Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
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The fresh breeze flows through your hair; the scents of pine trees, ocean spray, and sun-baked desert clay greet you along the way; and an immense sense of wonder envelops your thoughts as you travel to and fro in California. A road trip to California’s national parks is a right of passage, serving as proof that you’ve truly experienced all that this great state has to offer. Whether you’re planning next weekend’s explorations or the trip of a lifetime, you won’t want to miss seeing these incredible spots.
While the best way to see the Golden State is to take a road trip through all the California national parks, sometimes life gets in the way and you have to break up this grand adventure into smaller segments that can be woven around your work and school schedules. But no matter how you tackle this trip, the fresh air, photographs, and unforgettable scenery are sure to soothe your soul. So, get ready to pack your bags or pencil in your future vacay—this road trip to Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, and beyond is well worth the time.
Driving time: 4 hours, 30 minutes
San Diego is a classic Southern California stop, so it makes sense that your Golden State road trip would start here. Renowned for its idyllic white-sand beaches, world-class surfing conditions, and the invention of the California burrito, San Diego is a must-see destination for locals and out-of-towners alike. After getting a good feel for the city’s laid-back vibe, it’s time to hit the road.
Though a trip up the 15 would undoubtedly be a faster way to get to Joshua Tree National Park, the journey is half the fun, so take the scenic route: First, cruise along the California border on Route 94, and stop near Campo to see the Southern Terminus of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Take a quick walk on the PCT to get a taste for the thrill of thru-hiking, but don’t go too far; there’s plenty more road to cover before arriving at the real destination.
Continue driving on the 94 until it runs into I-8. Before you know it, you’ll be turning north onto the 111 on your way to the Salton Sea. This unique area might not seem like much, but its unusual history makes up for its lack of pizzaz. If a more vibrant experience is more to your liking, be sure to stop by Salvation Mountain for an unexpected piece of desert artwork.
After fully experiencing these unusual bits of California’s landscape, continue on the 111 before turning right onto 66th Avenue, toward the south entrance of Joshua Tree. There’s nothing quite like a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. You’ll understand why as soon as you witness the stunning sunsets, incredible bouldering opportunities, and serene desert ambience. From here, cruise on up to Death Valley if you’re ready for more dusty days, or turn off the path for a short reprieve.
Driving time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
With a few days of camping under your belt, you may want to take a quick detour to Los Angeles for a taste of city life. Once satiated, hop back in the car for the drive to Death Valley—but be sure to stop by the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, especially in peak poppy season.
Driving time: 3 hours, 40 minutes
If you need a longer break from the state’s best desert attractions, cruise directly from Los Angeles to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park before landing in Yosemite. These locales are full of towering trees and shady canopies that will make you wonder how they could be so close to such barren deserts.
Driving time: 5 hours
Death Valley is one of the most astonishing places in the Golden State and really ought to make it onto your California national parks itinerary. As the driest, lowest, and hottest national park—complete with record-breaking temperatures—Death Valley is not your typical vacation destination. While this spot does require you to plan ahead and pack a lot of water, the starry night sky, singing sand dunes, and vistas you’d think were located halfway across the world are well worth the effort.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of desert oases, jump in the car and venture onto the open road. Though it’s hard to imagine that the granite surfaces, lush trails, and serene waterfalls of Yosemite National Park lie within a few hours’ journey from such a desolate place, this excursion will prove it’s true.
Drive along the 190, and continue on as it turns into State Route 136 near Owens Lake. Just outside of Lone Pine, turn right onto the 395 and drive north for a couple of hours, making time to admire the scenery along the way. As you draw closer to the park, turn onto the 120, cruise past Tuolumne Meadows, and keep driving through the region. The beauty overwhelms the senses. and before you know it, you’ll be turning onto Big Oak Flat Road and meandering your way into the Yosemite Valley.
Drive time: 3 hours, 45 minutes
After spending some time rock climbing, hiking, slacklining, camping, and appreciating your surroundings, drive out to the coast to see the San Francisco Bay Area. While the region isn’t home to any national parks, the Presidio of San Francisco is a must-see California Historic Landmark.
Drive time: 6 hours
Hop back on the road, and cruise across the Golden Gate Bridge and then along the 101 to Northern California. As you get closer to Redwood National and State Parks, the road curves west, providing gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. Travel through Eureka and up to Gold Bluffs Beach Campground in Orick to spend a few days on the coast. The 101 runs through the parks, so you’ll have incredible views the whole way.
Whether you’re looking forward to taking a San Francisco to Yosemite road trip on another leg of this journey or are planning future San Diego to Death Valley road trips, your California national park trip itinerary will leave memories that last a lifetime.
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