California National Parks are a treasure trove of diverse scenery with shifting dunes, craggy coasts, alpine hiking trails, and granite walls. There are nine national parks in California, more than in any other state, and each of these national parks boasts unique flora and fauna and strikingly different landscapes.
Visiting California’s national parks requires time and effort, as many of them are located hundreds of miles apart and some sit in remote corners of the state.
Whether you want to explore the waterfalls of Yosemite National Park, paddleboard around the remote Channel Islands, or wander around towering redwoods, this guide provides a complete overview of the best national parks in California and offers practical tips that will help you plan your trip.
Best way to see National Parks in California
The best way to see these national parks is by taking a few weeks to road trip around California, which will allow you to traverse the state from south to north (or vise versa) and stop several national parks in each part of the state. But it’s also possible to visit several national parks in California in just one region.
No matter what your plans are, let’s get to it because we have a lot to cover!
Things to know before visiting National Parks in California
America The Beautiful Pass Is Your Best Friend
America The Beautiful National Parks Pass is your best friend if you want to visit multiple national parks in California. The average entrance fee costs $35, and America the Beautiful National Parks Pass costs $80 and provides access to the entire National Parks System which covers national parks in California and other states, and also includes national monuments, forests, and 2,000 natural and historic sites.
The pass is valid for one year and can be purchased online or at the entrance of any national park in California.
You need to rent a vehicle for your trip
To visit national parks in California, you will need a vehicle.
Whether you decide to rent an RV or a regular car depends on your plans. If you are looking for an RV, check out RVshare, a website with a great selection of all sorts of RVs, and if you are looking for a regular car, check out DiscoverCars, one of my favorite websites for car rentals with good prices and big inventory.
Book accommodations in advance
Booking accommodations near major national parks in California like Yosemite last minute can be very expensive. Book your hotels (or campgrounds) at least a few weeks ahead to avoid paying a ton of money for a basic motel.
Get proper gear
Whether it’s the coast, mountains, or deserts, hiking gear is necessary for visiting national parks in California. REI is one of the east stores whether you plan to get hiking shoes, a new tent for your camping trip, or rock climbing gear.
Leave no trace
This is self-explanatory, but I want to restate it: Leave California National Parks exactly as you found them. Pristine and beautiful. This means packing up all your trash, staying on trails, and not leaving any marks (or graffiti) on rocks, trees, and other objects
Best National Parks in California: North
Redwood National And State Parks
Where to stay: Westward Inn
Closest City: Redwood National And State Parks are located along Northern California Coast approximately 325 miles north of San Francisco. Crescent City is the closest town to Redwood National Park.
Getting to Redwood National Park: Most areas making up Redwood National And State Parks can be accessed from US Highway 101. If you are driving from the north, take US Highway 199 to US Highway 101 and if you are driving from San Francisco, or any other cities south, take US Highway 101 north along the coast.
Things to know about Redwood National Park
One of the most remote national parks along the Northern California Coast, Redwood is shrouded in fog. Home to the tallest trees in the world that can grow to 350 feet, this is one of the best California national parks for nature lovers thanks to rugged beaches, scenic overlooks and misty trails.
PRO TIP: Unlike other California national parks, Redwood National Park is free to visit. It doesn’t require an entrance fee or America The Beautiful National Parks Pass. On the other hand, California State Parks, Jedediah Smith, Prairie Creek Redwoods, and Del Norte Coast State Parks all collect daily use fees at campground entrance stations. These state parks accept America The Beautiful Pass and provide discounted rates to pass holders.
Best things to do at Redwood National Park
- Stout Grove – Located in Jedediah Smith Redwoods just north of Crescent City, Stout Grove is home to an impressive grove of 300-feet tall redwoods and is one of the most photographed parts of this national park. The road toward Stout Grove is a bit rough, so arrive in a 4X4 vehicle that will handle this road.
- Lady Bird Johnson Grove – Considered one of the most beautiful groves of ancient redwood trees in the world, Lady Bird Johnson Grove sits 1,000 feet above sea level. Home to one of the most scenic hikes in Redwood National Park, this is a popular section, so if you want to enjoy it, arrive in the morning. The trail is 1.3 miles and has a little elevation gain.
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods – One of the first stops in the area, Jedediah Smith State Park is located along with the Wild and Scenic Smith River on the north side near Crescent City.
