Inyo National Forest Opening Early

So, the ongoing historic drought in California is bad for all of us who need food and water to survive. That's true. No sugarcoating that. But if we're trying to make some lemonade out of lemons, there are a few positives to come out of this. First, Yosemite re-opened one of their roads early. Then, Big Bear Lake announced the opening of their public launch ramps ahead of schedule. And now, there's word that Inyo National Forest in the Eastern Sierra is opening up their recreation and fishing facilities early this year.

Inyo is a sprawling, nearly 3,000-mile forest, encompassing nine different wilderness areas. It includes Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous U.S.), Boundary Peak (the highest point in Nevada), and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (which includes some of the world's oldest living organisms). It also has plenty of fishing and campgrounds. Here's the vital information about the early openings for you:

For Fishing Opener -- Most lakes below 9000 feet are currently free of ice. Weather dependent, roads in the Mammoth Lakes Basin will be open prior to the 2015 Fishing Opener, with a tentative opening date of Saturday, April 18th. Convict Lake, Sherwin Creek, Mammoth RV Park, Oh Ridge, June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, Big Springs, and Lower Lee Vining campgrounds will be open by April 24th.

Also of note, the road into Reds Meadow Valley is targeted to open on Saturday, May 16th, with a large number of campgrounds opening throughout the month of May. All target dates are schedule to change due to weather conditions. Head on over to the official website for more information.

Artist 'Mr. Andre' Pays Fine For Vandalizing Joshua Tree National Park

The vandalized rockThe Swedish-Portuguese street artist Andre Saraiva, known professionally as "Mr. Andre," has paid a fine to the U.S. District Court for vandalizing a boulder in Joshua Tree National Park. On February 27th, 2015, park officials were notified by members of the public that Saraiva had posted Instagram photos of his work on one and possibly a second rock formation thought to be in the park. After investigation, only one location proved to be within park borders. He was subsequently fined an undisclosed amount which was paid on April 1st after he had returned to his home in France. Saraiva was cooperative with park rangers.

Park officials are conducting on-going investigations into other incidents of defacing and vandalism of park resources. So far three local juveniles were charged and convicted of vandalism at Barker Dam and the investigation is targeting others of interest. Another person was recently convicted for paint vandalism at Indian Cove Campground.

JTNP Chief Ranger Jeff Ohlfs said, "We will use any and all available resources to bring those who engage in this behavior to justice". Ohlfs calls on the public to keep up the "good work" reporting incidents that they see to the nearest park ranger or call park dispatch at (909) 383-5651.

H/t to Modern Hiker, who first broke the Mr. Andre story.

Road Trip Challenge: The National Park-to-Park Touring Route

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.

A Desert Epiphany in Joshua Tree

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.

Death Valley Is Award-Winningly Dark

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.

PCT 'Crest Runner' Patrol Begins

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.

High Style Glamping at Yosemite National Park

Photo:flipkey

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.

Top 5 Old California Lighthouses

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.

Volunteers Renovate Historic Chinese Fishing Village

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.

Find Your New Favorite Park with FindYourPark.com

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.