Goldfields carpet acres of hillsides above the Whitewater River in Riverside County. San Jacinto Mountain looms above the valley below.

A story in contrasts

Wildflower season is coming into its own in Southern California, and the nooks and crannies of desert and chaparral plant communities are beginning to show their flowery finery.

Whitewater River Canyon and Whitewater Preserve in Riverside County are not as well known as their more popular cousins, the Anza Borrego Desert or Death Valley, but they share the same sense of desolate beauty.

Goldfields carpet acres of hillsides above the Whitewater River in Riverside County. San Jacinto Mountain looms above the valley below. PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL CHARTERS

Recent rains have created a riot of yellow goldfields on the hillsides above Whitewater Canyon Road.

Purple canterbury bells, lavender and purple blue dicks and the carpets of goldfields line sections of the Pacific Coast Trail.

Although there is not a great diversity of flowering plant life in the canyon quite yet, what is showing is plentiful. Purple canterbury bells, lavender and purple blue dicks, and the carpets of goldfields line sections of the Canyon Overlook Loop Trail.


The Whitewater River is a small permanent stream located in western Riverside County, California, except for a small upstream portion flowing through southwestern San Bernardino County.

A common phacelia is one of the species that decorate the sides of Whitewater Canyon Road.

It has three significant tributaries: the North, the Middle and the South Forks. The North Fork begins in the subalpine zone at about 10,000′ (3,000 m.) on San Gorgonio Mountain and descends steeply southeast to the Middle Fork, which flows east through a wide arroyo. The South Fork flows northeast through a narrower wooded canyon, joining the Middle Fork lower down. The upper watershed is in the San Gorgonio Wilderness and San Bernardino National Forest, then it reaches land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Below the confluences the arroyo is at least 1/2 mile (1 km.) wide, paved with accumulations of boulders, gravel and sand brought down by floods, and brushy except in stream channels cleared by floodwaters. Due to floods and shifting channels, there is almost no riparian forest development, except very locally along unnamed minor tributaries with relatively stable channels.

Botanists Michael Charters, left, and Tom Chester shared their vast knowledge of the local flora on a hike with me in the hills above the Preserve. Being with these two experts was a treat. I love traveling with real scientists because they tell me what flowers I am photographing.


The Whitewater Preserve is 2,851 acres surrounded by the Bureau of Land Management San Gorgonio Wilderness and is part of the Wildlands Conservancy’s 33,000-acre Sand to Snow Preserve System.

The year-round Whitewater River runs through the preserve, and its riparian vegetation provides habitat for the endangered southwest willow flycatcher and the bell’s vireo, as well as opportunities to see migrating birds, including summer tanagers and vermilion flycatchers. The canyon has a robust population of bear, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lions.

The Wildlands Conservancy demolished 19 neglected houses and structures in Whitewater Canyon, and removed diseased non-native elm trees. These impacted lands are being restored with native sycamores, cottonwoods, flowering ash, narrow leaved willows and native shrubs.

Whitewater Canyon is an important wildlife corridor between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. The lower canyon is a living laboratory of evolution where mountain, inland and desert species hybridize. In addition to acquiring the 2,851-acre Whitewater Preserve, The Wildlands Conservancy purchased an additional 3,200 acres in the Whitewater corridor that were donated to the Bureau of Land Management.

These lands include endangered fringe-toed lizard habitat at Windy Point and the confluence of the Whitewater and San Gorgonio Rivers.

The Whitewater Visitor’s Center


Swirls of algae and fish create a magical scene at the Preserve’s fish ponds.

The Wildlands Conservancy restored the lodge at the former trout farm for a visitor facility and developed a picnic area, group campground, and a trailhead that is only a half mile from the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Facilities are open to the public without charge. The picnic area and ponds are overshadowed by steep vertical cliffs where bighorn sheep thrive along with numerous raptors. Fishing is limited to organized catch and release fishing programs for youth. The preserve’s proximity to the Coachella Valley makes it ideally situated for outdoor education programs.

For preserve hours and information call (760) 325-7222.

From I-10 take Whitewater exit, turn north, then left on Whitewater Canyon Road. Travel five miles. The Preserve is located at the end of the road.


You might also be interested in Lynn Bremner’s articles about the Whitewater Preserve:

The Wildflowers at Whitewater Preserve

Day Trippin’ at Whitewater Preserve

5 thoughts on “A story in contrasts”

  1. I remember going there in the late 40’s and early 50’s with my girlfriend whose relatives lived in Banning. It’s as beautiful today as was then. In those days you could still homestead land around their for free!

  2. I like to see the earth doing its we come out of drought the earth freshens itself.

  3. So happy for you to find your wildflowers. What an amazing setting.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Another nice article. I was up at the Whitewater Preserve about three weeks ago and wild flowers were starting to bloom in the lower canyon. I remember as a kid going to the trout farm with my family and fishing for trout. They would practically leap to grab the bait. The San Andreas fault cross the lower canyon and a berm is obvious on the east side.


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