Environment & Science

The National Park Service turns 100 — and is giving us free park admission through Sunday

The Milky Way over Joshua Tree National Park.
The Milky Way over Joshua Tree National Park.
Photograph by NPS/Brad Sutton (via Joshua Tree National Park on Flickr)

Today’s the day to break out some birthday candles for the National Park Service – 100 of them, to be exact.

The agency has been celebrating the run-up to its centennial for months now, but today marks the exact day in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the law creating the National Park Service.

A few of Southern California's national parks are commemorating the milestone Thursday. Death Valley National Park will be holding a 100th birthday bash at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. While you're there, you can also check out their photography exhibit featuring historic art from Death Valley on display through the end of August. Channel Islands National Park will be hosting a party from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., featuring an outdoor screening of a documentary about Channel Islands' history, as well as live music, yoga and food trucks.

For those who can't make Thursday's celebrations but still want to commemorate the occasion in the outdoors, here's the kicker: All national parks around the country are granting free admission to visitors today through Sunday, August 28. Which means this weekend, we’re off to the parks!

Within Southern California’s national parks – including Joshua Tree, the Santa Monica Mountains, Channel Islands, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve – there are a whole host of spectacular camp sites and spots for scenic day trips. What are your favorites?

Here are a couple places to start:

Jumbo Rocks Campground — Joshua Tree

Flickr/Robb Hannawacker

Normally, it costs $20 just to get into Joshua Tree, but given this fee-free centennial weekend, there’s no time like the present to visit this popular camping spot and marvel at the rock formations around you. You'll still need to pay a fee to camp — $15 for a campsite with potable water, $10 for one without water. "This is kind of our slow season, the August period, it's still relatively warm. But the nights have been just great for camping, said Joshua Tree's park Superintendent David Smith. "Nighttime temperatures are kind of in the mid-70s. Great night skies right now. We've got just a little tiny bit of a moon that doesn't rise until about 3 in the morning, so you're going to have great, dark skies for looking up at the Milky Way — and not a lot of glow coming up from anywhere nearby because there really is no place nearby. Joshua Tree has some of the darkest skies of any National Park in the whole system."

San Miguel Island — Channel Islands

Flickr/Steve Henry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of the most remote islands in the Channel Islands National Park just reopened in May after being closed for two years. Getting there requires a bit of effort — it’s a four-hour boat trip from the Ventura Harbor — but once you’re there it’s like being “taken back in time to what California used to be like 100 years ago, to pristine beaches and landscapes,” Channel Islands spokesperson Yvonne Menard tells KPCC.

Meanwhile, if you're longing to visit Yosemite National Park but can't make the trip there, you can now explore it virtually. National Geographic has released a virtual reality video of Yosemite featuring President Obama, which you can view in the Facebook 360 posting below, or through Samsung Gear's VR headset (it'll also be coming soon to Oculus Rift).

What else can we add? Let us know your favorites in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter, and we'll add them to the list.