Today, the White House created three new national monuments in the California desert, adding nearly 1.8 million acres to one of the largest and most pristine swaths of protected land in the Lower 48. The new monuments—Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails, and Castle Mountains—are more than the lifeless desert you might imagine. They’re biologically rich, providing important habitat for migrating birds and iconic species like desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and desert tortoise.
“Those pieces together create one of the world’s greatest desert preserves and, I would argue, one of the most beautiful,” says nature photographer David Lamfrom, director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s desert and wildlife program for California.
After Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposed legislation to protect the lands stalled out in Congress, she asked President Obama last October to use his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the three areas as national monuments. More than 3 million people visited the California desert last year; Lamfrom says he hopes the announcement will inspire more people to visit these lesser-known spots.
Photo: The smallest of the three new monuments, the Castle Mountains are at the eastern edge of the state, about 100 miles east of Las Vegas. Driving from Los Angeles, the quickest way in is to dip into Nevada and then cut back across the border. However you get there, you’ll find a landscape unlike any other in the state, Lamfrom says—a lush grassland, fed by summer monsoon rains. “It’s almost like a picture of Africa,” he says. “But instead of acacia you get Joshua trees.”