- Fern Canyon – one of the most popular parts of this national park, Fern Canyon has become famous after it appeared in one of the Jurassic Park movies. This is a stunning canyon with lush ferns hanging from both walls and is a must for anybody who comes to Redwood. The Fern Canyon Trail is just down the road from Gold Bluffs Beach which is also a popular camping spot.
- Crescent Beach Overlook – a popular roadside stop, Crescent Beach Overlook is a must-stop along Highway 101 in Redwood National Park.
- Redwood Creek Overlook – the best spot for watching the sunset (and sunrise), Redwood Creek Overlook is located near Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Perched 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, this is one of the best viewpoints in the entire park, where you can also see clouds inversions, which makes for a fantastic sight.
- The Avenue of The Giants – Located about one hour south of Eureka, the Avenue of the Giants is a 31.5-mile road that meanders through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It’s not part of Redwood National And State Parks, but worth a visit, because it’s very close to it and is spectacular!
How many days to spend at Redwood National And State Parks
This national park covers 40 miles of coastline and although you can check some of the highlights in just a day, I recommend spending no less than 3 days here to explore it better.
Best time to visit Redwood National And State Parks
You can visit this California national park at any time of the year, but the best time is in spring when crowds are thinner and summer when temperatures are milder and there’s less rain.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Where to stay: Thunderbird Lodge
Closest City: The two closest towns to Lassen National Park are Redding and Red Bluff. The capital of California, Sacramento, is about 3.5 miles away.
Getting to Redding National Park: You can access Lassen National Park from the north via California Highway 44 from Redding; and via California Highway 36 east from Red Bluff.
Things to know about Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California is one of the most underrated national parks in California.
But make no mistake:
It’s one of the most spectacular national parks in California with the amazing geothermal activity in hissing hot pools and bubbling fumaroles. The most famous volcano in this national park, Lassen Peak, erupted in the early 1990s.
Those who make it to this remote part of California will be treated to its stunning hikes, wonderful geothermal activity, and tons of wildlife. Lassen boasts amazing alpine scenery with lakes, mountains, and green meadows with bright wildflowers.
The coolest thing about this national park is its untouched landscapes and less-discovered trails that take you to unspoiled backcountry. Camping at Lassen Volcanic National Park is a surreal experience because the entire area has incredibly dark skies. There are several campgrounds throughout the park where you can find spots for tents and RVs.
Best things to do at Lassen National Park:
- Visit Bumpas Hell – A place with the highest concentration of geothermal activity in Lassen National Park, Bumpass Hell trail is a 3-mile roundtrip hike with boiling pools, fumaroles, and plenty of other hydrothermal activity along the wooden boardwalk.
- Take a hike – hiking is one of the best things to do at Lassen National Park if you want to see the area’s spectacular geothermal activity up close. One of the best hikes in the park is the Warner trail that leads to Terminal Geyser. From here proceed toward Boiling Springs Lake. Another popular trail is Manzanita Lake that spans for about 4 miles and gains about 4,000 feet.
- Check out Devil’s Kitchen – Made up from a mix of hot springs, boiling mud pots, and colorful pools, this is one of the most popular stops at Lassen National Park.
- Stop at Sulphur Works – This area with geothermal activity is accessible from the parking lot along the park’s main road. You can also try the nearby Ridge Lakes Trail that gains more than 1,000 feet in just a mile and leads to a couple of stunning alpine lakes.
- Enjoy the dark skies – Lassen National Park is one of the best places in California to see pristine dark skies and there are even park ranger-led astronomy programs during summer. In August, the park organizes its famous Dark Sky Festival.
- Marvel at Boiling Springs Lake – An open-water lake located in the northwestern part of Lassen National Park, Boiling Springs Lake is a geological wonder that is fed geothermal springs. The temperature of the water here reaches an astonishing 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Bumpass Creek Falls – One of the best spots to visit in Lassen National Park, Bumpass Creek Falls is a spectacular waterfall just off Highway 89.
How many days to spend at Lassen National Park
Set aside at least a couple of days so you would have enough time for hiking, camping and stopping at scenic overlooks without rushing through.
Best time to visit Lassen National Park
Many trails and some roads at Lassen Volcanic National Park close in winter because of heavy snowstorms and ice. May through early September is the perfect time to plan your trip.
Yosemite National Park
Where to stay: Bear Crossing
Closest City: Yosemite National Park is located about 170 miles from San Francisco, the largest city in Northern California.
