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Whether the leaves are starting to change colors, the scorching summer temperatures are settling in, the springtime showers are descending over the valleys, or the snow flurries of winter are blanketing the mountaintops, it’s never a bad time to visit California’s national parks.
With so many sites to see—including the redwood forests of Northern California, arid deserts of Southern California, rugged mountain ranges, and undulating sandy coastline—there’s nothing better than traveling to the national parks in person. Whether your trips take you to Yosemite National Park or Mojave National Preserve, protected lands await. So grab your camping gear, buckle up, and drive out to California’s beautifully wild destinations for the vacation of a lifetime.
While there is so much federally protected land throughout the state, there are eight destinations that stand out for their designation as national parks. These locales offer everything from camping and long-distance backpacking to swimming and hiking, allowing us to connect to nature in ways that aren’t possible within typical city limits.
National park excursions require us to take extra care, be aware of our surroundings, and leave no evidence that we’ve visited (aside from the memories and photographs we carry with us), but it’s a small price to pay for the serenity that comes along with the untamed wilderness. For a vacation like no other, head to the best national parks in California.
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As one of the state’s most underrated national parks, Channel Islands National Park delights visitors with its ample recreational opportunities. The park includes five separate islands as well as the mile of ocean surrounding them, making camping, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and a multitude of other water sports available. Whether you’re looking to surround yourself with dozens of other tourists or seeking an incredibly remote destination in California, you’re sure to find what you desire here. So, take a boat or a plane to the islands, and check these spots off your bucket list.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is famous for its volcanoes, hydrothermal pools, and dozens of miles of hiking trails. Though this location requires a bit more caution and awareness than other national parks—given the subterranean activity—the scenery is absolutely breathtaking, making it an ideal vacation spot for the whole family.
There’s nowhere quite like Death Valley National Park. As the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the Golden State, this destination was made for those with truly adventurous spirits. From the salt flats in Badwater Basin to the panoramic vistas atop the neighboring mountains, Death Valley is a land of extremes and unexpected beauty.
Pinnacles National Park is filled with crags contrasted by rolling hills, resulting in an out-of-this-world landscape. Much like Lassen, Pinnacles owes its unique structure to volcanic activity, which has led tall spires to form next to shadowed caves. If you need another reason to visit, this park makes for an excellent stop on any California road trip, given its ideal location inland from Big Sur.
Joshua Tree National Park is home to the majority of the planet’s Joshua trees and is a breathtaking place to admire a California sunset. With plenty of hiking, camping, and world-class bouldering available, there’s always something new to see.
While Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are separate parks, they are most often bundled together due to their proximity to one another. Venture a mile in elevation past the San Joaquin Valley’s orchards to see the exquisite sequoia groves, splash around the parks’ three rivers, and visit the various areas before heading out. Then, hike the Pacific Crest Trail (also known as the PCT) all the way to Yosemite for your next excursion.
Yosemite National Park is one of California’s best-known public lands. Complete with waterfalls, granite faces, valleys, and meadows, this park has long been an adventurer’s paradise. Trek along the John Muir Trail (or JMT for short) from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the state, to extend your vacation and test your endurance on this 200-plus mile trail.
For even more adventure, find time to visit other regions protected by the National Park Service. California’s historical sites, monuments, seashores, and trails offer more than meets the eye. Whether you’re cruising down Route 66, having a weekend getaway in San Francisco, or finding your way from Coronado to Los Angeles, there’s almost always a nationally recognized place along the way.
While some parks offer free admission all year, nearly a dozen of California’s national parks and sites that usually charge an entrance fee participate in free National Park Days annually. Find out which parks and dates are included by reading “Here’s How to See California's National Parks For Free.”
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…
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