A holiday week can mean bigger than normal crowds at national parks, and Joshua Tree, which has been growing in popularity over the past several years, is no exception. The park's nine campgrounds have been at capacity since December 23 (four of them have over 100 sites), vehicles were backed up for a mile outside the park's west entrance the day before Christmas, and search and rescue operations noticeably ticked up this week.
It makes sense that with increased visitor numbers come increased injuries and missing hikers, but it doesn't have to be that way. "People are not neccesarily being as safe as they could be," Lorna Shuman, a park spokesperson, told me. She explained that some visitors are not thinking through the dangers the outdoors has in store for them. They're not realizing that when climbing rocks that you can slip and fall, they're not carrying the proper gear for the recreational activity they're doing, and they're not thinking,"Oh, it's getting close to sunset, maybe I should bring a flashlight, or not do this."
2014 will be a big year for notable anniversaries in California's great outdoors. It's the 50th for the Wilderness Act and John Muir Historic Site, the 30th for California's version of the wilderness act, and the 20th for the California Desert Protection Act, which elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status while creating Mojave National Preserve.
It will also be the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, a pivotal piece of legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War that seeded the birth of not only national parks as we know them today, but the treasured state parks of California as well.
In June of 1864, the grant began the process of transferring Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove into California's hands "for public use, resort, and recreation, and shall be inalienable for all time," giving the state its first state parks. Three months later, Governor Frederick Lowe accepted the grant and appointed the first State Parks Commission.
To that end, California State Parks will be celebrating its sesquicentennial with events throughout 2014. And they're kicking it off on day one with 40 hikes (and one paddle event) at over 30 parks across the state. So you can start making plans now, here's the list in full:
Last weekend's storm was the one that counted. At least when it came to mountain road closures in the Eastern Sierra for the season. Bad news for your typical hiker, but good news for cross country skiers, snow shoers, and other winter sports enthusiasts. After all, the gates are only meant to stop vehicles from getting stuck in the snow; people are welcome to go beyond them to enjoy at their own risk.
Inyo County's road department is reporting seasonal closures for 9 Mile Canyon Road out of Pearsonville (access to Kennedy Meadows), Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal roads out of Lone Pine, and Onion Valley Road out of Independence (access to Kearsarge Pass).
Glacier Lodge Road out of Big Pine will continue to be plowed throughout the winter up to Glacier Lodge, which, at 11 miles into the Sierra Nevada, is a good distance anyway.
Caltrans will continue to plow Highway 168 through Aspendale, cutting off access to Lake Sabrina and North Lake. South Lake Road is plowed throughout the season and rarely closes.
Across the Owens Valley, White Mountain Road to Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is closed at Sierra View, but you'll need four-wheel drive to get up to that point, according to Inyo National Forest. If you're in a two-wheel drive, consider the road closed from its beginning at Highway 168.
California's High Desert is a great place for stargazing: the cities tend to be small and far apart, and there are plenty of places where a casual sky watcher can just pull over to the side of the road and look up at amazingly dark skies.
So for the High Desert, which we're defining here as the arid parts of Kern, San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono counties, it would be easy to list all kinds of casual stops and turnouts. Instead, we've whittled this list down to the best of the best. Here are nine great places for watching those heavenly bodies, including one site that's the darkest we've ever mentioned.
Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County
We listed this spot in our Kern County night sky listicle as well, and for good reason: it's an easy jaunt from Southern California's crowded urban core, and it's easy to get a little ways off from the campground's gas lanterns and take in some reasonably dark sky. The park's day use area, across Route 14 from the campground, closes at sunset, but campsites (with nearby pit toilets and potable water) run $25 a night at this writing. Get here before the entire southern horizon fills up with wind turbine warning lights.
Afton Canyon, San Bernardino County
A secluded BLM campground near one of the few stretches of the Mojave River that has year-round water, Afton Canyon made our list of "Places You Need To See in the California Desert" a year ago. Turns out it's also a good place in the California desert from which to see faraway stars. On weekends this campsite about 40 miles from downtown Barstow (four of those miles on good dirt road) can get a little busy, as it's along the popular ORV route, the Mojave Road. But on school nights, you may well find yourself here alone, with just the stars and the bighorn sheep and the frequent freight trains to keep you company.
A number of communities that dot California's coast welcome a colorful gathering each fall. Flutters of monarch butterflies from the colder climes of the western Rockies make the annual journey, wintering in the same small groves each year. And they've begun to arrive, with some very high numbers already in one San Luis Obispo County spot.
Pismo Beach officials reported an estimated 34,000 monarchs at its grove on Tuesday. "That's more than there was during the entire 2012-2013 season!" exclaimed a Facebook post from the city's Conference & Visitors Bureau.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.