You will find nine beautiful national parks in California, more than any other U.S. state. From the tallest trees on earth to the largest concentration of Joshua trees in the world, California’s national parks showcase the best nature and wildlife the golden state has to offer.
I’ve lived in California my whole life and have visited each California national park. I want to help you plan your upcoming trip, so I’ve created this guide that contains all you need to know to travel to the California national parks.
Whether you want to tackle the best California hikes or just catch some amazing views, this article is for you.
Table of Contents
- 9 Best National Parks in California
- Tips for Visiting National Parks in California
- FAQs About California National Parks
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9 Best National Parks in California
Redwood National Park
View the tallest trees in the world
Redwood National Park features spectacular redwood and sequoia trees. Located in Northern California an hour and a half north of Humboldt, this park has one of the most majestic forests in California.
A great diversity of flora and fauna coexist with the towering redwoods such as black bears, banana slugs, gray whales, ferns, and more.
The most favored Redwood National Park activity is hiking. Other visitor favorites include horseback riding in the backcountry, tent camping in the middle of the forest, and biking on designated trails among the tallest trees in the world.
There are public restrooms and picnic tables throughout the park to make your trip as pleasant as possible. Although pets are allowed in the park, they are not allowed on any trails for their safety from bears and mountain lions.
Joshua Tree National Park
Rock climb among the largest concentration of Joshua trees in the world
Joshua Tree National Park attracts visitors from all over the United States. You don’t need to be an avid rock climber to appreciate the beauty of Joshua Tree’s desert landscape.
Although rock climbing is the most popular activity to do in Joshua Tree, there are tons of hiking trails as well.
If you’re looking for a short hike, Arch Rock Trail is only 1.4 miles roundtrip that leads to the famed arch rock formation. The Panorama Loop trail is a longer 6.6-mile hike in Joshua Tree National Park that offers spectacular views of the park.
There are plenty of places to stay in Joshua Tree, including 5 campgrounds in the national park that require a reservation ahead of time and cost between $20-25 a night. There are 3 first-come, first-serve campgrounds that are all $15 per night. These include Hidden Valley, White Tank, and Belle Campgrounds.
👉 Pro Tip: If you choose to stay at a first-come, first-serve campground, get to the park early to snag a spot before the campgrounds fill up.
Yosemite National Park
Visit the crown jewel of California
Yosemite National Park is perhaps the most popular of the California national parks, and is located roughly 4.5 hours inland from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and El Capitan are the main attractions. You may be lucky enough to witness some professional rock climbers scaling the granite walls of El Capitan and Half dome, so keep an eye out.
The most popular Yosemite campgrounds include Upper Pines Campground, Lower Pines Campground, and North Pines Campground. You need a reservation from Recreation.gov to stay at Yosemite campgrounds and they fill up fast.
There are public restrooms and picnic tables throughout the park, but never leave any food unattended as it attracts black bears. Trailhead and national monument parking are easy to find, even on crowded weekends.
If it’s your first time in the park, you will want to check out the North Dome, Cloud’s Rest, and Nevada Falls hikes. See my full guide to hiking in Yosemite National Park for more.
Death Valley National Park
Slide down sand dunes in one of the hottest deserts in the world
Death Valley holds the record for the hottest air temperature in the world at 134.1 degrees Fahrenheit. For safety precautions, you’ll want to visit the national park in a season other than summer.
Death Valley National Park is only 2 hours from Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountains and one of the best California hikes. Most visitors to the park make an extended trip to the Sierras as well.
The main attractions in Death Valley National Park are the Badwater Basin salt flats, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the Zabriskie Point viewpoint.
There are 12 campgrounds across the 5,200 square miles of the park. Most of the campgrounds have public toilets, picnic tables, and fire pits, although you won’t want to light a fire unless you visit in the wintertime.
Because Death Valley is less than a 3-hour drive away, it makes for one of the best day trips from Las Vegas.
Sequoia National Park
Take photos next to the largest single-stem tree on Earth
Sequoia National Park is one of the most visited California national parks. It often gets confused with Kings Canyon National Park but they are actually two separate national parks.
The park boasts deep gorges, tall mountains, rugged foothills, and the world’s largest trees. There are fun activities to do in any season in the park.
The General Sherman tree is the tallest in the world and is located within the park’s boundaries. Plan your trip around the winter snow to take a photo with this national landmark because many of the park’s roads are closed at that time.
Hiking, backpacking, camping, and watching the wildlife are the most popular things to do in the park. Make sure to also visit the visitor center to have your sequoia questions answered by local rangers.
🌳 Local Trivia: Sequoia National Park was the first park created for the sole purpose of protecting a living organism (the sequoia trees).
Channel Islands National Park
Escape from urban life to the relaxing Channel Islands
Love the ocean? Then you must visit the five channel islands at Channel Islands National Park in central California. From rich native history to picturesque lighthouses and unique island wildlife, Channel Islands National Park is a west coast treasure.
Leaving from the Ventura or Santa Barbara port, escape the clutter of urban life with a 3-3.5 hour boat trip to the islands. Because the boat ride is so long, most visitors camp overnight to make the most out of their trip to Channel Islands National Park.
There are no food services or lodging on the islands and all visitors must bring their own tents, food, and water if they wish to camp at the island’s primitive campsites. Channel Islands National Park offers a remote yet beautiful park experience.
Visitors love to snorkel, kayak, birdwatch, sketch, or just relax on the Channel Islands beaches. More experienced outdoor enthusiasts can also surf, scuba dive, or hike one of the island’s many hiking trails.
