Top 10 national parks in California
Read time: 8 mins
California has an array of incredible national parks from snow-capped mountains to sparkling shorelines, volcanoes to desert there is no end to its beauty or to what can be discovered. Now’s the time to explore and discover California’s national parks especially as the National Park Service has just celebrated its 100th year of operating. Read on for our pick of the national parks to add to your must visit list.
Death Valley National Park
What is it: Death Valley is the lowest national park in North America, dramatic canyons, desert and breathtaking viewpoints make this national park are very different one to visit.
Getting around: Driving is a good way to see the highlights of Death Valley, especially in the summer when temperatures can rise above 49°C. Hiking isn’t advised in the summer due to the extreme heat so plan a trip during cooler months to explore more on foot.
What to see and do: Badwater Basin at 282ft below sea level is the lowest point in North America, the extensive salt flats appear to go on forever and are a must see. Dante’s View is the place to go to avoid the heat, due to its high altitude of 5375ft it is often cooler than in lower areas. The views from here are awesome, look out for Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin, two very contrasting sights. Zabrinski Point is a fantastic place to watch the sunset over Golden Canyon. Hike into the canyon to see more of this incredible landscape, Red Cathedral is a huge red stained rock formation and a popular photography stop on this route. For more sightings of incredible coloured earths follow Artists Drive, this 9-mile route is breathtaking. Climb the 100ft high Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for an out of this world experience, the ever changing dunes are a unique area of the park especially at sunrise or sunset when shadows across the sand make for some interesting photos.
Channel Islands National Park
What is it: Five islands off of the coast of southern California form the Channel Island National Park. An abundance of wildlife, rugged coastline, crystal clear ocean, sand dunes and mountain ranges make it a national park like no other.
Getting around: Reached by boat from Ventura or Oxnard or by light aircraft from Camarillo the journey is an adventure in itself. Visit one of the islands on a day trip; stay overnight in a primitive campground or island hop on a sailing boat. Once on the islands hike or kayak to get around. The islands can be visited year round, but in bad weather and stormy seas transport maybe cancelled.
What to see and do: See Anacapa Island in a day or camp over night on Santa Cruz Island. Hike to Cavern Point on Anacapa, the lookout has beautiful views over the pacific, great for whale watching. Dive or snorkel amongst kelp beds from Scorpion Beach or kayak to explore caves and hidden coves on Santa Cruz. Look out for elephant seals on Santa Barbara and swim in turquoise waters. Camp on the beach on Santa Rosa, surf and hike. Water is only available on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, so be sure to take your own supplies if visiting one of the others.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
What is it: Covering a number of parks and recreation areas stretching from the mountains down to the ocean around the Santa Monica area there is so much to do, hike, fish surf, stargaze and wildlife watch to name just a few.
Getting around: With so much ground to cover driving is the best option, although once you have pinpointed your chosen activities, most of these are best experienced on foot, bike or horseback.
What to see and do: Hike along the Backbone Trail linking the Santa Monica Mountains from east to west. Choose to walk as far as you want on this route, walk through canyons and up peaks, the highest being Sandstone Peak at 3,111ft. Paramount Ranch, a working film set is not something you get to visit everyday, especially in the mountains. Stop here to see Western Town, a wild west styled film set, bring a bike and head off one of the many trails around the ranch. Malibu Surfrider Beach is a must for surfers and beach enthusiasts while kayakers will love the waters in Leo Carrillo State Park. For whale watching the cliffs at Point Dume State Beach is the best place to spot these migrating beauties. With little to no light pollution Circle X ranch will knock your socks off when it comes to stargazing.
Pinnacles National Park
What is it: Granted National Park status in 2013 this new kid on the block is well known for its rock formations created from an extinct volcano. Huge rocky pinnacles twist and contort up towards the sky, while condors fly further above.
Getting around: Car is the best bet here, although you can’t drive across the park as it is divided into two sides, east and west; walk across it instead on a five mile hike. Another way to get around in Pinnacles is to climb the huge rock formations; there are some awesome views at the top.