Yosemite is surrounded by many small towns.The village of Wawona is technically within Yosemite and is the closest town to Mariposa Grove. Other small towns to the southwest of Yosemite National Park are El Portal and Fish Camp. If you want to stay on the eastern side of the park, stay in Mammoth Lakes, one of the most beautiful mountain towns in California with plenty of outdoor activities.
Getting to Yosemite National Park: there are several entrances to Yosemite National Park, located on the eastern, northern, and southwestern sides. The easiest way to get into Yosemite is via Big Oak Flat Entrance. To get there, take I-580 east and get to I-205 and later to Highway 120 via the town of Manteca.
Things to know about Yosemite National Park
A crown jewel of Northern California, Yosemite is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that is known for its granite walls, glacial valleys, and plunging waterfalls that are fed by snow from the mountains.
Yosemite has become one of the most crowded national parks in California, with thousands of tourists packing the area in the summer months. This prompted a reservation system which was put in place just recently and expected to be in effect over the next few years, so don’t forget to check the latest information online ahead of your visit.
For a better experience, consider visiting Yosemite during the off-season.
Best things to do at Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite Valley – no visit to Yosemite National Park is complete without a visit to Yosemite Valley, one of the most stunning vistas in California. Many visitors who come to Yosemite National Park spend their time in Yosemite Valley where you can find many hiking trails, overlooks, and some of the tallest waterfalls in the United States, Yosemite Falls that can be seen in its full glory during June when it’s powered by the snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains. Other highlights of the Yosemite Valley are Vernal and Nevada Falls, Bridalveil Falls, and El Capitan.
PRO TIP: Most waterfalls in Yosemite Valley become dry by the end of the summer, so although June can be a busy month, it’s a great time to see majestic Yosemite waterfalls in their full glory.
- Half Dome – a true natural wonder that allows you to see the Sierra Nevada Mountains from 9,000 feet, Half Dome is a magnet for many adventure lovers who come here to scale this granite monolith. Climbing Half Dome requires a special permit which is awarded through the lottery, but you can also come here via a back hike through the wilderness.
- Glacier Point – a 7,214-foot overlook, Glacier Point is one of the best places to see Yosemite Valley below you. It’s also one of the most accessible scenic overlooks, as you can get here by a quick walk from a parking lot. The best time to visit Glacier Point is during sunrise and sunset when the entire valley lights up in colors.
- Mariposa Grove – one of the biggest highlights of Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is the biggest grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park with a few hundred trees.
- Tenaya Lake – framed by the granite domes, Tenaya Lake is one of the biggest attractions of Yosemite National Park located along Highway 120 (a continuation of Tioga Road). Tenaya Lake is worth a stop whether you want to have a picnic, relax after hiking, or just use a great photo op.
- Tuolomne Meadows – One of the most picturesque spots in Yosemite National Park, Tuolomne Meadows boasts many easy trails as well as more rugged trails that lead to tranquil alpine lakes amid granite domes.
How many days to spend at Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the most scenic national parks in California, and it can take weeks to explore. Plan to spend no less than 3 days in Yosemite to see its major highlights, and between five ad seven days if you want to do some back country hiking and camping.
National Parks in Central California
Sequoia National Park
Where to stay: Lamp Liter Inn
Closest City: Visalia is the closest city to Sequoia National Park where you can find hotels, stores, and restaurants.
Getting to Sequoia National Park: The best (and most scenic) route to Sequoia National Park is California Highway 198 that will bring you to the Ash Mountain Entrance.
Another road that you can take is California Highway 180 east after taking US Highway 99 which leads to the Foothills Entrance.
Things to know about Sequoia National Park
Located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sequoia National Park is famed for the towering sequoia trees – the tallest of them, 275-feet General Sherman. This national park is home to many waterfalls, majestic mountain scenery, and even black bears!
PRO TIP: Combine a visit to Sequoia with a stop at the neighboring Kings Canyon National Park. Although these two national parks are larger than Yosemite in size, they attract only a fraction of visitors compared to Yosemite – making it a perfect alternative if you want to avoid the crowds.
Best things to do in Sequoia National Park
- Walk around sequoias – No trip to Sequoia National Park is complete without taking a stroll among the giant sequoia trees. Sequoias reach up to 275 feet and although they are not as tall as redwood trees that you can find at Redwood National Park, they are considered the largest trees in the world!
