If you were to ask me where I would spend a perfect day, I would immediately say the California Desert. It wasn’t always that way. As a child, before I moved to California, the only perception I had of the desert was that it was sandy, windy and full of tumbleweeds blowing around. My idea of hiking and camping was somewhere in a forest, which is all I knew in the places I had previously lived.
Once I moved to the Golden State, I fell in love with exploring the desert and sleeping under a brilliant display of stars, awed by the vast, open space where the quiet is broken only by the eerie hoot of an owl or the yips of coyotes answering each other across the canyons.
Today, I want to introduce you to some of my favorite places in the desert - the California Desert National Conservation Lands. These public lands are located in the southeast corner of California and four years ago today they were permanently protected. On the anniversary of this special occasion, let’s take a (virtual) tour and get to know these special places.
Silurian Valley - Rich in History
Photo Credit: Bob Wick
Silurian Valley, north of Baker, is especially near and dear to my heart. With its incredible vistas, brilliantly colored mountains, and nearby sand dunes thrown in for good measure, there is no place quite like it.
This area is rich in history, with the remaining traces of the Old Spanish Trail running across the valley and evidence of Paiute settlements near the region’s springs. Similarly, evidence of paleoarchaeology can be found along ancient lakeshores that appear as concentric circles around today’s dry lake beds.
Silurian Valley provides vital habitat and landscape connectivity among the Wilderness Areas surrounding it, as well as Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. Its designation as part of the California Desert National Conservation Lands protects migratory pathways for bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.
The Amargosa Basin - A River in the Desert
Photo Credit: Bob Wick
Nestled between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, the Amargosa Basin features the only free-flowing river in the Death Valley region of the Mojave Desert.
The Amargosa Basin includes an abundance of flowing springs that make up the Amargosa Wild and Scenic River. As a result, wildlife flourishes along this ribbon of green. The Amargosa River is fed exclusively by groundwater stored in underground aquifers that date back to a time when the desert was a wetter, cooler place.
The springs of the Amargosa support vibrant ecosystems, providing a home to many endangered species, including birds like the Bell’s vireo and the southern willow flycatcher. The Amargosa Basin is also the sole habitat for the timid and critically endangered Amargosa vole, a cute little rodent.
I enjoy bringing first-time visitors to this area to hike in the Kingston Range Wilderness and witnessing their reactions to seeing a waterfall in the desert. Then I visit China Ranch Date Farm (which is currently open for business and serves people outdoors, in compliance with Inyo County guidelines) for a refreshing date shake. Of course, I always buy date bread and date cookies for my drive home!
Lower Centennial Flat - Where Joshua Trees Grow
Photo Credit: Linda Castro, CalWild
Lower Centennial Flat is located south of Highway 190 between Olancha and Panamint Springs. The area has many large Joshua trees and is a “nursery” for numerous young Joshua trees. Scientists started seeing these young Joshua trees more frequently in the past 15 to 20 years, which is causing them to believe the species is moving to higher elevations – such as what Lower Centennial Flat has to offer – as the climate warms. As such, the area will likely be critically important to the survival of the species with global warming.
There is also a “hidden” pop culture treasure in the area. In 1987, the rock band U2 released their album, “Joshua Tree.” The Joshua tree they used for the album was photographed in the Lower Centennial Flat area. When people discovered this fact, they began to travel to that location from all over the country and the world to visit the tree. The tree has since died, but the site remains and is marked with a concrete and bronze plaque that asks, “Have you found what you’re looking for?”
Join Us in Celebrating the California Desert National Conservation Lands
You’ve heard of Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, and perhaps you’ve even visited these iconic public lands in the California Desert. But the California Desert is even more vast, diverse, and beautiful than its more well-known national parks.
The California Desert National Conservation Lands are truly special places. And, while our ability to explore in-person is limited right now due to the pandemic, we can still get to know these public lands. I hope after reading about the California Desert National Conservation Lands you too have heard their siren song.
Happy anniversary, California Desert National Conservation Lands! We’re glad you’re protected for all to experience and enjoy.