If you sometimes find yourself driving on California State Highway 62, in Morongo Valley, between Palm Springs and Parker, Arizona, then you’ve been by Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, and maybe didn’t even know it was there.
Once considered a secret hideaway by Native Americans and later settlers alike, the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a true oasis in the desert.
Situated snugly on the edge of the Sand to Snow National Monument, its more than 31,000 acres contain a wide variety of habitats; Sonoran and Mojave Desert ecosystems, riparian woodlands, a community park, stands of yuccas, pinyon, oak, and juniper woodlands.
The preserve is popular with birdwatchers, joggers, hikers and nature lovers. It also happens to be one of the 10 largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in California.
The preserve entrance is one block south of State Highway 62 in Morongo Valley via East Drive directly across the highway from the former Willie Boy’s Saloon with its life-size buffalo statue on the roof. You will see a low sign to your left designating the preserve. It is easy to miss. Continue slowly on the bumpy asphalt road past the park host’s residential trailer to the parking lot.
Big Morongo Canyon Preserve offers six distinctive trails to explore from easy to strenuous, and more than 9 miles in length. Trail maps, as well as bird and butterfly checklists and other helpful information, are available for free in the information kiosk at the gateway to the trails, adjacent to the parking lot.
Marsh Trail and Mesquite Trails are designated as easy trails, taking about 15 minutes each to complete. Marsh trail is a winding 6-foot wide boardwalk made of recycled plastic and sawdust that meanders over a stream under a canopy of Fremont cottonwoods, red willows and an occasional white alder.
Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a bird watcher’s dream, especially in spring and fall, during the migration of semi-tropical birds.
The marsh supports the second highest density of breeding birds known in the United States.
Mesquite Trail offers an enchanting stream-side walk under Fremont cottonwoods and red willows. You will discover the octagon-shaped George Helkamp deck. Skirt the front of a desert mountain and observe a large outcropping of ancient gneiss that marks the face of the Morongo Valley Fault, a left-lateral strike-slip fault that ruptured in the Holocene Period, 10,000 years ago. According to the Caltech’s Southern California Earthquake Data Center, it’s slip rate is less than 0.5 mm a year.
Desert Willow Trail and Yucca Ridge Trail are graded as moderate trails, taking about 25 minutes each to hike. Desert Willow Trail has limited shade but there are benches in shady spots. The dirt trail wanders through open fields of fall-blooming Goldenbush on the edge of a honey mesquite thicket dropping down to a desert wash habitat. Just past Currie Bridge, it joins the shady Marsh Trail.
Yucca Ridge Trail gives a spectacular birds-eye view of the preserve’s woodland and wetland areas. It’s not hard to imagine yourself walking through the plains of Africa, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.
Okay, we know. That’s really either Mount San Gorgonio or Mount San Jacinto, but we’re all about letting your imagination wander and your spirit soar, so bear with us if you will.
Further along in the preserve you can find great views of natural rock with white dikes of apatite intruding into an ancient outcrop of gneiss that is over one billion years old and one of the oldest exposed rock formations in California.
West Canyon Trail is rated as difficult at 0.84 miles, taking about 35 minutes. However, Canyon Trail is 8.34 miles round trip and 9.76 miles from the parking lot, is of course the most strenuous trail. All trails are well marked.
West Canyon trail is a moderately easy climb, with some steep areas. It provides a panoramic view of Big Morongo Canyon. A couple of steep switchbacks will lead you to the canyon floor and an easy walk up to the marsh.
Many plants and trees are still recovering from a wildfire in the summer of 2005. Springtime brings an abundance of colorful wildflowers to the hillsides. Autumn produces stunning vistas.
The more challenging Canyon Trail descends gradually from the higher, cooler Mojave Desert to the warmer Colorado Desert climate then returns via the same route.
Canyon Trail is a favorite of hikers and equestrians. Much of the trail follows a willow-lined stream along steep canyon walls. Bring plenty of fresh water and allow enough time for the return trip.
There have been 254 species of birds recorded in Morongo Valley. Red Tailed Hawks, Gambel’s Quail, Verdins, Bushtits, Black Phoebes, Bewick’s Wrens and Anna’s Hummingbirds are some of the year round birds seen here.
Seasonal birds such as the Red Shafted Flicker, Brown Crested Flycatcher and Black Chinned Hummingbirds are routine visitors. But rare sightings such as American White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, Killdeer and Bell’s Vireos are occasionally spotted.
The Butterfly-Hummingbird Garden is located in front of the Education Center on the Marsh Trail. The garden is one a few native plant butterfly gardens in Southern California. It can be enjoyed from the boardwalk or sitting on a bench inside the garden.
Joshua Tree National Park’s head propagator, Jean Graham, played an integral role of growing the native plants from sprout to finish. The garden was established Fall of 2004.
Some of the plants in the Butterfly-Hummingbird garden are Narrow-leaf Milkweed, Desert Willow, Cat Claw, Apricot Mallow, Paper Bag Bush, Mohave Aster, Green Rabbit Brush and California Buckwheat.
Seventy two species of butterflies have been recorded in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. You will find them all listed in the butterflies checklist at the information kiosk at the beginning of your walk.
Now, after you’ve had your senses teased by all this beauty, and you’re ready to roll on down the road, remember that before any of us came to visit, this was the home of what would come to be known as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, mostly made up from the Cahuilla people, led by John Morongo, a Serrano Native, as their chief, as well as being a U.S. Federal Indian law enforcement officer. (It’s complicated, but a fascinating story in itself).
The village disappeared around the mid 19th Century, when an outbreak of Typhoid Fever forced them to flee this desert paradise. It was later occupied by White settlers, including the family of famous lawman, Ben De Crevecouer. Ben was born here in 1876. He would later gain fame as the man who led the posse to capture Paiute outlaw Willie Boy. In the 1969 movie, Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, Robert Redford’s character was based on Ben’s part in the real 1909 chase. Ben grew up with the local Native Americans.
The preserve is open daily throughout the year–from 7:30 am to sunset–but the ideal months to visit are in the fall, winter, and spring. It is ably managed by the Bureau of Land Management, with the assistance of the Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity.
There is no charge to visit Big Morongo Canyon Preserve but donations are always appreciated.