- Check out General Sherman Tree – General Sherman is the oldest tree in the world. The tree is located at the beginning of the paved trail, and I recommend you take some time exploring it instead of just snapping a photo and going back to your car.
- Hike Moro Rock – One of the best overlooks in Sequoia National Park, Moro Rock offers a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Giant Forest Museum – an easily accessible trail that goes through a big sequoia grove, Giant Forest Museum allows you to see sequoia trees up close.
- Take a drive on General’s Highway – Driving on the main road through Sequoia National Park is pure magic. This 33-mile long highway is one of the most spectacular roads of all national parks in California that connects General Sherman Tree and Grant Tree, the second largest tree in the world.
- Visit General Grant Grove – home to Grant Tree, this grove boasts the widest sequoias in the park. Take a short but scenic trail to appreciate them. At the north and elf of the parking lot, you can find a 2-mile North Grove Trail that loops through a sequoia grove.
- Hit the trails – Although Sequoia National Park has many spectacular overlooks, the best way to see them is by taking one of the hiking trails. Some of the most scenic hiking trails within the park include Kings River Trail and Topokah Falls. The adventurous travelers should try Alta Peak, a challenging trail with an elevation gain of 3,900 feet and covers nearly 15 miles.
How many days to spend at Sequoia National Park
If you want to see Sequoia National Park plan no less than 2-3 days for your trip. Although you can see the highlights of this park in just a day, you will miss out on more than 90 percent of these places. Take your time and pace yourself if you want to see both of these places.
Best time to visit Sequoia National Park
Due to their location high in the mountains, both Sequoia and Kings Canyon are blanketed by snow from late fall through early spring. During this time many roads are closed due to ice and snow and access to many areas is limited. Late spring through mid-fall is the best time to visit the park.
Summer is the busiest time here, and September and October have thinner crowds and cooler temperatures.
Kings Canyon National Park
Where to stay: The Darling
Closest City: Visalia
Getting to Kings Canyon National Park: Kings Canyon sits just 50 miles from Sequoia National Park, and many visitors often combine these two national parks in one trip. To get from Sequoia to Kings Canyon, you need to take the General’s Highway.
Home to some of the deepest canyons in the United States, and tall waterfalls, Kings Canyon is an unmissable stop on your California national parks itinerary.
This national park is a perfect stop if you are looking for a less crowded place as only a few visitors make it here. Although it is administered jointly with Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon is a destination on its own because there are just too many things to do here.
Best things to do in Kings Canyon National Park
- Check out General Grant – Kings Canyon National Park is home to General Grant, the second largest tree in the world, where you will find none of the usual crowds that you can see around General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. General Grant is about 268 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter, and if you come here early, there’s a chance you could have it all to yourself!
- Explore Redwood Canyon – Not far from General Grant, you will find Redwood Canyon – home to the largest groves of sequoias that can be accessed via several trails.
- Hike Zumwalt Meadow – one of the most beautiful hikes in Kings Canyon, a trail to Zumwalt Meadow takes you over a bridge above the Kings River and brings you to one of the most scenic areas in Kings Canyon. This hike is a must in spring when the entire meadow is dotted with wildflowers.
- Mist Falls – the largest waterfall in Kings Canyon, Mist Fall requires an 8-mile hike. It might seem a bit long but is well worth it. If you want a shorter hike, head to Roaring River Falls, a much shorter, but no less impressive waterfall.
- Drive on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway – a wonderful scenic drive, Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects Cedar Grove with Grant Grove (home to General Grant). Springtime is the best time to do this hike because of the gorgeous alpine wildflowers along the way and the nightly Grizzly Falls, that plunge from 75 feet.
How many days to spend at Kings Canyon National Park
If you want to visit Kings Canyon in addition to Sequoia National Park, add two more days to your trip. Just as with Sequoia, you can see major areas of the park in just a day, but you will miss out on many cool places.
Best time to visit Kings Canyon National Park
Due to their location high in the mountains, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are blanketed by snow from late fall through early spring. During this time many roads are closed due to ice and snow and access to some areas is limited. Late spring through mid-fall is the best time to visit the park if you want to spend time outdoors and enjoy uncrowded trails.
Summer is the busiest time here, and September and October have thinner crowds and cooler temperatures. Kings Canyon gets about a third of Sequoia’s visitors which makes for a fun visit.
