The Drought Is Killing Our Beloved Joshua Trees

The yucca brevifolia -- the scientific name for the iconic and beloved Joshua tree, the latter moniker, legend has it, coming from a group of Mormon settlers traversing the Mojave in the 19th century -- grows in one area of the entire world: The American Southwest. Its name not only conjures up the inherent mystery of that large expanse of desert, but also its spirit. If something of such beauty can survive the harrowing climate of the region, anything's possible.

But now, the Joshua tree may be dying out in Joshua National Park.

A team of scientists at UC Riverside has been studying how the ongoing historical drought is affecting the Joshua tree, and early results are not good. Due to the drier than normal climate, the tree's seedlings are shriveling up and dying, rather than implanting into the ground. This does not lead to an encouraging projection:

Scientists predict that the trees will lose 90 percent of their current range in the 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park by the end of the century if the warmer, drier conditions continue. The park has seen 1.71 inches of rain this year. Precipitation there averages about 4 inches per year.

Things are not quite dire enough to have you cancel your summer plans and spend the month out in the desert, though. These trees grow for nearly 200 years, meaning that the big die-offs won't occur for awhile. But if you needed another excuse to help conserve water, well, here it is.

Celebrate National Trails Day This Saturday

The American Hiking Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving hiking trails around the country, is once again holding their annual celebration of trails -- and all glorious aspects of our beloved brain-clearing, getting-back-to-nature exercise -- with their National Trails Day series of events.

This year, the celebration takes place on Saturday, June 6th.

Events are scheduled all throughout the country -- some are even taking place in Europe. These are the events happening in the Los Angeles area:

- 7 a.m., a 3.6-mile hike to Switzer Falls in Altadena.
- 8 a.m., a hike from the Griffith Observatory parking lot to the Hollywood Sign.
- 8 a.m., at Seal Beach, a morning hike is taking place at the Los Cerritos Wetlands.
- 8:30 a.m., a hike at the Backbone Trailhead at Encinal Canyon over in Malibu.

If you're interested in partaking in any of them, head over to the respective link and RSVP. For a full list of scheduled events, check out the official website. And hey, while you're there, if none of the above offerings are fitting the bill for you, create your own hiking event.

Joshua Tree Closes Campsites for the Summer

For most parks around the country, summertime is not only when the living is easy, but also when campsites are packed with visitors. Not so in Joshua Tree National Park, where the park tends to close just as everyone else is getting wild.

The desert conditions of Joshua Tree make it fairly uninhabitable for most of the summer. And, with no guests using the sites, there's no reason to staff them.

This year, the park has decided to close the following facilities starting June 1st:

Black Rock Campground- east side of the campground will close. West side remains open; Cottonwood Campground--B loop will close. A Loop remains open; Indian Cove Campground--west side of the campground will close. East side and the group campsites remain open; Ryan Campground--closed entirely at the access road; Campsite Reservation Service will suspend for summer at noon on June 25th.

The sites will re-open on October 1st, or perhaps sooner, if demand dictates the need for them. Meanwhile, the park's visitor's center, picnic areas, and other campgrounds will be open for use. For more information on which parks are closed, head over to the NPS website.

Orange County's Best Coastal Hikes

This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

Though dotted with towns and cities, the Orange County coast has an abundance of wilderness in its canyons, and plenty of untrammeled land tucked in its coves and beaches. It is more than possible to beat the crowds and follow a trail, or a bend in the coast, for a day. Or several days.

New Yellowstone Lodges Coming in August

While many of us head into our gorgeous National Parks to get away from the hectic pace of our everyday lives, indulging in creature comforts can be an essential part of the experience. Yellowstone's Canyon Village is one of the areas inside the famed park where the splendor of the outdoors is enhanced by man-made structures. And it's about to get bigger.

The Village already boasts the Canyon Lodge & Cabins, a site created in the 1950s featuring 400 cabins and two lodge buildings featuring a full-service restaurant, a deli, and a cafeteria -- making it the largest accommodation complex in the park. Now, nearly 60 years after the complex was first created, it's getting an update.

The renovation includes removing many of the 400 cabins and installing five additional lodges in their place. The lodges are being built in an attempt to reduce environmental impact, as well as create additional space for park guests. (A total of 409 guest rooms will be available after the project's completion.) The whole construction is expected to cost $70 million to complete.

Work on the first phase of construction is nearly complete, with three of the lodges expected to be open sometime in August. The remaining two will open up sometime in 2016.

