Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

What's Here :

Now that you've got your bearings, you can get out there and discover something. It hasn't all been done for you.

This monument presents a dream opportunity for anyone with an appetite for adventure. You have an impressive chunk of protected land, but minus the snack shops, kiosks, and crowds that clutter many of our nation's parks. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a great, raw work-in-progress.

And for now it's largely a DIY (do-it-yourself) monument. Be your own naturalist. Be your own botanist. Be your own explorer.

Still in its infancy, the monument is somewhat inaccessible, except to hearty hikers. In fact, there is only one major paved road through the mountains (Highway 74, the Palms-to-Pines Highway). For now, the thoroughfares really consist of trails. There's a snippet of the Pacific Crest Trail, along with a hodge- podge of old Indian paths and horse trails laboriously hacked out of granite mountainsides by the circa-1930s riding club The Desert Riders.

Because so much of the monument is hard to access, you can still feel like a pioneer naturalist. For example, says BLM geologist Steve Kupferman, you can venture out and investigate the Martinez Mountain Rock Avalanche. Not many visitors have glimpsed this mammoth and remote slide, the second largest of its kind in the United States. The slide was created between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, when avalanches roared out of the mountains and blocks the size of small cars were tossed a mile into the desert.

Another area ripe for discovery: plants and animals. The area is recognized globally as a hotspot of biodiversity. While out bagging peaks, Jeff Morgan has come upon cougars a half dozen times, as well as bighorn sheep, 10 different kinds of snakes and perhaps 100 varieties of birds.

Buford Crites has discovered ferns and orchids tucked away in canyons. There's a rare bluecurl flower in the high country - the only place it exists in the world. But we're not going to tell you where to look. Remember, this is a DIY deal.

"These mountains aren't well-known to the botanical world," says Kathryn Kramer, a botanist for the San Bernardino National Forest. "We just haven't had that many people out poking around. There are still a few unknown species lurking out there, especially in the remote canyons."

"This is a very important place biologically," adds Al Muth, director of the Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. The monument is part of the Peninsular Ranges Province, a series of mountain ranges beginning at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula and winding up here at Mount San Jacinto. The linked ranges provide a highway for species, and the rapid elevation shifts also make for an array of life zones, from Sonoran Desert to Arctic Alpine.

All this diversity means the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains are a good habitat for scientists as well as salamanders. On your rambles, you might run into a researcher herding speckled and red rattlesnakes, or studying hybridization in Gambel's quail.

Or you might spot a collared bighorn sheep. Big, handsome and endangered, the Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep is the celebrity species of the monument. More than that, they are a benchmark of the health of the mountains. "They're a good indicator of wilderness and a good indicator of environmental problems," says Jim DeForge, executive director of the Bighorn Institute.

You've likely heard more about the bighorn than other monument species because they're at the center of disputes over trail use. Specifically, should hikers be allowed on trails in bighorn habitat during lambing season? A final trails plan is still being worked out, but whatever the outcome, there are likely to be more skirmishes ahead.

It's inevitable, because the monument is so close to huge urban populations. The managers undoubtedly will spend endless hours figuring out how to keep human users happy while protecting plants, animals and other resources.

As you become familiar with the sheep and ferns, a crowning piece of the monument remains: an unusually rich human history. It's been said the central question in getting to know a place is, "What happened here?" When you ask that question about the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, the answer is, "Quite a lot."

Cahuilla Indians lived in the canyons for thousands of years, traveling deeply worn paths to the higher country to gather pinyon nuts, acorns, agave, yucca fibers, and game. If we moderns sometimes look at the mountains as one-dimensional backdrops to our patio parties, the Cahuilla didn't need 3D glasses to see a richer land.

Peaks and boulders were not inert lumps to them, but beings transformed into natural forms. Rocks and even hot springs had power and individuality, according to anthropologist Lowell Bean. So as you're sightseeing in the monument, keep in mind that any arresting outcrop or turret might have an identity and a name.

The sense that people lived here before and invested the land with meaning is palpable to BLM archeologist Wanda Raschkow. "You can be standing on this knob in the middle of nowhere that took you all day to get to," she says. "And you've climbed a cliff and slid down the other side and run into 20 cholla cactus, and you can't imagine another human being has ever been here. And you look down and find a grinding stick.

"This is really challenging terrain," she adds, "and yet everywhere you go you find indications this land has been in use for thousands of years." To get a glimpse of what Raschkow is talking about, hike four miles up the Palm Canyon Trail from the Trading Post. Where you cross the creek, there are deep bedrock mortars right there on the trail.

But the human history of the monument isn't limited to the Cahuilla. "There are lots of stories," says mountain wanderer Crites. "There are the remains of whole stamp mills where gold was processed out of these hills and evidence of cattle ranching and brush corrals.

"There are the stories of folks building the tram and the folks up in Idyllwild who didn't want it to happen. There's Peg Leg Smith and the lost gold mine down at the southern end of the Santa Rosas. Or rustlers running cattle into Horsethief Creek. Or Patton and his soldiers camping on [what is now] El Paseo. There's the incredible story of building Highway 74, a remarkable masterpiece of engineering.

"The first expedition in California, the Anza expedition, came right over the mountain here in 1774," adds Crites. "This is the same time Americans were ringing bells in Boston and here they were coming over the Salton Sink and through the Middle Willows."  The Anza route is visible from the monument, at the crest of Coyote Canyon.

An article like this can only hold a fraction of the stories and riches of the monument. And even if we had a hundred pages, there is plenty about these mountains we don't know and perhaps will never know.

"The creation of the National Monument is a commitment from today's community to future generations that a place for solitude will remain within the Southern California landscape," Danella George says. For Crites, a goal of the new monument is keeping it that way. This should always be a place where discovery is possible. "There always should be hidden places that aren't on maps," Crites says.

At the end of his journey, J. Smeaton Chase came to a similar conclusion. The riddles and mysteries give the desert mountains their enduring appeal. He wrote: "The secret is ... secrecy."