Kings Canyon National Park
Take a scenic drive through redwood trees, waterfalls, and spectacular viewpoints
Located next to Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park is home to the largest remaining grove of sequoias in the world, Redwood Canyon.
Many visitors love to take a scenic drive throughout the park down the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. The views of rushing rivers, tall peaks, and deep canyons make the park drive worthwhile.
Enjoy hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and wildlife viewing in the spring, summer, and fall. There are over 800 miles of hiking trails in the park so don’t forget to pack your hiking boots. You can also go horseback riding and spelunking during the non-winter months.
Most campgrounds have showers, laundry services, markets, and restaurants just a short drive away. Most are also first-come, first-serve and include a picnic table, fire ring, bear box for food storage, and a grill.
👉 Pro Tip: There is no cell service throughout the park but select visitor centers have wifi.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Explore shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome volcanoes
Visit Lassen Volcanic National Park to witness beautiful wildflower meadows, alpine lakes, and four different types of volcanoes. The park is the busiest in the summer when all roads and activities are open.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the most underrated national parks in California. Because it is less traveled, there are fewer crowds than in other popular national parks.
Popular activities in the park include hiking, alpine lake boating and rafting, fishing, and sleeping under the stars. In the wintertime, snowshoeing and sledding are visitor favorites.
Food for sale is limited in the park so you will want to bring all of your food for however long you plan on staying in the park.
There is one lodge in the park, Drakesbad Guest Ranch, and seven campgrounds that require a reservation ahead of time.
🚗 Need a car rental? Lassen National Park is a 3.5 hour drive from Sacramento and you will need to rent a car to explore the park. I recommend booking a car with Discover Cars.
Pinnacles National Park
View condors and explore caves in one of the newer California national parks
Pinnacles is one of the least crowded of California’s national parks. It was formed slowly 23 million years ago by volcano eruptions. Today, the rare landscape consists of chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon terrain.
Bring your binoculars because wildlife such as bald eagles, falcons, and California condors have been spotted in the park.
From short hikes with the family to more strenuous ones, this national park has a wide variety of hiking trails. Popular trails include the 0.9-mile Prewett Point trail and the 4.3-mile Juniper Canyon Loop trail.
There are no hotels or lodges in Pinnacles National Park but you can rent a canvas tent cabin for rustic lodging. If you choose to bring your own tent or RV, you can camp at Pinnacles Campground. Keep in mind that it is only accessible from the east, because there are no roads connecting the two entrances.
Tips for Visiting National Parks in California
Stay Far From California’s Wildlife
Wildlife in all California national parks are, in fact, wild. Never get close to an animal to take a photo, as it may result in serious injuries.
Ask the national park rangers for the most updated distance safety information regarding specific animals in the park. Also never feed the wildlife under any circumstances.
Adhere to the Fire Safety Rules
Wildfires are a big problem in California national parks. Some campfires are allowed in designated places but check with park rangers first. Different national parks have different fire safety regulations.
Always pack out your cigarette butts and make sure that your campfire is completely out before walking away from it. The National Park Service also encourages reporting all wildfires and smoke to them immediately.
Prepare Adequately Before You Go on a Hike
The summer months in Southern California national parks can be brutal. Always have hiking essentials in your backpack before you go on a hike, and carry enough water. A Grayl water purification bottle is awesome for safe water on the go.
A good rule of thumb is to pack extra food and clothing layers that you don’t think you will need, just in case. Always bring a rain jacket because California experiences frequent summer storms.
Store Food in Bear Boxes
There is no shortage of black bears in California. Although there are no grizzlies in the state, you still need to be cautious around wild black bears.
There is an abundance of black bears in California’s national parks and they are not afraid to approach people if they smell food. Never leave food unattended at campsites and always store your leftovers in provided bear boxes to keep the bears wild.
Get There Early to Avoid Crowds
National parks on summer weekends receive thousands of visitors a day. California national parks have gotten so crowded lately that the park system has started to limit the number of cars allowed.
Try to get to the national park early in the morning and preferably on a weekday if you want to avoid crowds. If you don’t arrive at the park before 8 am, you may have trouble finding parking, and first-come, first-serve campsites may be already full.
Yosemite Entrance Ticket
Yosemite National Park recently implemented a ticketed entrance system. Because this is the most popular park in California, it receives millions of visitors a year.
You will need to snag a specific entry ticket from Recreation.gov before you visit the park. Even if you are simply driving through the park you will still need this permit during peak hours.
While dogs are allowed in most parks, some parks have pet restrictions. For example, Joshua Tree allows dogs in campsites but forbids them on any trails.
Plan your trip with your pet ahead of time to make sure they are allowed inside all areas of the park. Bringing an unsolicited pet into bear country can be dangerous for both you and your pet so plan wisely.
FAQs About California National Parks
How many national parks are in California?
There are nine national parks in California. California has more national parks than any other U.S. state.
What is the major national park in California?
The major national park in California is Yosemite National Park. Yosemite has millions of visitors each year.
What is the best national park to visit in California?
Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park are the best national parks to visit in California.
What is the most beautiful park in California?
Yosemite National Park is the most beautiful park in California. Redwood National Park follows close by.
Now that you have all of the information you need about California national parks, you are ready to start planning your next trip! Be sure to read my article about the best time to visit California to make the most out of your vacation.
Have fun exploring California national parks!
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