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Wildlife and History

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Though Lake Perris was established to provide Southern Californians recreational opportunities in boating, picnicking and swimming, camping, hiking, and others, the park is also home to many species of animals and plants native (and some not native) to the Southern California.  Additionally, the park holds a past of rich cultural history.

Here, you can find information on some of plants, animals, and historical stories of Lake Perris SRA.  On the right side, you will find links to common animals in the area, and below you will find descriptions of the natural plant members and communities that make up the landscape of Lake Perris, as well as the human history of the park. 



Keep Wildlife Wild and Plants Safe

Respect the park's resources!  This for your safety, and animals, and our heritage.  Remember, never feed or approach animals in the park.

  •  Keep your distance from animals, even if they approach you
  •  Dispose of trash in trash cans or dumpsters
  •  Keep your food and trash from wildlife by storing it properly, day and night.
  •  Failure to obey regulations may result in citation.
  • Do not pick plants, leafs, stems, or flowers
  • Do not collet shells or any other natural (or cultural) resource found at the park

Geography and Climate

Lake Perris lies in a land of transition. 

The small, dry, sparse shrubs around are reminisecnt of the the desert, or at least of a land of little water.  At the same time, coastal fog and marine breezes regularly settle in this region.  These aspects are directly related to the influence of the not-so-far ocean. Here, among the hills and valleys surrounding Lake Perris, the land and weather are constantly transforming and transitioning, and the plants and animals must learn to adapt to an ever-changing world.        

Geography and Geology:

     Lake Perris SRA is Located 100 miles north of San Diego, 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and 40 miles west of Palm Springs, at the foot of the imposing San Jacinto Mountains.   Lake Perris SRA lies in the Inland Empire region of California, known for its sprawling suburbs.  As you journey through the park are the imposing, rocky hills surrounding you and the high seasonally snow capped peaks in the background.  Indeed, the region is rich in geographic wonders.  Around the park, the granite hills of Lake Perris, specifically the to the north the Armada, to the east the Russell and Apuma, and to the south the Bernasconi and Alessandro Island, were all formed in a relatively recent geologic time.  This is due in part because of their proximity to the three major fault zones; the San Andreas, San Jacinto, and Elsinore.  The lofty heights of San Gorgonio Mountain to the northeast, the highest point in southern California at 11,502’), and across the San Gorgonio Pass with its wind-farms, San Jacinto Peak (10,834’) stand as stately backdrops to the park.  As one walks along the many trails in the park, all of these geographic realities are encountered.  

Climate and Biogeography:

     Globally speaking, the climate of Lake Perris is extremely rare.  The hot, dry summers, and cool wet winters that characterize the region’s weather is known as a Mediterranean Climate.  A Mediterranean Climate is found along the west coasts of continents along cold ocean currents between 30-40 degrees north or south of the equator.  Globally the regions include the Mediterranean Basin, parts of Chile, South Africa, and Australia, and California.  Covering only about 2.5% of the world’s land area, yet containing 15% of its plant species, this climate’s abundance of biological diversity is well articulated in the four main ecosystems found at Lake Perris.  These include, Coastal Sage Scrub, by far the most prevalent, Chaparral, found on the shadier north slopes of the hills, Open Grassland, located in the lonely eastern ends of the park, and Riparian, water loving plants which grow near streambeds and the along the lake.  Each member of Lake Perris’ ecosystems is specially adapted in unique ways to conserve water over dry periods, and make the most of water’s abundance in the wet times.   

Plant Life

As you hike or drive along the trails or roads in the park, the most common plants you will see include members of the Coastal Sage Scrub community, yet if some dedicated hiking is done, members of the three other ecosystem communities become apparent as well.  For informational purposes, some of the most common will be discussed here for your own identification.

-Brittlebush:   Also known as the Desert Encelia, the Brittlebush is the most common plant found in the Coastal Sage Scrub habitat at Lake Perris.  One could even say it is a “monoculture”, that is by far the most numerous plant at the lake.  Its leaves are a steep V-shape, which reduces the amount of sunlight it receives. The bush has gray-green waxy leaves, which reduces evaporation and allows for water conservation.  Additionally, the plant both has deep root systems, allowing it to reach underground water, and loses much of its leaves in the summer, that is to say, it is  “drought deciduous”; dropping its leaves for the summer, not winter.  As a member of the sunflower family, each plant flowers beautifully in spring.    

