California Desert Region
- Desert: Wilderness Campaign
- Desert: Death Valley National Park
- Desert: Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area
- Desert: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- Classic Desert in the Turtle Mountains: Backpack Mopah Spring to Gary Wash
Learn more about our Desert Campaign at www.californiadesert.org
California’s desert region is home to some of the most spectacular wild places, yet many areas are not yet protected. These places include rugged mountain peaks that are home to the desert bighorn sheep, colorful striped canyons, and vast bajadas where the desert tortoise resides. As pressure to develop our pristine public lands increases, CWC’s effort to save these last wild places has intensified.
For many years, CWC has been working with a broad coalition of community leaders, business owners, grassroots activists and other organizations to permanently protect areas in the California Desert for future generations.
Protecting these beautiful wild places provides benefits to both people and wildlife. Preserving nearby wild areas provides recreational opportunities for desert residents to hike, horseback ride, photograph, bird watch, camp, rock climb, hunt and to experience the peace and tranquility provided by our wild lands. Protected wild places also provide scenic backdrops, sunsets, and dark night skies.
Protecting areas as wilderness helps desert community economies as well. By preserving the unique landscapes that draw people to the region, wilderness designation has been shown to increase tourism, attract new visitors and create jobs.
California Desert Areas Proposed for Protection
Rising to more than 6,100 feet above the Silurian Valley, the Avawatz Mountains Proposed Wilderness form a commanding backdrop of colorful eroded slopes, rugged ridges, and steep, narrow canyons. These mountains are composed of Precambrian, Paleozoic, and Mesozoic-age sedimentary and igneous rocks with some Tertiary-age sediments. Lush desert oases around numerous springs provide a striking contrast to the rocky walls. These springs also supply water to desert animals like bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, and roadrunners. California biologists have identified the Avawatz Mountains as an important link for regional habitat connectivity, enabling wildlife to move across a larger landscape. Archeological sites in the area indicate a historical presence by Native Americans. Members of the Shoshone Nation continue to visit the area for spiritual and cultural purposes, collecting plants and other materials for crafts and medicines.
The diverse landscape of Big Morongo Canyon Proposed Wilderness and Joshua Tree National Park Addition has been an important part of the Morongo Basin’s natural and cultural history for almost two billion years. Nestled among the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the desert oasis at Big Morongo Canyon is one of the 10 largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in all of California. With its riparian habitat positioned under a major migratory flyway, Big Morongo serves as a refuge for more than 240 species of migrating and breeding birds including the second highest density of nesting birds in the United States. In addition to providing sanctuary to birds, the land serves as a home and a crucial wildlife corridor for animals traveling between Joshua Tree National Park, the oasis at Big Morongo, and the higher elevations of the San Bernardino Mountains. Animals like California black bear, bobcats, desert bighorn sheep, and mountain lions depend on Big Morongo for survival.
The Cady Mountains Proposed Wilderness is an island of wildlife and rugged topography tucked between I-15 and I-40. Easily accessible to the urban adventurer, visitors can still experience the solitude and isolation of an outstanding wilderness area. Hikers can explore miles and miles of backcountry and not even scratch the surface of the beauty and diversity this area offers. Just south of I-15, the Cady's drop into Afton Canyon with its amazingly colorful rock layers lining the narrow, 600-foot deep canyon. The area is home to nearly 200 species of birds and wildlife drawn to the steady water supply. Native Americans utilized the water source, and Jedidiah Smith and Kit Carson traveled through the area in the early 1800s on a route which is preserved here as the historic Old Mojave Road. Today rock hounders frequent the area finding an abundance of ribbon, plume, banded, and picture agates.
The Castle Mountains Proposed Wilderness and Mojave National Park Addition, including Hart Peak (5, 543 ft) represent a critical linkage between the Piute Mountains and the New York Mountains for plant-life, wildlife, scenic viewshed and watershed. Castle Mountains is surrounded all three sides by the Mojave National Preserve and would become part of the Preserve. It is currently the only remaining portion of the 340 mile Lanfair Valley watershed that is not part of the Preserve. Vegetation consists of Joshua Tree Woodland, higher elevation leads to Blackbrush scrub and Pinyon-Juniper Forest at the highest elevations. The area of Desert Grasslands below the Viceroy Mine was recognized as a “unique plant assemblage” in 1980 by the BLM in their California Desert Conservation Area plan. The scenic view from Hart Mountain looks out over adjacent and contiguous wilderness, including views of many of the highest peaks in the Mojave Desert. The remote nature of this site protects the ability to enjoy increasingly rare natural quiet.