L.A.'s Historic Hiking Destinations

I got into hiking because there were certain places I wanted to see that weren't accessible by car. Having a destination helped get me on the trail, and even now, I can keep going despite heat and exhaustion if the destination is more than just an overlook, peak, or end of a loop. Although I love the view from above, I usually want there to be something else to see when I get there (or at least along the way).

One of the easiest hikes for those that enjoy a bit of beautiful decay is in Malibu's Solstice Canyon, where the Paul R. Williams-designed "Tropical Terrace" burned down in the 1982 Corral Fire. Enough of the once-private estate remains to attract families, naturalists, and history hounds alike. You can see where the Roberts Ranch House kitchen and chimney once were, walk along the pathways, and gaze at the statues and fountains in a shady area cooled off by ocean breezes. On your way, you'll also pass a historic homestead, and past Tropical Terrace, you'll find a rare year-round waterfall. Time has not been kind to this property, and its heavy use has worn down the remains, so get to this one soon before it's too far-gone. Park in the lot or on a neighboring street, but read signs very carefully to avoid the wrath of Malibu Parking Enforcement.

Also designed by L.A.'s famous African-American architect Paul R. Williams is the grandiose gate to the notorious Murphy Ranch compound for Hitler supporters in Rustic Canyon, Pacific Palisades. This historic site has captured the imaginations of hikers and historians alike, because no one really knows what actually happened down there in the canyon. This parcel of Rustic Canyon is actually owned by the City of Los Angeles, though it's adjacent to Will Rogers State Park and Topanga State Park, which you can also venture into to make the hike more challenging. In addition to a cistern, machine shed, and graffiti-laden powerhouse, there are also some abandoned cars and an old, dilapidated farmhouse to explore. The Parks Department has fenced off a lot of the structures, and has been threatening to raze them over the last several years, so we may lose this history at some point. At least two epic staircases (one of about 500 steps) provide alternate entry to the mysterious ruins in this "upside down" hike, but climbing the stairs both down and up should be reserved for only the most ambitious hikers. Take the fire road through the gate at least in one direction.

One of the most historic sites in the Greater Los Angeles area is also one of the lesser known: the St. Francis Dam Disaster Site. A historic monument, and the site of California's second worst disaster (right behind the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires), the remains of William Mulholland's career-ending engineering failure are a short walk down the closed portion of San Francisquito Canyon Road, north of Santa Clarita in the Angeles National Forest. You can climb down to the pile of concrete rubble from when the last standing piece of the broken dam was dynamited, behind which a small creek has been taken over by frogs. Or climb up to the top of the western abutment and walk on top of the concrete wall built into the hillside. From above, you get a good view of where the dam once stood in 1928, and the scars left behind by the 250-foot wall of water that rushed down the canyon, taking everything with it. You can still find pieces of the broken dam that were deposited a couple of miles down by the flow of water. If you walk the entire length of the closed San Francisquito Canyon Road, you can visit LADWP's Power Plant #2 which was completely washed away by the flooding water, and then completely rebuilt. Beware of lots of rusty rebar sticking out in all directions. Keep your tetanus shot up to date.

Orange County's Best Coastal Campgrounds

This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

Orange County has plenty of the golden sand beaches it's famous for. But the county's coves, rocky headlands, and mountains comprise a different experience entirely. Both can be yours, for a night or more.

Like in San Diego County, the OC's beaches are among the busiest parks in California. Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance through Book as soon as possible because many sites get snagged the day they become available. Cancellations can also free up previously booked sites, so watch for that. Thanks to, images of just about every individual site are available online, letting you choose a spot in the shade of a sycamore with just the right view. Unless otherwise stated, sites permit both tents and RVs or trailers. Some companies deliver RVs directly to campgrounds, making it possible to enjoy a road hotel without the need to pilot one on the highway; rental information can be found on most state park websites.

We've tried to feature only campgrounds with the best coastal sights, sounds, and smells. In this guide, those places are state-owned because the parks system boasts so much of California's best seaside real estate.

Backpacking to Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon

To experience fall-away space and wind-licked silence is a truly wondrous thing. The six of us sit and relish what wind, water, and geology have hewn. Vast buttes that were once strangers but are now our friends -- Newberry Butte, Krishna Shrine, Solomon Temple -- hunker before us at various distances, multi-layered pyramids of nearly incomprehensible age and scope. Here in the Grand Canyon the midday heat hums, a bird cries, and the runnings of the Colorado River 3,000 feet below us issue a whisper like the distant sound of breaking surf. Erosion, the ruling force of this grand place, has carved us a tidy little slash in this sheer cliff -- 4,000 feet below the Rim and worlds away from the shambling crowds and rumbling tour buses -- a lovely box seat, fat with shade and the cool press of sandstone.

