SAN DIEGO — National Parks Week kicks off Saturday, with some of the country’s most spectacular wilderness areas to explore for free.
Joshua Tree National Park, just a three-hour drive northeast of downtown San Diego, is the closest park for locals looking to take advantage of the offering.
Joshua Tree Park passes start at $15 for individuals and $30 for vehicles, so it’s a great opportunity to get adventurous on the cheap. A park spokesperson said rangers will be at the entrances to greet people at the reserve and answer any questions. Until you enter and exit the park again, you probably won’t be asked for a pass.
Never been to this unique slice of the Southern California desert? Here’s what you need to know.
When to Visit Joshua Tree
Here’s more good news: the free tours available on Saturday — and the special events planned for National Parks Week that follow — arrive at the park’s recommended time for visitors.
This is the desert, so the weather is most comfortable in the spring and fall, as the average high temperature still reaches around 85 degrees. At the same time, you avoid the coldest evenings in the desert, with average minimum temperatures of around 50 degrees.
You will also breathe better air in the spring. When temperatures rise in the summer, the area can experience poor air quality, according to the National Park Service. Joshua Tree has an air monitoring page that updates with the latest data, so if you’re sensitive you can check before you go. On Thursday, the air quality index for ozone was rated as good.
Joshua Tree is not a “secret place” and the park spokesperson has warned that it’s usually the busiest time of year there. Don’t let that put you off going to the park – just keep in mind that you won’t have the place to yourself.
What to do in Joshua Tree
Rangers like to say the park is “where two deserts meet,” bringing together the unique ecosystems of Mojave and Colorado. The park isn’t packed with facilities – it’s 800,000 acres of wide-open wilderness, dotted with rock formations and the iconic Joshua Trees the park gets its name from.
Check out the Joshua Tree hiking guide and choose your path. There’s everything from short nature walks to moderately challenging trails and hikes tough enough that you’re strictly advised to avoid them in hot weather.
Stargazing in the desert is second to none. You’ll see “a shimmering dome dotted with stars, planets, and passing meteors,” as the national park’s website poetically details. Joshua Tree has some of the darkest skies in Southern California, allowing many visitors to see the Milky Way with their naked eyes for the first time.
And sports activities? If you have a rock climber in your life, you already know that Joshua Tree is one of the most popular spots in the state. Rock climbing, bouldering, highlining and slacklining are all allowed in the rocky outcrops of the desert. Guides can give you a day course or a tour if you’re a beginner – just make sure they’re licensed to work in the park. You are also asked to leave no trace.
Cyclists should be aware that there are no bike paths in the park and most paved roads do not have hard shoulders that allow for safe riding, but you can use the back roads -countries of the region.
Stay the night? The park is home to 10 campgrounds with accommodation suitable for everyone from backpackers to tent campers and RV travellers.
If you’re looking for more activities, consider photography, bird watching, horseback riding, and guided ranger programs. Do you think you will have enough to do?
Trying to decide where to go in Joshua Tree? The park also has a list of its main attractions.
The park shares the following safety tips:
- There is no cell service in the entire park – communicate your travel plans in advance.
- Always keep plenty of water with you, whether driving or hiking. Rangers recommend a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day; hikers and cyclists should carry two gallons per person per day.
- Protect yourself from the sun by wearing sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
If you’re looking for something closer to home this weekend, keep in mind that the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma is also part of the Federal Parks System, so you can visit the Tidal Pools, Lighthouse and the statue on Saturday.
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