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Fly to the national parks in Nevada and Southern CaliforniaFly to the national parks in Nevada and Southern California

Three of these parks showcase the diversity of desert environments, from remote alpine mountains to scorched, dry lakebeds below sea level. Go under the sea at the fourth park to see colorful fish, or stay dry while you look for whales and hike uninhabited islands just offshore from densely populated Southern California.

  • The wide-open desert of Joshua Tree National Park makes for stunning sunsets. The Mormon pioneers who named the trees saw their limbs as Joshua’s arms, being raised in supplication and guiding them ever-westward. Photo by Brad Sutton, courtesy NPS.
  • The Lehman Caves are perhaps the most popular attraction inside Great Basin National Park. Photo by Frank Kovalchek via Flickr.
  • Aspen lend fall color to the drive up to Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park, Nevada. Photo by Frank Kovalchek via Flickr.
  • An ancient bristlecone pine stands sculpted by the elements upon Mt. Washington. Prometheus, at the time the world’s oldest known non-clonal organism (at least 4,862 and possibly over 5,000 years old) grew in the Wheeler Peak bristlecone grove but was cut down in 1964, an act that helped propel the creation of this national park. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Great Basin National Park is far from any large cities, which makes for great stargazing. And with so few visitors, you can often hike for hours on backcountry trails without seeing another soul. Photo by Dan Duriscoe, NPS, via Flickr.
  • The snow-covered Panamint Mountains contrast with the warm earth tones of Manly Beacon and the badlands. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • This rock has slithered across “The Racetrack” and left behind a trail. The mystery of how the rocks move was recently solved by two scientists who photographed the rocks in motion. Occasionally in winter, rain creates a shallow water layer on the dry terrain. It freezes into thin sheets overnight that break up in the morning. If winds pick up, the ice is pushed against the boulder where it acts as a sail, pushing the rock across the muddy playa. Photo by Keith Cuddeback via Flickr.
  • The “Chicken Strip” in Saline Valley. Because of a hill (behind the photographer) this is a one-way strip with little likelihood of a successful go-around after touchdown. However, the uphill landing helps slow the aircraft. Photo by Mike Hart.
  • Climbers in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Joshua Tree attracts climbing enthusiasts from around the world. Photo by Robb Hannawacker, courtesy NPS.
  • Kids of all ages can take part in Joshua Tree National Park's Junior Ranger program. Photo by Kurt Moses, courtesy NPS.
  • Highlining at Hemingway, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Daniel Elsbrock, courtesy NPS.
  • You’re quite likely to see dolphins like this one at close range on your boat cruise to Channel Islands National Park. Photo by David Moore via Flickr.
  • Visitors to Santa Cruz Island prepare for the boat cruise back to the mainland. Photo by David Fulmer via Flickr.
  • The diminutive Channel Islands fox nearly went extinct (less than 100 left) until placed on the Endangered Species List in 2004. Bald eagles, which eat fish, had died out decades ago from exposure to DDT. Non-native pigs had eaten much of the islands’ vegetation. Golden eagles moved in and began eating the foxes, which had nowhere to hide. Biologists removed the pigs and golden eagles and reintroduced bald eagles, which are now thriving, as are the foxes. In 2016 the fox was removed from the Endangered Species List, at 12 years, the fastest recovery ever. There are now over 4,000 of them so you might see one if you visit. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj via Flickr.
  • San Miguel Island, the most remote island in Channel Islands National Park, is battered by wind and waves and currently hosts a colony of about 10,000 northern fur seals. Photo by Michael Field via Flickr.

Great Basin National Park, Nevada: The aptly named Great Basin is a vast area that drains internally, with no streams, creeks, or rivers that ever flow to the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Great Basin National Park is in the “Basin and Range” section of the Great Basin, where a series of north-south running mountain ranges alternate with long valleys. The park is in the Snake Mountains, which are capped by Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet. If you’re looking for solitude, Great Basin National Park is an excellent choice. Fly to Ely and rent a car for the one-hour drive to the park visitor’s center, near Baker. Tour the amazing Lehman Caves to see stalagmites, stalactites, and rare cave formations such as helictites. The park offers beautiful high mountain terrain, alpine lakes, and even a small glacier. A scenic drive over paved road takes you to the 10,000-foot mark on Wheeler Peak. To see some of the world’s oldest trees, hike 1.5 miles from Wheeler Peak campground to the Wheeler Peak bristlecone pine grove. There’s no lodge, so you’ll be camping if you sleep in the park. Astronomy fans can take advantage of some of the darkest skies in the United States.

Fall Canyon Narrows, in Death Valley. Fall Canyon is an enjoyable 6-mile round-trip hike where you’ll see interesting rock formations and maybe some desert bighorn sheep. Photo courtesy NPS.

Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada: Death Valley is America’s hottest, driest, and lowest national park. The Furnace Creek Airport, adjacent to the luxurious Oasis at Death Valley (formerly called the Furnace Creek Resort), sits at an elevation of minus 210 feet. The resort has excellent accommodations, cuisine, and the world’s lowest golf course. Other accommodations are available inside and outside the park, including the Panamint Springs Resort, which has a short, steep, one-way gravel airstrip. To explore the park, rent a Jeep at Furnace Creek or take a Jeep tour. In good rain years, wildflowers abound on the valley floor and foothills. Other park highlights include Badwater Basin (the lowest spot in North America); Dante’s View; the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; Artist’s Drive; Ubehebe Crater; and The Racetrack, a flat area where rocks mysteriously move on their own, leaving tracks behind them. Those with appropriate skills and equipment can land at the remote, 1,400-foot, steep, one-way gravel Chicken Strip in Saline Valley to soak in the clothing-optional hot springs.

One of the clothing-optional hot springs just a short walk from the uncharted 1,350-foot Chicken Strip, which is at 36°48′24″N 117°46′54″W. The strip is operated by the National Park Service and maintained with help from Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) volunteers.

Joshua Tree National Park, California: This park is named for the iconic, odd-looking Joshua trees you’ll find scattered throughout this desert. The slow-growing trees are members of the Agave family. They need an occasional winter freeze, which damages the tree’s tips, causing them to bloom the following spring and then branch out. Trees without branches have never bloomed. In the last couple of decades, Joshua Tree has become a Mecca for rock climbing, slacklining, and highlining, with "more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from." Other popular activities include ranger-led tours, stargazing, photography, wildflower viewing, birding, scenic drives, and hiking. The park has no lodging, but there are nine campgrounds.

Channel Islands National Park, California: This park protects five pristine islands that lie off the Southern California coast. You can fly to Santa Rosa Island, but only from Camarillo Airport as a passenger in Channel Islands Aviation’s twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander. Then you’ll hike around with your pilot as a tour guide, or on your own, or camp overnight before returning to Camarillo. Your other option is to land at Oxnard and take a taxi or rental car to the Oxnard or Ventura harbors, where you’ll board an Island Packers boat for one of their many cruises. Choose from summer or winter whale watching trips, birding trips, or visit any of the islands for the day or overnight. Kayaking is a popular island activity; you can choose a tour, rent a kayak, or bring your own. You can also bring scuba or snorkeling gear on the boat to explore the marine sanctuary that surrounds the islands.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park cover a huge area and are easily accessible.  Photo by Steve Corey via Flickr.
Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as both the managing editor of Pilot Getaways magazine and editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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