California isn't just beaches and cities; it has many national parks. In this article, we’ll cover 12 distinct National parks in California.
For nature lovers and adventure seekers, we've compiled a list of California's best national parks to visit in 2023. Whether you're a local or planning a trip, each park on this list offers something distinctive and awe-inspiring. Get ready to discover California's stunning natural beauty.
Whether you like hiking, biking, or just enjoy being outside, there's a park for you.
1. Yosemite National Park
Known as one of the best national parks in California, it offers something for everyone – from hikers to families looking for a summer getaway.
Our top tip for those staying a while is to consider camping at Camp 4 due to its low cost and convenient location near popular trails. The parking can be a hassle, so it's easier to stay central and rely on walking, biking, or buses to get around the national park. If you're driving, aim to arrive at sunrise, particularly if you want to hit a major trail like the Mist Trail.
While Yosemite is incredible all year, the park has a different vibe in the fall and winter, making it a must-visit across seasons. Hiking options are diverse, catering to all activity levels, so it's no surprise that this is one of the most famous national parks in California. Whether touring with Wildland Trekking or exploring independently, Yosemite promises an unforgettable experience.
2. Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park ranks as one of the best national parks in California. Although connected to Sequoia National Park, this entry focuses solely on Kings Canyon. You can get a rich experience in just one day, but longer stays are rewarding, too. Consider staying at a Grant Grove tent cabin close to the action.
One popular route is to drive to “Roads End” early in the morning and hit the trails from there. The views are spectacular—massive granite mountains and cliffs, picturesque rivers, and waterfalls. Wildlife, like bears, are often spotted, adding excitement to your hike. The trails offer a balanced challenge, not too steep but ascending enough to grant you panoramic vistas.
The Mist Falls trail is a great pick for even more amazing views, especially if you head a mile beyond the falls. Hikes generally take 3-4 hours, so pack water and snacks. Whether you're fit and looking for a good trek or just in for a scenic stroll, Kings Canyon is a place of remarkable beauty without the crowds you’d find in more famous parks.
3. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a fascinating place with various unique attractions, making it a standout national park in Southern California. The weather in Death Valley National Park, can be extreme. Summer temperatures can soar up to 110F, but don't let that deter you. Certain spots like Artist Palette become magical as the sun sets, revealing vibrant colors. Zabriskie Point and Furnace Creek are must-visits, which serve as a great base for exploring the park.
Nearby attractions include Mesquite Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin—the lowest point in the USA, Devil's Golf Course, and Ubehebe Crater.
Taking a guided day trip from Las Vegas is another option, offering cool insights and access to breathtaking landscapes. The park is large enough to experience significant changes in elevation and temperature, so be prepared. Services like gas, food, and cell reception can be sparse, so come well-equipped.
4. Channel Islands National Park
Is this one of the best national parks in California? We certainly think so! It is one of the least visited, making it all the more special. The park consists of five islands, each offering different activities and natural wonders.
How to get to Channel Islands National Park can be a bit challenging since you can't drive there. Your options are a short, thrilling boat ride across the ocean or a small airplane flight. But the journey is worth it; the limited accessibility enhances the solitude and helps preserve the park's fragile ecosystem.
Once you're on the islands, you'll find yourself part of a select group of visitors who experience the richness of these preserved lands. Congress specifically set these islands aside for conservation and for people to enjoy. The low-traffic environment ensures you'll find peace and solitude, offering a glimpse into what coastal Southern California was like in the past.
5. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park in California leaves everyone who visits awestruck by its trees' sheer size and beauty. If you're planning a trip to or around Yosemite, it's worth adding this park as a day trip while you are in the area. The Sequoias are a true natural wonder, standing even taller and appearing more magnificent than the Redwoods you may have seen elsewhere.
Take advantage of the General Sherman Tree in the park, the most giant tree on earth by volume. You can hike a brief 7/10 of a mile to get to it or opt for a shuttle for an even shorter 3/10-mile hike. There are also loads of other trails and attractions like Moro Rock, Congress Trail, and Tokopah Fall Trail, which offer breathtaking views all along the way.
Whether you're coming from the south end through Sequoia or from Kings Canyon National Park, it's advisable to use the shuttle service. The park gets busy, and parking after 10 a.m. can be challenging.
6. Lassen Volcanic National Park
People often forget Lassen Volcanic National Park, but it should be on your list of parks to visit.
One of the best things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park is hiking. We recommend hiking up to Lassen Peak. It's not for less experienced hikers but is incredibly rewarding, offering views out of this world. Hiking in the morning is generally a good idea, especially for trails like Lassen Peak, as temperatures can get quite high as the day goes on.
If you're looking for less strenuous trails that still offer scenic beauty, try Lake Manzanita, Bumpass Hell, or Ridges Lake. These shorter hikes are unique and interesting in their own right.
