One of the best things about traveling is getting to explore all the different national parks that America has to offer. And California is home to some of the best ones. So when it came time to plan my road trip through California, I knew I wanted to visit as many of the state’s beautiful national parks as possible. So if you’re thinking of doing the same, here are 12 of The Best National Parks in California not to miss.
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park, one of the top-rated national parks in California, is well known for its waterfalls, but these are only a fraction of what makes this place so special. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is internationally recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs, giant sequoia groves, clear streams, and biological diversity.
A top destination for hiking, rock climbing, and camping, Yosemite offers countless trails and experiences for adventure-seekers of all skill levels. Along the way, you can marvel at such iconic sights as El Capitan and Half Dome or watch as waterfalls thunder down from dizzying heights. If you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, you can wander through peaceful meadows, marvel at the soaring sequoias, or simply relax on a scenic drive.
I should warn you that Yosemite National Park is huge, and it’s impossible to see everything in one visit. That’s why I recommend that you focus on a specific region and plan your activities accordingly. For example, if you’re interested in hikes, pick a trail based on your skill level and the amount of time you have. You can also consider staying in one of the park’s many campgrounds or lodges.
2. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is another one of the best national parks in California, especially for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. This vast national park, which covers more than 3 million acres, is known for its diverse topography, which includes mountains, canyons, valleys, sand dunes, and Salt Flats.
The hottest place on earth is located in Death Valley. Temperatures have reached a searing 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius). The park also holds the record for the lowest elevation in North America, at Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level.
Despite its extreme conditions, Death Valley is home to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals. The park is especially known for its wildflowers, which bloom in late winter and early spring. If you’re planning to visit Death Valley National Park, I suggest you go in the winter or spring when temperatures are more moderate.
3. Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks are located along the coast of Northern California. The parks preserve a total of 131,000 acres of old-growth redwoods, with 5% of the parks’ total area designated as old-growth. Of these trees, the Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest, with some reaching heights of over 350 feet (110 m).
This park is also home to a diverse array of wildlife as well. The parks boast approximately 280 species of birds, including eagles, hawks, herons, owls, and hummingbirds. Wildlife-watching is a popular activity in these parks, and visitors may also see black bears, elk, deer, foxes, coyotes, and many other animals.
There are dozens of hiking trails in Redwood National and State Parks. Some of the most popular include the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, which is an easy 1.5-mile loop through an old-growth redwood forest. Another one is the Tall Trees Trail, which is a 4.5-mile round-trip hike to see some of the tallest trees in the world.
4. Joshua Tree National Park
Next up on the list of the best California national parks is Joshua Tree National Park, a massive desert preserve that covers more than 790,000 acres in southeastern California. The park gets its name from the unique yucca trees that are found in abundance throughout the landscape.
Although it’s a desert, Joshua tree is home to an amazing variety of plants and animals, including more than 750 species of plants and 250 species of birds. The park is also home to the Joshua tree, which is actually a type of yucca. These fascinating trees only grow in the Mojave Desert.
The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is during the springtime, when the desert wildflowers are in bloom. But the park is open year-round, and each season offers its own special beauty.
Summertime temperatures can be brutally hot, so if you’re visiting during that time of year, be sure to bring plenty of water and stay in the shade as much as possible. Wintertime can be cold at night, but daytime temperatures are usually pleasant.
5. Point Reyes National Seashore
Located just north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the best places to visit in California if you’re looking for an escape from the crowds and noise of the big city.
The seashore encompasses more than 71,000 acres of land and water at the northernmost point on the Pacific coast of North America. With its dramatic coastline, historic sites, abundant wildlife, and sprawling hiking trails, Point Reyes is a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts from around the world.
Visitors can explore miles of rugged coastline and sandy beaches or take in stunning views at one of the many viewpoints. And there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching, with more than 400 species of animals living on the seashore.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities at Point Reyes National Seashore. There are more than 150 miles of trails to explore, ranging from easy to strenuous. The moderate-to-strenuous Tomales Point Trail is a 9.6-mile out and back hike that offers sweeping views of the coastline
6. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Do you love the outdoors and hiking? If so, you’ll want to add Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to your California itinerary. Located deep in the southern Sierra Nevada range, these parks are home to some of the largest trees on earth, including the famed General Sherman Tree, which stands at 275 feet tall and has a diameter of 36 feet.
There are also plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy in this park, including camping, picnicking, backpacking, fishing, and horseback riding. The parks have more than 1000 miles of trails, which provide access to some of the most beautiful and remote areas of Sierra Nevada.
