The best national parks in California

Beating out even famously scenic states like Alaska and Utah, California boasts more national parks than any other state. The Golden State’s 10 national parks show off the diverse range of landscapes you can find on the West Coast, from the towering redwoods of NorCal, the arid deserts of SoCal, the iconic flora of Joshua Tree, and the surreal geologic results of past volcanic eruptions and the movement of glaciers.

From crown jewels of the whole system like Yosemite to remote marine ecosystems like Channel Islands National Park, California’s national parks certainly pack a punch. In addition to these officially designated jewels, a bevy of other protected places run by the National Park Service includes national monuments, wilderness areas, seashores and preserves.

If you’re looking to get outside and let nature awe you, these gems are not to be missed. Here are the best national parks in California.

Discover the world’s most intriguing experiences with our weekly newsletter delivered straight to your inbox. 500px Photo ID: 89303053 -Yosemite Falls is just one of the many iconic features in this quintessential national park © Christian / 500px

1. Yosemite National Park

Best for sheer grandeur

Synonymous with naturalist John Muir and a centerpiece of the national park system, Yosemite evokes nature’s grandeur – even to those who’ve never been. The park’s busiest and most developed part, Yosemite Valley includes hits like the granite monster El Capitan, the precipitous drop of Bridalveil Fall, the green, often wildflower-strewn valley floor, and, front and center, glorious Half Dome. Other sections of the park burst with giant sequoia groves and an endless array of wilderness trails, and they are no less sublime.

In for the long haul? Load up that pack and connect the dots from the heart of Yosemite to the pinnacle of Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous USA. A true adventure, the physically demanding 211-mile John Muir Trail goes step by step up and over six Sierra passes topping 11,000ft. Join other blister-footed obsessives crossing chilly rivers and streams as you traverse Yosemite Valley, the roadless backcountry of Kings Canyon and Sequoia and the oxygen-scarce Whitney summit.

You can also respect your elders and pay homage to the oldest living things on earth. With some trees estimated to be about 4000 years old, the gnarled and wind-battered stalwarts of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest have certainly stood the test of time. From Independence, wind your way up the high-altitude road to the White Mountains, stopping midway to admire the distant spiked ridge of the Sierra Nevada and the valley below. At the solar-powered Schulman Grove Visitor Center, get your bearings and catch your breath before admiring these wizened survivors.

Male hiker standing on rocks atop Glen Pass, Kings Canyon National Park, California, USAKings Canyon offers endless backcountry adventures © RooM the Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

2. & 3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Best for backcountry exploring and ancient trees

Joined by a high-altitude roadway bisecting a national forest and contiguous with a number of wilderness areas, these two parks combined offer vast stretches of alpine bliss. Groves of giant sequoias, wildflower-strewn meadows, gushing waterfalls, dramatic gorges and spectacular vistas reveal themselves at nearly every turn.

With a dramatic cleft deeper than the Grand Canyon, rugged Kings Canyon offers true adventure to those who crave seemingly endless verdant trails, rushing streams and gargantuan rock formations. The camping, backcountry exploring and climbing here are all superb. While neighboring Sequoia National Park gets all the glory, Kings Canyon has its own groves of enormous sequoias, with trails that are far less trafficked. Grant Grove is where you’ll find General Grant, the second-largest tree in the world.

Peaks more than 14,000ft high occupy other parts of the park, most of which is designated wilderness. Still, Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy 180; only open end of April to October) twists and bends through some of the most dramatic scenery in California, making the natural bounty accessible to all (all who drive with confidence, that is). The Big Stump Entrance, not far from Grant Grove Village, is the park’s only entrance station.

As if all that weren’t enough, picture unzipping your tent flap and crawling out into a “front yard” of trees as high as a 20-story building and as old as the Bible: welcome to Sequoia National Park. Brew some coffee as you plan your day of adventures in this extraordinary place, with its soul-sustaining forests and gigantic peaks soaring above 12,000ft.

