Land Conservancy, are calling on adventure travelers to celebrate. One way to do so is to make plans to visit the monuments to enjoy the stunning-but-rugged scenery. All three are admission-free and though established trails and routes are often rugged, the experience is true to the desert landscape.
Experiencing the California Desert Monuments
Mojave Trails National Monument itself spans 1.6 million acres, making it the largest such monument in the lower 48. Its designation has spurred a nearby town into action to protect and promote the monument, and to serve as its gateway.
“The town of 29 Palms recently voted to become an official gateway to Mojave Trails National Monument,” Jessica Dacey, director of communications at the Mojave Desert Land Trust, told Matador. “To the town’s citizens it’s a source of great pride that they are home to the biggest national monument in the contiguous 48 states. Over the last five years, tourism to the California desert region has steadily grown, and there has been a direct economic benefit for gateway communities like 29 Palms. There is a growing recognition of the importance of preserving these places.”
If you’re able to make the road trip in the spring or summer, no shortage of options for foot-powered exploration await once you arrive. Mojave Trails National Monument, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, epitomizes desert hiking in the western United States — dry but beautiful, with year-round access and a diverse collection of wildlife including coyotes, jackrabbits, and even roadrunners (meep-meep).
Make the three-mile round-trip hike to Amboy Crater, one of the country’s youngest volcanoes. Explore the Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness and hike along Afton Canyon for expansive desert sky views and rock formations. You’ll likely stumble across ancient fossils along the way, a popular collector’s item within the monument (watch this US Department of the Interior video for info on how and where to fossil hunt).
The US Forest Service maintains Sand to Snow National Monument, home to 30 miles of the famed Pacific Crest Trail which you can check out on a day hike or backpacking trip. The popular San Bernardino Peak Trail is currently closed, but if there’s still snow when you go you can cross country ski in the San Gorgonio Mountains within the monument. Once there, you’ll find everything from the 0.7-mile Marsh Trail to the 11-mile Morongo Canyon Trail. While hiking, keep your eyes peeled for the more than 240 types of birds that call the area home at various points of the year.
At Castle Mountains National Monument, the place to start is in the Joshua tree forests southeastern California is known for. Drive along dirt roads, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and keep your eye out for wildlife bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Mid-Hills Campground and Hole-in-the-Wall Campground host overnight campers, but often the best way to experience the area is to simply drive through and pull over when a particular view or path calls to you.
No matter which part of the California Desert Monuments you visit, come prepared for solitude. Bring water, food, cold-weather clothing (yes, it gets quite cold in the desert at night), a good pair of hiking boots, and a GPS map such as Gaia GPS.
A monument to honor original inhabitants, and to promote peace
Also celebrating the declaration of the California Desert Monuments is the Vet Voice Foundation, which supports American military veterans in reintegrating to society by becoming active members of their communities by working on both domestic and international civic projects.
“Five years ago, we applauded the permanent protection of the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains National Monuments. We know many service members and veterans have turned to the California desert to help ease the transition from the military to civilian life,” said Major General (Ret.) Paul Eaton, senior advisor at Vet Voice Foundation. “The California Desert National Monuments provide opportunities for recreation and recovery from the stresses of war and reintegration. We’re thrilled to celebrate these lands and know they’ll continue to be a space for veterans and their loved ones for years to come.”
Support the California Desert Monuments even if you can’t visit right now
You can still show support to the California Desert Monuments even if you aren’t able to visit in person.
“Nonprofits like the Mojave Desert Land Trust (are) working to protect and restore these landscapes from overdevelopment and to educate the next generation of stewards,” Dacey said.
The organization uses donations to acquire and protect land, and advocates for responsible recreating. Each year on National Public Lands Day, which falls on September 25, 2021, volunteers head to Mojave for a clean up of parts of the area that makes up some 25 percent of California.
The best way to support the California Desert Monuments is to pay them a visit, following Leave No Trace guidelines, of course.
Dacey adds, “Together, Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand to Snow National Monuments offer residents and visitors the chance to experience the best of the California desert: recreation, stunning vistas, otherworldly landscapes, special wildlife, and rare solitude.”