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Can't-Miss National Parks in Southern California

Can't-Miss National Parks in Southern California

By Annie A.
March 01, 2021

Untamed nature, expansive desert landscapes, and total isolation from the bustling city—these are only a few of the many things Southern California’s national parks have to offer. These destinations provide refreshing breaks from everyday life, so any time here is well spent. When you visit SoCal’s national parks, you come to realize that we don’t own the planet, the natural habitat does. 

Offering plenty of outdoor activities, the Golden State’s treasures give us the opportunity to see how the natural wonders progress and develop without human intervention. Go on a digital detox and experience what it’s like to be one with nature at the best national parks in Southern California

The Best National Parks In Southern California

Channel Islands National Park is renowned for its incredible land masses and unique marine resources. Check out Cathedral Cove to take in the beauty.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park comprises five islands and covers 249,354 acres of the most undeveloped and utterly magical natural beauty. This national park in Southern California is the perfect destination for escaping civilization—since the islands have been isolated for thousands of years, they’re filled with unique flora, fauna, and impressive archeological resources, all of which make this SoCal national park exceptionally magnificent.

When you arrive at either of the mainland visitor centers in Ventura or Santa Barbara, park concessionaire boats or planes take you to the islands. From there, you’re on your own. No transportation, no bicycles, no food stores, no gear rental shops. If you’re wondering why you should visit Channel Islands National Park in the first place, the answer is because it teaches you to be self-reliant while experiencing untouched coastal landscapes. 

Dubbed the “Galapagos of North America,” this national park in SoCal consists of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa islands. For an unforgettable national park experience, Anacapa Island is the place to go. Once you’ve packed your primitive campaign essentials, make your way to the island to view unparalleled panoramic views of wildflowers and local wildlife. 

The East Anacapa Island Trail is a short two-mile hike that takes you through gentle slopes to striking overlooks, unmatched coastal views, and the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast. As for watersports, the opportunities are endless. Whether you want to go snorkeling or swimming, Landing Cove is the perfect spot. Hop in a kayak to view the fantastic sea caves and arches as you paddle towards Arch Rock and Cathedral Cove. Should you choose to stay longer than a day, a primitive campground is the only lodging available for overnight visitors—you’re fully immersed in the great outdoors. 

Santa Cruz Island isn’t so different from Ancapa, except its trails are more diverse. Hike the relatively flat and easy trails of Scorpion Valley, or challenge yourself to trek the rugged mountainous trails of the Montanon area. Santa Barbara is the most picturesque island in the SoCal national park—no amount of words can do its beauty justice. As for Santa Rosa Island, strong persistent winds make it challenging to engage in watersports—only experienced visitors are advised to dive or snorkel. However, its white sand beaches make the entire trip worthwhile. 

San Miguel Island is by far the most challenging to get to—you even need a permit to visit the island. Due to adverse weather conditions, visitors must be prepared to overcome any obstacles before setting foot on the outcropping. If you manage to make the journey, you’ll enjoy the most scenic beach in the entire park. Cuyler Harbor is usually empty, waiting for someone to take advantage of its exceptional seabird viewing. Whether or not you like being in the great outdoors, there’s no denying that Channel Islands is one of the best national parks in Southern California.    

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Joshua Tree National Park's Skull Rock is an unusual attraction that shouldn't be missed.

Joshua Tree National Park, Southern California

Does Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park even need an introduction? As the meeting point of two desert ecosystems—the Mojave and Colorado—Joshua Tree boasts not only a fascinating variety of flora and fauna, but also grand geological formations and a rich cultural history. It goes without saying that the main feature of the SoCal national park is it’s namesake plant, the Yucca brevifolia, also known as the Joshua tree. 

Joshua Tree is home to the best hiking trails in the area, with each hike taking you to an extraordinarily marvelous site. The easiest path in the national park, the Hidden Valley Trail, meanders through a rock-enclosed valley that is thought to have been used by cattle rustlers back in the day. The Barker Dam Nature Trail leads you to a fantastic water feature—a welcome oddity in the desert park. You might catch a glimpse of bighorn sheep and coyotes along the way, so make sure to keep an eye out. 

