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Babbling creaks, rustling branches, fresh moss, and giant slabs of granite make up many of the sights, sounds, and smells found in the Golden State—due, in part, to the extensive national park system. California’s national parks offer stunning vistas and thrilling experiences year-round, making adventures possible any day of the week.
From climbing in Joshua Tree, to stargazing in Death Valley, to kayaking around the Channel Islands, there are hundreds of unique national park activities you could add to your bucket list. Though it’s nearly impossible to choose favorites in a laundry list of possibilities, these are a few can’t-miss experiences on our California national parks itinerary. See how many excursions you can cross off your list.
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It might go without saying, but if you’ve yet to take a trip to each of California’s national parks, add it to the top of your to-do list. With a wide variety of scenery at each stop, there’s something different to discover everywhere you go. From rolling dunes to rock climbing opportunities and towering redwoods to arid desertscapes, any terrain is accessible in these parks.
Whether you’re planning a multi-day trip across the state or simply looking for a way to fill an afternoon, California is chock-full of unique experiences you just won’t find anywhere else. Here are the best things to do at the national parks in California.
1. Cruise around Channel Islands National Park in Ventura.
2. Trek your way through Death Valley National Park in Southern California.
3. Get to know the desert at Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms.
4. Learn the difference between the various types of volcanoes at Lassen Volcanic National Park in Mineral.
5. Road trip your way to Paicines to see Pinnacles National Park.
6. Get lost in Sequoia National Park, tucked between Tulare and Fresno Counties.
7. Hop over to Kings Canyon National Park before leaving Tulare and Fresno Counties.
8. Take a hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Yosemite National Park.
9. Visit all five of the Channel Islands.
10. Go rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park.
11. Camp under the stars in Death Valley National Park. Stargazing in Death Valley is unlike anything else. With its remote location, light pollution is all but nonexistent.
12. Visit all the waterfalls in Yosemite National Park. While Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls, and Horsetail Fall tend to garner the most attention, there are dozens of waterfalls located throughout the park. How many have you discovered?
13. See the incredibly rare Sierra Nevada red fox at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
14. Take in the views from Inspiration Point on the eastern side of Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands.
15. Photograph the “Firefall” in Yosemite. This majestic sight occurs around the second week in February, when the setting sun shines upon Horsetail Fall and makes it glow as if it’s on fire.
16. Splash in all three rivers found within the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
17. Visit all eight of the hydrothermal areas in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
18. Scale Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. This strenuous, 17-mile round-trip hike will take the average person 12 hours, but it is a classic experience worth sweating for. Indeed, climbing Half Dome is an incredibly popular activity—and one you need to prepare for. Acquire a permit, pack lots of water (and iodine tablets to refill your bottles along the trail), and bring your strength. The climb is not for the weak of heart.
19. Spend an afternoon bouldering in Joshua Tree.
20. Go boating on Lassen’s Butte Lake.
21. Visit all five areas in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest and Lodgepole, Grant Grove, and Cedar Grove.
22. Visit the bats living in Bear Gulch Cave at Pinnacles National Park.
23. Snorkel or dive around the S.S. Winfield Scott shipwreck off the coast of Anacapa Island.
24. Travel to the lowest elevation in North America by visiting Death Valley National Park’s Badwater Basin.
25. Take a picture with all of California’s national parks signs.
26. Go stargazing at Joshua Tree National Park in the summer.
27. Climb a toprope at Machete Ridge in Pinnacles National Park.
28. See General Sherman Tree—the largest living tree on the planet—in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest.
29. Head to Yosemite’s famous Tunnel View at golden hour. Though there’s no bad time to see this iconic vista point—where Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome are all within sight—there’s something extra special about capturing a photograph just as the sun begins to set. Stop by in the early spring after a rainy winter for the best views of the falls.
30. Spend a weekend roughing it under the shade of oak trees at Pinnacles Campground.
31. Marvel at the gigantic General Grant Tree in the Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park.
32. See every known type of volcano in the world (shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome) without leaving Lassen Volcanic National Park.
33. Drive through Sequoia National Park’s "Tunnel Log," located on Crescent Meadow Road in Giant Forest.
34. Listen to salt crystals burst apart in the rocky ground at the Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley National Park.
35. Hike all 150-plus miles of trails throughout Lassen Volcanic National Park.
36. Look out onto Death Valley’s badlands at Zabriskie Point.
37. Drink a cup of coffee as you listen to the distinct sounds of nature at each of the national parks.
Since California’s landscape is so diverse, there’s a never-ending list of things to do and see. Innumerable trails, trees, and adventures await, but no matter what you set out to do in the national parks, you’re sure to be inspired to spend more time in the great outdoors.
Help us add to our Golden State national parks bucket list by submitting your favorite hikes, destinations, and lookout points in the comments section.
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