Terra Galleria Photography

Nature Preserves at the Edge of Wilderness in Sand To Snow National Monument


Sand to Snow National Monument owes its name to the striking elevation difference between the Sonoran Desert floor (about 1,000 feet) and 11,500-foot San Gorgonio Mountain, Southern California’s highest peak. That gradient makes Sand to Snow possibly the most botanically diverse national monument in America. Unlike Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains, no roads penetrate its 240 square miles (154,000 acres) interior. The highest parts of Sand to Snow National Monument are designated wilderness, and reached via trailheads on the north and west along Hwy 38. However, the lower parts of Sand to Snow National Monument on the east are quite accessible thanks to a trio of developed nature preserves on its outskirts, which do not charge fees and serve as entry points into the national monument.

(click on map for larger version)

Whitewater Canyon Preserve

The main feature of the 4.3 square miles (2,800-acre) Whitewater Canyon Preserve is the Whitewater River, a rare desert stream that flows year-round, although when I visited it was a trickle. Naturally, this stream has created a rich riparian habitat, but there are also plenty of opportunities to hike onto higher ground, as the Pacific Crest Trail is less than a mile from the ranger station. The Whitewater Canyon Preserve is managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. They cleaned up the area and transformed an historic trout farm into visitor facilities, including a ranger station that is an excellent place to get information about the national monument. The preserve is at the end of a paved road, and its gates are open to cars from daily 8am to 5pm (except on some holidays), but after-hours hiking is possible, and there is a nice and quiet campground where you can stay for free with a permit obtained at the ranger station or by phone.

Mission Creek Preserve

The nearby 7.3 square miles (4,700-acre) Mission Creek Preserve, which is also managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, offers a clear view of Southern California‚Äôs two highest peaks, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Reached by a well-graded dirt road, Mission Creek Preserve is less developed than the Whitewater Canyon Preserve. Without prior arrangements, I had to park on the large lot outside the locked gate and hike in. If you obtain the key, you can drive 1.5 miles to the Mission Creek Stone House, where you’ll find a free campground which is small but has flush toilets and a shelter.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

The 48 square miles (31,000-acre) Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is located on the outskirts of the town of Morongo Valley, less than a mile from Hwy 62, and was protected as a wildlife reserve in 1982, making it the most popular and accessible area in the monument. With the exception of the 4-mile Canyon Trail, all the trails are short and include boardwalks over wetlands. Since this is the desert, I was surprised by the lushness of the area, even with mid-winter’s absence of greenery. It was one of the largest cottonwoods and willow habitats I’d seen in California, and a few palm trees grow there too. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is managed by the BLM and is a day use area open daily from 7:30am to sunset. A host was present at the trailhead, and there is a nature center where I learned that the preserve’s oasis is considered a major birding area in California by the Audubon Society.


The Wildlands Conservancy manages the 40 square miles (25,500-acre) Pionneertown Mountains Preserve, the largest of their desert properties. A short unpaved road leads to a ranger station. Including riparian areas, volcanic mesas, and mountains, it is most diverse, but a huge fire in 2016 killed most of the preserve’s vegetation. The Pioneertown Mountains Preserve is not included in Sand to Snow National Monument. However, there is a 10 square miles (6,400-acre) detached unit of the monument called the Black Lava Butte addition that lies east of the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. It protects two broad, volcanic mesas, Black Lava Butte to the west and Flat Top to the east, which I have found to be quite barren.

See more images from Sand to Snow National Monument

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  1. Joe Eulberg says:

    QT – thanks again for providing not just spectacular photography but also valuable information to help others visit.

  2. fefeo says:

    Thanks so much for this tutorial.

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