Before planning your visit, check the weather conditions, as some roads and trails may be closed due to snow, even as late as July. Also, remember to bring hiking sticks if you plan to tackle more challenging trails. You'll be crossing several patches of snow, especially if you visit during the summer months.
7. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best national parks to visit in California. It's pretty accessible from people living or staying in LA and San Diego as its only a few hours away from both, making it one of the prime southern national parks in California.
Hiking options vary, from moderate trails like Lost Palm Oasis to more challenging ones like Lost Horse. The scenery and views are stunning, but be prepared for intense sun. Starting your hikes early, around 7:30 AM, could help you avoid the worst. Also, consider the water you'll need; two liters per hike is a good start.
Other activities include rock climbing and evening hikes. Trails like Barker Dam are less challenging but offer a lot of fun climbing boulders. The park's unique plant life and rock formations make each trail special.
A few tips for a successful trip: wear good hiking boots, carry sunscreen, a hat, and a light jacket.
8. Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is great for hiking, exploring caves, and wildlife watching. In the week it can be a lot less crowded than at the weekends, so if you want to avoid lots of people, visit in the week!
The Moses Spring-Rim Loop Trail is a good hike that takes you through wet, slippery caves with waterfalls and up to a reservoir.
There is a huge amount of wildlife, deer, condors, and so much more. The rock spires are one of the unique features that really adds to the beauty of the park. So, if you do find yourself visiting Pinnacles National Park, prepare yourself for an adventure filled time with amazing views with plenty of activities!
Top tip: The park can get very hot in the summer, so we always recommend you bring plenty of water!
9. Redwood National and State Parks
If you want to see big trees in a California National Park, Redwood National and State Parks are where you'll want to be. Located among the national parks in northern California, this park offers a surreal experience as the tallest trees on the planet surround you. Popular hikes like Fern Canyon, Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway, and Cathedral Tree hike are open and offer unique experiences.
Crescent City is a good base to explore nearby attractions like Fern Canyon, False Klamath Cove, and Trees of Mystery. The Trillium Falls hike is a great starting point if you're tight on time. Although the falls are small, the hike is amazing, with majestic redwoods and giant ferns.
The rangers in the park are especially helpful and knowledgeable.
10. King Range National Conservation Area
King Range National Conservation Area offers an amazing outdoor experience with unique landscapes and activities. Whether taking your Jeep on Paradise Ridge Road or hiking among the Douglas fir-covered peaks, you're in for a treat. Keep in mind that cellphone service is limited, so plan accordingly. With 68,000 acres, including 35 miles of California’s north coast, the area is often called California's Lost Coast due to its rugged, remote nature.
If you are interested in fantastic mountain bike trails or some of the best coastal wilderness areas, then King Range is the one for you.
The King Range Visitor Center is open from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday to Friday. They can help with trip planning, conditions, maps, tide charts, and bear canister rentals. Whether you're an avid hiker, surfer, angler, or hunter, King Range has something for everyone.
11. Point Reyes National Seashore
When it comes to soaking in the natural beauty of the California coast, Point Reyes National Seashore doesn't disappoint. One of the best things to do in Point Reyes National Seashore is to drive along Sir Francis Drake Blvd, which offers a beautiful scenic route. The shipwreck and the Cyprus Tree Tunnel are two notable stops along the way. Both spots might seem overhyped, but they are captivating and offer excellent photo opportunities.
Tomales Point and Drake's Beach are must-visit spots. The hikes are fantastic, offering encounters with diverse wildlife like coyotes, tule elk, weasels, and elephant seals. The visitor center is well-run, and the rangers are helpful, making your trip smooth and enjoyable.
The area is known for its fog, so afternoons are generally a better time for clear views.
12. Cascade–Siskiyou National Monument
Cascade–Siskiyou National Monument is a place of rich biodiversity close to Ashland and Interstate 5 in Southern Oregon. With an area covering 114,000 acres, the monument boasts various climate zones. This is where the Great Basin meets the Siskiyou and Cascade Mountains and the Rogue River Valley. The result is diverse ecosystems and wildlife, including mountain lions, river otters, black bears, and over 200 bird species.
The monument is easy to access and is intersected by the Pacific Crest Trail, offering 43 miles of stunning natural beauty. If you need more time, a hike up to Hobart Bluff is necessary. It gives 360-degree views from the Rogue Valley to California's Mt. Shasta. With more time, consider trekking to the base of Pilot Rock or heading to Soda Mountain’s observation tower.
Another must-see is Hyatt Lake, which is great for summer activities like kayaking, swimming, and fishing.
California has the most amazing landscapes, and with all these choices of national parks, there's something for everyone. Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
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I’m Steve. I’m an English Teacher, traveler, and an avid outdoorsman. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@thefrugalexpat1). Many of my posts have been written to help those in their journey to financial independence. I am on my journey, and as I learn more I hope to share more. And as always, thanks for reading The Frugal Expat.