Choose to gaze at dagger-sized stalactites in a 100,000-year-old cave, view the largest living tree on earth, climb 350 steps to a granite dome with soaring views of the snowcapped Great Western Divide or drive through a hole in a 2000-year-old log. All that before you’ve even walked a trail – where the wild scenes (and brief encounters with black bears) will give you goosebumps, charging waterfalls will leave you awestruck, and epic overnight backpacking trips will lead you to deserted lakes and idyllic backcountry camps.

shutterstockRF_385947175.jpgHiking in Death Valley National Park is challenging but rewarding © Dan Sedran / Shutterstock

4. Death Valley National Park

Best for natural extremes

The very name evokes all that is harsh, hot and hellish – a punishing, barren and lifeless place of Old Testament severity. This is a land of superlatives: it’s the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the USA. Look more closely, though, and you’ll also find sensuous sand dunes, water-sculpted canyons, rocks moving across the desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases and plenty of endemic wildlife. Nature truly puts on a lively show in Death Valley.

Furnace Creek is Death Valley’s commercial hub, home to the national park visitor center, a gas station, ATM, post office and lodging. There’s also a mission–style “town square” with a general store, restaurant, saloon and ice cream and coffee parlor. Facilities at Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs also include gas, food and lodging.

Park entry permits ($30 per vehicle) are valid for seven days and available from self-service pay stations along the park’s access roads and at the visitor center.

Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak, Lassen National ParkThe world’s largest plug-dome volcano is reflected in Manzanita Lake © MBRubin / Getty Images

5. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Best for otherwordly landscapes

The dry, smoldering, treeless terrain within this 106,000-acre national park stands in stunning contrast to the cool, green conifer forest that surrounds it. That’s in the summer; in winter, tons of snow ensures you won’t get too far inside its borders. Still, entering the park from the southwest entrance is to suddenly step into another world. The lava scape offers a fascinating glimpse into the earth’s fiery core. In a fuming display, the terrain is marked by roiling hot springs, steamy mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, fumaroles, lava flows, cinder cones, craters and crater lakes. At 10,463ft, Lassen Peak is the world’s largest plug-dome volcano.

In earlier times, the region was a summer encampment and meeting point for Native American tribes, namely the Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi and Maidu, who hunted deer and gathered plants for basket making here. Some Indigenous people still live nearby and work closely with the park to help educate visitors on their ancient history and contemporary culture.

In total, the park has 150 miles of hiking trails, including a 17-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Experienced hikers can attack the Lassen Peak Trail, whose 5-mile round trip takes at least four-and-a-half hours; the first 1.3-mile stretch, up to the Grandview viewpoint, is suitable for families. The 360-degree view from the top is stunning, even if the weather is a bit hazy. 

Near the Kom Yah-mah-nee visitor facility, a gentler 2.3-mile trail leads through meadows and forest to Mill Creek Falls. Further north on Hwy 89, you’ll recognize the roadside sulfur works by its bubbling mud pots, hissing steam vent, fountains and fumaroles. At Bumpass Hell, a moderate 1.5-mile trail and boardwalk lead to an active geothermal area with bizarrely colored pools and billowing clouds of steam.

Moon Rise and Condor in Flight at Pinnacles National ParkA condor flies in front of the moon in front of rock formations at Pinnacles National Park © NickLustPhotography / Getty Images

6. Pinnacles National Park

Best for condor sightings

A study in geological drama, this park’s craggy monoliths, sheer-walled canyons and twisting caves are the result of millions of years of erosion. In addition to hiking and rock climbing, the park’s biggest attractions are its two talus caves. Balconies Cave is always open for exploration, while Bear Gulch Cove is generally closed from mid-May to mid-July when the resident colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats raises their offspring.

The park’s namesake spires form a natural barrier bisecting the park. For the west entrance, exit Hwy 101 at Soledad and follow Hwy 146 northeast for 14 miles; the east entrance is accessed via Hwy 25 from Hollister and Hwy 146. There are visitor centers on both sides. No road connects the two sides of the park, though you can hike across in about an hour. While in the park, keep an eye out for endangered California condors circling above.

