Castle Mountains National Monument in California's Deserts Region
Gina Ferazzi/Getty Images

Castle Mountains National Monument

Castle Mountains National Monument
See spectacular spires and surprising desert “forests”

The most northerly of the desert region's three new (admission-free) national monuments designated in 2016, Castle Mountains National Monument is wrapped on three sides by Mojave National Preserve and the Nevada state line on the fourth. At just shy of 21,000 acres, it’s the smallest of them. But smaller doesn’t mean less noteworthy. The focal point is Castle Peaks, a cluster of epic spires that climb skyward like the ramparts of an ancient fortress.

The dramatic peaks, though, are just a part of what makes the Castle Mountains National Monument notable. At the mountains’ feet lie some of the Mojave Desert’s best grasslands, plus forests of twisted junipers and Joshua trees, a type of yucca that looks like it jumped right out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Roaming (and soaring) amidst it all are desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats. And if you are lucky enough to visit from March through April after a few substantial spring rains, the carpet of wildflowers can be spectacular. You can get wildflower forecasts at Desert Wildflower Reports or the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline.

The park is only accessible by dirt roads; you can drive in and wander about or set off on a hike as you like. High clearance, 4WD vehicles are recommended. Camping facilities are available within the park; Mid-Hills Campground and Hole-in-the-Wall Campground can accommodate a maximum of 8 persons and 2 vehicles (first come, first serve). If your group is larger, Black Canyon Equestrian and Group Campground is the one to make your (required) reservations for. The nearest visitor information is located at the Mojave National Preserve Headquarters in Barstow, which includes a bookstore, as well as the Kelso Depot within the preserve.

Spring or fall months are the best times to visit, as winter temperatures are often below freezing, and the winter months can bring occasional snow. Summers can see the mercury rise to close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The area is a treasure trove of human history too. Native American archeological sites have been discovered here, and the historic (and historically short-lived) gold-mining town of Hart, founded in 1908 and the institutions of which were largely abandoned, abolished, or closed down by 1915, put the challenges of living in the desert’s harsh conditions in sharp focus. These and other finds offer a fascinating glimpse into this surprisingly diverse and beautiful preserve.

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Following winter rains, springtime wildflowers paint the desert with colour.

Death Valley National Park holds the record for hottest temperature ever recorded (129°F/54°C in 1913), while the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park have giant boulders and alien-like yucca plants. At Anza-Borrego, California’s largest state park, discover amazing springtime wildflowers. The oasis-like Palm Springs region (2 hours east of L.A. and 3 hours northeast of San Diego) has golf resorts, midcentury modern architecture, and every spring, the epic Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

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