What to see and do: Talus Caves are an interesting sight to explore, squeeze between gaps in huge boulders and clamber through dark tunnels There are two within Pinnacles National Park, Bear Gulch and Balconies Caves. Rock climbing is a very popular activity here; climbs for beginners include ‘Tourist Trap’ and ‘Discovery Wall’. The challenging High Peaks Trail reaches a height of 2730ft and is not for the faint hearted but the views from the top are out of this world. Stay over night here at the parks campground on the east side, fire pits and benches come with each pitch. Sit around a campfire and watch out for shooting stars in the clear night sky.
Joshua Tree National Park
What is it: Famous for its namesake there are plenty of these unusual trees in the park. Joshua Tree is found between the Colorado and Mojave deserts, visit in spring when the temperatures are cooler and the Joshua Trees are in full bloom.
Getting around: Car is the easiest way to access Joshua Tree, especially during summer months when air conditioning is a must.
What to see and do: Rock climbing is a big thing in Joshua Tree, huge boulders and dome shaped rocks make up some of the 8,000 climbing routes here. To explore on foot hike the Hidden Valley Trail, this one-mile loop is a nice little scenic walk full of gigantic boulders. Key Views Trail is a must with awesome views of the mountains, Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea laid out before your eyes up at 5185 ft. When in a desert look out for an oasis, there are five in the park. 49 Palms Oasis is a lush and cool escape from the often-sweltering temperatures, look out for bighorn sheep at the watering hole. Almost zero light pollution make the desert a stargazing dream, any spot will do for some unbelievable night skies.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
What is it: Volcanoes, hydrothermal areas, mountain lakes and meadows full of wild flowers, this national park is a beauty. Created from volcanic activity caused by Lassen Peak volcano this is a national park like no other. Lassen Peak is still active although its last eruption was in 1917.
Getting around: The only way to reach this wild park is by car, the road through the park is open from June to October but check park conditions when planning your trip as heavy snowfall can often close the road without warning.
What to see and do: Hydrothermal areas are a must see, Bumpass Hell has a 3 mile walk around bubbling mud pools and steaming vents in the ground, other hydrothermal spots include Devils Kitchen and Sulphur Works. The water at Boling Springs Lake bubbles away at a temperature of 125°C, reach it via a short walk on the Warner Valley Trail. Hike up Lassen Peak; the first 1.3 miles up to Grandview viewpoint are pretty straightforward, while the hike onwards to the summit is best left to the pros. For photo opportunities and to simply admire this giant wonder Lake Helen with its icy blue waters is the spot and also a nice place for a picnic.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
What is it: High up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this is essentially two parks in one, giant trees and incredible views make this park one not to be missed. Spot black bears; go on hikes to waterfalls and camp by a fire under the stars.
Getting around: Car is the best mode of transport here, there are two entrances into the park and two roads, the Generals Highway and Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. The road from the Ash Mountain entrance is an adventure in itself, twists, turns and hairpin bends in the road wind steeply up into the mountains, if you are in a large RV it might be better to plan your route to the Big Stump entrance. By bus the Sequoia Shuttle picks up from Visalia and stops at the Giant Forest Museum. Within the park during the summer there are free shuttle buses from the Giant Forest Museum to a number of attractions.
What to see and do: The giant sequoia trees are the star attraction here with General Sherman being the largest, at 275ft. Closely followed by General Grant, which has a circumference of 107ft. Follow the half-mile General Grant Tree Trail to admire some incredible giants and walk through the trunk of the Fallen Monarch. Drive through the Tunnel Log tree, something you don’t get to do everyday and climb the 400 steps to the top of Moro Rock for incredible panoramic views of the park. If hiking is on the agenda then this national park is one to tick off the list with plenty of backcountry wilderness trails to wet your appetite.
