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A Guide to California's National Parks

A Guide to California's National Parks

By California.com
March 27, 2021

Rolling dunes, pristine coastlines, and pathways of pure gold—California truly proves that nature’s wonders come in all shapes and sizes. The world’s largest trees, hottest desert landscapes, and fascinating volcanic formations are dispersed all over the state. All you have to do is look.

Whether you’re basing your getaway off of your zodiac sign or letting the wind take the reins, California’s national parks boast thrilling adventures and unique experiences. 

The Complete List of National Parks in California 

Four types of volcanoes are found in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Go off-grid and explore the rustic terrain.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

With colorful fields, dizzying peaks, and lakes stretching out as far as the eye can see, Lassen Volcanic National park is truly a sight for sore eyes. Hugging the Golden State’s northeastern corner, the unique landscape dots one of the best national parks in California.

As you approach the park, you’ll find the rustic terrain suddenly disrupted by visions of boiling water flowing through mud pots. And no—your eyes are not deceiving you—Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to every type of volcano in the world. Between the park’s very own Cinder Cone, hydrothermal areas, and volcanic gas vents, the national park is a treasure trove of unpredictable beauty.

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As heavy snow blankets most of the main road come winter, visitors are advised to swing by during summer or fall. If powdered slopes get you in the groove though, Lassen’s southern and northern entrances are ideal for cross-country skiing.

The main park road links State Route 89 and winds across Lassen’s western wing. This scenic one-day drive takes you through the Southwest and Manzanita Lake entrances, displaying major volcanic features. Camping in the Golden State is perfect at Manzanita Lake—the campground features 179 sites and countless amenities.

While stunning sights and near-glamping accommodations are the highlights, Lassen’s trails are the ultimate guide to a thrilling getaway. The demanding Lassen Peak takes you through hot springs and sulfur vents, placing you right in the making of natural wonders.

Over 550,000 acres of Joshua Tree National Park are designated as wilderness.

Joshua Tree National Park

Arborists and outdoor adventurers unite in their love for Joshua Tree National Park. This vast landscape is a melting pot of desert ecosystems, magnificent vistas, and namesake trees. Formed by desert zones both high and low, the 790,000 acres of land reel out under the deep navy skies, making for an excellent stargazing experience.

Start your journey from either Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, or Cottonwood Springs—the three main entrances of this California national park are found here. The massive boulders tangled with yuccas make for excellent hiking trails. The splendid pathways of Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and Cap Rock will serve as your introduction to desert ecology.

Wish to marvel at this rocky desert playground without leaving your car? Take a leisurely half-day auto tour. Curving through all the premier viewpoints, Joshua Tree Excursions offers multiple pull-outs and camping areas—it’s the cherry on top of this SoCal must-see.

Death Valley National Park is home to the lowest point in North America, aka Badwater Basin.

Death Valley National Park

Run through the undulating dunes of Death Valley, nestled in between the looming sequoias of the California-Nevada border. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes--located east of Stovepipe Wells—are one of the park’s most beautiful sites. Arrive at sunrise to experience the dunes amidst the vibrant hues of orange and pink. Curving shadows lead you to peaks with unbelievable backdrops, granting you a brief moment alone with the desert scenery.

For a gorgeous vista, head to Dante’s View. The lookout is worth the journey. Head east from Zabriskie Point on Highway 190 to the labeled sign for Dante’s View. As you reach the lookout, you’ll find yourself 5,478 feet above sea level marveling at the breathtaking view.

Don’t forget to get your fair share of hiking the slot canyons, such as the gorgeous Mosaic Canyon, Grotto, Stretched Pebble, and Little Bridge. Admire the ancient rock formations as you traipse through the gravel wonders. Bring your binoculars because come nightfall, the dark night sky is cloaked in the magnificence of the Milky Way. 

The best time to visit and traverse the trails at Death Valley is sometime between November and March. With 12 campgrounds dispersed in the national park, early arrival to Death Valley is advised. The endless hiking possibilities allow visitors to have unique desert experiences in different terrain—just make sure to bring plenty of water. Almost a thousand miles of paved trails and rustic dirt roads make Death Valley perfect for leisurely strolls and adrenaline-pumping adventures. Due to the changing weather patterns, make sure to pack layerable clothing and a pair of hiking boots.

The largest tree in the world, General Sherman, is located in Sequoia National Park.

Sequoia National Park

Looming trees pierce the soaring mountain tops at Sequoia National Park—a paradise-gone-rustic. Home to Mount Whitney, the park is armed with unparalleled sights. Wander through the majestic sequoias at the Giant Forest as sunlight playfully peeking through the leaves. Stop by the Giant Forest Museum for maps and guidebooks.