Pinnacles is best visited during spring or fall since the summer heat can get extreme.

shutterstockRF_1077314585.jpgSeussian Joshua trees sprout from the desert of Joshua Tree National Park © Dennis Silvas / Shutterstock

7. Joshua Tree National Park

Best for hypnotic desert vistas

As if from the pages of a Dr Seuss book, whimsical-looking Joshua trees welcome visitors to this 794,000-acre park at the convergence of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. Rock climbers know “JT” as the best place to climb in California; scrambling up, down and around the giant boulders can be fun for all. Hikers seek out hidden, shady desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs, while mountain bikers get hypnotized by the desert vistas. It’s also a great place to camp.

Mormon settlers so named the Joshua tree because the branches stretching toward heaven reminded them of the biblical prophet Joshua pointing the way to the promised land. In spring, the trees send up a huge, single, cream-colored flower, while the octopus-like tentacles of the ocotillo cactus shoot out crimson flowers. The mystical quality of this stark, boulder-strewn landscape has inspired many artists, including U2, who spent time here while recording their 1987 album The Joshua Tree. Unless you’re day-tripping from Palm Springs, base yourself in the desert communities linked by 29 Palms Hwy/Hwy 62 along the park’s northern perimeter.

A man walks on a path by giant trees in Redwood National Park, California, USAWalking through Redwood National Park draws your eyes upward © Carmen Martínez Torrón / Getty Images

8. Redwood National Park

Best for looking up

This park is the southernmost of a patchwork of state and federally administered lands under the umbrella of Redwood National & State Parks. After picking up a map at the visitor center, you’ll have a plethora of choices for hiking. A few miles north along Hwy 101, a trip inland on Bald Hills Rd will take you to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, with its 1.5-mile, kid-friendly loop trail, or get you lost in the secluded serenity of Tall Trees Grove.

To protect the Tall Trees Grove, only a limited number of cars per day are allowed access; get free permits at the visitor center in Orick. This can be a half-day trip itself, one well rewarded after the challenging approach (a 6-mile rumble on an old logging road behind a locked gate, then a moderately strenuous 4.5-mile round-trip hike). Another recommended hike is to Trillium Falls – either one mile there and back or a 2.5-mile loop, accessed from Davidson Rd at Elk Meadow.

Note that during the winter, several footbridges crossing Redwood Creek are removed due to the high waters. If you are hiking at this time of year, be sure to check with a ranger regarding the current situation before striding out.

Dolphin jumping out of the water in front of a rock arch formationSwimmers leap from the water in Channel Islands National Park © Daniel Friend / Getty Images

9. Channel Islands National Park

Best for marine life

The Channel Islands are an eight-island chain lying off the coast from Newport Beach to Santa Barbara. The four northern islands – San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa – along with tiny southern Santa Barbara, make up Channel Islands National Park. Here, there are extensive tide pools and kelp forests, and almost 150 plant and a few animal species that are unique to the islands. Access the chain by boat from Ventura or Oxnard.

On Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, you can access several snorkeling, diving, swimming and kayaking opportunities among the kelp beds and sandy beaches. San Miguel and Santa Barbara are hosts to colonies of northern elephant seals.

Beautiful any time of year, the islands receive most visitors between June and September. The best times to visit are during the spring wildflower season (April and May) and in September and October when the fog clears. Winters are often stormy but are ideal for whale-watching.

Other National Park Service-designated sites in California

shutterstockRF_1141429127.jpgA wooden ladder leading to the surface of Golden Dome Cave at Lava Beds National Monument © Alberto Loyo / Shutterstock

10. Lava Beds National Monument

Best for geology

Perched on a shield volcano, Lava Beds National Monument is a truly remarkable 47,000-acre landscape of geological features – lava flows, craters, cinder cones, spatter cones and amazing lava tubes. More than 800 caves have been found in the monument, all averaging a comfortable 55°F (13°C) no matter the temperature outside. You can spy Native American pictographs and petroglyphs in certain corners of the park, too.

A wide view of the pathway leading to the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California, USAThe lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore looks like it’s perched at the end of the world © Jerry Sanchez / Shutterstock

11. Point Reyes National Seashore

Best for crashing waves

A rough-hewn beauty, Point Reyes National Seashore boasts marine mammals and birds, as well as scores of shipwrecks. Follow Sir Francis Drake Blvd 20 miles west out to the point’s edge-of-the-world lighthouse, whipped by ferocious winds, where you can observe migrating whales in winter. 

