April 21-29 is National Park Week. This means that entrance to all US national parks, national monuments, and historic places is free; what better time to take advantage of our wonderful National Park System? There are 397 national parks, monuments (etc) in total, of which 58 are officially designated national parks. California has eight of them — you’ve heard of them, Yosemite, Death Valley, and Redwood National Parks are probably among the most famous (along with the Smokey Mountains and Grand Canyon). But a little closer to Los Angeles, and easy for an overnight or weekend visit, are the Channel Islands and Joshua Tree National Parks.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is almost a straight shot east of Los Angeles, and about a two and a half hour drive. The 10 to California State Route 62 will take you right to Twentynine Palms, easy-peasy. There’s some mixed elevation: above 3,000 feet, Joshua Tree is part of the Mojave Desert. Lower down, it’s part of the Colorado Desert. The distinctive Joshua trees are seen throughout the park, needless to say, along with big loose boulders and spherical rock formations. Hikers enjoy exploring Joshua Tree National Park; some moderate to difficult hiking trails are Contact Mine, Ryan Mountain, Fortynine Palms Oasis, and Lost Horse Mine. Easier, shorter and flat trails include Cholla Cactus Garden, Hidden Valley, and Indian Cove.
My older daughter’s fondest memory of this national park was finding a real stinkbug on the ground. She annoyed it with a stick until it sprayed at her — delight! Well, delight for a child, anyway. We get our family memories where we can. There are plenty of other animal species besides stinkbugs out at Joshua Tree, though. Desert animals are usually nocturnal, but you can see Golden eagles, roadrunners, and scorpions if you keep your eyes open (keep a look out for those scorpions, by the way. They don’t like to be bothered). Black-tailed jackrabbits coyotes, and desert Bighorn Sheep are often sighted by watering holes and at Barker Dam.
Channel Islands National Park
It is an easy drive from Los Angeles to Ventura, the base for Channel Islands National Park. The 101 N goes mostly west in this part of the state (that the 101 N runs southeast-northwest for a large chunk of change is frequently confusing to travelers and locals alike). Exit 64 off the 101 takes you to Channel Island Harbor. The drive is about an hour and a half. But, once you’re there, look for signs for Harpers Ferry Center (run by the national Park Service). It takes about an hour to get to the islands. Call Island Packers to reserve a spot on the ferry. (805)642-1393.
The two most popular of the Channel Islands are Anacapa and Santa Cruz. The others — Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa and San Miguel — are also accessible and private boats may dock there at designated areas. They are less maintained, overall. Now, these are no tropical isles a la Hawaii, and the hikes can be rough for the unexperienced. Anapaca and Santa Cruz are the most user-friendly, so to speak, whereas the outer islands like Santa Rosa are much more rugged and mountainous, with unsigned paths. Be smart!
East Anapaca has a figure eight shaped, gentle trail that kids can manage, as long as breaks are allowed and you remember to bring plenty of water. When my daughter was eight, she did this hike, but complained mightily throughout. It’s important to know what your hiking companions are capable of. Santa Cruz has more options, ranging from flat “nature trail” types of hikes to really tough unmaintained paths that I wouldn’t do…but plenty of rugged outdoorsy types love tackling those trails.
This national park isn’t all about the hikes, of course. There are plenty of kayaking, fishing, camping, snorkeling/scuba diving and tide pool exploring to do on the Channel Islands. Whale watching is very popular, seasonally, as well. Birders come out, as do naturalists on the lookout for seals and sea lions. If you plan ahead and wake up early, tackling one of the islands in the Channel Islands National Park as a day trip is feasible, and Channel Island day trips are in fact quite popular with Ventura County locals.
Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert. Los Angeles is fortunate to have two special, very different national parks close enough to drive to. This National Park Week, consider setting a day or two aside to explore the Channel Islands or Joshua Tree National Park. Our proximity to both makes them obvious choices for appreciating our country’s National Parks System.