Terra Galleria Photography

Undeveloped in California: Castle Mountains National Monument


If I was to sum up my impressions of Castle Mountains National Monument in one word, it would be “primitive”. See what I managed to discover and photograph in one day of exploring this beautiful desert area that manages to make the Mojave National Preserve appear civilized, without the benefit of any detailed information nor any facilities.

Castle Mountains National Monument is part of a trio of national monuments in the California desert proclaimed by President Obama in February 2016, and at 32.69 square miles is quite small compared to the two others. While Mojave Trails National Monument surrounds Mojave National Preserve on three sides, Castle Mountains is surrounded by Mojave National Preserve on three sides. Unlike most of the recently created national monuments, Castle Mountains is managed by the National Park Service. Areas managed by the National Park Service in general, and national parks in particular, tend to be more developed than those managed by other government agencies such as the BLM. Therefore, I was surprised by the barebones nature of the national park website for Castle Mountains: no detailed map, nor any information on the park or activities – an harbinger of the situation on the ground. The most useful map of Castle Mountains is actually the NPS map of Mojave National Preserve, and since there is no ranger station nor visitor center in Castle Mountains, if you want to ask for conditions, the best number to call would be the Mojave Hole-in-thewall Visitor Center (760 252-6104 or 760 928-2572) or maybe the main Mojave visitor center in Barstow a call (760-252-6100).

The website did mention that the main approach to the monument is from Walking Box Ranch Road (unpaved) off of Nevada State Rd 164 or Nipton Road, and recommended a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Driving out of Searchlight in the dark, I looked in vain for a sign pointing to the national monument. Google Maps suggested a route via Walking Box Ranch Road, so in spite of the NPS warnings not to rely on GPS for navigation, I assumed the electronic directions to be correct. After a about ten miles of well-graded dirt road, I was pleased to spot a sign with the familiar brown color that said “Entering Castle Mountains National Monument”.

I was planning to stop at the first parking lot or trailhead ahead and sleep in the car – there are no campgrounds nor bathrooms in the monument. However, none appeared, and after driving for a while, I realized I’d gone too far from the Castle Peaks that I had initially planned to photograph at sunrise since they are east-facing. Despite the apparent isolation, I didn’t want just to park on the side of the road, since it had become quite narrow with not even a proper shoulder. It took me a while to locate a side road where I could pull out. This turned out a good idea because late at night, eighteen-wheeler trucks would barge by. When Castle Mountains National Monument was designated, its boundaries were drawn around a gold mine which is still active, and the industrial vehicles would be the only traffic I would see during my stay. I guess they are the reason the main road in such a good shape, and passable by most vehicles. Instead of driving back towards the Castle Peaks in the dark, I photographed the first light reaching mountains located in the Mojave National Preserve.

Besides the mountains, I found in the monument grasslands said to be particularly diverse, one of densest collection of Joshua Trees of the Mojave, superior to that found in Joshua Tree National Park, and generally a great array of desert vegetation ranging from all sort of cacti to juniper and pinyon pines.

Forming sharp pinnacles carved by erosion out of volcanic rocks, the Castle Peaks, which can be seen from as far as I-15 near the CA-NV state line, are the most striking mountains around. However, they are located in the Mojave National Preserve, not in the monument, and are often confused with the Castle Mountains. From the road, the Castle Peaks face east and make for a great sunrise shot, while the Castle Mountains face west.

The namesake Castle Mountains culminate at about 5,500 feet. I soon zeroed on their most distinctive summit, Hart Peak. Besides at the entrance, I didn’t find any trail, trailhead, pull-out, or a single sign in the entire monument, but I spotted quite a few side roads leading towards the direction of the peak. I tried driving one, but it quickly became very rough. Not confident that my Subaru Forester had enough clearance, I made what felt like a 10-point U-turn on the narrow road, parked near the main road and continued by foot. Overgrown jeep roads and a bit of cross country hiking lead in 1.5 miles (one-way) with 500 feet elevation gain to a saddle south of Hart Peak, where I found my favorite views of the monument, with interesting topography in all directions, and cross-light on the mountains in the early morning and late afternoon. From the saddle, I hiked the mountains opposite to Hart Peak for high vantage points. Since it was still early, I returned to the car, drove the main road to the southern boundary of the monument, and then hiked back to a spot below the saddle for sunset. Besides a few trucks on the main road, I didn’t see anybody for the entire day. Since the desert is full of thorny plants, after staying until the last light, I was grateful to mostly follow washes and old roads on my way down in the dark.

See more images from Castle Mountains National Monument

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  1. patrizia says:

    Thanks for Sarah!From Atlanta GA

  2. jeffrey rowe says:

    Hi QT

    The wife & I saw your photo exhibit in Modesto last weekend and finally was able to view your photos up-close! I have been a fan of your work for years and signed up on the blog and now can be updated on future exhibits and books. We plan on heading out to the Mojave and hope to see these beautiful locations.

    best regards,
    Jeff Rowe

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