Whether it’s a spot adjacent to a rambling river or a quaint hideout in the lofty woods, Sequoia National Park accommodates all your camping needs. Seven total campgrounds offer one-of-a-kind overnight experiences amongst the towering trees. 

Besides camping, Sequoia National Park provides many other outdoor adventures. For those keen on a good workout, the steep Moro Rock Trail is an ideal companion. The short out-and-back trail is guaranteed to make you sweat. Your reward? The breathtaking Great Western Divide. The trail to Tokopah Falls is just as impressive—the imposing granite cliffs will blow your mind as you hike your way to the waterfall. 

Kings Canyon National Park houses General Grant, the world's third-largest tree.

Kings Canyon National Park

Glaciers carve the high mountain meadows at Kings Canyon National Park. Located near Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon encompasses the two distinct areas of Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. 

Grant Grove is all about the greenery, keeping you shaded from the piercing sunlight by way of the looming sequoias. The grove is home to the General Grant tree, aka the Nation’s Christmas Tree.  

Cedar Grove hosts miles upon miles of winding trails that are best explored on foot or via horse. Better yet, there are plenty of camping places all over the premises. Rough it in the wilderness or unwind at one of the area’s lovely glamping spots. 

The granite rock formations at Yosemite National Park glow like fire at sunset.

Yosemite National Park

Cascading showstoppers, towering sequoias, and glistening river rocks await at Yosemite, one of California's most praised national parks. The stellar jagged rocks, sky-high waterfalls, and lush forests will leave you breathless.

Yosemite Falls cascades downwards to earth at a jaw-dropping 2,425 feet. The fall—composed of three separate sections—is the highest waterfall in the national park. Although a year-round attraction, the prime time to visit Yosemite Falls is in May, while melting snow feeds the striking waterflow.

Wondering where to set up camp? Worry not because the park has several campgrounds. The North, Upper, and Lower Pines campgrounds are among the most popular. Tent and cabin rentals are also available at Curry Village for a more comfortable stay. 

Ah, the views are just phenomenal at Pinnacles National Park. Nothing beats waking up to a view like this.

Pinnacles National Park

Thousands of years of wind and rain have worn down Pinnacles National Park—a mountainous area that once gushed with magma. Today, the distorted moss-covered rocks stand tall above the horizon. Adorned with sights straight out of a fantasy novel, Pinnacles National Park is only a mere 50 miles from the Pacific.

Nine-foot wings and bald heads are signature features of the California condors— famous occupants of the national park. If you’re keen on birdwatching, pack your binoculars and stay on the lookout for over 200 majestic creatures.

Ascend to a beautiful boulder-filled gorge while hiking the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. You’ll feel just like Indiana Jones while navigating the lightless cave paths—just make sure to pack your torch. The gorgeous out and back trail only takes about 45 minutes and winds through two breathtaking caves.

Boasting lush oak woodlands, the rolling landscape ideally lends itself to year-round camping.  Deformed boulders and bat-filled caves elevate the traditional camping experience. Immerse yourself in unique scenery at the sprawling reservoirs, where mild breezes refresh your soul.

The trees in Redwood National and State Park are massive, reaching nearly 380 feet tall. Hug trees and soak up their ancient wisdom.

Redwood National and States Parks

When at the Redwood National and State Parks, you’ll discover prairies, oak woodlands, and soaring tree hills. Soak up the ancient wisdom of the twisting redwoods as you meander through the majestic forests. Home to the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National and State Parks is found along 200 miles of hiking and biking pathways. Be on the lookout for black bears, gray whales, and anemones. 

If you’re a movie buff, Fern Canyon is an absolute must-see. Located in Prairie Creek, you’ll reach the canyon via a picturesque, yet slightly challenging, out and back trail. A series of footbridges will lead you to a lush gorge. You’ll immediately recognize the setting—the landscape was featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Perched atop a ridge, the Lady Bird Johnson Grove captivates visitors from 1,000 feet above sea level. Ferns and wildflowers adorn the scenic paths which start at the narrow Bald Hill Road. With an abundance of space to roam around in solitude, the loop trail is too good to skip. Reserve a spot at the developed campground or hike to the backcountry campsite to enjoy the night skies in the national park. 

The most well-preserved archeological sites are found in Channel Islands National Park.

Channel Islands National Park

Tucked away from bustling city life, Channel Islands National Park is home to untouched flora and breathtaking fauna. The park consists of five stunning islands so take your pick between Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, or the Santa Rosa islands.

While all five islands are packed with panoramic overlooks and winding trails, Anacapa has the most activities. Swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking are all available around the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast—a lovely stop for photo ops. 

If you’re coming from Ventura or Santa Barbara (for the best time, check out this getaway guide), you can make your way to the Channel Islands either by boat or plane. No vehicles—it’s just you and the spectacular coastline.

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