The Clipper Mountain Wilderness and the proposed additions are comprised of rugged yellow and dark brown, horizontally striped mesas; narrow canyons with hidden springs; and sparsely vegetated alluvial fans. The small cluster of volcanic mountains is oriented northeast to southwest. In the center, the most prominent ridge, Clipper Mountain, reaches an elevation of 4,625 feet before it dramatically drops off in series of sharp cliffs overlooking the Clipper and Fenner Valleys. Wildlife includes a herd of 40-50 bighorn sheep, coyote, black-tailed jackrabbits, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, chucker, quail, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, rattlesnakes, and several species of lizards. Located adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, the area provides an important connective corridor for wildlife. The entire wilderness is considered critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. In the spring, the alluvial fans turn a spectacular yellow with brittlebush and other wildflowers.
The Death Valley National Park Proposed Wilderness Additions are located on the extreme southern boundary of Death Valley National Park. The narrow strip of land between the Park and Fort Irwin is often referred to as the "Bowling Alley," and is a remote, rarely visited area featuring rugged mountains and deep canyons, separated by open valleys, bajadas, and pristine dry lake beds. The geological history of the area dates back nearly two billion years, and the earliest human inhabitants appeared about 1,000 years ago. For the patient visitor, this desert reveals her charm slowly. The one permanent spring, Quail Spring, exists at an elevation of 4,000 feet creating a rich riparian area while attracting a wide variety of birds. Owl Hole Spring provides intermittent water for an array of animals and a green oasis for visitors. Sparse rainfall may drain into Owl Lake or Lost Lake--dry lakes that see water just a few days a year, or not at a all. The diverse topography and vegetation support a variety of wildlife, including two protected species, the desert tortoise and the desert bighorn sheep.
The Golden Valley Wilderness and proposed additions include beautiful rounded peaks that reach heights of 4,500 to 5,000 feet. From a distance, the picturesque Black Hills appear “painted” due to black rocks that form streaked lines along the hillsides. The valley is flanked by both the Lava and Almond Mountain Ranges. The sweeping bajadas and lower elevations provide habitat for the endangered Desert Tortoise, endangered Mohave Ground Squirrel, and several species of raptors. During the spring season, Golden Valley lives up to its name with a floral carpeting of magnificent Desert Sunflowers, the California Poppy, Mariposa Lilly, Bluebell and Mustard. A Joshua tree forest covers much of the eastern side of the Black Hills and creosote bush, cactus, burroweed, and brittlebush are scattered throughout the area.
The Great Falls Basin Proposed Wilderness is easily accessible to travelers driving along the Trona-Wildrose Road through the quaint city of Trona. A local favorite spot for picnicking and camping, lucky visitors can often find a refreshing natural “bathtub” filled with fresh water at the foot of the basin. This energizing feature is present because year-round springs and streams feed the catchment basin. The proposed wilderness boundary is above and beyond the ridgeline, but park at the designated markers for easy access to the basin, hiking trails and to enjoy the surrounding cliffs, peaks, and canyon walls. The mountain ranges appear striated because of ancient sedimentation and range in dramatic colors form dusty brown to rich gold. A boy scout troop from Trona maintains a hiking trail up the south side of the canyon and hikers are treated to sweeping views of the ancient Pleistocene strandlines of Searles Lake as well as unique rock formations like the giant bowling ball pictured here. Great Falls Basin is important habitat for the Inyo brown towhee, a State-listed rare bird species. There is also historic use by desert bighorn sheep. The higher elevations host yucca, mountain mahogany, piñon pine and juniper trees.
Flanked by the Chocolate Mountain range, Indian Pass Wilderness and proposed additions have long been an important part of the traditional homeland of the Quechan tribe (formerly known as the Yuma Tribe) most of which was lost during the 19th and 20th centuries due to gold mining. Archaeological evidence indicates Native American use for at least 10,000 years. Prayer circles, shrines, petroglyphs and geoglyphs linked by ancient trails can still be found today. Although Indian Pass is not a designated reservation, the Quechan continue to visit this sacred land for spiritual practices. Today, this landscape of jagged peaks and spires sliced by twisting canyons is still under threat from proposed mining operations and was listed the by National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in America. The area’s proximity to the Colorado River allows species that are not commonly found in California such as the Great Plains toad, Colorado River toad and tree lizard to make their home here.
