Avi Kwa Ame: The West’s Newest National Monument


Avi Kwa Ame: The West’s Newest National Monument

Avi Kwa Ame is the West’s newest National Monument and was just designated by President Biden. Situated in the pointy end of Nevada and south of Las Vegas, these lands are sacred to a dozen tribes along the lower Colorado River. The 700-square-mile designated Monument creates a much larger interconnected expanse of federally-managed lands with special protections (see the detailed map here). Advocacy for the Monument in recent years brought together a uniquely diverse coalition of tribes, communities, conservation organizations, outdoor groups, and even motorized recreationalists. A wintery three-day ride through the area in January opened my eyes to the beauty of this unfamiliar-to-me area, but basic aesthetics only scratch the surface when trying to unpack the meaning of this landscape.

“Avi Kwa Ame has always been a shared place, and the approach to the National Monument designation is for protecting the space and showing people how to experience it,” explained Ashley Hemmers, a Fort Mojave Indian Tribe administrator who has been very active in the advocacy efforts to protect Avi Kwa Ame. “It’s more about stewardship… you don’t have to block it off to protect it. We want you to use it and protect it. You may not understand it in the way that Fort Mojave understand it, but that still means you can develop a relationship with it.”

My ride started in Laughlin, Nevada, where colossal casinos line the desert shoreline of the Colorado River adjacent to the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. Standing some 5,000′ above on the northern skyline is Spirit Mountain, or Avi Kwa Ame to the Mojave (this name also refers to the broader area surrounding the mountain). I climbed rough dirt roads around the shoulder of Spirit Mountain beneath its granite spires, descended a canyon to the north toward the impounded waters of Lake Mohave, and meandered among small mountain ranges being buried by the accumulation of detritus shed from one another. I rolled through Joshua tree forests that covered the mid-elevation, wallowed in sandy washes, and marveled at the remarkably straight-line boundaries between the alluvial valleys and the mountain islands standing like icebergs in a desert sea.

The area felt remarkably remote, but at the same time, it’s already been dissected by infrastructure. Several main highways and rail lines slice across the landscape, and at one point, I found myself riding among seven parallel sets of buzzing high-voltage power lines. Nearby solar farms appeared as deep-blue lakes perched on the sides of a broad valley, and the sprawling Ivanpah solar collector facility eerily glows like a trio of Eyes of Sauron.

It’s easy for me, one who finds inspiration and energy in expansive, wild landscapes and their beauty, to want to protect such places from further development. But the sacredness of whole landscapes (and thinking beyond isolated “sacred sites”) to those who have been here for thousands of years is something that simply cannot be understood by a solo ride through a place for a few days.

“It’s very clear in the hearts and minds of the Fort Mojave people that this is where we come from,” Hemmers told me after my ride. “All things were created at Spirit Mountain. It’s tied to the flow of the Colorado River and the large aquifers beneath the surface that feed the river. Think of these aquifers as arteries – it’s analogous to a body.”

“People are the youngest organisms to the Earth,” Hemmers continued. “Many of the animals and plants in the landscape that preceded us, they were much larger than they are today. The landscape has stories about these massive animals and their migrations, of people and wars, and that history is both preserved and shared through the landscape from Grand Canyon all the way to the Gulf of California . . . trails thousands of years old connecting these places are marked by landmarks that have stories shared through our song cycles.”

I asked Hemmers about the best way to respectfully recreate in Avi Kwa Ame. Her response was simple:

“Act how you’d act in someone else’s home, be mindful of your surroundings, and be skillful and respectful. We don’t have any specific rules, just don’t participate in destruction. Be humble to the landscape around you.”

If you’re interested in experiencing the new Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, below is an option for an enjoyable bikepacking loop through the area. Fort Mojave Indian Days in late October is a great time to visit and be part of an annual celebration. If you want to thank the Biden administration for this Monument designation, you can quickly do so using this simple form put together by Honor Spirit Mountain.