Each state in the US has at least one national park, but there are nine National Parks in California, plus a variety of national monuments and national recreation areas for a total of 28 units, each of them beautiful and each of them with something to offer to all and any kind of traveler.
Whether you are looking to hike the Sierra Nevada mountains or to fight the heat in the salt flats of the Death Valley; whether you want to admire the monumental sequoia trees in Redwood or the barren landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, or visit the sea caves of Chabbel Island National Park – you are bound to have an incredible experience.
So if you are visiting the Golden State, no matter what time of year you are traveling, you really should make it a point to visit at least one of them. Continue reading for a quick outlook of the National Parks in California and to discover what each of them has to offer. For the purpose of this post, I will only be listing national parks – from North to South.
9 Incredible National Parks In California
Redwood National and State Park
Redwood National and State Park is located in northern California and is home to a mix of old-growth forests, temperate rainforest and features the giant coastal redwood tree, commonly known as sequoia trees and known to be the tallest and most massive trees on the planet.
The tallest among them can get all the way to 400 feet in height (that’s a whopping 122 meters, give or take) and nearly 30 feet (little over 9 meters) in diameter. I am sure you can all recall photos of the road going through the trees – that’s how big they are.
The park is massive, but if you have limited time there make sure to visit Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods, Trinidad State Beach. And if you are looking for a hike, the Damnation Creek trail, is one of the best.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
At about an hour drive from Redding, Lassen is one of the most unique national parks in California, and a place you should not skip if you are into volcanoes. Though the volcano there is dormant, there is a lot of geothermal activity so you can see geysers, lava rocks and mud pits.
The park is open year round – so you can go there for winter sports when there’s snow, and for hiking in the spring and summer. Places you should not miss there include Devils Kitchen and Bumpass Hell – both easy to explore thanks to boardwalk trails. Manzanita Lake is another must see – and a nice place to swim in the summer months. If you are into climbing, Lassen Peak is the one to look for.
Point Reyes National Park
Located on the northern coast of California, one hour north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Park is the place to go for impressive views of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a great place to hike as you’ll find a multitude of trails; and perfect for kayaking too. Wildlife in the area is thriving and you can expect to spot seals, grey whales (which can be seen between January and April from Point Reyes Headlands), and even elk.
The park is located just past Big Sur, so you can easily combine your visit with California’s most popular road trip – stops you can’t miss include McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park easily is one of the most beautiful ones in the world, and definitely one of the best national parks in California. Thanks to its natural beauty and biodiversity, in 1984 it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
With its 1200 km of trails, Yosemite is a great place for hiking junkies – you should not miss the hike to Half Dome, one of the most challenging in the park; or the easier Vernal Falls footbridge and Mirror Lake Loop. The park is also a fantastic place to admire wildlife. Living in the park there are more than 400 different species of animals and just as many kind of birds.
One spot you should not miss in Yosemite National Park are Yosemite Falls, the fifth highest waterfall in the world with a height of 740 meters and whose top can be reached via a hiking trail. The best season to enjoy the waterfalls is between May and June, when the snow melts.
You should spend at least a few days in Yosemite to make the most of it. You may want to join this Yosemite Valley 3-day camping adventure. If you don’t have much time, you can visit Yosemite on day trips from San Francisco such as the following ones:
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Parks is one of the lesser visited national parks in California – and one of the last one to be created. Contrary to other parks, Pinnacles doesn’t have a “scenic drive” – which means that if you really want to take in all that the park has to offer, including the talus caves, you will have to hike.
There are various trails in the park, of varying difficulty. One of the best ones is the Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop, which is nice and easy and only 3.5 Km long.
The park is also a great place for birdwatching. Species you should be looking out for are the California condor, but you may also be able to see golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
It’s best to visit Pinnacles National Park in early spring (best to admire the beautiful flowers), fall or winter. Summer is too hot!
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Less visited compared to Yosemite, Sequoia National Park remains one of the nicest national parks in the Golden State. As the name clearly recalls, it is home to the largest trees on earth.