The 7,323-foot Kingston Range, located within the 210,000-acre Kingston Range Wilderness, rises high above three low desert valleys: Mesquite, Shadow, and Silurian. The Kingston Range Wilderness and proposed additions contains one of the highest concentrations of endangered species and unusual plant assemblages in the California desert, due to its extremely varied terrain and unusual mineral formations. A relict stand of white fir trees are found on the north slope, and other rare plants thrive here. Visitors to the Kingston Range may encounter animals as diverse as prairie falcons, bighorn sheep, Panamint chipmunks, yellow-billed cuckoos, desert tortoises, pupfish, raptors, vermilion flycatchers, and the banded Gila monster. Joshua trees and barrel cacti are abundant, and the giant nolina, which grows to be about 15 feet high and 10 feet in girth, is also found here. The proposed wilderness additions would extend protection to the lower slopes of the Kingston Range and Kingston Wash.
Conglomerate Mesa is the central feature of the Malpais Mesa proposed wilderness additions. At 7,700 feet, Conglomerate Mesa is a striking plateau, jutting 3,800 feet from the valley floor and visible from the western edge of Death Valley National Park. The mesa’s western slope features rolling badlands and from the top the view is simply breathtaking—a dramatic 360 degree view of the Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada to the west and Telescope Peak to the east. Wildlife like the Mule Deer, Golden Eagles, threatened Mojave Ground Squirrel and the desert bighorn sheep make their home amongst a dense Joshua tree forest that transitions to Piñon pines and Juniper trees at the higher elevations. Absolutely pristine, the area has never been mined, grazed, or used by OHVs, but is currently threatened by a proposal for a destructive open pit cyanide heap leech mine by the out of state Timberline Resources Corporation. The company proposes to bulldoze roads and conduct exploratory drilling on this stunning and picturesque landscape.
Milpitas Wash Proposed Wilderness is near the southern end of the Mule Mountains. Rare but massive desert cloudbursts send water into the tree-lined washes and scour the braided landscape. Visitors can see petrified palm roots that were once part of an ancient, lush landscape. The area supports the largest Sonoran Desert woodland in the United States. Most of the trees are legumes: mesquites, acacias, palo verdes, ironwoods and desert willows. The abundance of old-growth trees, with most standing over 15 feet high, gives the area a lush character rarely found in the desert and draw an abundance of wildlife like desert tortoise, mountain lions, long-eared owl, leaf nose bat, merriam and desert kangaroo rats, long tail and little pocket mice, bullock's and hooded orioles, towhees, white-crowned sparrows, brewer's sparrows, warblers, black-headed grosbeaks, diamondback rattle snakes, and the endangered gila woodpecker.
Palo Verde Wilderness and proposed additions are characterized by a variety of jagged peaks, desert washes and unique buttes. A challenging hike to the area’s highest point, the 1,800 foot Palo Verde Peak, offers an impressive view of surrounding desert washes, softer mountains, and the blue glint of the Colorado River. Desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, wild burros, coyote, dove, quail, mountain lions, and diamondback rattlers can be found here and are often drawn to Clapp Spring, a palm and mesquite oasis and the only source of permanent water. Vegetation like Palo Verde trees, mesquite, and ironwood, grow along the southeastern edge of the wilderness. The area also boasts one of the few California populations of saguaro cacti. For the trained eye, there is plenty of archeological evidence of use by native Americans including cleared circles, rock rings, rock shelters, and ancient trails.
The Slate Range Proposed Wilderness forms the west side of Panamint Valley and boasts a diverse and rugged terrain, steep canyons, and high peaks, offering visitors wonderful views of the majestic Telescope Peak and the Panamint Mountains. Visitors to the area are often struck by way that the setting sun casts an array of colors on the range. The proposed wilderness is critical habitat for the desert bighorn sheep and it is home to the prairie falcon and golden eagle. The lower elevations of the bajadas are generally richer in flora and fauna and consist mainly of low desert shrubs like the creosote bush. The site is steeped in history, with innumerable Native American cultural sites and ancient trails. In the late 1840’s, a group of 49ers took a dangerous hike out of Death Valley, crossing the Slate Range through Manly Pass. In tribute, the route of these early 49ers trek has been duly named the “Escape Trail”. Today, the trail is marked with artistic interpretive signs and makes an excellent hike.
