SAN DIEGO — National Park Week kicks off Saturday, with some of the country’s most spectacular wilderness areas available to explore free of charge.
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 deal.
Joshua Tree park passes start at $15 for individuals and $30 for vehicles, so this is a nice opportunity to adventure on the cheap. A park spokesperson said that rangers will be at entrances to welcome people into the reserve and answer any questions. Until you enter and exit the park again, you likely won’t be asked for a pass.
Never been to this unique slice of Southern California desert? Here’s what you need to know.
When to visit Joshua Tree
Here’s more good news: The free visits available Saturday — and the special events planned for the ensuing National Park Week — come at the park’s recommended time for visitors.
This is the desert, so the weather is most comfortable in spring and fall, considering the average high temperature still reaches about 85 degrees. At the same time, you avoid the coldest desert evenings, with average lows coming in at around 50 degrees.
You’ll also breathe better air during the spring. When temperatures soar 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. As of Thursday, the Ozone Air Quality Index was listed as Good.
Joshua Tree is no “secret spot” and the park spokesperson warned that this is typically the busiest time of the year there. Don’t let that discourage you from heading out 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 that the park is “where two deserts meet,” bringing together the unique ecosystems of the Mojave and the Colorado. The park isn’t full of facilities — it’s 800,000 acres of largely open wilderness, dotted by rock formations and the iconic Joshua Trees from which the park takes its name.
Check out the Joshua Tree hiking guide and pick your path. There’s everything from short nature walks to moderately challenging trails and hikes hard enough that you are strictly advised to avoid them in hot conditions.
Stargazing in the desert is second-to-none. You’ll see “a glittering dome peppered 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, giving many visitors a chance to see the Milky Way with the naked eye for the first time.
How about sporting activities? If you have a rock climber in your life, you already know that Joshua Tree is among the most popular spots in the state. Climbing, bouldering, highlining and slacklining are all permitted in the desert’s rocky outcrops. Guides can give you a day class or tour if you’re a beginner — just make sure they are permitted to work within the park. You’re also urged to Leave No Trace.
Staying the night? The park is home to 10 campgrounds with accommodations suited for everyone from backpackers to tent campers and RV travelers.
The park shares the following safety tips:
- There is no cell service throughout the park — communicate your travel plans ahead of time.
- 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 Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma is also part of the federal parks system, so you can visit the tidepools, lighthouse and statue there for free on Saturday.