Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes passengers more than 8,500 feet up into the San Jacinto Mountains, part of the national monument. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Barreling across the desert toward Palm Springs, I measured my progress on Interstate 10 by the unsightly roadside landmarks I passed: a sprawl of outlet malls, a pair of larger-than-life concrete dinosaurs, brigades of windmills marching through the Banning Pass.

California's desert usually enchants me, but scenery like this repels. On this particular February day, however, a prize awaited just a few miles down the highway: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

The long-winded name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. And don't feel bad if you've never heard of it.

Even though the park just celebrated its 10th anniversary, many people show up at its visitor center in Palm Desert and ask, "Where's the monument? I didn't know it existed."

No, there's no Mt. Rushmore-like attraction here. Nonetheless, the park truly is a monumental treasure: 280,000 acres of spectacular mountain terrain that rises abruptly behind the desert towns of the Coachella Valley, offering recreation, a home for endangered bighorn sheep and a magnificent backdrop for the luxurious homes, stately date palms and acres of verdant golf courses that line the valley.

Visitor center workers enjoy telling people: "It's the national monument that's right here in your own backyard."

With spring around the corner — and parts of the monument bursting into color from verbena, lupine and other wildflowers and cactus — Mountains National Monument would seem to be a natural. If only more people knew about it.

"It's an ongoing issue," said monument manager Jim Foote of the Bureau of Land Management. "We're doing our best to alert people and let them know what kinds of treasures we have and how to get out and appreciate them."

I'd learned about the park while researching new places to hike. How had I overlooked a national monument? Especially one that's 60 miles long, 13 miles wide and only 100 miles from downtown L.A.

I needed to take a hike and do some research — maybe several hikes and several days of research. Not that anyone needed to twist my arm. The Palm Springs area in the spring? What could be more pleasant?

My first stop was at the park's visitor center, at the edge of Palm Desert where it intersects the Santa Rosa Mountains. As I walked toward the building, I scoured the surrounding hillside for Peninsular bighorn sheep. I'd been told a herd of about 20 of the endangered animals roams the steep slopes near the center and can sometimes be seen.

I didn't spot sheep, but I found plenty of information inside the center, where I collected lists of hiking trails, took a walk along a nature path, bought a nifty hiking cap and learned a bit about the park. It reaches south to the San Diego County line and sticks up, thumb-like, past Palm Springs. If you drive along Highway 111 through the Coachella Valley, you're roughly following the base of the monument.

I also learned that some of my favorite desert locales are within the park's boundaries.

Among them: Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, all clustered near Palm Springs; the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, a spectacular desert-mountain drive; and the Cove Oasis Trailhead in La Quinta.

Indian Canyons — an oasis of streams, fan palms and stunning desert scenery — quickly moved to the top of my research list. I hadn't visited in several years, and I couldn't wait to see whether the canyons had changed.

A VISIT TO ANDREAS CANYON

The area, just off Palm Canyon Drive (Highway 111), is on the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; there's a fee to enter ($9 adults, $7 seniors, $5 ages 6-12). But it's well worth it.

Palm Canyon, 15 miles long and the trailhead for several desert loops and trails, draws most visitors because of its large number of Washington palms, but my favorite spot is nearby Andreas Canyon. I drove to its parking lot, got out and looked around. Nothing had changed, thank goodness.

A stream still tumbled down from the foothills, shaded by enormous skirted fan palms. It cascaded into quiet pools before plunging over rocks to form new pools below as it made its way to the desert floor.