Know those old cast metal bells with the words "El Camino Real" that line the 101? While they are rumored to follow the original "Royal Road" the Spanish missionaries used to travel from mission to mission back in the late 1700s, it's really nothing more than a driving route from the 1910s meant to boost tourism.
This wasn't a rare idea. As this wonderful piece in The Coloradan points out, there was another driving route established in 1920 as a way to promote tourism to the western National Parks. It's motto was "See America First," and it went like this:
Beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), reachable through Boulder and Lyons, the highway wound through the park to Fort Collins and went northwest to Yellowstone National Park, passing through Glacier National Park in Montana. Then it crossed to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, down the coast to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and on to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Yosemite National Park, General Grant National Park and Sequoia National Park in California.
Heading south then east, it went through Los Angeles to Grand Canyon National Park, with a side trip to Zion National Park, over to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado and finally back to Denver.
The route took drivers to 12 different national parks, four of which are in California. It can also be round-tripped from Los Angeles. So, just for fun, I decided to map it. Here are the results:
Kind of looks like a heart, doesn't it?
In all, the trip would take you 5113.36 miles, need 93 hours and 50 minutes of driving time to complete, and cost a whole lot of entrance fees, unless you got yourself an annual pass right off the bat. All of which is to say, better get started soon.
The desert wreaks strangeness, epiphany, and apocalypse on many. Witness the tale of rocker Gram Parsons, who loved Joshua Tree's Cap Rock so much that, when he died of a drug overdose in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973, his friend Phil Kaufman stole the body from authorities and -- purportedly per Parsons' wishes -- attempted to cremate Parsons at Cap Rock. He didn't pull it off -- one can only imagine the difficulties -- but the story serves to adequately illustrate the desert's powerful draw.
Spend time in Joshua Tree and surrounding environs, where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meld, and you will come to understand what bewitched Parsons, and what continues to render present day seekers spellbound. The specifics are impossible to pinpoint -- they are specific to the bewitched -- but the underlying premise is simple. Here is a place to find yourself, and lose yourself.
As Jima Reed, straddling his mountain bike in the moonlight, explains, "There are two reasons people come out here. To find themselves, and to recreate and have a good time."
We are riding in the desert at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, an area known to locals (and lucky mountain bike riders) as "Sector 6." We are lucky to be here because Jima, who owns Joshua Tree Bicycle Shop, knows Joshua Tree intimately. His Joshua family tree goes back four generations.
Jima pauses. The rest of us are silent. It is well past sunset. The world has already purpled and lost its sharp edges. The moon, swollen and full, is rising. The darkening desert is settling into itself, the surrounding rocks, pronging up like giant thumbs, reflect the moon's first silver brushstrokes.
The wind whispers something through the rocks and Jima grins.
"Yea," he says. "Soul-searching recreationalists," and with that he wheels off down the lovely, looping singletrack with his friends.
Watching them go, I make my decision.
An hour later we regroup, the lot of us sprawling across silver-strewn boulders and staring up at a universe of stars. There are times in your life when you know there is nowhere else you'd rather be.
Let me tell you, folks: Death Valley National Park is dark. "How dark is it?" It's so dark that -- according to our own guide to the best parks to go stargazing -- around midnight, stargazers can see "gegenschein," a weird phenomenon that brightens the sky "exactly opposite the sun caused by interplanetary dust reflecting sunlight." So, yeah, it's dark.
In fact, back in 2008 it was designated by the International Dark Sky Association as an International Dark Sky Park, the largest park in the world with such a designation. And what does that mean?
[A] park or other public land possessing exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat where light pollution is mitigated and natural darkness is valuable as an important educational, cultural, scenic, and natural resources.
But with the ever-constant creep of light pollution, maintaining the darkness is not an easy task. Since the designation, the park's employees have been focusing on how to make the park even darker. They "completed comprehensive outdoor lighting guidance documents, replaced inefficient lighting with energy efficient lower wattage and lumen lights, and installed intelligent lighting controls." They also focused their efforts towards sustainability, lessening the park's carbon footprint in the process.
