Exploring the Sand to Snow National MonumentPosted by Adventure 16 | 03.05.2019
Sand to Snow National Monument in California. Bob Wick, BLM
How do you improve upon a region that already has one of the most famous trails in the country, Cactus to Clouds, in which hikers can climb nearly 10,000 feet from the desert floor to a mountain peak? How about Sand to Snow?
In February 2016, President Obama created the 154,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument in southern California’s San Bernardino County. Much like the Cactus to Clouds trail near Palm Springs, the Sand to Snow preserve features both low desert terrain and high alpine peaks. You can go from the desert floor in the Coachella Valley (about 1,000 feet above sea level) all the way to the top of the peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains, which extend to more than 11,000 feet.
That’s a huge range in a relatively small geographic area, creating a mix of spectacular landscapes with unique plants and wildlife to explore. While this may be one of the country’s youngest national monuments, it already has plenty of established options for outdoor enthusiasts, including 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, plus camping, hiking, fishing, and mountain biking options. Preserving the area as a natural monument works to ensure that future generations will be able to share the same experiences.
The Road to a National Monument
The signature site of the national monument is the 11,503-foot San Gorgonio Mountain, which features a (sometimes) snow-capped, rounded top that rises above the tree line. It’s the highest point in California south of the Sierra Nevadas and one of 11 peaks on the San Bernardino range more than 10,000 feet high. From its summit, you get an incredible view of the region—you can even spot Mt. Whitney 190 miles away when conditions are right.
The mountain was considered a sacred place to many of the indigenous tribes in the region, including the Serrano and Cahuilla peoples who lived near the base of the mountain. An estimated 1,700 Native American petroglyphs can be found in the park, in addition to other cultural and archeological sites dating back to the earliest inhabitants of the area.
The region was first settled by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, who established the Rancho San Gorgonio. The gold rush of the 1860s brought more people to the area, and you will still find the miners abandoned campsites, watering holes, and driveways in the park today. The early 20th century brought the first wave of tourists to take advantage of the recreational opportunities in the region.
The road to becoming a national monument began thanks to the work of the Wildlands Conservancy, which started the privately funded acquisition of 60,000 acres of land more than two decades ago. The Conservancy bought private properties that were in danger of being developed in order to protect the wildlife corridors between the San Gorgonio Wilderness, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness. The Conservancy remains heavily involved in the area, especially with creating outdoor learning opportunities for children in the region, but the government of the property is split between the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Sand to Snow may just be the most biodiverse national monument in the country, as it includes three distinct ecosystems: coastal in the west, Mojave Desert in the east and the Sonoran Desert to the south. In the preserve, you’ll find more than 1,600 different species of plants, more than 240 species of birds, and 12 animal species that are on the threatened or endangered list.
In addition to the lowland deserts, you’ll find riparian forests, creosote bush scrub, woodlands, freshwater marshes, Mediterranean chaparral, and alpine conifer forests. In the South Fork Meadows, you’ll find hundreds of springs, as well as the origin of the South Fork of the Santa Ana River. Sand to Snow features groves of quaking aspen trees, a habitat for the California spotted owl, and the highest density of black bears in southern California.
Where to Visit
There’s a nearly endless opportunity for those looking to explore the Sand to Snow, depending on what you enjoy doing—and what time of year you visit. Great snowshoe trails in the winter become hiking opportunities in the warmer months.
For those interested in the desert landscape, a great place to start is the Whitewater Canyon Preserve. Located five miles west of Palm Springs, the preserve features the Whitewater River, which is indeed aptly named during the spring runoff, but most of the year is relatively mild. You’ll find a thriving population of bighorn sheep and deer, and maybe you'll be lucky enough to spot a black bear. A two-mile hike will take you to the Red Dome, the ruddy-colored hill that was created by volcanic activity. The Canyon View Loop Trail is another popular option, which features 1,000 feet of climbing, but you’re rewarded with some amazing views.
NOTE: Whitewater Canyon Road has been severly damaged from recent storms rendering it impassible. Check the status before heading out to determine if the area is closed.
The desert oasis at Big Morongo Canyon is nestled among the Little San Bernardino Mountains and is one of the largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in California.
To explore the region's wetlands, head to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which features a creek and marsh habitat surrounded by desert. The area is well recognized as an important wildlife corridor and internationally-recognized birding site that links the San Gorgonio Wilderness with the San Bernardino National Forest and Joshua Tree National Park. Mule deer, big horn sheep, and mountain lions move freely within this area in search of food and water. Over 247 bird species have been recorded in the Preserve, with at least 72 resident breeding species.
Sand to Snow National Monument features thirty miles of the world famous Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail Bob Wick, BLM
For those hikers who want a real challenge, take on the preserve’s 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which in its entirety runs 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Sand to Snow section is known as the “nine peaks challenge,” and features more than 8,300 feet of elevation change across those nine peaks.
NOTE: The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association offers a Nine Peaks Challenge patch through their store and describes the challenge as thus:
"From west to east, [the nine peaks] are San Bernardino Peak, San Bernardino Peak East, Anderson Peak, Shields Peak, Alto Diablo (a curious “pile of rocks” not recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey, but recognized by the Boy Scouts of America and many “locals”), Charlton Peak, Little Charlton Peak, Jepson Peak, and Mt. San Gorgonio. These peaks are generally linked up by Boy Scouts groups and others on a three-day outing beginning at the Vivian Creek Trail and culminating at the San Bernardino Peak trailhead. There are other peaks in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, but those listed above are all located along the several mile long ridge from San Gorgonio to San Bernardino Peak."
Camping opportunities are available in the western side of the preserve in the San Bernardino National Forest. Among the eight designated wilderness areas, you’ll find more than a dozen established campsites as well as backcountry camping.
Mountain biking in the San Bernardino National Forest is permitted on designated trails only. But you will find several excellent options, including the Big Bear Lake Recreation Area and Lake Arrowhead.
For anglers, most of the lakes and streams in the San Bernardino National Forest are stocked with rainbow trout in season, and you’ll also find bass, bluegill, and catfish.
Whether you’re looking for an alpine escape, some time on the water, or a desert oasis, the Sand to Snow National Monument has something for everyone. Take the time to see for yourself why it’s such an important area to preserve for future generations.
Written by Allison Barnes for RootsRated in partnership with Greater Palm Springs CVB. Updated & revised by Adventure 16.