Located just off Interstate 15, the Soda Mountains Proposed Wilderness is a scenic, horseshoe shaped range that varies from gentle slopes to rugged, highly eroded, jagged ridges. Hikers enjoy ready access to multicolored canyons with steep, rocky walls grading from brown at the base, to red in the middle, to gold at the top. The sharp contrast between stark, eroded rock and vibrant, leafy vegetation is striking and impressive. In nearby Afton Canyon, the Mojave River is forced up by bedrock and flows at the surface year-round, creating a rare riparian habitat that supports a wide variety of wildlife. Amid the dominant creosote scrub are barrel cacti, cholla, yuccas, and the unique Crucifixion thorn. Two intermittent lakes, East Cronese and West Cronese, provide habitat for wintering and migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. The unusual concentrations of water related birds also make this a choice area for raptors. Desert bighorn sheep live in large swaths of the range as well.
Surprise Canyon Proposed Wild and Scenic River is a true rarity in the California desert with its abundant, year-round flow of cool, gushing water, falls, and thickets of willows and other riparian plant life. The canyon has served as a trail through the Panamint Mountains for Native Americans for millennia and for the last century for miners and explorers. The canyon supports 15 square miles of bighorn sheep habitat, and the rare Panamint daisy among many other unique plants and animals. Over the last few decades OHVs were allowed to use the canyon to the point that portions of it became almost like a road. Heavy rains and flooding have since washed out the route giving way to extensive riparian growth and an abundance of recovered animal and plant habitat. Despite this, the BLM allowed extreme OHV enthusiasts to continue driving up the canyon, even though they had to winch their vehicles up the falls. This caused severe damage to the plant and animal habitats from driving over them and from oil and fuel spills due to flipped vehicles and break downs. At peak use, about 120 ORVs attempted to go up Surprise Canyon in a year. The BLM has since closed the canyon to vehicles until an EIS can be completed, and since then approximately 500 hikers go through the canyon annually. Despite this, OHV enthusiasts continue to push for the canyon to be reopened.
Surrounded on three sides by Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Table Mountain Proposed Wilderness occupies a bench on the eastern slope of the Peninsular Range at an average elevation of 3,500 feet. At the eastern edge the land falls abruptly away to the desert below—a plunge of more than a thousand feet per mile. Views from the summits extend out across the desert and the Imperial Valley to Arizona, north beyond the Salton Sea and south into Mexico. The area is extremely rugged, with countless golden-tan granitic rock outcrops. One of the few peaks of volcanic origin in the region, Table Mountain is made up of four separate mesas ranging from 3,600 to over 4,000 feet. The red and orange shades of rock are distinctive, and the flat expanses of the summits support high-desert grassland. In a landscape of granite spires and sawtooth ridges, there's something special about this high, table-flat "island in the sky," something recognized by the Kumeyaay Indians, to whom the mountain is sacred. There is evidence of Kumeyaay tool-making, a documented village site and several pictograph sites within the proposed wilderness area.
The Trilobite Wilderness and proposed additions are named for the abundant and well-preserved fossil trilobites dating from the early Cambrian geologic age, roughly 518 million years ago. These fossils are some of Earth's most ancient identifiable animals with hard parts. The wilderness additions include low rolling hills and sloping bajadas surrounding the jagged Marble Mountains. The Trilobite Wilderness is home to one of the larger and rapidly growing desert bighorn sheep herds in the Mojave Desert and provides critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. Other sightings might include coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, quail, roadrunners, red tail hawks, prairie falcons, rattlesnakes, and several species of lizards.
The Vinagre Wash Proposed Wilderness is easily accessible from Highway 78, south of Palo Verde. Vinagre Wash extends for 16 miles along lowlands of the Colorado River. Its proximity to the river and to the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge makes it an important connective corridor for desert wildlife like desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, endangered gila woodpecker, and the southwestern flycatcher. Wind and water chiseled slot canyons curl their way through the landscape and offer visitors opportunities to hike sandy washes, exploring the twists and turns and beautiful desert sculpture. Vegetation, though sparse, is comprised of ocotillos, teddy bear cholla, small bushes of creosote, barrel cactus, smoke trees, desert acacias, and the rare California ditaxis.
