This Weekend: 50 Free Campgrounds in SoCal, Free Entry to National Parks

Several times a year, a number of outdoor federal agencies open up their lands to the public for free. And November 9 through 11 -- Veterans Day Weekend -- is the last such opportunity in 2013. Below, figure out how to arrange your weekend.

National Parks

Within the National Park Service, only a third of parks in the system charge an entrance fee in the first place, but California doesn't get off that easy. Cabrillo in San Diego, Joshua Tree and Death Valley in the desert, Sequoia and Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada, Pinnacles on the Central Coast, among others, all charge fees for entering -- even if you come by foot, bicycle, or horse. Come this weekend, those fees are waived.

7 Best Places for Stargazing in California's Low Desert

There's a lot of nighttime light in California's low desert, which covers all of Imperial and most of Riverside counties, and an eastern sliver of San Diego County. A string of brightly lit cities from Palm Springs to Mexicali drive back the night sky across a swath of desert 125 miles long.

But there's still quite a bit of darkness available here, especially in its remote eastern parts. Here are seven of our favorite low desert spots to contemplate your local portion of the universe, ranging from comfortable resort towns to ghost towns to remote, primitive campsites.

1. Borrego Springs, San Diego County
We've already noted this official Dark Sky Community in our San Diego County stargazing guide, but we just can't leave it unmentioned here. Borrego Springs is a great gateway to the state's largest state park, Anza-Borrego, and its residents and businesses have enthusiastically taken on the task of keeping night lighting to a minimum to preserve Anza-Borrego's night-time environment. As a result, Borrego Springs is almost alone among these Low Desert stargazing sites in offering local amenities like lodging and restaurants. Local businesses here just don't have the impact on night skies as their counterparts in less lighting conscious communities.

7 Best Stargazing Spots In San Luis Obispo County

Only the most prominent of the heavenly bodies visible from SLO County | Photo: Mark Gregory/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Route 101, San Luis Obispo County sits in a dark spot between the two. Get away from the chain of small cities along the highway between Nipomo and Paso Robles, and you'll have a great chance of finding good stargazing almost anywhere.

Here are seven SLO stargazing spots with amenities ranging from fine to nonexistent, but all of which should give you a pretty good look at the Central Coast's share of outer space.

1. Santa Margarita Lake KOA
This spot might be the only stargazing site we've heard of with a nine-hole disc golf course. A quarter mile from a quiet reservoir northeast of San Luis Obispo, this private campground is where the Central Coast Astronomical Society holds its regular star parties. You can sign up for emailed alerts of the CCAS's events schedule here.If you prefer a slightly more rustic scene, the nearby Santa Margarita Lake County Park offers primitive camping without the outdoor movie theater and party yurt.

2. Cholame Valley Road, Temblor Range
Best known for being the one road into Parkfield, the Earthquake Capital of California, Cholame Valley Road also offers nice dark skies within easy striking distance of Routes 46 and 41 east of Paso Robles. Cholame Valley Road heads north of the highway just a few hundred feet west of where 46 and 41 meet east of Shandon. After just under five miles the road crosses into Monterey County, but until then there are a few places where with a bit of care, you can pull safely off the road to enjoy the view. Some of the shoulder gets pretty swampy after a rain, and in the dry season hot exhaust pipes can ignite the dry roadside grasses, so choose your sites carefully. There's a promising spot at the wide spot at McMillan Canyon Road. Be sure not to block driveways or farm access roads.

6 Best Stargazing Spots in Scenic Kern County

Night falls at Red Rock Canyon State Park | Photo: mcbridejc/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California's third-largest county is a lot shorter on dark skies than it used to be. Between dust and haze at the west end, industrial energy development in the desert, and brightly lit sprawl in between, Kern County is not precisely a stargazers' mecca.

But the county does still offer a number of places where you can get away from the lights and see the Universe. Here are six of our favorites.