Trees in Muir Woods National Monument, Marin County, California, USAThe majestic forest of Muir Woods National Monument is only 12 miles north of San Francisco © Zack Frank / Shutterstock

12. Muir Woods National Monument

Best for a taste of nature near the city

Walking through an awe-inspiring stand of the world’s tallest trees is an experience to be had only in Northern California and a small part of southern Oregon. The old-growth redwoods at Muir Woods, just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, make up the closest redwood stand to San Francisco; more-grandiose redwood forests are found further north in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties.

The trees were initially eyed by loggers, and Redwood Creek, as the area was known, seemed ideal for a dam. Those plans were halted when congressman and naturalist William Kent bought a section of Redwood Creek and, in 1907, donated 295 acres to the federal government. President Theodore Roosevelt made the site a national monument in 1908, honoring John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club environmental organization.

Devils Postpile National MonumentThe basalt columns that give Devils Postpile its name were created by ancient lava flows that rapidly cooled © Getty Images

13. Devils Postpile National Monument

Best for column-climbing

The most fascinating attraction in Reds Meadow is the surreal volcanic formation of Devils Postpile National Monument. The 60ft curtains of near-vertical, six-sided basalt columns formed when rivers of molten lava slowed, cooled and cracked with perplexing symmetry. This honeycomb design is best appreciated from atop the columns, reached by a short trail. The columns are an easy half-mile hike from the Devils Postpile Ranger Station.

From the monument, a 2.5-mile hike passing through fire-scarred forest leads to the spectacular Rainbow Falls, where the San Joaquin River gushes over a 101ft basalt cliff. The chances of actually seeing a rainbow forming in the billowing mist are greatest at midday. The falls can also be reached via an easy 1.5-mile walk from the Reds Meadow area, which has a cafe, a store, the Reds Meadow campground and a pack station. Shuttle services run to the Reds Meadow area in season.

Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River.jpgA lava tube in Mojave National Preserve hints at the dramatic geologic forces that shaped this corner of California © Airbnb

14. Mojave National Preserve

Best for utter solitude

If you’re on a quest to reach the middle of nowhere, you’ll get there in the wilderness of the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6-million-acre jumble of dunes, Joshua trees, volcanic cinder cones and habitats for bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, jackrabbits and coyotes. Solitude and serenity are the big draws. You can spend an entire day or just a few hours driving around the free preserve, taking in natural sights such as giant “humming” dunes, an extinct volcano, a huge Joshua-tree forest and sculptured rock walls. Pick up information and maps at the main visitor center in an old railroad depot in Kelso.

Daytime temperatures hover above 100°F (37°C) during summer, then plummet to around 50°F (10°C) in winter, when snowstorms are not unheard of. Strong winds will practically knock you over in spring and fall. No gas is available within the preserve.

Ansel Adams Wilderness is a desginated wilderness in the Eastern SierrasAnsel Adams Wilderness is named for the famous photographer who introduced many Americans to the scenery of the West for the first time © Alamy Stock Photo

15. Ansel Adams Wilderness Area

Best for alpine scenery

The spectacular Ansel Adams Wilderness Area abuts Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Lakes, June Lake and Inyo National Forest. It contains some of the most dramatic alpine scenery in the Sierra Nevada, including beautiful lakes, high peaks, gorges and a few small glaciers.

shutterstockRF_361978667.jpgA bristlecone pine with the Milky Way overhead in Schulman Grove in Inyo National Forest © Pamela Marcelino / Shutterstock

16. Inyo National Forest

Best for vast forests and high peaks

An enormous area of nearly two million acres of dense forests, high peaks and lakes, as well as nine wilderness areas, Inyo covers a good chunk of California’s Eastern Sierra and White Mountains. It encompasses a vast network of trails and campgrounds, with ranger stations in Lone Pine, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes and Mono Basin. One unit of the Inyo National Forest is the Hoover Wilderness Area, which constitutes 128,000 acres of backcountry paradise, including Virginia Lakes, Lundy Lake and high peaks to the west bordering Yosemite.

Introducing Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks


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