Roaming Sand to Snow: The Desert’s Remarkable Diversity

With a swipe of the Presidential pen, a huge swath of California desert was granted national monument status in 2016, protecting 1.8 million acres of land for future generations. President Barack Obama’s three new national monuments—Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails, and Castle Mountains—form a critical habitat link and wildlife corridor for desert dwellers like California’s state reptile, the desert tortoise, as well as bighorn sheep and burrowing owls.

Sand to Snow National Monument is the largest of the three national monuments and the easiest to access. A mosaic of parklands spread out over nearly 100 miles of desert and mountains, it’s the most biologically diverse of any of America’s national monuments, boasting more than 800 types of plants, more than 240 bird species, and 12 threatened and endangered species.

See the “sandy” region of Sand to Snow at Whitewater Canyon Preserve, an easy stop off 1-10 west of Palm Springs. Hike along the Whitewater River’s wash (which roars with snowmelt in spring, but may be dry in summer) to Red Dome, a ruddy-colored hill created by volcanic action. For a heart-pumping ascent, follow the 3.8-mile Canyon Loop Trail that climbs nearly 1,000 feet for big views of the surrounding peaks. The loop follows a section of the Pacific Crest Trail on its epic journey from Mexico to Canada. Spring wildflowers explode with color along this trail in March and April, especially after a rainy winter.

Another access point for Sand to Snow is at Morongo Valley’s Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, an oasis for bird lovers. Nearly 250 avian species have been spotted at this jungle-like wetland surrounding Big Morongo Creek. Song sparrows, house finches, and hummingbirds whiz past as you follow the wooden boardwalks of the Mesquite Trail through a marshy maze of willows and cottonwoods. Birdwatchers come from around the world to this Pacific Flyway stop, and are sometimes rewarded with rare sightings, like the vermillion flycatcher or endangered least Bell’s vireo.

The snowy face of Sand to Snow is visible in winter on 11,503-foot Mount San Gorgonio, Southern California’s highest peak and a magnet for peak-baggers. The bald summit, affectionately called Old Grayback, crowns the San Gorgonio Wilderness, an alpine wonderland of firs, pines, waterfalls, meadows, and small lakes. To visit, drive to the town of Forest Falls in the San Bernardino Mountains, then take a hike on the Vivian Creek Trail. You’ll need snowshoes in winter and hiking boots in summer. A grueling 8.5-mile trek leads to mighty San Gorgonio’s summit, a trip best split into two days, thanks to a butt-kicking 5,000-foot elevation gain. Several camps offer backpackers a place to rest: Vivian Creek Camp at 1.2 miles, Halfway Camp at 2.5 miles, and High Creek Camp at 4.8 miles. On the clearest days, Old Grayback’s summit offers a mind-boggling view of Southern California, the vista extending as far as Mount Whitney, 190 miles away.