Pinnacles National Park
Where to stay: Bernardus Lodge and Spa
Closest City: San Jose. Salinas is about 30 miles from Pinnacles National Park and King City is 20 miles away
Getting to the Pinnacles National Park: The fastest way to get to the Pinnacles National Park is by taking a flight to San Jose International Airport where you can rent a car and take a 90-minute drive to the park. You can also fly into San Francisco International Airport, which will about 30 minutes to your trip, making it a 2-hour drive.
Things to know about Pinnacles National Park
One of the least visited national parks in California, Pinnacles got its name after the towering rock formations protruding from the floor of the valley. Unlike more popular national parks in California that are overrun with people, Pinnacles is the perfect getaway if you are looking for off the beaten path.
Pinnacles are one of California’s newest national parks that has been designated in 2013 and now visitors can enjoy unspoiled views of the mountain scenery, rock climbing, and cool hiking trails that meander along the dry mountainous landscape.
Another cool thing about visiting Pinnacles is that here you can see the California condor, the endangered bird that called this place home.
Best things to do at Pinnacles National Park:
- High Peaks Loop (6.4-mile trail) – the most popular trail in this national park, High Peaks Loop provides the best views of the spire-like pinnacles and offers a decent workout thanks to 1,325 feet of elevation gain.
- Condor Gulch Overlook (2 miles) – the best scenic overlook in Pinnacles, Condor Gulch is one of the best spots in this national park to see iconic California Condors.
- Bear Gulch Cave Trail (1,5 miles) – a great place to cool off, Bear Gulch Cave Trail takes you through canyons and caves where you can spot bats and see a different landscape.
- Balconies Cave (2 miles) – located right off the Balconies Cave Trail, Balconies Cave is one of the most interesting spots in the Pinnacles National Park where you can see one of the talus caves. Park at Chaparral Trailhead and follow the signs toward Balconies Cave Trail.
- Rock climbing – Pinnacles is one of the best places for rock climbing in Central California. There are over 300 rock climbing spots throughout the park and although you will not find the grants walls like in Yosemite, the scenery and the great feeling of adventure will compensate for it.
How many days to spend at Pinnacles National Park
You can see most highlights of the Pinnacles National Park in just a day. If you want to spend more time rock climbing and getting off the beaten path, consider spending 2-3 days here.
Best time to visit Pinnacles National Park
Summer is the best time visit Pinnacles National Park. The weather is sunny and clear during summer months which is perfect for hiking and camping.
National Parks in California: South
Death Valley National Park
Where to stay: Amargosa Opera House and Hotel
Closest city: The closest major city to Death Valley National Park in Las Vegas located about 121 miles away.
There are several small towns near Death Valley where you can spend the night before visiting national park. On the eastern side, Beatty, Amargosa Valley, and Pahrump are within a quick drive from the park’s entrance. Travelers who are entering Death Valley from the west, stay in Lone Pine, Big Pine, or other towns along Highway 395.
Getting to Death Valley: There are a couple of ways to get to Death Valley depending on where you are traveling from.
From the east: The easiest way to get to Death Valley from Las Vegas is via Pahrump along California Highway 190.
From the west: If you are traveling from the west, you can take State Route 14 or U.S. Route 395 toward Ridgecrest, CA, and take State Route 178 from there. Further on Highway 395, you can merge onto Highway 190 toward the park’s entrance.
From the south: From the town of Baker located along Interstate-15 take State Route 127 north toward the town of Shoshone and from there continue to Death Valley Junction that will connect you to the eastern entrance of Death Valley via State Route 178 and onto California Highway 190 from Death Valley Junction.
Things to know about Death Valley National Park
One of the most enigmatic national parks in California, Death Valley is home to the hottest temperatures in North America, otherworldly desert landscapes with shifting dunes, crystallized salt flats, and badlands. It’s one of the most underappreciated national parks in California as many people tend to think that there’s nothing but the boring desert here.
This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Death Valley is home to an array of biodiversity, superb hiking trails, and some of the most striking landscapes in North America. It boasts pristine dark skies thanks to its location away from the major sources of light pollution and is popular for stargazing.
Death Valley is also home to remarkable history as it was a major migration route during the California Gold Rush Era when thousands of people were crossing the area. The park even offers ranger-guided tours that showcase the unique history of the park.