In 2013, the efforts paid off as the park was designated by the IDSA as a "Gold Tier" Dark Sky Park. It's the best of the best, in other words. And this week, the management team of Death Valley National Park were given the Department of Interior Environmental Award for all their hard work. So next time you're in Death Valley gazing up at the impeccable night sky, don't take that darkness for granted.
Around this time of the year, a few hundred hikers begin their 2,650-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Most of them begin from the southernmost point of the trail on the Mexico border and head north towards the Canada border. It generally takes six to eight months to complete the entire trek.
It is, without a doubt, one of the most brutal hikes around; only around 60% of hikers who start the hike actually complete it. But it's popular enough that nearly 600 to 700 hikers attempt it every year. Those are high numbers for a trail. (And that doesn't count the folks that use sections of the PCT for day hikes.) Well, a new program by the U.S. Forest Service is trying to lessen the wear-and-tear associated with heavy use.
Ladies and gentlemen, the "Crest Runners."
Starting this year, a pair of "Leave No Trace" specialists will patrol the southernmost 100 miles of the PCT, from the Mexico border to Warner Springs, California. They will be on the trail during peak visitor use times, monitoring how campsites are being impacted, as well as keeping an eye on water sources and riparian areas. (It's a pilot program, so whether or not it happens next year depends on how this year goes.) They'll also "provide information about minimizing the affects of travel and camping and proper techniques for washing dishes, gathering water and safely using fire."
The goal of the program is to improve "trail experiences for hikers, horseback riders and volunteers." They'll be out and about until mid-July.
For some, spending time in the outdoors is about getting back to basics. It's about setting up your own tent and driving those stakes into the cold, hard ground with your own hammer. It's about unrolling your own sleeping bag, and hearing the gentle rustling of nighttime critters.
For others, however, time spent outdoors like this is a form of torture. Which is why "glamping" was created.
"Glamping" is one of those made-up combination words, in this case standing for "glamorous camping." It means being out in nature, but doing so without any of the "bad" things about it. Running water is a must, as are hot showers. TVs need to be present too. And if you're going to do it, well, you might as well do it in style. Which is why this list by TravelPulse of the most "over-the-top" home rentals at National Parks is required reading for any glamper.
For our California-based glampers, the one they have listed for Yosemite is a doozy:
There are four bedrooms, four baths, and accommodations for up to 14 people at any one time. Whirlpool tubs, gas fireplaces, flat screen TV's, not to mention handcrafted log ceilings, a log staircase, and carved animals will get you in the mood for the wilderness.
Also fun: It has a pool table. It's located six miles inside of Yosemite, allowing you to scoff at all of those commoners sleeping outside of the National Park. But folks, this cabin is not cheap: The whole thing's gonna run you between $1,036 and $1,480 a night depending on the season. And that's before your party decides on how much to spend on champagne and caviar arrangements.
Up and down California are relics of our state's glorious past. State Parks, National Monuments, Old Californian Missions. But my own personal favorite look into the old methods of doing things are our state's historic lighthouses.
Here are five of my favorites that are still open for tours:
1. Point Pinos Lighthouse, Monterey: The oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast, keeping sailors out of harm's way since 1855. Tours are offered every Thursday through Monday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and only cost $2 for adults, free for kids.
2. Old Point Loma Lighthouse, San Diego: Constructed in 1855 as well, this lighthouse only remained in operation until 1891 due to fog and low clouds regularly obscuring the light. An old Fresnel lens still resides on site, and tours can be taken daily through the Cabrillo National Monument.
3. Point Fermin Lighthouse, San Pedro: Constructed in 1874, this lighthouse sits on top of an old Italian Victorian home on the shores of the San Pedro harbor. Tours can be had every afternoon except Mondays and holidays.
4. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, Mendocino: Since 1909, this magnificent wood house has been navigating ships safe passage. The site is open daily during the summer, on weekends for the rest of the year. It also occasionally hosts concerts and special tours of their historic 3rd order Fresnel lens.
5. Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes: At the westernmost point of Point Reyes sits this classic lighthouse from 1870. There are tours regularly, but it's worth calling ahead as it occasionally closes due to windy conditions. The pathway down to the lighthouse -- 308 steep stone steps -- is not for the meek.
China Camp State Park in San Rafael is a portal into history. On the shores of the San Pablo Bay, it was settled in the 1880s by Chinese immigrants. The shrimp fishing village soon grew to nearly 500 residents, with three general stores, a marine supply store, and a barber shop. In addition to the historic buildings, the park also offers a campground, fifteen miles of hiking trails, and boat launch areas.
As is the case with any park, it needs consistent maintenance to make sure that the buildings don't topple over and that the trails don't become overgrown. While resident Frank Quan (a descendant of one of the original residents) does his best as the park's caretaker, he's also nearly 90 years old. Budget cuts to the state park program, meanwhile, have kept it from getting the attention it needs.
Luckily, there's the Park Champions Program. It's a group of volunteers that travel throughout California to assist in maintaining neglected parks by providing trail repair, removing invasive plant species, constructing bridges and fences, and restoring habitats. Last weekend, the group helped renovate the Bayview Trail portion of China Camp, working in two different shifts on Saturday.
If you want to help maintain more state parks, visit their website for more information about upcoming events.
Ever sit and stare at the Netflix menu screen for hours and hours without ever selecting anything to watch? Well, that's a state called "decision paralysis," and it affects a whole lot more than just what movie or TV show you're going to watch before bed. It can also affect what cookies you buy, what beers you get at the microbrew, and what New Year's party you go to. And it's not just limited to indoor activities.
Due to the large amount of federal lands out there, it's kind of tough to decide which one you should go to visit. There's just too many! Luckily, a new program by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation called Find Your Park tries to help with your indecision by cataloguing over 450 public lands to help find the one that best suits for you.
Simply go to the website's homepage, click on "Find Yours" to take a quiz that will narrow down what park you should visit. If, say, you're into learning about history, culture, and you need something family friendly in California, the search engine will return a large number of National Parks, Monuments, and other public lands that fit the bill. (You can also search for a park that's closest to your location.) So, head on over to the site and start planning your summer trips.
Despite the news coming on April 1st, it was no prank. One of the public launch ramps at Big Bear Lake, which has been closed for the winter, is now open for the 2015 season. This means that boat owners can head on over to The Carol Morrison East Launch Ramp and take the boat out onto the water. (The Duane Boywer West Launch Ramp, meanwhile, will remain closed until May 8th; both of the launch ramps will remain open throughout the fall.)
For those fishing fans among us, on top of that news is the announcement that the Big Bear Municipal Water District has planted nearly 1 million fingerling trout into the lake. The mass planting means that this is the most trout that Big Bear Lake has ever seen. While they're tiny now, trout will reach a full six to 12 inches within the next three months. There are also plans in place to toss in another two truckloads of 250,000 larger trout over the next two weeks. As BBMWD state in their press release:
This is great news for anglers because it should help increase the population for years to come.
If you're looking to fish, though, you'll have to contact the BBMWD and get yourself a license. However, they have announced two "open fishing" days this season (Saturday, July 4th and Saturday, September 5th) where folks can fish without licenses. For more information on rentals, lodging, or free fishing days, check out the official website.
Every year in April, the National Parks Service celebrates National Parks Week. For this year's celebration -- which runs from Saturday, April 18th through Sunday, April 26th -- 11 California parks will be free to enter on that first Saturday and Sunday as part of opening weekend festivities. The parks include:
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Death Valley National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Lava Beda National Monument
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Pinnacles National Park
- San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
- Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
- Yosemite National Park
(If you happen to be out of state, the entire list of participating parks around the country can be found here.)
On April 18th, many of the above parks are also participating in Junior Ranger Days, where youngsters will have a chance to learn more about the park and earn a Ranger badge.
For the adults, there is a huge schedule of presentations, commemorations, and demonstrations taking place throughout the parks in conjunction with National Parks Week. Scroll through the massive list to find the one most interesting to you, and plan yourself a day out in America's Best Idea.