So if you’re looking for the best national parks in California, be sure to add Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to your list. Whether you’re seeking adventure or just want to enjoy some peace and quiet, these beautiful parks have something for everyone.
7. Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is one of the newest national parks in the United States. It is also one of the least-visited, which is surprising given its unique topography and abundant natural beauty. Located east of Salinas Valley, this park is known for its towering volcanic rock formations and excellent hiking trails.
So if you’re a nature lover or an avid adventurer, this park should definitely be on your list of the best California national parks. Whether you’re hiking or exploring by bike, there are many miles of trails to explore, ranging from easy to moderate difficulty. You can also go rock climbing at the top of Pinnacles’ soaring volcanic spires, a thrilling experience for experienced climbers.
In addition to its natural beauty, this park has plenty of cultural significance. The park is home to the Talus Caves, a network of caves used by the native people of California for shelter and storage. The caves are now closed to the public, but you can still see them from the outside.
8. Lassen Volcanic National Park
The topography of Lassen Volcanic National Park is so diverse that it’s hard to believe you’re still in California. The park includes all four types of volcanoes found in the world, as well as many hot springs and geothermal features.
This is a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts who like to hike, camp, cross-country ski, and snowshoe. The park’s many trails offer hikers access to dramatic volcanic landscapes and alpine meadows teeming with wildflowers. In the summer, don’t miss the opportunity to take a boat ride on one of the largest natural lakes in California, Manzanita Lake.
Some of the top things to see in this national park include Bumpass Hell, a geothermal area with bubbling mud pots and steaming vents; Devastated Area, a barren moonscape of lava and ash; Chaos Crags, an impressive group of cinder cones; and Kilauea Volcano, whose top crater is filled with a lake.
9. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
When it comes to California national parks, another place that should definitely be on your list is the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. At more than 150,000 acres, this park is one of the largest urban parks in the world.
With over 500 miles of hiking trails, this recreation area is a hikers’ paradise. You can choose easy day hikes that are just a few miles long or more challenging multi-day backpacking trips that traverse remote wilderness areas. There are also plenty of horseback riding and mountain biking trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Some of the most popular areas in the park include Point Mugu State Park, Paramount Ranch, and Solstice Canyon.
If you are looking for a unique and immersive outdoor experience, be sure to visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just want to spend some time in nature, this park is sure to delight you.
10. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Of course, I had to include the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in my list of the best national parks in California. This is one of the largest urban national parks in the world, and it’s situated right near San Francisco.
The 75,000-acre park comprises Marin Headlands, Muir Woods National Monument, Alcatraz Island, and other top sites for tourists. Visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, camping, whale watching, and a number of other outdoor activities in the park.
The most popular attraction in the park is undoubtedly the Golden Gate Bridge. This iconic suspension bridge spans nearly two miles and connects San Francisco to Marin County. The vistas from either side of the bridge are simply incredible.
Other popular attractions in the park include Lands End (a beautiful coastline with hiking trails) and Baker Beach (a secluded beach with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge).
11. Devils Postpile National Monument
Located on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Devils Postpile National Monument is an otherworldly landscape that spans more than 700 acres of mountain wilderness.
Devil’s Postpile takes its name from the top-shaped columnar basalt rock formation that rests at the base of a mountain valley. Formed by lava flowing toward either side of the valley, the columns are an impressive sight to behold and are widely considered one of the top natural wonders in California.
But this national monument has plenty more to offer than just the Devil’s Postpile rock formation. Hiking trails wind through forests and past alpine lakes, offering stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The monument is also home to numerous species of wildlife, including mule deer, black bears, and pikas.
12. King Range National Conservation Area
Are you looking for the best California national parks that are off the beaten path? Then check out the King Range National Conservation Area, which is located on the Lost Coast of California. King Range is a stretch of wilderness coastline that’s largely undeveloped and only accessible by foot or four-wheel-drive vehicle.
King Range is home to pristine coastline, old-growth redwood forests, and abundant wildlife. The landscape is rugged and remote, making it a top spot for outdoor adventurers who want to go off-roading, hiking, kayaking, and camping.
There are a number of primitive campgrounds and cabins available for public use within the King Range NCA. The Lost Coast Trail is a popular way to explore the area and takes visitors along dramatic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. If you visit during the winter months, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of migrating whales from one of the many viewpoints.
I hope you enjoyed this list of the best national parks in California. These are just a few of the amazing parks you can visit in this diverse and beautiful state. So get out there and explore. And if you have a favorite national park in California, be sure to share it with me in the comments below.