1. Downtown Bakersfield
Yeah, you heard right. It's not as silly as it sounds. Even right downtown, Bakersfield still has darker skies than you'll find in the L.A. Basin: dark enough to see planets and a few bright stars with the naked eye, and even more with the help of optics. And the Kern Astronomical Society takes advantage of that, holding public star parties at a rotating list of local spots, including Panorama Park, a couple of local bookstores, and the zoo at the California Living Museum. Check out the KAS website for upcoming events.

2. Wind Wolves Preserve
This 95,000-acre preserve operated by the Wildlands Conservancy just west of Grapevine closes daily at 5:00 p.m., so you might not think of it as a stargazing spot. But on weekends, if you make advance reservations, you can camp at Wind Wolves and take advantage of the San Emigdio Mountains' relatively starry skies. (You can make those arrangements by contacting the Wildlands Conservancy,) or stay in touch with the Kern Astronomical Society, which holds star parties here on occasion. Weather permitting, the skies here are dark enough that you should be able to see quite a bit of structure in the Milky Way. And if you see a dark spot moving and obscuring the stars as it passes, who knows? It could be one of the local condors.

Yosemite National Park Reopens Tonight

That didn't take long. Quickly after President Barack Obama was sent a bill to end the government shutdown, Yosemite National Park officials put out word that they were opening immediately.

During the shutdown, which began October 1, the park was closed to visitors. Main roads remained open, but for traveling through only. Now all roads leading to and within, including Glacier Point and Mariposa Grove, are open.

Amid Shutdown, Park Rangers Speak Out -- And it's Touching

Park rangers didn't sign up for the job so they could turn people away at the gates of national parks. They did it to protect the country's treasures so everyone could enjoy them. But with the government shutdown -- which could actually end tonight -- they've become one of the reoccurring characters in the media's narrative of the shutdown.

And, frankly, they're not feeling the love. To that end, the National Parks Conservation Association put together this feel-good video that's worth three minutes of your time. "[I]t's very hard to make efforts to keep people out when our whole lives we've worked hard to get people in," says a narrator at the beginning of the clip, which uses quotes from rangers, who could only speak under the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, the National Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police just put out their own statement through the environmental whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Of note, they challenge the public to find a way around the Anti-Deficiency Act, which carries shutdown instructions. "[W]e urge you to seek legal remedies in court if you believe NPS actions to close park facilities to be illegal," wrote George Durkee, president of the group. "Life would be much easier for us if the parks were open."

The letter in full can be read below:

Feds Willing to Let States Pay to Open National Parks, But California Not Inclined to Deal

Gates closed at an entrance into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks because of the 2013 government shutdown. | Photo: Courtesy NPS

The Obama Administration today signaled its support in letting states pay to reopen national parks, but California is not poised to jump in on the opportunity.

"Responding to the economic impacts that the park closures are having on many communities and local businesses, Secretary Jewell will consider agreements with Governors who indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to re-open national parks in their states," said Interior Spokesman Blake Androff in a statement.

The closure of 401 national park units has left 20,000 employees furloughed translating to an estimated $76 million in daily visitor spending, according to figures released today by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "These figures are mind boggling," said the group's chair, Maureen Finnerty, a former superintendent of Everglades and Olympic national parks, "and they only begin to capture the full economic shock of locking up the crown jewels of America."

Their analysis looked at several leading parks, including Yosemite National Park, which has lost over 106,000 visitors and more than $10 million in the first week and a half of the shutdown. It has put 5,607 jobs at stake, most which are local jobs in surrounding communities from Mariposa to Mammoth Lakes.

Who Knows? Draconid Meteor Shower Might Surprise Gazers

Draconids cross the sky in 2009 | Photo: Scott Butner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A meteor shower with a reputation for erratic displays just might reward stalwart stargazers over the next few days, and its peak is conveniently just at sunset.

The Draconid meteor shower, so named for its origin in the constellation Draco, is well known among veteran stargazers for its highly erratic peak fireball output. In some years the Draconids offer up no more than three or four shooting stars per hour. But in years when the Earth's orbit happens to intersect a denser part of the cloud of grit left behind by the Draconids' parent comet, that figure can jump dramatically. That's what happened in 2011, 2005 and 1998, with sudden spikes in shooting star frequency. In 1933 and 1946 the Draconids offered up thousands of visible meteors per hour.

