Escape from the SoCal crowds and smog with a free visit to these nearby national parks. The National Park Service turns 101 this year, and its celebrating its birthday by offering free admission Friday. Here's our list of parks to check out — all within driving distance.
1. Joshua Tree National Park, 2.5 hour drive
The two-and-a-half hour road trip to Joshua Tree feels like a journey to another planet — one with a lot of oddly furry-looking cacti. The park has hiking trails through rocky desert terrain and campsites to stay overnight. It's most famous for the incredible stargazing and photo ops with Skull Rock. Normally, the fee is $25 per vehicle.
2. Cabrillo National Monument, 2.5 hour drive
Make this national monument a stop on your way south. This is the site of the first European landing on the West Coast. Visitors can learn about the history of the area, explore the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and see stunning views of the Pacific and the city. Save yourself $10 per vehicle when you visit Friday.
3. Death Valley National Park, 4.5 hour drive
Ironically, this may be as close as you get to being a mermaid. This scorching desert is home to the lowest point in North America. It's surreal to stand in a dry, saltwater basin and see the sign for sea-level 282 feet above you. Other must-see's include a scenic drive along colorful volcanic hills and "Devil's Golf Course." Just be prepared for temperatures above 110 and even 120 degrees during the day. The typical entrance fee is $25 per vehicle.
4. Sequoia National Park, 4 hour drive
Walk among giants at this popular California national park. You can hike and drive around the groves of Sequoia trees, but the main attraction is the General Sherman Tree, which is over 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. By volume, this is the largest tree in the world. You can also go rock-climbing, camping, horseback riding and stair-step to the top of Moro Rock. The National Park Service Birthday saves you $30 per vehicle.
Free national parks
There are also several nearby national parks that do not charge admission all-year round:
- Channel Islands National Park, 1 hour drive
- Mojave National Preserve, 2.5 hour drive
- Manzanar National Historic Site, 3.5 hour drive
- Castle Mountains National Monument, 4 hour drive