Ken Walters, our Grand Canyon Field Institute guide, has spent most of his adult life exploring the Canyon. Over forty-some years he has poked over roughly 13,000 miles of Canyon backcountry for many reasons, not the least of which is the Canyon's lovely penchant for surprise. Until five minutes ago he never knew this overhang existed.
Walters watches two rafts negotiate the Colorado, tiny blue water bugs spinning lazy half circles on the current.

"We're probably the first Europeans to ever sit here," he says quietly.

It's possible that no one will take you deeper, literally and figuratively, into the Grand Canyon than the Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI). For those who require bureaucratic linkage, the Grand Canyon Field Institute is a program of Grand Canyon National Park's nonprofit park partner, the Grand Canyon Association. For those who simply love the hidden and the breathtaking, know that GCFI offers trips that will take you there. Added plus, you're often in the hands of wilderness experts with PhDs in biology and geology, not to mention finely honed map-reading skills and a deft touch in customer relations.

Moments earlier Walters had to come back and get me. I am uncomfortable with heights (okay, serious fear). To reach the small, shaded bunker-like shelf in which we all now finally sit, we had to walk along a narrow ledge with nothing between us and the river but 3,000 feet of sickening space. In an unfortunate cast of fate, none of my fellow hikers possess an iota of my fear. When Walters told them to hike along the ridge, they did so like happy Hobbits, taking their seats in the shade beneath the rock overhang to enjoy the view and garner respite from the baking sun.

Being a professional guide, after a time Walters noticed one of his ducklings was missing.

I watch him walk casually back along the ledge.

Stepping up to the plateau where I stand, he regards me pleasantly.

"Coming?" he asks.

I can't remember exactly what I said. My heart was racing like a jackrabbit, and my mind followed suit. It's possible I said something about fascinating rock formations right here on the plateau, made all the more fascinating by the illumination of the midday sun.

Walters has a master's degree in geology. I thought I might save myself by pandering to his interests.

God, it was hot.

"You can't stay here," Walters says.

I know this. It's why I fear I might weep.

Walters nods to me and turns back for the ledge.

"Come on," he says. "You can do this. And if you don't, we all have to leave."

GCFI fosters education. I learn that I can shuffle along a narrow ledge without breathing.
With education in mind, we spent our first day on the Canyon Rim in a GCFI classroom. Five of us signed on for the three-day backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa, a remote promontory in the heart of the canyon, accessed via the Grandview Trail, which begins finely at the Rim with a well-maintained series of switchbacks, then deteriorates from there. Janet, Ed, Chuck, Sean, and I range in experience (little to plenty) and age (33 to 67), but we share some common interests.

"I'm here for the adventure of backpacking the Grand Canyon," says Janet. "Ummm. People hardly ever fall, do they?"

In the classroom we review the importance of leave-no-trace backpacking. We discuss proper footwear and pass around one of Walters' socks, each student examining it as if it is a rune. We review compass and map-reading skills, as well as the contents of Walters' backpack. The man travels lighter than Peter Pan.

"Most people pack out of fear, not need," he tells us. "Ounces turn into pounds and pounds turn into pain."

Walters' discourse on water is equally long-winded.

"Hydrate or die," he says. "You need water. You need food. All the rest is extra."

Great Hikes: The Bridge to Nowhere

In 1936, construction was completed on a bridge that spanned the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, deep in the wilderness of the San Gabriel Mountains. Once the bridge was finished, construction of the East Fork Road commenced, which was to connect Los Angeles to California State Route 2. But in 1938, a massive flood destroyed much of the road and plans shifted to build the connection in another area.

The bridge, however, remained, connecting nothing to nothing. And there it still stands today.

While you can't take a car over the bridge, the destination has become one of the most popular hikes in Los Angeles. The trail is not for the meek of heart. It's a 10-mile round trip, starting at Heaton Flats Trail Camp in Azusa. There are at least four river crossings, depending on the rainfall, and you may also have to wade through water that could reach waist-high. There's also no potable water on the trail, so make sure to pack plenty of it. The whole trip should take you about six hours, depending on how long you stay at the bridge. When you get to the end, enjoy a dip in the river under the shady overhang of the bridge. And don't be surprised if you see a handful of bungee-jumpers hoisting themselves over the bridge's side and letting gravity do its work.

Before you head out, make sure you get an Adventure Pass from the Forest Service, or you may end up paying a fine. For more information about the hike, check out this great write-up of the trail.

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