The Deep Creek Proposed Wild and Scenic River is a stunning tributary of the Mojave River with miles of deep pools and cascading waterfalls. The creek is flanked by a chaparral ecosystem and beautiful rocky hills. Deep Creek is home to the endangered Southwestern Arroyo Toad and supports the greatest diversity of wildlife habitats of any drainage on the San Bernardino National Forest. Black bear, mountain lion, raccoon, ground squirrel, coyote, beaver, and bobcat visit the creek and numerous fish species are found in the water. The creek has earned the State designation of a Wild Trout Stream for its popularity amongst anglers. Rainbow and brown trout are primary game fish. Sparse creosote, chamise and California buckwheat at lower elevations and oak and pinyon woodland and scattered mixed conifer are just some of the vegetation in this healthy riparian habitat.
The Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477 has been revived again in Inyo and San Bernardino Counties by extreme off-road vehicle users and politically-driven county officials. This time they have gone directly to federal court, forcing CWC and our partners in the desert to intervene in the cases in order to protect some of the crown jewels of California wilderness.
The first suit was filed in August 2006 by off-roaders who claim that Surprise Canyon – a surprise oasis of waterfalls beside Death Valley National Park – is a "constructed highway" to which off-roaders have a right-of-way under R.S. 2477. While Congress added part of Surprise Canyon to Death Valley and designated the land around the canyon as wilderness in 1994, Congress left a narrow strip of canyon bottom out of the wilderness for access to mining claims at the top of the canyon. Extreme off-road vehicle users used the strip to climb the canyon by cutting down trees, filling the stream bed with rocks, and using winches to pull vehicles up waterfalls.
The Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service closed the canyon in 2001 and 2002 respectively in order to evaluate the impact of off-road vehicle use and other management practices on endangered wildlife, settling a lawsuit by conservationists to protect the canyon. In five years, Surprise Canyon has rebounded ecologically. Cottonwoods and willows trees are flourishing, and endangered birds such as the Inyo California towhee have returned. It is this reemergence of natural life that is at stake in this case as the off-roaders press to have the canyon re-opened.
In October 2006, both Inyo and San Bernardino Counties chose to make a political point by filing two separate suits against the National Park Service asserting that the counties have rights-of-way in Death Valley National Park in Inyo County and the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. The Inyo County suit alleges that three routes are theirs to open, maintain, and even construct two-lane highways in the designated wilderness of Greenwater Canyon, Greenwater Valley and Last Chance Canyon. At the Board of Supervisors meeting approving the litigation, the Inyo Board decided that making a political point was more important than taxpayer dollars. The Board decided that the litigation’s cost of upwards of $300,000 was not an issue despite the fact that the county is currently running a deficit. Instead, many board members said the rights of the county are more important than costs. CWC and our local partners intervened in January 2007 to fight for Death Valley’s wilderness.
San Bernardino County filed a similar suit alleging that they have 14 rights-of-way in the Mojave National Preserve. The Board of Supervisors is taking a beating in the local press. The San Bernardino Sun recently chastised the Board for filing the litigation and sided with the National Park Service saying that the judge should dismiss the suit. The Sun’s editorial calls the litigation "the road to nowhere," further saying, "it's hard to see what exactly the county is hoping to preserve, other than some bogus claim to power over the preserve."
In 1976, Congress designated a 25 million acre swath of Colorado, Mojave and Sonoran deserts as the California Desert Conservation Area. This enormous region is in a constant tug of war between protection of its unique natural resources and development for Southern California’s booming population.
In 1994, the California Desert Protection Act, the largest wilderness bill ever passed outside Alaska, increased protection for 9 million acres of national parks and wilderness. At that time, the legislation designated a few lands as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) with the idea that wilderness suitability would be reviewed in the future.
These WSAs include the Avawatz, Cady, and Soda Mountains and potential additions to Death Valley National Park and the Kingston Range Wilderness. In 2002, part of the Avawatz WSA was given to the U.S. Army’s Fort Irwin for its expansion. It is now time to resolve the issue of the remaining WSAs. Comprised of more than 300,000 acres of desert expanse, these WSAs offer both the opportunity to protect huge, contiguous ecosystems and the potential for California’s largest wilderness gains in sheer acreage since the California Desert Protection Act. The 110th Congress brings us a new chance for designating wilderness in the California desert.
The 110,000 acre Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area is a prime example of Mojave wilderness awaiting protection. Located just off Interstate 15, the Soda Mountains are a scenic, horseshoe-shaped range that varies from gentle slopes to rugged, highly eroded, jagged ridges. Hikers enjoy ready access to multicolored canyons with steep, rocky walls grading from brown at the base, to red in the middle, to gold at the top.
