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© Jason Mohap

Mojave

Basic Facts about Mojave

The Mojave Desert is one of America’s most distinct wildland landscapes.

Located in southeastern California and southern Nevada, the iconic Mojave Desert encompasses over 30 million acres of Joshua tree woodland, rolling sand dunes, forested canyons, flowing streams, dry lake playas, mountain springs and creosote bush scrub-including some clonal yucca and creosote bush rings dated between 6,000 and 11,000 years of age. The spelling Mojave originates from the Spanish language; but is actually a shortened form of the Mojave Tribal Nation’s Hamakhaave, which describes land “beside the water.”

Situated between the Great Basin Desert and Colorado subdivision of the Sonoran Desert, the Mojave is considered the smallest of the continent’s deserts.  A land of extremes, temperature can range from freezing to over 125 degrees Fahrenheit; with elevation ranging from 279 feet below sea level in Death Valley’s Badwater Basin to over 11,918 feet above sea level on Charleston Peak. In fact, Death Valley, one of the region’s more well-known localities, is the lowest, hottest (134° Fahrenheit) and driest place in all of North America. Water, and lack of water, are also certainly defining characteristics of the Mojave; with water availability spanning the few drops provided by a dwindling mountain spring to the immense water volume unleashed in desert washes during flash floods. Wind too, can be extreme as a weather phenomenon in the Mojave Desert-one that benefits soaring birds like eagles and turkey vultures during migration, but also fuels the spectre of wildfire when they contribute to unrelenting Santa Ana winds. 

A number of rugged mountain ranges punctuate the generally lower-elevation, basin and range topography of the Mojave Desert. The San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains form the Mojave’s southern boundary and the Tehachapi Mountains, its northwestern edge-these mountain ranges are outlined by California’s two largest fault lines-the San Andreas and Garlock. These fault localities commonly support wetland seeps and springs, as well as areas of high endemism in both plant and animal species.

The Amargosa and Mojave Rivers which traverse the northern and western extent of Mojave respectively, are largely underground but nonetheless provide the region’s most critical resource-water, and increasingly rare habitats located beside this water. Ecosystem processes on the Mojave River, and Colorado River to the east, have been highly modified, and even eliminated in some areas, through dam construction, flood control and water diversion. Despite the region’s aridity and declining groundwater, the Mojave Desert has long been a center for alfalfa production; with such crops fed by groundwater irrigation and California Aqueduct water delivery. 

While the eastern Mojave Desert is in general, sparsely populated, Las Vegas, Boulder City and Pahrump, Nevada are located here; along with Saint George, Utah; and Needles, California. The western Mojave Desert on the other hand, supports ten cities, ten smaller towns and a number of smaller communities. The region is collectively referred to as California’s “Inland Empire” and includes Adelanto, Apple Valley, Barstow, California City, Hesperia, Lancaster, Palmdale, Victorville, Mojave and Ridgecrest. Interstate Highways 15 and 40, Route 66, U.S. 395 and seven other highways link these population areas to adjacent public lands managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the California Desert Conservation Area. These desert lands are one of the most popular tourism destinations in the country, with ten large off-road vehicle play areas designated for recreational use, along with additional extensive vehicle touring networks.   

Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, managed by the National Park Service, along with the Mojave National Preserve, are also situated within the California portion of the Mojave Desert. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are similarly situated in the Nevada portion of the Mojave Desert. Other federally-managed lands in the Nevada portion of the Mojave Desert include Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management; and Spring Mountain National Recreation Area, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. These lands support a number of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

A large number of military reservations have also been established throughout the Mojave, including the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, Edwards Air Force Base, Nellis Air Force Range, the former George Air Force Base, the U.S. Army’s Fort Irwin National Training Center, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps’ Yermo Annex, NEBO Logistics Base and Twentynine Palms Air-ground Combat Center. Many military reservations have expanded to encompass adjacent public lands in recent years. The Nevada National Security Site Desert (Nevada Test Site), managed by the U.S. Department of Energy is also located in the northern portion of the Mojave Desert.

Humans have lived in this region for at least 10,000 years, sharing this harsh landscape with many unique plant and wildlife species well-adapted to this arid region. The Mojave, Chemehuevi, Serrano and Southern Piute Tribes have all lived for millennia in the Mojave Desert; surviving on a life-and-death knowledge of its plants, wildlife and other natural resources.

Over  2,341 plant species, or 37 percent of the state’s entire flora, are known form the Mojave Desert. This includes the endangered Amargosa niterwort, which is completely dependent on Amargosa River flow; the playa-limited Parish’s phacelia; the dime-sized Barstow woolly sunflower, which occurs only on undisturbed soils; and the nearly-invisible Lane Mountain milkvetch, which grows secretly in the canopy of other shrubs. Likewise, the Mojave fringed-toed lizard, golden eagle, desert bighorn sheep, a suite of birds dependent on streamside vegetation and many other species of imperiled wildlife all call the Mojave Desert home.