The deserts of Southern California are home to three new national monuments totaling 1.8 million acres of protected land. You can thank President Obama who used the Antiquities Act to turn these beautiful and ecologically important desert landscapes into the 20th, 21st, and 22nd national monuments created during his time in office (others can be found in places like Colorado, Northern California, Texas, and Nevada).
So what can you expect from California's new wild reserves? To start, rugged 10,000-foot peaks, desert grasslands teaming with life, pristine Joshua tree forests, and Native American archeological sites — not to mention some of the best places to stargaze and seek solitude. Here's a crash course on the state's three new national monuments.
Sand to Snow National Monument
Just over 80 miles from Los Angeles, the 154,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument is located within a two-hour drive of 24 million people. Within its bounds, you'll find alpine forests, lowland Mojave desert, freshwater marshes, and the 97,000-acre San Gorgonio Wilderness. Also, there are 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and the 11,500-foot San Gorgonio Mountain.
What to Do: Summit San Gorgonio Mountain. Various trails, like the Vivian Creek trail and the South Fork trail, will take you there. For the especially skilled and ambitious, try the Nine Peaks Challenge — a 27-mile hike that gains 8,300 feet in elevation over nine peaks. More mellow experiences can be accessed via popular trailheads in the communities of Forest Falls and Angelus Oak. And during winter months, it's all about the cross-country skiing.
Mojave Trails National Monument
Stretching from the Nevada border 140 miles west to the town of Barstow (about the halfway point on a Los Angeles to Las Vegas road trip), the Mojave Trails National Monument is comprised of 1.6 million acres of jagged mountain ranges, ancient lava flows and awe-inspiring sand dunes. Its vast expanse also holds more than 350,000 acres of already designated wilderness and connects Joshua Tree National Park to the south with Mojave National Preserve to the north.
What to Do: Cruise the longest undeveloped stretch of Route 66, which runs directly through the monument's central region. Off the pavement, head for the lava flows of Amboy Crater or to the impressive Cadiz Dunes Wilderness, a favorite location of landscape photographers.
Castle Mountains National Monument
Located approximately four hours from Los Angeles and two from Las Vegas, the 21,000-acre Castle Mountains National Monument is a remote section of the Mojave Desert surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve to its north, west, and south, and the Nevada border to its east. Accessible only by dirt roads, the monument is home to desert grasslands, Native American archeological sites, remnants of the region's mining past, and pristine Joshua tree forests.
What to Do: Once inside (it's recommended you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle), explore the traces of the Heart mining camp located about 10 miles from the Nevada border. Also, keep an eye out for the monument's array of wild inhabitants, which include bighorn sheep, golden eagles, mountains lions, and tortoises.