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Home > United States > California > National Parks and Forests in Southern California

National Parks and Forests in Southern California (View Photos):

Southern California is a diverse land containing everything from snow-capped mountains, rugged canyons, and dense forests to wild deserts, rolling fields filled with wildflowers, and volcanic rock formations. Two National Parks stand out: Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Both preserve vast desert ecosystems.

Death Valley National Park is a combination of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. It boasts the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Badwater Basin, 282 ft. below sea level) and is one of the hottest, driest places on earth. The exposed rock strata within the park's boundaries exhibit a geological record that goes back 1.8 billions years. Much of Death Valley's appearance has been formed by plate tectonics in which movement along geologic faults has led to the creation of tall mountains and sunken valleys. The stark and forbidding environs of Death Valley are home to some truly spectacular sights: wind-rippled sand dunes, bizzare salt crystals, snow-capped mountains, colorful mudstone hills, and, if spring rains are sufficient, phenomenal springtime wildflower displays.

Joshua Tree National Park is a desert kingdom of gnarled mountains, exposed rock formations, and diverse plant life including the park's namesake, the Yucca tree otherwise known as the Joshua tree. These odd yet strangely affecting trees carpet the western half of the park which is contained within the Mojave desert ecosystem. The eastern half of the park lies within the Colorado desert. The conditions here are somewhat more inhospitable and arid than the section of the park that lies within the Mojave desert. In the hot and dry climate of the Colorado desert, Ocotillo and cholla cactus abound. Five fan palm oases are spread throughout the park, offering a rare sanctuary for plants and animals in areas of naturally occuring water.

Other parts of Southern California worth exploring are Pinnacles National Monument and the San Bernardino National Forest. Pinnacles National Monument sets aside over 24,000 acres of hills strewn with rock spires and crags. These pinnacles are the remains of a volcano that occurred 23 million years ago and which formed 200 miles to the south. Over time, the San Andreas Rift has pulled these rock formations to their present location while wind and water have eroded them into striking shapes. Juniper and chaparral cover the mountains over which the pinnacles are dispersed.

In the San Bernardino National Forest, hikers can explore the pristine San Gorgonio Wilderness and attain elevations of over 10,000 ft. Such lofty heights provide a pleasant respite from the smog and heat of nearby Los Angeles. Panoramic mountain views and lush pine forests await people willing to make the difficult hike up the San Bernardino Peak Trail. Due to the mild climate, the natural regions of Southern California can be visited at anytime of the year, although mountain passes are typically covered in snow during the winter months.

Recommended Day Hikes:
Mastodon Peak - Joshua Tree National Park
Round Trip Length: 3.0 miles
Trailhead location: Cottonwood Spring (located off the Box Canyon Road)
Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
Attractions: Outstanding views of the Eagle Mountain area and its rugged, otherworldly landscape

Ryan Mountain - Joshua Tree National Park
Round Trip Length: 3.0 miles
Trailhead location: Just east of the Ryan Campground off the Park Boulevard Road
Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
Attractions: Superb vistas of twisted rocks, boulder piles, and valleys covered with Yucca trees. Spectacular at sunset

Cholla Cactus Garden - Joshua Tree National Park
Round Trip Length: 0.25 miles
Trailhead location: 20 miles north of Cottonwood Visitor Center
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: Thickets of Cholla Cactus (these display purple and lavender flowers in the Spring)

Skull Rock - Joshua Tree National Park
Round Trip Length: 1.5 miles
Trailhead location: Jumbo Rocks Campground
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: Large boulders, desert washes, and the Skull Rock landmark

Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail - Death Valley National Park
Round Trip Length: 2.0 miles
Trailhead location: Golden Canyon parking area, 2 miles south of highway 190 on Badwater Road
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: Easy trail through a canyon whose rock walls are tinged with yellow hues. A large rock structure called Red Cathedral comes into view about 0.25 miles into the hike

Sand Dunes - Death Valley National Park
Round Trip Length: up to you
Trailhead location: 2.2 miles east of Stovepipe Wells on highway 190
Level of Difficulty: Moderate
Attractions: Large sand dunes which can be explored in whatever direction you choose. Early morning or afternoon casts powerful lighting effects on the dunes

Badwater Salt Flat - Death Valley National Park
Round Trip Length: 1.0 miles
Trailhead location: Badwater parking area, 17 miles south of highway 190 on Badwater Road
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: An easy stroll to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Located in the middle of expansive Death Valley and surrounded by mountains, this hike is full of dramatic scenery

Dante's Ridge - Death Valley National Park
Round Trip Length: 1.0 miles
Trailhead location: Dantes View parking area
Level of Difficulty: Moderate
Attractions: Tremendous views of Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains from a high ridge

High Peaks´┐ŻBalconies Cave Loop - Pinnacles National Monument
Round Trip Length: 8.4 miles
Trailhead location: Main parking lot in the National Monument
Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
Attractions: Intimate views of the pinnacle rock formations for which the monument is named; expansive vistas in all directions of the surrounding juniper-chaparral covered mountains

San Bernardino Peak Trail - San Gorgonio Wilderness (part of the San Bernardino National Forest)
Round Trip Length: 7.9 miles one-way
Trailhead location: A National Forest trail map is recommended for this hike. It departs from behind the Camp Angelus Fire Station at Angelus Oaks
Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
Attractions: Tall pines, lofty alpine views, sharp-ridged mountains

Recommended Points of Interest:
Devils Golf Course (Death Valley National Park); Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park); Dantes View (Death Valley National Park); Badwater Salt Basin (Death Valley National Park); Rim of the World Scenic Byway, for some of the best unspoiled mountain scenery remaining in Southern California (San Bernardino National Forest); Keys View (Joshua Tree National Park); Hidden Valley (Joshua Tree National Park)

Helpful travel tips and observations
Avoid visiting the Mojave Desert in the summer as the temperatures can be unbearably hot, especially in Death Valley; wildflowers (given enough seasonal rainfall) and pleasant temperatures make Spring the best time to visit; the first half of April is peak wildflower time. When hiking in Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, be sure to carry plenty of water in order to avoid dehydration which can rapidly occur in those arid regions.

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More Photos: Page 1 > Page 2

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, (April 2004)

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Dantes View, Death Valley National Park, (April 2004)

Dantes View, Death Valley National Park

Yucca tree, Joshua Tree National Park, (March 2004)

Yucca tree, Joshua Tree National Park

Yucca Tree and rock formation, Joshua Tree National Park, (March 2004)

Joshua Tree National Park

Huge boulders, Joshua Tree National Park, (March 2004)

Joshua Tree National Park

Fan palms near Cottonwood Spring, Joshua Tree National Park, (April 2004)

Fan palms, Joshua Tree National Park

Desert scrub, Joshua Tree National Park, (March 2004)

Joshua Tree National Park

Juniper and chaparral-covered slopes with volcanic rock formations, Pinnacles National Monument, (November 2004)

Pinnacles National Monument

Juniper and chaparral-covered mountain slope with volcanic rock formations, Pinnacles National Monument, (November 2004)

Pinnacles National Monument

More Photos: Page 1 > Page 2

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