California is the stuff of myths, legends, and lore. There’s a sense of fantasy that doesn’t hail from Hollywood, but from the size and scope of its natural wonders. Otherworldly landscapes abound, from colossal, ancient trees to volcanic basins and dangerous deserts, rocky plains and cacti-covered mesas. For those looking to reignite their appreciation for childlike wonder with a road trip through the US national parks, now’s the time and California’s the place.
California’s nine national parks offer an abundance of ways to plan your travel. Driving south down the coast, you can start at Redwood National Park or Lassen Volcanic National Park, which are only a few hours drive from San Francisco. Meanwhile, Central California has a stretch of sunny recreational areas situated along a similar latitude, from Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon to Pinnacles National Park and Death Valley National Park, all within reach of the iconic Yosemite National Park. Joshua Tree National Park and Channel Islands National Park are well worth the drive south, especially considering their close proximity to Los Angeles.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of national parks and the scope of landscapes California has to offer, you’re starting to get the right idea. With more than 15 million acres of national park land, it’s the ultimate haven for nature lovers looking for some wide-eyed solitude and sightseeing. Wondering where to start? Right here:
When America’s first conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt, signed into law the lasting protections for the natural wonders of our modern-day national parks, he soliloquized, “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
Yosemite National Park topped that list—and is the most-visited national park in California—for good reason. Just 200 miles east of San Francisco, Yosemite delivers on all promises of sweeping high-country views from the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains—California’s tallest mountain pass. Its most famous features, from El Capitan to Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls, are the stuff of desktop screensavers and boy scout dreams. Yet, in the words of John Muir, who first found his footing as an adventurer while herding sheep through Yosemite’s lush valleys and sublime canyons, the landscape is “hopelessly unsketchable and untellable.” It’s the sort of thing you have to see for yourself.
You won’t be limited to sightseeing, though you won’t want to miss the thundering 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls or Glacier Point where Muir and Roosevelt once stood to see about one third of the park from 3,500 feet above the valley floor. There are also fantastic opportunities for harder backcountry sports like mountaineering, rafting, bouldering and big-wall rock climbing, and swimming in natural springs and alpine lakes. The park and many of its campsites, lodges, and airbnbs are open year round, so if you’re looking for a quieter trip, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski in winter months.
They don’t call it Death Valley National Park for nothing. California’s biggest, hottest, and most extreme national park may routinely hit temperatures exceeding 120 degrees during summer days (and a not-so-relieving 90 degrees at night), but the park has a certain mystique that keeps it at the top of lists for must-see California sights.
Death Valley gives badlands a good name. Here, the Mojave meets multiple mountain ranges that shelter it from surrounding climates. This is no paradisiacal Yosemite and you won’t find any massive redwoods, but that doesn’t mean the rugged desert and its salt flats—like Badwater Basin, which boasts the lowest point in North America below sea level—don’t offer otherworldly views with vibrant colors.
There’s plenty of terrain for backcountry hiking, camping, and driving for the more than 800,000 visitors that come each year. Many of them stop at scenic Zabriskie Point to watch the sun rise, or head to Racetrack Playa to see the home of the mysterious sailing stones, one of the natural wonders of the world, or drive out to Twenty Mule Team Canyon for breathtaking views of the dunes. The park is open throughout the year, but November through May make for easier hiking climates.
A Joshua Tree, the namesake of one of California’s most-visited national parks, isn’t a tree per say, but in fact a rather fragile but tough-looking yucca. These cacti cover the scrubby, sandy plains of the park and grow between massive granite outcrops. More than 2.8 million visitors flock to Joshua Tree each year—some from LA, just 140 miles to the west—to mountain bike or backpack through the desert wonderland, hike out to Skull Rock, or check out ruins left by 19th-century gold miners.
Two distinct deserts—the Mojave and the Sonoran—converge in the park, creating landscape dynamic enough to pique the interest of even the most well-travelled wanderers. The western half of Joshua Tree National Park sits squarely in the Mojave where rock climbers of all ability levels make pilgrimages to more than 400 climbing formations and thousands upon thousands of climbing routes. In the east, the Sonoran region of the Colorado Desert offers wide-open spaces where visitors can stargaze in a brilliant night sky without any light pollution or humidity. Though the park is open year round, we recommend scheduling your trip during seasonal meteor events, if you can, to take advantage of vivid views of the Milky Way.
