12 National Treasures in the West

Berryessa Snow Mountain, California

San Francisco is only 100 miles away. But Berryessa Snow Mountain feels far more distant, and much wilder.

A half-million acre portion of Northern California’s Inner Coast Range, it offers pleasures like steep, oak-dotted hillsides, rushing creeks, and wildlife such as bald eagles and tule elk. Groups like Winters-based Tuleyome are pushing for its protection, as national monument or as part of the National Landscape Conservation System.

You can access existing Snow Mountain Wilderness from the little town of Maxwell, off I-5. For directions and road conditions, contact the Mendocino National Forest office in Willows: (530) 934-3316.

Bodie Hills, California

Bodie, California, is one of the most famous ghost towns in the West. Now preserved as Bodie State Historic Park, its weathered wood buildings are an echo of the days when Bodie had 10,000 residents, most of them drawn to the mineral wealth ($32 million, by one estimate) in the surrounding hills.

Today the Bodie Hills are valued for other assets—bird-watching, horseback riding, and hiking among stands of aspen and pinyon pine.

That’s why groups like Friends of the Inyo are eager to see them preserved as a monument or perhaps as a wilderness area, making sure that Bodie’s historic backdrop remains intact.

Cascade-Siskiyou, California

Think green. These mountains receive more than 50 inches of rain a year, which is why their slopes are thickly forested with conifers—perfect habitat for rare species like the Northern Spotted Owl.

A Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was established on the Oregon side of the border in 2000; now some environmentalist want to extend it south into California.

Heart of the Great Basin, Nevada

The Great Basin is probably the most spectacular part of the West that nobody sees. You fly over it, you drive across it on I-80, you notice the flat basin and the crinkled mountains without realizing how gorgeous they are up close.

The Heart of the Great Basin centers on three mountain range—the Monitor, the Toquima, the Toiyabe.

One of the best backcountry drives in the West is on FR 002, which goes over the crest of the Toiyabe and then down through Kingston Canyon. What else to do in the vicinity? Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park has some interesting fossils. And Austin is a charmingly eccentric Old West mining town.

Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve, New Mexico

The Lesser Prairie Chicken is adorable, with patterned feathers that would earn raves on Project Runway. It has a flamboyant love life, too, with males gathering in a mating ground to strut, puff out their chests, and “boom”—expel air from bright orange air sacs on the sides of their heads. All this is done in hopes of thrilling female prairie chickens.

About 50 miles east of Roswell, New Mexico, the  Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve offers the sand dunes and shinnery oak the chicken loves. The preserve has even made this part of New Mexico a must stop for birders eager to add the species to their life lists.

Modoc Plateau, California

In far Northern California the Modoc Plateau is a vast (3 million acres) of volcanic tableland that slopes gently to mountain ranges, among them the nicely named Skedaddle Mountains.

Pronghorn antelope roam here, and in spring and fall migrating waterfowl are drawn to the plateau’s lakes—Honey, Clear, Tule. Lava Bed National Monument sits at the Western edge of the plateau.

Best bases of exploration are Susanville and Alturas, California.

Northwest Sonoran Desert, Arizona

Cactus, roadrunners, luminous sunsets—for most of us Arizona and desert are synonymous.

But as the state has grown, more and more of its desert lands have been swallowed by subdivisions and shopping centers. The existingSonoran Desert National Monumentprotects 487,000 acres of this landscape south of Phoenix; the proposed new monument would protect more desert to the West.

From Phoenix to the eastern national monument boundary, take I-10 east and south about 16 miles to Exit 164/Queen Creek Road, turn right and continue on AZ-347 about 15 miles to Maricopa, AZ. Turn right onto AZ-238 and continue west about 16 miles to the national monument.

Otero Mesa, New Mexico

Otero is gem that has been preserved because it’s so remote—tucked in far southern New Mexico.

The 1.2 million-acre mesa consists mainly of rolling hills, much of it covered with grasslands. In fact, it’s one of the largest intact grassland areas in the Chihuahuan Desert that extends from Northern Mexico into New Mexico and Arizona. Environmental groups are fighting to preserve it from oil and gas development.

Who’s here? Pronghorn antelope, black-tailed prairie dogs, golden eagles—and hardly any people. Best time to visit is in fall, after summer monsoons have turned the grasslands vivid green.

Owyhee Desert, Idaho and Nevada

First the name. It comes from Hawaii—a tribute to the native Hawaiians who accompanied Donald McKenzie on his 1818 exploration through this remote part of the West.

Tropical paradise it may not be, but the Owyhee is gorgeous in its own austere, sculptural way—the canyonlands of the Owyhee River are some of the most beautiful anywhere in the country.

The Idaho portion of the region was set aside as a wilderness last year; a proposed monument would extend protection into Idaho and Nevada.

The Owyhee lies about 125 miles south of Boise, Idaho, or 100 miles north of Elko Nevada.

San Juan Islands, Washington

Orcas, Lopez, San Juan are the islands visitors know best. But theSan Juans actually consist of 750 islands, many of them uninhabited save by gulls, cormorants, and seals.

Today, 83 of the islands are set aside as San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge; many of them are off-limits to visitors, but you can hike and bird watch on Matia and Turn islands, both of which are Washington State Parks.

San Rafael Swell, Utah

Red rock West. In central Utah, the Swell is a dramatic rock dome surrounded by equally dramatic mesas and canyons.

Interstate 70 skirts the area, making it one of the more accessible proposed monuments; you can hike it and backpack it or experience it via jeep or even hot air balloon.

Vermillion Basin, Colorado

“It’s something that is truly wild,” says Luke Schafer. “Truly a place that has never been tamed.”

Schafer is talking about Vermillion Basin, in far northwestern Colorado. Stunningly beautiful, the basin is a maze of cliffs and canyons, many glowing with the red-orange rocks that give the region its name. Some of Colorado’s best petroglyphs can be found here; it’s also home to endangered species like the greater sage grouse.

Schafer, of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, and other activists hope to shield the land it from possible oil and gas development.