Hey guys! My name is Dawn and thanks for reading my article on the best national parks of California! I was born and raised in the Midwest where I spent much of my free time exploring local lakes and reserves with my father. In many ways our early adventures together inspired my passion and appreciation for the beauty of nature and exploring the great outdoors.
After high school I moved to New York City to study theater and subsequently a wonderful job opportunity presented itself in Los Angeles, which has been my home base ever since. My husband is a gifted photographer and I have always enjoyed creative writing, so together we began sharing our travel adventures with friends and family on our blog.
Over time the audience has grown, and it has been such a gift and privilege to share beautiful places with people locally and around the world, hoping to inspire each individual to explore and find adventure wherever they are. Being in Los Angeles means I have had the opportunity to explore many beautiful places in California, including the best national parks.
The national parks of California are incredibly diverse, and each park has its own special and unique claim to fame. For example, here you will find both the tallest tree in the world and the largest tree in the world, one located in Redwood National Park and the other found in Sequoia National Park.
You can explore the hottest and driest place in the world at Death Valley National Park, as well as climb the world’s largest plug dome volcano at Lassen Volcanic National Park. You can feel the spray from the tallest waterfall in North America at Yosemite National Park, as well as kayak into one of the largest sea caves on earth at Channel Islands National Park.
Nine National Parks of California
California has nine national parks, more than any other state in the US – and they are spread out all across the state. You will find the giant Redwoods in the far north near the Oregon border and the desert landscape of Joshua Tree in the south with overlooks into Mexico.
Channel Islands National Park finds its home 35 miles off the coast and is only accessible by watercraft or airplane. The nine parks encompass everything from remote islands to lush forests, towering mountains to thriving prairies and even vast deserts – each offering unique experiences from park to park and from season to season. The nine parks are:
- Channel Islands National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Redwood National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Sequoia National Park.
While it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite, Yosemite holds a special place in my heart. It’s the first national park of California that I visited and I have spent more time here than in any other park in the country. I try to visit at least once a month because every season is magical. I live close enough that I can drive up for a weekend visit whenever I need a getaway.
5 Best National Parks of California
I love all the national parks in California and I would encourage a visit to every one of them, however if really pressed for time I would recommend Yosemite, Death Valley, Redwood, Lassen and Channel Islands. These provide diverse experiences and offer a wide range of activities, sights, and hikes that are suitable for all ages at different skill and comfort levels.
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is a park for all seasons. In spring you have the most spectacular waterfalls in the country and the Valley wildflowers start blooming. By summer the park is perfect for picnics or backcountry adventures.
Autumn turns Yosemite National Park ripe with the golden hue of falling leaves, and there are plenty of wonderful winter activities once the snow starts falling. Enjoy snowshoeing, cross country skiing, ice-skating in Curry Village and February’s famous Firefall at Horsetail Fall is always exciting.
2. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is certainly an underrated destination! First time visitors here may find its name and reputation to be intimidating. To be fair, Death Valley does hold the record for the hottest temperature on earth and having visited it myself when it was 116° I can say it’s incredibly important to respect this park and the unrelenting summer heat.
However, Death Valley National Park has so much more to offer than just a barren desert. Darwin Falls is a beautiful oasis home to an upper and lower waterfall that flows year round. The stream along the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail is a great place to see pupfish swimming in the spring season.
Badwater Basin is known for being the lowest point in North America, but if you plan your visit after a winter storm you can witness the basin fill with a beautiful temporary lake. Exploring the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise gives you the feeling of being in a far away desert or planet, as this spot was used as a galaxy far far away in the original Star Wars franchise.
3. Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park is known for having the tallest trees in the world. The old growth giants are a spectacular sight. For a gentle family friendly hike, I would recommend starting with Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail.
My personal favorite hike, however, is the Tall Trees Grove Trail. Not only do you have two of the top five tallest trees in the world located here but to limit the crowds a free online permit is required in advance to grant entrance. This means that even in the busy summer season or on a holiday weekend you are not likely to see more than a handful of people.
4. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen is a fascinating and underrated park! Known for its geothermal activity and wildlife, it’s a great alternative to Yellowstone. Lassen is one of the few places in the world where you will find plug dome, shield, cinder cone and composite volcanoes (all four types of volcanoes) in the same area – not to mention all the lakes, waterfalls, meadows and clifftops.
5. Channel Islands National Park
Although more challenging to access, Channel Islands National Park is one of the most unique parks in the country. It encompasses five beautiful islands over six nautical miles of water, home to over 1000 different species of plants and animals including 12 which are found nowhere else on earth.
Channel Islands largest island, Santa Cruz, is home to over 100 sea caves including Painted Cave – which is one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world – as well as the longest sea cave in all of North America.
Experience the National Parks of California in an Eco-Friendly Way
When enjoying our parks, it’s important to familiarize yourself with and to follow the seven Leave No Trace principles to keep these places wild and wonderful for future visitors, as well as for the local plant and wildlife that call these places home. The most important place to start is to plan ahead.
For instance, Yosemite will be undergoing a major road rehabilitation project this coming year, and the Glacier Point Road will be closed to traffic. The park will also be on a reservation system through the summer. To make the most out of your visit, you can get detailed information on road closures/park reservations on the Yosemite NPS website.
I encourage visitors to check out the NPS websites when planning a trip for the most up-to-date info, and always follow the park rangers’ advice and obey park signs. Small actions can also have a big impact on these places, so by simply packing out everything we pack in and staying on the designated trails we can minimize our impact on the local ecosystems.
Tips for Visiting the National Parks of California
One tip I would love to pass on is to consider the dates of your visit. While winter is a wonderfully quiet time in Yosemite, late February’s Firefall can bring record breaking crowds and bumper to bumper traffic. And while shooting the Milky Way in Death Valley is an incredible summer experience, temperatures can stay in the mid 90’s all night long.
I believe research is key to getting the most out of any trip. Take time to read your favorite blogger’s post about the location you are heading to and consider a virtual visit by watching a YouTube video on the area.
Also, I encourage people to reach out to the park rangers with any specific questions you can’t find the answer to. We have the absolute best park rangers in California and they are an incredible resource, full of knowledge.
Something else to remember is that each national park is surrounded with natural beauty. Instead of visiting Yosemite on a busy holiday weekend, perhaps you could consider exploring nearby Mono Lake, Panum Crater or even the world’s oldest trees at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Located just south of Sequoia National Park, Sequoia National Forest is home to more incredible trees including the dog-friendly Trail of 100 Giants. California’s national parks and surrounding landscapes certainly have something for everyone, and I hope to see you out on the trails soon!