These two distinct national parks have earned a single spot on the list because they share management, borders, and an entrance fee, and if you pass through one, you’re sure to want to explore the other. In fact, you wouldn’t want to miss either on a trip through Central California, or to Yosemite, which is situated just two and a half hours north. These parks make the perfect trifecta, as long as you give yourself ample time to explore the homes of some of the world’s oldest trees along a thousand miles of forest hiking trails.
One of Sequoia National Park’s top attractions is General Sherman, the world’s largest tree by volume and the crown jewel of the Giant Grove. A drive down Kings Canyon Scenic Byway will take you to General Grant (aka the Nation’s Christmas Tree), the second largest tree in the world and a top thing to see in Kings Canyon National Park.
Almost any trail in these parks boasts some sort of record-setting sight. The 8,200-foot depths of Kings Canyon make it America’s deepest, while only miles away dizzying heights like Mount Whitney—the tallest peak in the continental United States, make both of these parks continuously breathtaking.
One of California’s lesser-visited parks offers more than 150 miles of hiking trails through unusual territory. Lassen Volcanic National Park was registered as a protected natural area after 10,462-foot Lassen Peak erupted in 1915 in order to conserve and study the area’s newly-formed volcanic features.
At Lassen, otherworldly landscapes abound, from steaming volcanic mud pits at Sulfur Works to the boiling pools of Bumpass Hell. Nowhere else in the state of California offers a trek quite like Cinder Cone Trail, which brings hikers past “Fantastic Lava Beds” to the crater of the eruption site. Visitors can also enjoy more conventionally beautiful scenery on hikes through conifer forests to mountainous alpine campouts and summit lakes. And in winter, in spite of the park’s hydrothermal phenomena, Lassen can get up to 30 feet of snow each season turning it into a forested winter wonderland for the backcountry skiers and snowshoers.
130,000 acres of steaming, lush redwood forest set right along the Pacific Coast champion the world’s largest trees, some of them topping 370 feet. But numbers never seem to cut it with Redwood National Park, where statistics like “five stories taller than the statue of liberty” and “as old as ancient Roman civilization” still don’t do justice to the majesty of these sentinels.
The only way to really get a taste of the Redwoods is to hike through the forest yourself, climbing over fallen trunks the size of houses or gazing up into the canopy of giants. Don’t limit yourself to just walking, though. You can bike, horseback ride, and camp throughout the park’s 200 miles of trail system year round, and a leisurely drive down the coast and from one end of the park to another takes about three hours.
Any way you take on the park, which protects nearly half of the world’s old growth redwood and is home to Hyperion, the tallest living tree on earth, you’ll get a chance to see the world’s largest herd of Roosevelt Elk, as well as bald eagles and black bears.
One of the nation’s newest parks as of 2013, Pinnacles National Park is the dream of hikers and rock climbers the world over. The movement of volcanic fields and fault lines over the course of some 60 million years leaves us today with unparalleled massive, vertical rock spires and steep canyons in Central California.
Campers and climbers come from surrounding areas to witness the flight of at least 80 California Condors that live in the park, a rare species of bird that was once extinct in the wild. In addition to the Condors that run through the wild, in the undeveloped center of the park bats and other wildlife can be found in the talus caves, like Bear Gulch and Balconies, which are scattered throughout the park. Speaking of caves, Pinnacles has some of the best caves in all of California.
This marine sanctuary is made up of five islands along the Santa Barbara Channel. Though the park is just a short trip from LA, it’s accessible only by Island Packer boats and planes, making it a quiet oasis from which wildflower enthusiasts and hikers can relax on white sand beaches, camp in the backcountry, and explore the estimated 148 archaeological village sites left by Paleo Indian people and dwarf wooly mammoths 13,000 years ago. Thrill seekers can also snorkel and dive between crystal-clear underwater arches or try their hand at sea cave kayaking (yes, sea cave kayaking).
Though the islands are last on this list, they’re certainly not the least. From any point and any activity, Channel Islands National Park offers 360-degree views of the ocean beyond hilly meadows, as well as opportunities to see the blue whales, the world’s largest animals, and around 30 other marine mammal species.