Natural History

The Preserve has a desert climate with hot, dry summers and moderate winters.  Rainfall is scarce, with an annual average of 8 inches (click HERE for climate).   The Morongo Fault, running through the canyon, causes water from melting snow on the surrounding San Bernardino Mountains to form Big Morongo Creek.  The creek intermittently rises to the surface for just three miles, between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, before it disappears underground again.

The water percolates into the sandy soil as it crosses the Morongo Basin, but as it enters Big Morongo Canyon, it encounters "fault gouge"  (pulverized rock), which forces it above ground, creating a unique desert wetland with a series of perennial springs.

The stream is a lifeline for bighorn sheep and mule deer and more than 240 species of migrating and breeding birds.  Sunset reveals other wildlife, including raccoons, bobcats, and coyotes.  A variety of reptiles are found here, including whip-tailed lizards, desert spiny lizards, and the common king snake.  The Pacific tree frog also finds a home here, as do a wide variety of butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies.

Big Morongo Canyon has some of the oldest exposed rocks in California, dated at almost two billion years.  They consist of granite that has been altered by centuries of heat and pressure to form gneiss and schist.

Cultural History

For centuries, nomadic tribes used Big Morongo Canyon as an easy route between the high and low deserts.  There was thirst-quenching water, game was plentiful, edible and medicinal vegetation was abundant and the journey was easy.

The last people to inhabit the canyon before the arrival of white settlers were the Morongos, a powerful clan of Serrano Indians.  Life was not easy, but these spiritual people developed strong ties to the earth and all living things, respecting what was given to them and giving back what they could.  They lived peacefully in this valley, enjoying the warm sunny days, cool evenings, and mild winters, until the mid 1800’s.

As white settlers moved west they brought with them diseases for which the Indians had no immunity.  In 1862 smallpox destroyed more than half the Indian population of Morongo Valley.  Survivors were moved to a reservation near Banning, and Big Morongo Canyon became a working ranch, passing from one rancher to another until 1968.

To preserve the environment and save this very unique ecological habitat, The Nature Conservancy purchased 80 acres from J. L. Covington in 1968.  Soon afterward, San Bernardino County obtained 160 acres in the adjacent canyon and in 1974 the combined 240 acres were dedicated as a Wildlife Preserve.

In 1982, the Bureau of Land Management recognized the ecological features of the area and designated almost 3,700 acres of the ridge and canyon as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern."  The Nature Conservancy took over management of the Preserve until 1994, when the Bureau of Land Management assumed the management and began restoration projects within the Preserve.  Big Morongo Canyon Preserve now encompasses 31,000 acres, with wildlife corridors connecting the Preserve with the Joshua Tree National Park.  These corridors allow wildlife, including Mule Deer, Big Horn Sheep, Mountain Lions, and the California Black Bear to move freely across wilderness in search of food and water.

The year-round water resource provides a much-needed stopping point for migrating birds in the spring and fall and is essential to the survival of a wide variety of birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and reptiles.  The lush vegetation that grows in the canyon is a sharp contrast to the surrounding dry, desert slopes.

Today the Preserve is managed by The Bureau of Land Management with the assistance of the Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve to protect rare and endangered wildlife, to promote the growth and restoration of a wide variety of plants, and to offer educational opportunities for students and nature lovers of all ages.

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