Best things to do in Death Valley National Park
- Watch the sunset from Zabriskie Point – One of the most popular (and accessible) stops in Death Valley, Zabriskie Point is an overlook of the spectacular badlands located against the backdrop of the dark Panamint Mountains. The history of Zabriskie Point dates back to the time when prospectors were mining borax (the white gold) following its discovery during the California Gold Rush era.
- Enjoy the Artists’ Drive – The hues of purple, green, pink, and red colors throughout the 9-mile Artist’s Drive are caused by the oxidation of metals such as iron and copper. It’s an unmissable stop on your Death Valley itinerary and one of the most amazing things to do in Death Valley if you want to snap a cool shot!
- Explore Badwater Basin – The lowest point in the United States, Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level and is located on the southern tip of the Death Valley National Park. Take a look at the water pool and the sign at the entrance. Walk a bit further, take a close look at the salt formations, and you will be able to see individual salt crystals in the crust on the ground.
FUN FACT: Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states which peaks at 14,505 feet are less than 80 miles away!
- Walk on dunes – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the most scenic spots in Death Valley, and it offers plenty of incredible patterns, curves, and lines for photography. Make sure to wear your shoes, especially during summer because the sand can get hot.
- Take in the scenery from Dante’s View – Driving to the highest point, Dante’s View is one of the most fun things to do in Death Valley. To get there, make a left turn on Furnace Creek Wash Road after entering the park from the east and continue for the next 13 miles on the road that gradually goes up a steep hill.
PRO TIP: Want to stay safe while visiting Death Valley? Check my guide ahead of your visit.
How many days to spend at Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the biggest national park in the lower 48 states with over 3 million acres of protected wilderness. It takes time and effort to explore and driving distances between some points of interest can take as much as one hour. If you want to explore the park and do some hiking, I suggest no less than 2 days for your trip to Death Valley.
Best time to visit Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the hottest of all national parks in California with temperatures reaching 130 degrees in summer (the last record was set in August 2020). While experiencing the famous triple digits is a one-of-a-kind adventure, it also makes being outside tough and even dangerous. Outdoor activities are often discouraged in summer because of the potential danger of heat overexposure.
The best time to visit Death Valley National Park is from December through February when temperatures stay around mid-60’s and low 70’s. During this time you can enjoy some of the best things to do in Death Valley, like hiking and camping, as you will have mild temps and plenty of sunshine.
March and April are also good time to visit Death Valley as it’s not too hot yet.
Joshua Tree National Park
Where to stay: Oasis Inn and Suites Joshua Tree
Closest city: The closest major city to Joshua Tree is Los Angeles about 140 miles away.
Joshua Tree has become one of the most popular day trips from LA, so it can be busy here, especially on weekends and big holidays. Joshua Tree is also surrounded by many small towns including Joshua Tree, the gateway to park, about 0.2 miles from the park’s entrance; Yucca Valley, 8 miles from the park; and Twentynine Palms, which is about 15 miles from park – the most popular place to stay thanks to a good variety of hotels and restaurants catering to tourists.
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree National Park has three entrances, north, south, and west.
From the south: Located off Interstate-10, the exit to Joshua Tree is about 40 miles east of Palm Springs.
From the west: About 10 miles east of the city of Yucca Valley. It is 5 miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard in Joshua Tree Village.
From the north: Just outside Twenty-nine Palms, three miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Utah Trail
Things to know about Joshua Tree National Park
With landscapes that look like they were taken out of Dr. Seuss books, it’s no surprise that Joshua Tree has become the most popular national park in California.
Home to quirky Joshua Trees that reach up to 10 feet and bizarre-looking boulders that come in many shapes, this park covers 800,000 acres of prime desert habitat. This national park offers spectacular landscapes with different forms of vegetation and wildlife at various elevations thanks to the two distinct deserts that meet here: the Mojave and Colorado.
Best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park:
- Drive on Park Boulevard – The main thoroughfare of Joshua Tree National Park, Park Boulevard runs east to west from Twentynine Palms to Joshua Tree and provides access to many points of interest within the park.
- Visit Hidden Valley – one of the most spectacular areas of this national park, Hidden Valley is a perfect place for enjoying the iconic landscapes thanks to its one-mile loop that is suitable for all hikers. There’s also a picnic area in the Hidden Valley located across from the trailhead where you can take a break and enjoy the stunning scenery.
