Saturday, June 21, 2008

Something for everyone preserved in the Mojave

Trevor Summons, Correspondent
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

"The main difference between a national preserve and a national park is that on a preserve you can hunt, mine and graze," said Anne Maasberg, a visitors use assistant for the last 2 1/2 years. "Providing you have all the right permits, of course."

At the headquarters of the Mojave National Preserve in Barstow, Maasberg and some 30 other staffers help to oversee this huge area of natural beauty, which is toward the eastern end of San Bernardino County.

"The preserve came out of the Organic Act of 1916," she continued. "It was introduced by President Teddy Roosevelt to 'conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein.'"

The size of the preserve is impressive - some 1.6 million acres. But to put it more graphically it covers all the land between the 15 Freeway and the 40 Freeway, from Zzyzx to just about the Nevada State line - a large piece of real estate. In fact, it is the third largest national preserve in the lower 48 states.

"Five or six years ago we added another piece to the preserve, just to the west of Primm," Maasberg said. "It's Clarke Mountain, and it has some unique features like white fir trees. Birders also like it out there very much."

There are a few residents within the area, and visitors are asked to respect their privacy while passing through. But there are no motels inside or gas stations. Being such a wild, open place, you must keep an eye on your water intake and supply, and also be careful not to get lost.

Scenery can look very different with changes of the light and also the direction you may be hiking. Temperatures can go up to 110 degrees in mid-July, so it's hot, hot, hot.

Camping is permitted in designated areas, and there are good sites at Hole-in-the- Wall. Providence Mountains, where the famous Mitchell Caverns are located, is another good site with all the necessary facilities. Costs are $12 per site per night.

As for wild animals, there are plenty. From the American Kestrel flying above to the pretty Kit Fox running below, there are a wide variety of species. Try to spot a Desert Tortoise, or a Bighorn Sheep. There are rattlesnakes, too, and the Colorado Desert Sidewinder, if you look carefully.

There are plenty of wildflowers and plants, too, but don't try and remove any, as it's an offense. The Mojave Yucca is all around - it can reach a height of 20 feet. Also, you'll spot the round barrel cactus plants.

If you're out hiking, or you keep the windows of the car rolled down, you will be able to smell the strongly scented Creosote Bush Scrub. These are said to be among the world's oldest living things, with some colonies in the Mojave Desert being 11,500 years old.

Roughly cutting the preserve in half from east to west is the Mojave Road. It was originally used by American Indians as a trading route before the Europeans arrived. Paiute, Mojave and Chemehuevi Indians guided the Spanish along it in the 1770s, and in the 1860s the U.S. Army improved the road and established outposts for the safety of travelers and supply wagons. The coming of the railroad in the 1890s removed the road's importance and allowed it to settle back into its natural state.

Traffic hurtles along the busy 15 and 40 freeways, and motorists may not be aware that what they are passing is a huge area preserved for everyone's benefit. But if you can make the time, try and stop, get out of the car, and just look at the scenery and listen to the quietness of it all.