The sharp contrast between stark, eroded rock and vibrant, leafy vegetation is striking and impressive. In nearby Afton Canyon, the Mojave River is forced up by bedrock and flows at the surface year-round, creating a rare riparian habitat that supports a wide variety of wildlife. Two intermittent lakes, East Cronese and West Cronese, provide habitat for wintering and migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. The unusual concentration of water-related birds also makes this a choice area for raptors seeking prey. Desert bighorn sheep are here as well, at times using 65 square miles of the range.
In 2005, CWC members and other conservationists were successful in ensuring that Anza – Borrego Desert State Park’s unique natural and cultural resources would be protected for generations to come when we urged the State Parks and Recreation Commission to approve a strong general management plan for the Park. The Park now holds more than 400,000 acres of state wilderness. Less than two years later, the Park faces a new threat.
San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is seeking permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to build a new high-voltage power line from the Imperial Valley to western San Diego County. Called the "Sunrise Powerlink," the 500kV line would cut through the heart of Anza-Borrego running roughly along Highway 78 and exiting the Park at Grapevine Canyon. The towers for this line would be the size of an 18-story building.
While California certainly needs electricity, this is a foolish waste of our natural resources when there are other ways to meet our electrical needs. In this case, there are numerous alternatives that SDG&E refuses to seriously consider. By establishing Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the public and the State of California have already expressed their will that this is a place to be protected from development. To date, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has expressed neutrality on the powerline, which is unacceptable. Their mission is to protect this Park and its wilderness. The Department must say no to a project that will surely degrade the heritage it is meant to protect for future generations.
This proposal illustrates the ongoing threat that ORVs pose to California's wild places and open frontiers across the western United States. As ORV use continues to grow in popularity, so do the devastating impacts to our pristine landscapes, watersheds and outdoor recreation. ORVs erode hillsides, pollute our air and water, disturb wildlife and their habitat, and disrupt neighboring communities. In addition, ORV damage increases exponentially when renegade riders create new, unauthorized routes through the heart of wild places, which lead the way to even more unauthorized routes. The result is an endless network of illegal roads and routes that collectively degrades our nation’s last wild places.
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Please call or write Ruth Coleman, Director of State Parks, at 800-777-0369 or
Dept. of Parks and Recreation 1416 9th Street Sacramento, CA 95814.
Ask Director Coleman to stand up for Anza-Borrego.
(Courtesy of Steve Tabor, President, Desert Survivors)
Trail name: Mopah Spring-Gary Wash Loop
Distance: 17 miles, 2 or 3-day backpack
Features: The Turtle Mountains Wilderness near Needles is a classic desert landscape. This two or three-day backpack loop shows the South Mojave at its best. The route starts from the east wilderness boundary and goes west up Mopah Wash to Mopah Spring, an important waterhole for bighorn sheep.
Two brown volcanic crags, Mopah and Umpah, rise above the spring, which supports palm and mesquite trees. An old Indian trail leads west over a low pass into secluded Vidal Valley. Turtle Mountain Peak is on the high ridge to the west. Camping in Vidal Wash is easy. The backpack loop continues northwest over a low pass near Thumb Peak (3615'), another volcanic crag, then goes east down Gary Wash to the cars. Hikers can find bighorn and bird life at the spring, the threatened desert tortoise in the washes, and lizards and snakes in warm weather. Special treats include colorful rock bands, open valley vistas, petroglyphs, and a small rock house. A third day can be spent exploring Vidal Valley or the peaks without packs. Carry all water; leave the small puddle at Mopah Spring for the bighorns. No overnight camping near the spring.
Formed mostly of speckled granite capped by dark black basaltic lava, the 7,703’ mass of Chocolate Mountain resembles a scoop of chocolate chip ice cream topped with chocolate syrup dropped in the middle of the desert.
Directions to trailhead: Mopah is accessed via a short dirt road going west from U.S. Route 95. Drive south from Needles about 36 miles and look west for a narrow two-track. It's obscure, but shows on both the AAA San Bernardino County map and the topo map for the area. If you pass a point directly west of Pyramid Butte on the east side of the highway, you've gone too far. Drive west in open desert on the two-track directly toward the Mopah Peaks, which show prominently. The Wilderness boundary is about three and a half miles. Cars can be parked alongside when the road becomes rocky. Mopah Wash is an easy walk from there.