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Can You Fly a Drone in Joshua Tree?

Encompassing nearly 800,000 acres of sand dunes, granite monoliths, and rugged mountains, Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination situated in southern California. Every year, some three million tourists flock to this desert to hike, camp, and mountain bike. 

As a drone hobbyist, you may be interested in seeing an aerial perspective of Joshua Tree. But is it legal to fly a drone in this national park?

As of 2014, drone usage is strictly prohibited in all national parks. This rule extends to Joshua Tree National Park as well. 

Ahead, we will take a closer look at the drone laws in Joshua Tree to dispel any confusion. 

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Can you legally fly a drone in Joshua Tree National Park?

In June 2014, the National Park Service issued Policy Memorandum 14-05. This policy effectively banned drone flight in all national parks. 

Joshua Tree National Park Visitors Center, California.

The document states, “Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service (NPS) within the boundaries of [insert name of park] is prohibited except as approved in writing by the superintendent.”

The memo goes on to explain that special use permits may be approved for:

  • Scientific study
  • Search and rescue operations
  • Law enforcement 
  • Fire operations

If a conditional use permit is issued, the drone pilot must avoid:

  • Disturbing wildlife
  • Interfering with emergency operations
  • Flying while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Flying in a reckless manner
  • Flying directly over people or property 

Additionally, the drone pilot must keep the aircraft within visual sight and carry sufficient liability insurance. 

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Why can’t hobbyists fly drones in Joshua Tree?

Though special use drone permits are issued, these are typically granted to university research teams, police officers conducting an investigation, or firefighters monitoring a wildfire.

In short, hobbyists are rarely—if ever—granted permission to fly in Joshua Tree.

But why are drones outlawed in this national park?

According to the Joshua Tree National Park Instagram account[1], drone flight is illegal for a variety of reasons. These include:

  • Drones disturb helicopters. The National Park Service uses helicopters for a variety of purposes, from airlifting injured hikers to monitoring wildlife. Unfortunately, “drones make it unsafe for helicopter pilots to fly in the surrounding airspace.”
  • Drones disturb visitors. According to the Joshua Tree Instagram account, drones can disturb visitors who are hiking, camping, or otherwise recreating. This is another reason why drones are outlawed in the park.
  • Drones disturb wildlife. Joshua Tree is home to white-tailed antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and other wildlife. According to biologists, the sight and sound of drones can increase animals’ heart rates significantly, causing stress.
  • Drones can cause fires. Lastly, drones can cause wildfires if the motors overheat or the batteries ignite. 

Consequences of flying your drone in Joshua Tree 

What happens if you don’t heed the law and you fly your drone in Joshua Tree National Park anyway?

According to the park’s Instagram and various signs posted throughout the park, drone pilots could face a $180 fine if they fly in Joshua Tree. 

However, the NPS has the authority to charge rulebreakers with a misdemeanor. This could mean facing a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail. 

Where can I fly my drone near Joshua Tree National Park?

Per NPS guidelines, drone pilots are barred from Joshua Tree National Park. But that doesn’t mean you can’t capture stunning footage of California deserts. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees about 15 million acres of public lands in California—roughly 15 percent of the Golden State’s total land mass.

Drone pilots are welcome to fly on BLM land as long as it hasn’t been designated by Congress as a protected Wilderness Area.

Luckily, there are several tracts of BLM land right outside of Joshua Tree. If you aren’t sure if you are within a no-fly zone, download the B4UFLY App (link). 

Just keep in mind that Joshua Tree is not far from Mexico. If you happen to drive an hour or so from the park boundary, you could accidentally cross the U.S.-Mexico border with your drone. 

As we discuss in our overview of Mexico drone rules, drones of any size are strictly prohibited in Mexico. Flying illegally in this country could result in fines as high as $21,000.

» MORE: Can You Bring a Drone to Mexico?

Federal drone regulations 

If you find a safe spot to fly outside of Joshua Tree National Park, there are a few more rules to remember. More specially, you must be aware of the laws mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Firstly, to fly a drone as a hobbyist in America, you are required by the FAA to take The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST)[2]. You must keep proof of completing the exam with you at all times while flying. 

Other safety regulations include:

  • Keeping your drone within the visual line of sight
  • Flying at or below 400 feet in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace
  • Avoiding crowds
  • Flying during the day and only during good weather

Plus, if your drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds, the FAA requires that you register your aircraft and label it with your registration number.  

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Conclusion 

Joshua Tree National Park is an 800,000-acre wonderland for desert lovers. Located in southern California, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, this biologically diverse area attracts millions of visitors each year. 

Joshua Tree National Park.

Though Joshua Tree is a great place to recreate, it is not open to drone pilots. Per Policy Memorandum 14-05, a guideline issued by the NPS in 2014, drone flight is outlawed in all national parks—Joshua Tree included. 

If you choose to break this rule, you could face a $180 fine. However, NPS has the authority to slam you with a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Because of these steep consequences, it is best to leave your drone at home. Alternatively, you could explore some of the BLM property surrounding the national park.

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References:
1. @joshuatreenps (link)
2. The Recreational UAS Safety Test (link)
3. FAADroneZone (link)