If you decide to visit, make it a point to stop by the Giant Forest Museum, where you can get a bit more information about the park and its famous trees – many of whom have been named (the largest one, which is also the largest tree in the world, goes by General Sherman). That’s also where the easy Congress Trail starts, to take you to spot more trees such as Chief Sequoyah Tree, President Tree, and Lincoln Tree.
If you are keen on spotting wildlife, follow the Big Trees Trail and you may have a chance to see black bears and, if you are lucky, also cougars.
You can combine your visit with that of Kings Canyon National Park, home of one of the deepest canyons in North America.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are best visited in the summer.
Channel Island National Park
Channel Islands National Park is made up of five different islands, all located right across the shore of Southern California, and a bit difficult to get to – you will have to take a boat from Ventura. The fact that you can’t get there by car has its benefits: fewer visitors. So if you go, you’ll have the park to yourself!
While you need quite some time to properly explore the park, you can also go there on a day trip from the mainland. If this is the case, your best bet is to visit Santa Cruz, the largest island, where you can hike, kayak, snorkel or even dive – but remember you will have to arrange all activities with the National Park Service approved vendors.
In Santa Cruz you can easily spot bald eagles and ravens, as well as foxes. Should you opt for a boat ride you will be able to spot dolphins,
GOOD TO KNOW: There only accommodation option on the island is camping.
If you are visiting California in the summer, give this a miss – Death Valley National Park is one of the driest places in North America, and terribly hot in the summer months, with temperatures reaching 49° C (120° F). This is also the lowest place in the country, with Badwater Basin located at 85 meters (280 feet) below sea level.
Death Valley is located between Los Angeles and Las Vegas (though closer to the second) and is home to beautiful sand dunes, unique rock formations as well as salt flats. If you visit in the spring, you may be able to catch wildflower blooming and it will be quite a show. For impressive views of the valley, head to Dante’s View – but you have to go at sunrise, before it gets too hot.
Other places to visit include Devils Golf Course, where you can see exploding salt crystals; the massive dunes of Mesquite Flats;Zabriskie Point and the Ubehebe Crater.
TIP: Smother yourself in sunblock, wear a hat and sunglasses and bring lots of water for your visit.
Joshua Tree National Park
One of the best California National Parks, Joshua Tree National Park is located at about one hour drive from Palm Springs, and can be visited on day trips from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix. Named after the Joshua tree, the park is actually smaller than others in the state, but even though its easier to explore you should plan your trip to make sure you experience a glorious sunrise.
The best thing to to in Joshua Tree National Park is by far climbing – there are something like 8000 climbing routes, the best located in Echo Cove. You should also make it a point to visit Cholla Cactus Garden and Key viewpoint and enjoy views of Coachella Valley and Palm Springs.
Final thoughts on visiting National Parks in California
One of the best ways to visit National Parks in California is a road trip. You may want to consider that option instead of a road trip along the coast of California. If that’s something you want to do, you will need to rent a car – you can check the prices of car rental here. I also recommend getting a good travel insurance – you can get yours here.
You may also want to read my post 28 Road Trip Essentials For The Perfect Road Trip.
Finally, remember that if you are visiting from overseas, you will need a visa to enter the country. For example, you need an ESTA to travel to the USA from UK. Indeed, ESTA is a total compulsory requirement for UK citizens (as sell as for citizens of the European Union) to visit USA. The ESTA actually is an authorization that allows you to visit or pass through the United States. It lasts for just 90 days; after which it expires.
Make sure to check out my other posts about California:
- 44 Unmissable Things To Do In California
- A Great Itinerary For 3 Days In San Francisco
- The Best Day Trips From San Francisco
- The Best Free Things To Do In San Diego
- The Best Things To Do In Laguna Beach
You may also be interested in the following posts:
- The 23 Best National Parks In USA
- The Best Things To Do In Rocky Mountain National Park
- 10 Not To Miss Hikes Near Denver
Legal Disclaimer: This post was written in cooperation with Esta Visa USA. Needless to say, the views expressed are my own.