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Say Hello To The 9 Best California National Parks (2023)

Best California National Parks

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If you’re in search of the best California National Park, chances are most people will say it is Yosemite National Park. But from north to south, the state has much to offer in addition to the most famous national park in the country. 

The best California National Parks represent the Golden State at its finest, from ancient coastal forests to other-worldly deserts with plenty of hiking, sightseeing, and more.

The Best California National Parks

Get to know the nine national parks in California, as well as a few not-to-be-missed national monuments and landmarks. Let’s start from California’s northernmost corners and work our way south.

Viewpoint looking onto ocean and beach at Redwoods National Park

Northern California National Parks

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks cover more than 100,000 acres along California’s northernmost coast. It’s unique for two reasons. First, it’s actually a string of four parks — including Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. 

Second, it’s one of the only places in California to see redwoods. That’s because 96 percent of the state’s redwood forests were felled by the timber industry beginning in the 1850s. Combined these parks contain about 45% of the world’s protected ancient coast redwood forests so they’re a major treasure.

What To Do In Redwood National and State Parks

Today, you can venture through the world’s tallest trees on trails like the easy Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop or the Fern Canyon Loop Trail—new as of 2022. We also adore its other natural features like the Klamath River, coastline, beach, and open prairie. 

The National Park Service and California State Parks partner with Yurok and Tolowa people to preserve and restore sensitive habitats, and protect archeological sites and wildlife.

Where To Stay In And Near Redwood National and State Parks

If you’re not camping or staying in basic cabins in the park, then you’ll likely stay in inns, bed and breakfasts, and rental cottages nearby, like Gingerbread Mansion Inn. Places to eat around Redwood National and State Parks include casual spots off Highway 101 like The Lighthouse Grill and Larrupin Cafe’ in Trinidad. 

Most visitors headed to Redwood National and State Parks do so as part of a California road trip on Highway 325 north of San Francisco.

Moro Rock Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park

Central California National Parks

Yosemite National Park

As the second-ever national park with more than three million visitors annually, Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest and most famous national parks in the country. (Technically, it’s the third national park after Mackinac National Park in Michigan, which was named a National Park but then turned over to the State in 1895.)

Yosemite is widely considered one of the best and most beautiful parks in California. The Miwok people of the southern Sierra Nevada originally called this area home.

What To Do In Yosemite National Park

This sprawling corner of the Sierra Nevada is loved for waterfalls like Yosemite Falls—the tallest waterfall in North America, impressive granite domes and walls like Half Dome and El Capitan, alpine lakes, and meadows that make for picturesque hiking scenery. 

Some popular stops include snapping a postcard-perfect pic at Tunnel View (aka Wawona Tunnel), hiking the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, and venturing up Half Dome. FYI, the Half Dome hike clocks in at more than 14 miles and 5,000 feet elevation roundtrip. This day hike requires a reservation by lottery though there are many reservation-free hikes that are shorter and easier, like Sentinel Dome or Taft Point

Summer months bring tubing to Sentinel Beach while winter brings skiing at Badger Pass Ski resort as well as the “fire falls,” aka when Horsetail Fall glows orange at sunset.

Where To Stay In And Near Yosemite National Park

In-park accommodation options are limited to a few lodges and some tented cabin situations, so most visitors stay outside the park in Oakhurst, Mariposa, or Groveland. Some of the best lodging options near the park include glamping at AutoCamp YosemiteRush Creek Lodge & Spa, and Evergreen Lodge.

Foodwise, options vary from fancy meals and ambiance at The Ahwahnee Hotel‘s dining room to casual eats with gluten-free and vegan options at Jackalopes Bar & Grill at Tenaya Lodge

There are multiple ways to get to Yosemite National Park, and the park’s website offers the most comprehensive directions. Also, as of summer 2023, you don’t need to make a reservation to visit.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Another place to see huge, tall trees in California is central California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and the original homelands of the Mono (Monache) and Paiute, among other indigenous groups. 

Here, giant sequoias are the main draw to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. They were originally two separate parks until the 1940s when they were combined and they’re now connected by the scenic Generals Highway.

BTW, sequoias differ from redwoods: redwoods are the world’s tallest trees, while sequoias are the world’s largest trees by volume. Redwoods also grow on the coast, and sequoias grow inland at elevation.

What To Do In Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Check out sequoia groves by car or on a trail for hikers of all levels, like the ones that pass through meadows and other tall trees and viewpoints in Giant Forest & Lodgepole; and Cedar Grove‘s granite walls, rivers, and waterfalls. Visitors also go horseback riding, rock climbing, kayaking (experts only!); and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

Where To Stay In And Near Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

There are four lodges and inns within the park, including Wuksachi Lodge at 7,200 feet elevation. It has several restaurants and cafes, plus easy access to hiking and cross-country ski trails. 

Outside of the park to the west, the small town of Three Rivers has more hotels and dining options outside of the park though you could also venture to bigger cities like Visalia. 

In Three Rivers, Sequoia Coffee Co. does caffeine and breakfast while Casa Mendoza serves Mexican food. Also, the city of Fresno is about an hour’s drive from the park and has farmers’ markets and more ways to eat locally.

To get here, you’ll either enter from the west via Fresno (Highway 180 to Kings Canyon) or Visalia (Highway 198 to Sequoia National Park).

