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Hot enough for you? California's desert parks are busier in 2018

Hot enough for you? California's desert parks are busier in 2018
Joshua Tree National Park became a U.S. National Monument in 1936 and then became a national park in 1994. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

The deserts are up. The islands are down.

In a year marked by fire and heat waves, January-through-June visitor counts from California’s national parks show that Joshua Tree and Death Valley both drew more visitors than the year before. In the Channel Islands, the opposite was true.

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Across the rest of California’s nine major national park units, attendance was a mixed bag.

In Yosemite, figures showed a slight visitor decrease even before wildfires forced temporary closure of Yosemite Valley in July and early August.

In Joshua Tree National Park, rangers counted 1.72 million visitors in the first half of the year, up 6.4% from the year before. And in July, the park’s 130,247 visitors were more than 5,000 ahead of the total for July 2017.

Those numbers fit a larger growth trend. The park’s visitor count has doubled during the last five years, a surge that many attribute to the increased popularity of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival every April.

A rainbow forms during a rare stormy sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.
A rainbow forms during a rare stormy sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

In Death Valley National Park, the visitor figure was 688,236, up 20% from the first half of 2017.

”We’re looking at having a record year for our sales,” said David Blacker, executive director of the Death Valley Natural History Assn., which runs a gift shop in the park visitor center.

Blacker said that even from July 24-27, when the park’s high temperature reached 127 on four straight days, about 1,600 visitors a day passed through the visitor center, an increase of 17% from the year before.

“Absolutely amazing,” Blacker said.

And he had a theory that might explain that. Whenever there’s a chance the park will break its 1913 record high of 134 degrees, Blacker said, he sees a sudden influx of “people wanting to be here when the new record is set.”

Summer temperatures hotter than 100 degrees in both of the desert parks call for extreme precautions. Rangers have warned that the visitor boom is likely to bring more unprepared visitors, raising safety issues.

Death Valley park spokeswoman Abby Wines noted that most of the park’s summer visitors “are from other countries, largely Europe and Asia.” For them, Wines said, “the heat is part of the attraction.”

Meanwhile, at Channel Islands National Park off Ventura and Santa Barbara, January-June statistics showed 185,494 visitors, a dip of 4.6% from the year before.

At Yosemite National Park, rangers reported 1.71 million visitors through June 30, down 5.6% from the year before.

Then came the nearby Ferguson fire, prompting park closures from July 25-Aug. 13. Although Yosemite Valley reopened Aug. 14, many park roads, including the popular Wawona Road at the south end of the park, remained closed as of Aug. 14. Visitors should check road status with the park service before driving into the area.

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In Northern California, attendance at Lassen Volcanic National Park was 122,112, down 1.5% from last year. At Redwood National and State Parks, attendance was 218,929, up 8.6% from the year before.

At Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a park unit that includes Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods and several other San Francisco Bay Area attractions, attendance was 7.34 million, essentially flat from the year before. (The recreation area is perpetually in contention with the Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia and North Carolina for the title of busiest unit in the national park system.)

In Central California, too, visitor figures are largely in step with 2017. Pinnacles National Park reported 134,962 visitors through June 30, essentially flat from last year.

Sequoia, with 528,970 visitors in that time, was up 1.9%. Kings Canyon, with 272,830 visitors from January through June, was down 0.87% from 2017.

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