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Where To Find Oases In Southern California

Sep 18th, 2023

You don’t need to travel to the Sahara to experience an oasis! 

Southern California is home to a variety of oases that completely support a large variety of flora and fauna, including desert tortoises, California fan palms, bats and even bighorn sheep!

Here’s all you need to know about oases and their importance in their ecosystems!

What is an oasis?

What comes to mind when we think of an oasis? It’s probably a cluster of palms around a small watering hole in the middle of a burning-hot desert — and that would be a pretty accurate description!

At its simplest, an oasis is a fertile area in a desert or semi-desert environment that sustains plant life and provides habitat for animals. Obviously, a fair amount of water is required for plant and animal life to flourish in such conditions, so the area must be hydrologically favorable and must be able to retain water in some manner. Surface water may be present from seasonal lakes and rainfall, or the water may only be accessible from wells or underground channels created by humans. 

Oases can form in a variety of ways, depending on their location and the conditions present in the surrounding environment. Some oases are formed by the presence of underground water that is forced to the surface by geological forces, while other oases are formed by the accumulation of rainwater or snowmelt in low-lying areas. Still other oases are created by the construction of dams or wells. In most cases though, oases form in depressions where wind and weather has eroded the surface enough to expose the water table above or near to the surface. 

The plants that grow in an oasis (and therefore the entire ecosystem) depend on the amount of water available. In oases with abundant water, trees such as date palms, palms and willows can grow and provide enough shade and sustenance to support animals and birds. In oases with less water, shrubs and grasses may be the only plants that can survive the arid conditions. 

Oases have been important to human settlement for centuries. People have built villages and cities around oases for the water and food they provide — one oasis in the Dead Sea Valley in Israel has evidence of human settlement dating as far back as 6,000 B.C.! Oases have also been important transportation hubs, as they have been used as rest stops and watering points for caravans and other travelers making their ways through large deserts like the Sahara, the Gobi and the Sahel. 

5 popular oasis trails near Los Angeles

Thousand Palms Oasis

The Thousand Palms Oasis is located in the Coachella Valley Preserve within Joshua Tree National Park. It is the largest oasis in the park and is home to a grove of California fan palms, which is the only species of palm native to the United States! 

The oasis is vital to the survival of several endangered species, the most notable of which is the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, which is endemic to the sand dunes surrounding the oasis. The endangered desert pupfish lives in the water of the oasis and the western yellow bat uses the palms for shelter during the sweltering-hot days. There are also plenty of hawks, snakes, birds, plants and much, much more that share this special spot in the middle of the sandy dunes!

Oasis of Mara

The Oasis of Mara is located in the Mojave Desert near Twentynine Palms, California. It is a smaller oasis, but is still home to a grove of California fan palms that are native to the region.

The oasis is fed by a spring that emerges from the nearby Pinto Mountain Fault. The spring water is cool and clear and can support a variety of plants and animals, including California fan palms, mesquite trees and desert tortoises.

This oasis also has significance to early humans in the region, having first been settled by the Serrano people who lived in the area for centuries and named the place Mara, meaning “the place of little springs and much grass.” Legend has it that a medicine man predicted that the oasis would be a good place to birth baby boys, and that the people should plant a tree every time a baby boy was born — in the first year they were there, the Serrano planted 29 trees at the oases. Hence, the name “Twentynine Palms” bestowed on the nearby town.

Indian Canyons

Also tucked away in the Coachella Valley, the Indian Canyons Oasis is a group of interconnected canyons located just south of Palm Springs, California. The oases are fed by a number of nearby springs which support a variety of plants and animals, including California fan palms, date palms, mesquite trees and desert tortoises, not to mention a variety of birds like hummingbirds, warblers and hawks.

All in all, it’s a great place to really see the effects that an oasis has on the overall ecosystem and the flora and fauna within it!

If you do visit the stunning spot, take care to treat the place with respect as you would any other natural area. The Indian Canyons Oasis is a sacred place to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians who have lived in the area for centuries and who still use the canyons for traditional ceremonies and practices.

Whitewater Preserve

The Whitewater Preserve Oasis is a 2,851-acre nature preserve located in the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Palm Springs. It is a hidden oasis in the desert, and is home to a perennial river, the Whitewater River, which flows through a desert canyon. 

This preserve is a great example of an oasis with a different biome than the other oases in this list. There is ample water all year long fed by snowmelt from the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, and the raging Whitewater River is a popular attraction for outdoor enthusiasts looking to do some swimming, kayaking and hiking. The preserve is also home to a variety of plants and animals, including California fan palms, willows and cottonwoods that create a habitat for bighorn sheep, deer and bear.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve Oasis

The Morongo Preserve Oasis is a 31,000-acre nature preserve located in the Little San Bernardino Mountains of the Transverse Ranges, right in the transition zone between the higher Mojave Desert and lower elevation Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert. 

The oasis is fed and watered all year by the Big Morongo Creek that flows through the preserve. Though it’s a smaller oasis compared to others on this list, it’s still home to a variety of plants, birds, reptiles and native palms that rely on the little slice of paradise to keep them alive. 

Oases are the beating hearts of regions that are otherwise too extreme for some life to exist. Humans have been using them for millennia, and flora and fauna have been relying on them for much, much longer! Next time you’re heading to one of these oases near our Southern California apartments, take a moment to soak it all in and appreciate the magic of these special places!


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Manuel_Edelmann

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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