-White Sage:  Hiking along the trails up to Terri Peak, this aromatic plant becomes apparent.  It is extremely odorous, and was used by the Native Americans as food, and as a scent disguise for hunting.   Leaves are quite large, and the bush like plant is a grayish-green, flowering large seed pod stocks in spring.   

-Chamise:  A member of the chaparral community, chamise, also known as greasewood, can be found as the green specks on the northside of the Bernasconi Hills and Russell Mountains.  Enjoying a bit more shade and moister soils, this plant rebounds well after fires, sprouting from its stump.  Leaves are small and evergreen, a bit sharp, and the plant can grow quite tall.

-Buckwheat: Also, one of the most common plants found throughout the park is buckwheat, a small shrub that can flower wonderfully at any time during the year, but most commonly does in spring.  Look for a bunchy green in spring, brown in summer, plant with small rosemary-like leaves.

-Blue ElderberryThis tree enjoys a moister soil, and its presence can be seen as an indicator of higher water content in the soil.  It is a small tree that flowers white in the spring, which turns into berries later in the year, before dropping its leaves for the dry summer.  Its berries are a staple food for many animals at the park, as well as for Native Americans. 

Human History

A Human History of Lake Perris State Recreation Area

    As diverse and varied as the natural history of Lake Perris SRA is, the cultural human history is just as engaging.  There are really four main chapters in the story of Lake Perris, each with its own unique happenings and events, and each leaving its mark in the land seen today.  At the park, the history is not a dark and forgotten shadow of the past, but it is a living celebration of the different and dramatic eras of a land in times gone-by.


The Native American Era:

    Anthropologists and archaeologists tell us that man has lived in California for at least 10,000 years, by crossing a since disappeared ancient land-bridge in the Bering Sea connecting Alaska to main-land Eurasia.  These people are known as Native Americans, or Indians, and they lived in varied locations throughout North and South American from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Patagonia, and their cultures and traditions are as varied as the landscapes each of these people call home.  

      California is the most diverse of any state in terms of Indian tribes and cultures, in part due to its long size, and diverse topography.  In this section of        southern California, the native peoples spoke of the Ute-Aztecan linguistic family, and were members of the Shoshone community found in modern-day     places such as Wyoming and Utah.  At Lake Perris, there were two tribes that called the area home, the Cahuilla Indians and Luiseno Indians, and both   inhabited the basin for thousands of years.  The Cahuilla were one of the most largest and most geographically encompassing tribes, and are typically   separated into three main categories, the Mountain Cahuilla (living in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains), the Desert Cahuilla (living in the Coachella Valley and desert), and the Pass Cahuilla (living in the Banning area).  Sharing the land with the Cahuilla at Lake Perris, lived the Luiseno Indians, who roamed from modern-day Escondido to Corona and from the coast to around the mid-Inland Empire.   

    Both tribes were incredibly adaptable to the natural realities they found themselves in, and not only survived, but thrived in this their homeland.  Likewise, both tribes were seasonal Hunters and Gatherers, who collected their food and other necessities from differing locales within their territory as defined by seasonal resource availability.  Art was a common element of the tribes of the region both in the form of pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (rock carvings), and many still survive under park protection today.   At Lake Perris SRA, these, among other  numerous ancient archeological sites, bear testament to the rich cultures that called this basin home for thousands of years. Many of those artifacts are today preserved in the park’s very own Regional Indian Museum.  

    With the coming of settles, the population and political influence of the Native population declined.  Today, their descendents live among the modern-world both in our local communities and on reservations, while remembering the beauty that can be found within their respective cultural traditions.                         


The Settlement Era

    Starting in the 1769, the first settlement of those of European descent was established in California as Mission San Diego de Alcala.  From this followed the founding of twenty-one other historically rich and beautiful missions under Franciscan Missionaries along the coast of the state until 1823.  

    With many nations competing for land-claims during the colonial period, Spain wished to establish a settlement near San Francisco Bay to dissuade the southward bound Russian colonizers  from encroaching any further down the coast.  To accomplish this, the Spanish Empire requested a community of settlers travel overland to San Francisco in hopes of starting a city.  The man chosen to head this great migration was Captain Juan Bautista de Anza.  Setting out from Culiacan, Mexico with over 200 travelers, over half of which were women and children, and around 1000 head of livestock, Anza lead this group 2000 miles across the Sonoran Desert, mountains, and along California coast, over a two-year period from 1774-1775, to San Francisco.  Amazingly, only one fatality occurred, in what is remembered as a fantastic testament to the perseverance of attaining goals.  The Anza Expedition’s passage in December of 1775 through the Perris Valley, is marked as the first arrival of Europeans in the park.  