Further reading: Exploring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Redwood National Park
What is it: Towering redwoods and sandy beaches make for a unique sight in northern California. Redwood also includes a number of state parks meaning there’s is 139,000 acres to explore.
Getting around: Driving is a good option in Redwood National Park with plenty of scenic drives and viewpoints to stop at. Coastal Drive has splendid views of the Pacific Ocean; stop at Highbluff Lookout to take photos. Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is an awesome 8-mile drive through the magnificent redwoods. Park up and walk to Big Tree and spend some time looking up at these ancient wonders.
What to see and do: Visit the Trees of Mystery to ride on the SkyTrail, the gondola climbs through the redwoods and high above for some magnificent views of the forest, mountains and ocean. Klamath River Overlook is a must visit; perched high on a cliff edge there are views of the redwoods and Klamath River meeting the ocean. From here take the coastal trail to Hidden Beach and have a picnic on this secluded stretch of sand. Hike along Trillium Falls Trail to one of the only waterfalls in the parks and don’t miss Fern Canyon, its 30ft walls full of ferns are an interesting sight. Lady Bird Johnson Grove and Tall Trees Grove are both great places to walk amongst giant trees. For a breathtaking view of the forest stop at Redwood Creek Overlook.
Point Reyes National Seashore
What is it: Covering 80 miles of coastline, this beautiful nature preserve is a haven for wildlife with over 1,500 species of plants and animals known to inhabit the area. Just over an hour drive north from San Francisco the secluded coastline is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city and the perfect salty escape.
Getting around: Car is the easiest way to reach this beautiful coastline and from there throw on your hiking boots or jump on a bike to explore. If you don’t have your own transport catch a bus from San Rafael to Bear Valley Visitor Center.
What to see and do: From January to April migrating whales pass through this stretch of coast on their way from Alaska to Baja. With a huge figure of up to 20,000 making this annual trip the chances of seeing them are very high, so take some time to stand and gaze out to sea. Point Reyes Lighthouse is a nice spot to admire the ocean and take photos; the 308 steps are definitely worth the walk down. Walking is a must here, Earthquake Trail follows the San Andreas Fault line, you can actually stand straddling it. Take Tomales Point Trail to see tule elk grazing and admire the stunning ocean backdrop. For camping a wilderness permit is required and hiking is the only way to get to the backcountry camps. Pitch a tent a Wildcat Beach and fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the ocean.
Yosemite National Park
What is it: Yosemite has to be one of the most well known national parks in America. Glaciers, waterfalls, mountains, alpine lakes, meadows, backcountry wilderness and so much more mean this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the icing on the cake when it comes to California’s national parks.
Getting around: The best time to visit the park is between April and October, once in Yosemite free shuttle buses run in Yosemite Valley, with 19 stops there is no need to use a car. There are also bus tours, during the summer climb aboard an open-air tram with a guide for a really interactive adventure. To get into the wilderness and really explore the only way is on foot and with so many beautiful trails it’s easy to do.
What to see and do: There is so much to see and do in Yosemite, Half Dome and El Capitan are two unmistakable rock formations, for the best views of them Valley View and Tunnel View are two breathtakingly beautiful spots. Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in America is a thundering 2,425ft high; visit in spring to see it a its fullest. This incredible beauty can be witnessed from the base or reach the top on a day hike. Glacier Point has jaw-dropping views of the park including Yosemite Falls, the valley and Half Dome. For big trees, Mariposa Grove is a must visit. (Currently closed for restoration until summer 2017.) Walk through the California Tunnel Tree.
Further reading: Top 10 things to do in Yosemite National Park
Explore the spectacular national parks of California with these recommended tours & stays
California's Great National Parks Escorted Tour (7 nights)
National Parks & Lodges Escorted Small Group Tour (14 nights)
Western Explorer Escorted Small Group Tour (12 nights)
Attractions of the West by Motorhome (14 nights)
Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
Wuksachi Lodge, Sequoia National Park
Shutters on the Beach, Santa Monica
Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, Santa Monica