If there's anyone with the pulse on forest fires in California, it's Stanton Florea. He's the U.S. Forest Service's fire information officer for the state and today he's been keeping tabs on one in Sequoia National Forest. He's not yet concerned about this small and slow-moving blaze -- it may actually have positive environmental effects, he said -- but what's capturing his attention is the white stuff.
Yes, as in snow. This fire is burning through an area with patchy snow. "That's not normal," he said. "There's not much more that speaks to these dry conditions."
California has over 800 miles of ocean coastline, and while I haven't wandered its full length, I've been hard pressed to find a spot that was not worth visiting. Sure, Malibu and Big Sur are the popular and easy-to-please spots, but I'm always the most excited to visit the harder-to-reach and lesser known coastline, from Montaña de Oro to Año Nuevo and beyond.
That's why I was pleased to see that the New York Times featured California's North Coast in its "52 Places to Go in 2014" this weekend (Tahoe and downtown L.A. were also listed).
The North Coast generally refers to the state's three most northern coastal counties -- Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte -- but can include Marin and Sonoma, depending on who you're talking to. Despite the Times' "North Coast" subhead, its text really honed into one specific spot: Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands.
"By no means are we out of the wilderness," Governor Jerry Brown said Thursday as he unveiled his budget proposal for California's next fiscal year. But for the state's financially beleaguered park system, his blueprint may offer some needed, if temporary, relief.
Proposed is an additional $14 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation's operating budget to keep state parks running at current levels, meaning, in theory, that there will be no threat of closures. Governor Brown also proposed a one-time $40 million injection to address the backlog of overdue maintenance throughout the 280 state parks, beaches, and historic properties.
"This $40 million is really refreshing," Parks Director Major General Anthony L. Jackson told reporters in a phone press conference Thursday morning. "We have to start somewhere and this is a great start."
A start it is: the cost of the backlog hovers around $1 billion with roads, sewers, roofs, and more in need of repair.
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.