The two most impressive hiking experiences in Joshua Tree are the Arch Rock Nature Trail—a sandy path that takes you to a three-foot wide arch—and the Skull Rock Nature Trail. The latter hike guides you through smooth boulders to an impressive rock that resembles a skull. The desert landscape from this vantage point is unlike any other. 

If you want to go on a stroll rather than a hike, head over to the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail—the most beautiful path in this national park in Southern California. The trail is located among a densely concentrated cholla cacti. So, make sure to wear closed-toe shoes—you wouldn’t want the cacti to get on you.  

The best-kept secret in Joshua Tree is Cottonwood Spring Oasis, which was formed as a result of earthquake activity. Upon walking down Cottonwood Wash, you’ll come across a second oasis. A must-see in this SoCal national park is Covington Flats. The dirt road guides you through the largest Joshua trees, junipers, and pinyon pines in the park. When you reach the top, scenic views of Palm Springs, the Morongo Basin, and the surrounding mountains take your breath away. 

Joshua Tree offers the best desert camping spots in California. There are nine campgrounds and over 500 campsites in total. If camping is too rugged for your taste, opt to stay at one of the nearby desert hotels and elevate your experience. Joshua Tree is one of the most incredible national parks in Southern California and everyone ought to visit at least once. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Capricorn or a Sagittarius, Joshua Tree National Park can pique anyone’s interest. 

SoCal's Death Valley is full of unique sights, but Badwater Basin is sure to take your breath away.

Southern California’s Death Valley

One might wonder why would they want to visit the lowest, hottest, and driest place in the United States, but a single visit to Southern California’s Death Valley will answer your question. It’s the most unbelievably astonishing national park near Southern California. Encompassing a total of 3,373,063 acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States. Despite its frightful name, Death Valley is home to  a great diversity of life and offers incomparable experiences to its brave visitors. 

Badwater Basin is a must-see in Southern California’s Death Valley. It’s the lowest point in North America, with a depth of 282 feet below sea level. This otherworldly salt flat offers an unparalleled experience, as the expansive landscape seems to stretch endlessly. The most hellish spot in the national park is the Devil’s Golf Course. Back in the day, this area was covered by a lake, but the environmental conditions caused it to evaporate approximately 2,000 years ago. This left a thousand foot layer of salt and minerals, which look like pointy spikes. 

If you’ve always wanted to try sand-boarding, the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes are a great place to take up the hobby. The mountain-fringed sand dunes reach almost 100 feet and are a sight to behold. As the largest dune field in the SoCal national park, Mesquite Flats consists of three types of dunes—crescent, linear, and star shaped. But if all you want to do is soak in the beauty of this national park in Southern California, head over to the most famous viewpoint in Death Valley: Zabriskie Point. 

Mountain biking and hiking are common activities people engage in at Death Valley. The Natural Bridge and Salt Creek Interpretive trails offer easy hikes that all skill levels can enjoy. But if you want to challenge yourself, trek to Little Bridge Canyon or Telescope Peak. There are almost one thousand miles of paved and dirt roads in Southern California’s Death Valley—ideal for thoroughly exploring the national park and embarking on exciting adventures. 

If stargazing in California is one of your hobbies, it’s a must-do in this national park. The stellar night sky of Death Valley is undoubtedly one of the most stunning views you’ll ever behold. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Harmony Borax Words, and Badwater Basin are the top spots to view the otherworldly night sky. Don’t forget to bring binoculars. 

There are nine total campgrounds and 18 RV hookup sites in Death Valley National Park. Furnace Creek Campground is the most popular and well-maintained. For a more rugged experience, head to Sunset Campground, which is surrounded by desert gravels and only permits car or tent camping. The rest of the campgrounds are primitive with few to no amenities. 


Annie A.

Annie A.

Annie has written about pretty much everything at this point, but her favorite topics are traveling, food, or basically anything that can become a future bucket list. She loves reading sci-fi novels,…

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