Afton Canyon's surface water makes it unique in the southern California desert. Known locally as "The Grand Canyon of the Mojave" for its dramatic geological formations, this is one of the only places where the Mojave River flows above ground year-round - providing significant riparian (riverbank) wildlife habitat amid the desert. Since prehistoric times, the natural bounty created by this water source has made Afton Canyon a focus for living things. Dense willows and cottonwoods shaded the river, and thickets of mesquite produced bean pods for food. The ponds, marshes and streams provided habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species.
An invasion of saltcedar reduced wildlife populations to a fraction of what they once were. But animals not seen in the area for more than a decade are now returning, due to efforts by the Bureau of Land Management, in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game. This program, one of the largest riparian restoration projects in the state, is attracting many of the birds and other animals that once lived here.
Animals you may see here
- Birds: More than 180 species of birds have been spotted in Afton Canyon. These include rare species such as vermillion flycatcher and summer tanager. The canyon's river and marshes draw winter waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds. Great blue herons, snowy egrets, white-faced ibises and other birds live in the shallows. Common flickers and ladder-backed woodpeckers are once again utilizing snags that have been made accessible through saltcedar removal. More than 85 species of migrating birds have made stopovers, including merlin, osprey, and Swainson's hawk. The steep, inaccessible cliffs of the nearby Cady Mountains provide excellent feeding and nesting areas for a variety of birds of prey, including golden eagle and prairie falcon, and their activity in the canyon is increasing.
- Other wildlife: Desert bighorn sheep can now reach the waters of the Mojave River that were once blocked by salt cedar, and a herd from the nearby Cady Mountains comes to the riverbanks during the evening or early morning. Western pond turtles, frogs and fish live in the waters. Other animals that frequent the area include quail, chukar, kit fox, desert cottontail, American badger, mountain lion and bobcat. The endangered Mojave tui chub, the only fish native to the Mojave River, may be re-introduced to specific sites in the canyon in the near future. The surrounding desert is home to desert tortoises and many snakes and lizards, such as sidewinders, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, side-blotched lizards, and desert iguanas.
Viewing tips for this area
- Fall and spring are the best times to view area wildlife, including birds.
- Summer is very hot. Limited water is available at the Afton Canyon campground.
- Keep your distance from the water, so animals can drink.
- Be careful with children and pets - trains still use the railroad.
- Be aware that rattlesnakes can be present during spring, summer, and fall months.
- To protect sensitive resources, vehicle use in Afton Canyon is restricted to routes which are designated open. Routes approved for use include the Mojave Road, that goes the entire length of the canyon.
- Other restrictions are posted at all entrances and at the Afton Canyon Campground.
- The canyon is within a cattle grazing area, but an exclosure fence has been built to keep grazing cattle out of all but a few areas, and to keep out vehicles.
- Be sure to see tips for "Ultimate Wildlife Watching."
How to get here
From Barstow, take Interstate 15 east for 35 miles. Take the Afton exit south. Drive south three miles on graded dirt road to parking area for the fully-developed Afton Campground. Visitor information is available at the campground and at all entrances into the area.
Size: about 4,000 acres in the canyon are included in the 42,000-acre Afton Canyon Natural Area.
Managed by: Bureau of Land Management, Barstow Field Office.
For more information, contact: Bureau of Land Management, Barstow Field Office.
Site 198 in the California Wildlife Viewing Guide.
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Watchable Wildlife Sites