San Diego to Sentinel Dome: Social distancing at national parks is the vacation you need
In the first scene of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's terrific HBO drama "The Newsroom", news anchor Will McAvoy rants during a lecture to journalism students. In the midst of a recitation of literacy rates and educational stats, he throws a question back to a student during a Q&A: "So, when you ask 'what makes us the greatest country in the world?', I don't know what the f*** you're talking about. Yosemite?"
The man makes a point. I'll leave the op-ed page to debate whether America is the greatest country in the world, but we can all agree that Yosemite is a national treasure, along with the rest of the National Parks system.
A stop at Joshua Tree National Park was on the interary. Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images
After four months of hunkering down at home, hiding from COVID, I'd had enough. I reached out to Kia to borrow a car, called a friend in San Diego who I thought might be interested in exploring a few of our National Parks and got cracking.
Our route would take us north of San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park, home to both extensive groves of the eponymous tree as well as some terrific stargazing. Then we'd head further north to spot some gigantic trees at the Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks, followed by Yosemite itself. After Yosemite, we'd head west to Monterey, and south down California 1 along Big Sur, stopping for the night at Ragged Point Inn at the south end, before dashing back to San Diego. Four nights, four parks.
If you're looking for a COVID-friendly trip, a road trip to a National Park is a solid way to go. There's plenty of space for social distancing, and they're quite cheap. Yosemite, for example, costs just $35 for a weeklong vehicle pass. Though it's worth considering the $80 Interagency Annual Pass which is good for entrance at all Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and Fish and Wildlife Service sites charging entrance or day use fees. Then there are countless people who qualify for free annual passes, including all U.S. 4th graders and active military members, plus heavily discounted senior annual and lifetime passes.
We picked up the $80 Annual Pass at the scorching Joshua Tree West Entrance, stopped by the public restrooms there (which have prominent posters showing what color your urine should be to avoid dehydration in the 110-degree heat — brown is bad, by the way), and headed into the park. I don't have nearly the space to review the full park, and anyway, you should just go yourself. Cameras, too, completely fail to do it justice. The bizarre and wonderful trees, along with the spectacular desert landscape, make for a spectacular visit.
Joshua Tree National Park comes alive at night. Photo by Getty Images/Cavan Images RF
But at night is when Joshua Tree really comes alive. City-living — or even being near a city — really puts a damper on what you can see in the night sky, and both the Park and local communities have invested significant time and money into helping keep Joshua Tree dark. We easily spotted the Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as Comet NEOWISE in the dark sky, along with countless other celestial objects.
After picking up a Date Shake in nearby Palm Springs, we headed north to Sequoia. This was a bit of a National Parks Express Tour, so we didn't venture into the fantastic hiking and camping options that these parks offer, but the views were spectacular even from the main roads through the parks. The massive sequoia trees simply must be seen to believe, making for a rather humbling experience when one considers how old these living things are.
Yosemite is even more awe-inspiring. The glacier-carved Yosemite Valley, flanked by Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls, is jaw-dropping. Staring up at climbers on El Capitan and knowing that someone even climbed the imposing 3,200-foot wall without rope is bewildering.
AutomotiveMap road tripped to Yosemite National Park late last year. You can see our guide to the park here.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull
From the first view of Yosemite Valley from the famous Tunnel View lookout through to the drive out of the park, the landscape never disappoints. We even spotted a very healthy-looking black bear eating in a field, which is always a treat.
After the soaring peaks of the Sierra Mountains, we headed west towards the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway along Big Sur. The twisting coastal drive along California 1, with the cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains rising out of — or plunging into, depending on your perspective — the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
Our final stop, at the Ragged Point Inn at the south end of Big Sur — where we watched the sunset from atop the cliffs — was the capstone to an amazing road trip.
COVID has stressed us all, with anxiety over mental and physical health taking a real and significant toll. And, luckily, the best antidote might just be to get outside. Even if you don't have the majesty of Yosemite nearby, I encourage you to just get in the car and take a drive somewhere new.
You never know — you might find what makes America the greatest country in the world.