    In 1798, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was founded by Father Fermin Lasuen near present-day Oceanside, and its cattle grazing territory included the northern hinterlands of the Perris Valley.  While not much survives from the Spanish mission period due to Perris’ remoteness from the coast, much history from what replaced Spanish colonization, in Mexican rule following the nation’s independence from Spain in 1821, remains.  This was the era of the grand rancheros of pastoral California, with countless heads of cattle, used mainly for hide and tallow, roaming open plains watched by their dedicated vaqueros, or cowboys, and their bullwhips.  During the 1840’s, the Perris Basin was part of Ranchero San Jacinto Nuevo y Potrero, which contained much of today’s surrounding cities of Moreno Valley and Perris.  After American victory in the Mexican-American War, the ranchero was recognized by the U.S. Government under the articles of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, respecting Mexican land-grants.

    Eventually, much of the land was sold off, and my the mid 1900’s, some of it was used as land for potato farming.  Nevertheless, the Settlement Era from the Missions, to the Anza Expedition, to the Rancheros of Mexican California, shaped not only the history of the Lake Perris region, but of modern California as a whole, more than any other period.


The World War II Era

    Following the United States’ entrance into World War II in 1941, nearby March Air Force Base was used as a base for a nation defending itself.  Perhaps the most tragic episode in the history of Lake Perris happened during this era.  On May 16th, 1944, Lt. Joseph Shaw and Lt. Herman Mide, both pilots in their early twenties, were practicing touch and go night landings in their B-24 Liberator in a preparation for flying combat missions just a few miles from the park on the March runway.  Apparently, in this technique, Shaw damaged his landing gear, and pulled his plane up again to re attempt the descent.  For reasons unknown, instructions from Air Traffic control were ignored, and Shaw banked too far and shallow against the ridge of Terri Peak during the night.  Tragically, the plane its entire crew of seven were killed instantaneously upon impact on the mountain.  Local farmers in Moreno Valley reported an entire hillside lit on fire, due of course to the combustion of 2,700 gallons of aircraft fuel.  Reasons for the crash include fatigue and lack of adequate training, as these soldiers joined the 15,000 other non-combat deaths of those in the US Army Air Force.  Recovery of the bodies were made, but remnants of the plane still lie quietly on the slopes of Terri Peak as an everlasting testament to the both the dedication of our nation’s protectors, and the steadfastness of a people in war that went on to win World War II.  Please respect the legacies of these young patriots by remaining on the trail to Terri Peak.




The California Aqueduct and Park Era       

    Following World War II, the state of California experienced unprecedented population growth, and planners were beginning to see the need of utilities for these new communities.  The most essential resource, and among the most scarce in inland southern California, is of course water.  To this end, the California State Water Project was born in 1960, as an engineering dream to bring water, plentiful in the upper reaches of the Feather River watershed in the Sierra Nevada, to the populated areas throughout the state, terminating in the Inland Empire.  In time, this 441-mile long canal became a reality, and at last the original southern terminus of the project was chosen.  This locale was the humble Perris basin, and it took an executive order, a blown hillside for earth-fill material for a 2.5 mile-long dam, and 126,000 acre feet of water, to create the aquatic jewel known as Lake Perris.  In 1973, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the order allocated the creation of Lake Perris specifically for the dual purpose of water availability for the growing region, and recreational opportunity.  Since that time, those goals have driven the progress of Lake Perris, as has the committal to preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the park land, while providing for unparalleled recreational opportunities.   

  What will be the next chapter of Lake Perris story?  Today, the legacy of Lake Perris is what you decide it to be.  Be part the Lake Perris saga, learn its past, its lessons, and its memories.  Preserve the past, and dedicate yourself to preparing for the future.  This is the story of Lake Perris, the story of California, the story of our heritage.  As a responsible visitor to the park, help keep the future of Lake Perris as bright and as glistening as the sunset light on its soft rolling waves.               


Written by Park Interpretive Specialist Joseph Esparza, 2018