- Try rock climbing – Joshua Tree is a popular destination for rock climbing thanks to nearby 8,000 climbing routes traversing the park. Climbers flock to Joshua Tree during colder months when other popular rock climbing destinations further up north are off-limits. Hidden Valley and western portions of the park are the most popular areas for rock climbers.
- Check out rock skull – One of the most popular features of this national park, Rock Skull looks like a giant skill peeking from the pile of boulders surrounding it. This rock formation is located right along the road and tends to be a busy spot with many visitors coming here to take photos and explore the huge slabs of rock.
- Drive-up to Keys View – A spectacular overlook that sits at 5,000 feet, Keys View offers a panorama of Coachella Valley down below. In the distance, you can also see Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, and on a clear day – even Mexico. As you drive up here, you will notice that the air gets considerably cooler due to a high elevation, so don’t forget to bring your jacket.
- Pitch a tent – Joshua Tree National Park boasts wonderful clear skies at night and the best way to see them is by camping in the park! There are several campgrounds in Joshua Tree, including Hidden Valley (first-come, first-served basis), Jumbo Rocks (that requires a reservation), White Tank Campground, or spectacular Indian Cove Campground located just outside of Twentynine Palms.
How many days to spend at Joshua Tree National Park
Most highlights of this national park can be seen in a day, but to enjoy the clear dark skies above this national park, consider camping here or spending a night at one of the hotels in Twentynine Palms. If you want to do some rock climbing, spend a few days in Joshua Tree because the park has many good parts for rock climbing.
Best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree can be visited year-round, but summers here can be pretty hot with temperatures close to triple digits. Late fall through is mid-spring is a perfect time to visit Joshua Tree National Park because of the more mild temperatures (the high 60s and 70s) and plenty of sunshine.
Channel Islands National Park
Where to stay: Hotel Californian
Closest City: The closest city to the Channel Islands is Ventura located along Central California Coast.
How to get there: Comprised of the five islands off the coast of Southern California, the Channel Islands is one of the least visited national parks in California thanks to its remote location. And, unlike other national parks in California, the Channel Islands can be accessed ONLY via boat ride from Ventura or Oxnard.
Things to know about Channel Islands National Park
Nicknamed “the Galapagos of North America,” the Channel Islands are separated from the mainland by the Santa Barbara Channel and feel like an entirely different world.
About 2,000 species call these rugged wind-swept islands home, and because they had to adapt to this isolated environment, many of them exist nowhere else in the world.
Some of the most popular activities in the Channel Islands are kayaking, hiking, and wildlife watching. With no stores, hotels, or accommodations, this is an adventurer’s paradise as it offers plenty of solitude and wonderful untouched landscapes free from crowds. If you plan to spend a night here, bring your camping equipment and food because amenities here are very limited.
The Channel Islands boast rugged beauty and offer a quiet atmosphere compared to some of the most popular national parks in California.
Best Things To Do in Channel Islands National Park
Each of the islands comprising this national park (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa) offers incredible opportunities for recreation with its unique flora and fauna, panoramic landscapes, and viewpoints. Here’s a brief overview of the park’s highlights:
- Wildlife watching – Channel Islands National Park is home to many endemic animals such as little island foxes that are a product of the park’s remote location since it was never connected to mainland California. Wildlife lovers particularly love dolphin and whale watching tours where you can see these majestic animals. Island Packers runs wildlife watching tours year-round from Ventura and Oxnard.
- Hiking – Channel Islands are a hiker’s paradise thanks to their pristine scenery and wide-open spaces. Here you can walk along cliffs and marvel at stunning wildflowers during spring. There is a good variety of hikes in this national park from the popular Pelican Bay Trail, Scorpion Canyon Loop, and Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island to Torrey Pines and Mountain Track on Santa Rosa Island. One of the most rewarding hikes in this national park is a 15-mile round trip to Point Bennett on San Miguel Island.
- Kayaking – One of the most popular things to do in Channel Island National Park, kayaking is the easy way to explore these rugged islands. It’s a great opportunity to see pristine beaches, beautiful coves, and mysterious sea caves. One of the most popular spots for kayaking here is Scorpion Cove on East Santa Cruz Island. Channel Islands Adventure Company has different kayaking tours around the park.