Sunset view of rocks at Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park

Southern California National Parks

Death Valley National Park

Summer temperatures may top 120 degrees, but that doesn’t stop more than one million annual visitors to Death Valley National Park. Another pick as one of the best California national parks, this park is set between California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and the Nevada state line. 

It earned its name in 1849 when a group of gold rushers on their way West in horse-drawn wagons nearly died in the valley (one did.) Before all of that, indigenous Timbusha Shoshone people have long migrated between the area’s valleys and mountains.

What To Do In Death Valley National Park

In cooler months, hiking through its canyons and sand dunes are a popular activity, as is doing tons of unique sightseeing from the multi-colored Artists Palette and Zabriskie Point. Dante’s View overlooks the basin and is considered one of the best spots in the park. 

But, of course, it’s best known for Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Many visitors like to visit Badwater Basin and then venture the 84-mile journey to the northwest to Mount Whitney, which is the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Where To Stay In And Near Death Valley National Park

There are campgrounds and four inns and resorts within the Death Valley National Park. Some, like The Oasis at Death Valley, even have an outdoor spring-fed swimming pool. It has two properties— Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley. Outside of the park, there are inns and hotels on the Nevada side in small towns like Pahrump and Beatty as well as on the California side in Lone Pine.

Aside from the eats in and immediately around the Park, it’s possible to eat at any of the places we enjoy along California Highway 395.

Joshua Tree National Park

Chances are you’ve heard of Joshua Tree National Park’s whimsical Joshua trees, interesting rock formations, and overall classic Mojave and Colorado desert scenery. (Btw, Joshua trees grow only in the Mojave Desert.) Or maybe you’re heading there to stargaze, cycle, or get your hike on.

What To Do In Joshua Tree National Park

That said, a one-mile hike to Barker Dam for a chance to spot Bighorn sheep and pics at Skull Rock are some can’t-miss activities. As the Park’s highest viewpoint, Keys View overlooks Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and maybe Mexico on a clear day. The Park is also popular with rock climbers.

In 2023, Joshua Tree National Park signed a partnership with Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians to preserve the park’s features and create new ones such as connecting trails between park service and Tribal lands

Where To Stay In And Near Joshua Tree National Park

Most visitors opt for camping in the park or renting an Airbnb in nearby Pionoeertown or Twentynine Palms. However,  Palm Springs, and the surrounding Coachella Valley cities are just a one-hour drive away and have luxury resorts to mid-century modern boutique properties.

As for eating, local spots near the Park like Crossroads Cafe do breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Although Palm Springs does have an airport that’s about 45 miles from the Park, you’ll likely arrive by car if you’re road-tripping through Los Angeles, Orange County, or San Diego.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Don’t Miss These Least Visited California Parks

These national parks offer a similar feel to some of the more popular national parks in California but without the crowds.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, Northern California

One of the least visited national parks in California is also one of the most scenic and unique and therefore one of the best California national parks. Lassen Volcanic National Park boasts all four types of Earth’s volcanoes and 150 miles of trails including the hike to Lassen Peak. It’s like Yellowstone meets Yosemite but with decidedly more elbow room. Find this park about 50 miles east of Redding, California. 

Pinnacles National Park, Central California

Pinnacles National Park leveled up to national park status in 2012 making it one of the newer parks. It’s known for finger-like rock formations shaped by ancient volcanic eruptions and erosion, and as a home to the endangered California condor. It’s located 50-odd miles east of Monterey off Highway 101 and has hiking trails, year-round camping, and more.

Channel Islands National Park, Southern California

These five islands off the southern California coast are also known as the “Galapagos of North America” as their only permanent inhabitants are endemic plants and wildlife like seals and the island fox. 

Adventurers make the 20-mile boat ride to Channel Islands National Park, including Anacapa Island, to hike, camp, kayak, and whale watch. Channel Islands is more rugged than California’s other islands like Catalina or Coronado Island which is why we adore it as one of the best California national parks.

Point Reyes Lighthouse California

National Landmarks and National Monuments to Check Out

Don’t forget these gems across the state:

Alcatraz Island

What was once a max-security federal prison is now a well-known National Historic Landmark. Alcatraz Island is a 15-minute ferry ride from San Francisco where you can take a guided or self-guided tour.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Wild stretches of coastline in California aren’t really a thing anymore except for protected areas like Point Reyes National Seashore. Less than 40 miles north of San Francisco, the Seashore offers nearly 80 miles of sandy beaches and trails with views of the Pacific Ocean. It’s popular during the gray whale migration season between December and mid-March.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Considered a rare geologic site, Devil’s Postpile National Monument, near the Eastern Sierra town of Mammoth Lakes, is worth visiting when it’s open in late spring to early fall. Admire the towering basaltic columns at ground level or hike to the top of the postpile. Note that most visitors traveling by car need to take the shuttle bus from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.

California Road Trip Planner

Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency specializing in California vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to California or want more info on some of the best California national parks, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.

Photo Credit: Opening photo of motorcyclists near Yosemite Half Dome by Michael Carni; Zabriskie Point Death Valley by Doug Lemke; Redwoods National Park coast view and Lassen Volcanic National Park by Zack Frank; Moro Rock photo by FiledIMAGE; Point Reyes lighthouse by Tõnu Tunnel

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