No Stopping. No Recreating. Thank You.

Occupy Yosemite organizer Stacey Powells, right, holds a sign next to Mammoth Lakes resident Jennifer DeAngelis. | Photo: Dan McConnell

It was a postcard-perfect fall afternoon along California's Eastern Sierra, with a cloudless sky, swatches of orange and gold up Lee Vining Canyon, and a crisp breeze blowing off Mono Lake. A line of classic cars -- a glossy black '39 Ford Convertible, for example, and a '55 Pontiac Safari wagon -- cruised down Highway 395, heading for the Fall Colors Car Show in Bishop. At the Mobil station at the base of Tioga Pass business was slow, even for the late season. A dozen or so locals gathered on the lawn clutching a variety of messages hand-written on neon-green posterboard: "Yosemite Held Hostage" and "Parks for People, Not Politics."

Stacey Powells, News Director for KMMT/KRHV Radio in Mammoth Lakes, had sent word through social media that she hoped people would join her Friday afternoon to protest the ongoing closure of Yosemite National Park, attendant to this week's Federal Government Shutdown. The original plan had been to stage a "sit-down protest" inside the park at Tuolumne Meadows. She was calling it "Occupy Yosemite."

There'd been a significant amount of chatter online about whether such a move would actually accomplish anything, or just make things harder for the park rangers, who weren't even being paid. "Horrible idea," wrote Jay Ogawa from Costa Mesa on Facebook. "If you're going to protest the government shutdown, go to the steps of the U.S. Capitol not Yosemite."

"It's going to create a mess for the park employees that have to deal with the crowd and the attention," wrote Andrea Ketchmark of Grand Rapids, Michigan. "The outrage should be focused where it belongs: the members of the House."

"We're not here to make life difficult for the park rangers," Powells announced to the assembled protesters. "They're our families. They're our friends. A lot of people have lost jobs because of this. I ran into a bunch of them yesterday standing in line at the EDD office. We're here to let the people in Washington know that we're done with their shenanigans."

Bystander Edward England, a Republican from Gardnerville, Nevada, on his way to the car show, couldn't help but interject. "Do you know where the order came from to shut the park?" he asked rhetorically.

"From Congress," offered one protester.

"From Obama," said England. "That's who."

"How about the Tea Party?" suggested another protester. "How about Paul Cook?" suggested a third, referring to the Republican Representative for California's 8th District, which runs along the eastern side of the state from Twentynine Palms to Mono Lake and encompasses vast stretches of Federal land.

"It's Obama's fault," repeated England's wife, Pat. Then she laughed and added: "But just in case you want an alternate opinion we brought a Democrat for you."

"They're just trying to get rid of Obamacare," said Barbara Johnson, of Minden, Nevada, and wife of said Democrat. "That's what I think."

"I hope it goes through," said her husband, John Johnson. "Then maybe my insurance'll go down. I'm the only one with insurance, seems like, and so I'm paying for everyone else."

Another Yosemite Protest Planned Amid Government Shutdown

An Occupy Yosemite event took place Friday at the park's eastern end. Now a protest is scheduled for Saturday morning at its western end -- and it's being organized by a former employee.

"We just want to try to be heard and show that [Congress'] inaction is causing a lot of suffering financially for a lot of people," Sean Anderson, who lives outside the park in Mariposa, told KCET. "It's just not good business for the country and local community."

Anderson, a former park archives technician, is planning the 10 a.m. protest with a ranger who is currently furloughed by the government shutdown that began Tuesday. It will take place outside the park at the Arch Rock entrance on Highway 140.

Josh Hart, a front desk clerk at the nearby Yosemite View Lodge, noted that hotel reservations at this time of year tend to slow down, but not at the rate he's seen this week. "Normally we'd have 80 [reservations] a day, now we're down to 30 to 50 a day." He noted that large groups with reservations over the next couple of weeks are canceling.