- Camping – Camping in Channel Island National Park is next level. Here you will not find the crowds of places like Yosemite or Joshua Tree, which means you will have this majestic place to yourself. Each of the five islands has primitive campgrounds where you can enjoy clear dark skies at night. Camping in many of the park’s campsites requires a reservation.
- Diving and snorkeling – One of the most unique places for diving, Channel Island National Park is famous for its kelp forest where you can spot sea lions, sea stars, sponges, and many other marine creatures. There are several diving companies in the area that offer a variety of diving and snorkeling trips in the Channel Islands.
How many days to spend in Channel Islands National Park
For the best experience spend 3-5 days exploring Channel Islands National Park. However, it’s also popular to visit one of the islands on a day trip. There are several tour companies that offer daily excursions to Santa Barbara such as Island Packers.
Best time to visit Channel Islands National Park
Summer is the best time to visit this national park, thanks to mild temps and plenty of sunshine which create perfect conditions for outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, and camping.
Tips for visiting National Parks in California
- Fill up your tank – Only a few national parks in California have gas stations within parks’ limits, and gas prices there tend to be very high. If you plan to spend a day hiking and exploring one of California’s national parks, it’s a good idea to fill up your tank ahead of your visit, so you don’t have to overpay for it later.
- Don’t rely on your cellphone – Cell phone service can be sporadic and even non-existent in some national parks in California, that’s why you should always bring a paper map (which you can get at the visitors center) or download before you go.
- You might need a bear spray – Bear spray is a necessity if you are going to visit one of the national parks in Northern California. Whether you are hiking or camping, carrying a bear spray is a good idea in case you come across a bear and need to quickly get to safety.
- Amenities could be limited – Many national parks have limited services which mean food and gas might not be available before you get outside the park. Some popular national parks in California like Death Valley and Yosemite have small convenience stores and restaurants, but prices there tend to be higher than in regular stores. Stock up on food before visiting the park to avoid unnecessary expenses.
- Dogs might not always be allowed on trails – Each national park typically has its own rules because dogs on trails could be detrimental to some ecosystems. For the most part, dogs are allowed to go where cars can go, but always check before you do your research.
- Pack in, pack out – Don’t leave your trash around. Collect everything and throw it into a designated container inside the park or outside the park. Leaving trash can be detrimental for animals who feed on your leftovers and lose their hunting instincts as a result.
- Skip big holidays – Overcrowding has become a serious issue in many popular national parks in California, but it can be really bad and during big holidays with miles-long car lines, clogged hiking trails, and limited parking. If you want to enjoy California’s best national parks, do not visit them on big holidays like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and other major days when many people are off.
- Don’t book hotels last minute – In summer, it’s not uncommon to pay a few hundred dollars for a basic room in a semi-decent motel near some of the most popular national parks in California. Try to book your hotels at least a couple of weeks ahead of your visit to avoid overpaying.
- Respect wildlife – I hope it goes without saying, but you should always keep a safe distance from any animals that you see in California national parks. Don’t follow, or pester and DO NOT feed them, as it can make them reliant on people and make them easy prey in the wild.
- Carry plenty of water – Whether you are going on a hike in the mountains or the desert, always carry plenty of water and snacks with you. It’s paramount to stay hydrated while you are hiking, and you should never get on a trail without at least a gallon of water (or more) in your backpack.
What is the best time to visit national parks in California?
When it comes to figuring out the best time for visiting California national parks, one size does not fit all. Many national parks in Southern California like Death Valley and Joshua Tree tend to get very hot in summer, while Yosemite and Sequoia have the best temperatures for spending time outside from June through September.
Always check the regional weather patterns when planning your trip to national parks in California.
How much time do I need to visit national parks in California?
If you are planning on visiting all of California national parks, you will probably need at least a month because of the driving distances between them. California is huge, and you will find many cool stops along the way, as you go from one national park to the other.
If you are like most travelers, you will probably have time only for a few national parks at a time, so it’s good to combine them by regions. For example, you could visit Death Valley and Joshua Tree before heading to Yosemite.
Or, you could also combine a a trip to Channel Islands with a visit to Santa Barbara.
The final word on visiting National Parks in California
Visiting national parks in California is an adventure like no other: you get to experience the most diverse scenery in a matter of just a couple of hours and explore some of the best hiking trails that lead to wonderful overlooks. No matter what your itinerary looks like, a trip around California national parks is the one for the books!
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