Below, in the shadow of Mount San Gorgonio (the highest peak in Southern California) lies the enchanting perennial stream known as Mission Creek. Surrounding this incredible desert gem is the stunning 4,760-acre Mission Creek Preserve, which a colleague and I had the incredible opportunity to camp in this spring. Amazingly, Mission Creek and its surrounding native landscape was painted bright yellow by blossoming desert wildflowers called brittlebush. As we explored this exceptionally remarkable area, I heard the familiar buzzing of bees hard at work. Looking more closely at these marvelous pollinators, I noticed that this wonderful burst of vibrant wildflowers attracted a number of native bees to the area.
I expected to see flat dessert with not a lot of variation in the landscape. Instead, with Mission Creek nearby, the presence of water determined where and when life can flourish. Hence, Mission Creek and its surrounding lands are key to the prosperous existence of various plants and animals that call the desert their home, including the well-known desert tortoise. Many people will be surprised to discover these charming reptiles are known residents of Mission Creek Preserve. One such child we met was not surprised about the reptiles that exist in the area, as he gave us an excited overview. However, we sadly had to inform the child that an encounter with a desert tortoise is an exceedingly rare sight to see. Their rarity doesn’t stop visitors from flocking to their confirmed habitat every year in spring hoping to catch a glimpse of these highly treasured creatures. If you are fortunate and encounter one of these lumbering desert dwellers on your visit, please respect their space by observing them from a comfortable distance.
We hoped to see the southwestern willow flycatcher and the least bell’s vireo, which other frequent visitors to Mission Creek come to see as well. Sadly, due to a dramatic decline in population numbers, both songbirds are on the federal and state list of endangered species, which resulted in us not being able to spot them. The decline of these species is primarily due to the loss and degradation of riparian areas that provide many with food, water, and shelter. Fortunately, bordering Mission Creek is a spring-fed ciénegas brimming with cottonwood, willow, and mesquite. This wetland area, a rare occurrence in the desert, is an ideal habitat for many imperiled riparian bird species. In addition to the southwestern willow flycatcher and the least bell’s vireo, Mission Creek Preserve provides habitat for multiple state species of special concern (SSSC) like the yellow warbler, yellow-breasted chat, and crissal thrasher, all of which we were not able to see.
Due to its outstandingly remarkable values, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found segments of Mission Creek to be suitable for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Notably, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT), which parallels segments of Mission Creek, was listed by BLM as among its extraordinary values. Visitors looking to explore this treasured pathway can easily access it by hiking only two additional miles past the preserve’s camping area. I did not get to explore the PCT on this trip, but now that I know it’s there, I’d definitely love to come back and discover what else the desert has to offer. For now, I’m content having seen Mission Creek, which is near the PCT and I hope to see its rich diversity still flourishing in the future.