Salt & Wind Travel

Say Hello To The 9 Best National Parks In California (2024)

If you are wondering which are the best national parks in California, most people will say that Yosemite National Park tops the list. But from north to south, the state has much to offer in addition to the most famous national park in the country.

The best national parks in California represent the Golden State at its finest, from ancient coastal forests and rugged mountains to lava beds and otherworldly deserts. They provide plenty of hiking, sightseeing, and adventure be it Redwood National and State Parks and Lassen Volcanic National Park to Sequoia and Kings Canyon tot Pinnacles National Park.

As a food-focused travel company specializing in California travel planning, we help a lot of California-bound food lovers craft the ultimate road trip itinerary. And, whenever possible, we always aim to include on of California National Parks on their trip. While our cities are filled with world-class food and culture, they’re best contrasted by the immense wilderness areas and spectacular views that the national parks in California provide. 

National Parks In California
Table of Contents

The Best National Parks in California

Here we’re sharing what you you need to know about 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 one of the most unique national parks in California 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: 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: 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.

Northern California Road Trip

Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

What To Do: Drive along Highway 89 to pass by Lassen Peak as well as geothermal formations, and stunning picnic areas. While experienced hikers can challenge themselves to climb the Lassen Peak Trail, the Bumpass Hell hike is moderate and rewarding as it leads to an active geothermal areas.

Where To Stay: The recently-constructed Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins are a good value for families or groups. Otherwise, head to Drakesbad Guest Ranch for horseback riding and hot-springs. Note that the park is hard to access in the winter months so we’d suggest visiting spring through fall. 

Women sitting on rock in Tenaya Lake looking east to Cathedral Peak

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: 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, lookouts like Glacier Point, and 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-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. There are multiple ways to get to Yosemite National Park, and the park’s website offers the most comprehensive directions. 

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 including the legendary General Sherman Tree. 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: 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: 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). Note that the park is hard to access in the winter months so we’d suggest visiting spring through fall. 

Pinnacles National Park, Central California

Pinnacles National Park leveled up to national park status in 2012 making it one of the newer national parks in California. 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.

What To Do: This is a premier destination for rock climbing in California so it’s a great place to try your hand at the sport. Also, this national park in California is known for its two talus caves, Balconies and Bear Gulch Cave. The park’s beauty is best enjoyed via hiking so plan to ascend the peaks for a scenic view.

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 national parks in California, this park is the largest national park in the contiguous United States.  

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 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: 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.

Campground in Joshua Tree National Park

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 at one of the most beloved national parks in California.

What To Do: 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: Most visitors opt for camping in the park or renting an Airbnb in nearby Pioneertown 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.

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, made up of Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa Island. 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.

What To Do: These islands are nicknamed “California’s Galapagos” thanks to their incredible diversity of animal species and plant life. Head here to hike, kayak, scuba dive among tide pools and kelp forests. 

Where To Stay: Many visitors use an outfitter out of Ventura, Oxnard, or Santa Barbara to head out for a day or overnight trip. 

Frequently Asked Questions

California is home to nine national parks, each known for its unique natural features. Yosemite National Park is famed for its towering granite cliffs and waterfalls. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are renowned for their giant sequoia trees. Death Valley National Park is known for its extreme desert landscapes.

Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its Joshua trees and rock formations. Redwood National Park houses the tallest trees in the world. Lassen Volcanic National Park offers geothermal features like fumaroles and hot springs. Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands with unique ecosystems. Pinnacles National Park is known for its rock formations and talus caves.

The best time to visit California's national parks varies by location due to the diverse climates across the state. Spring (April to June) is ideal for Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon due to the mild weather and blooming wildflowers. Fall (September to November) is perfect for Death Valley and Joshua Tree when temperatures are cooler.

Summer (June to August) is great for coastal parks like Channel Islands and Redwood, offering escape from the inland heat. Lassen Volcanic and Pinnacles are best visited in late spring through early fall to avoid snow. Always check individual park websites for seasonal closures and conditions before planning your visit.

When visiting California's national parks, it's important to plan ahead by checking park websites for current conditions, closures, and any required permits or reservations. Pack appropriately for the weather, which can vary greatly even within a single day. Always stay on designated trails to protect the natural environment and wildlife. Bring plenty of water, especially in desert parks like Death Valley. Lastly, consider visiting less crowded parks or during off-peak times to enjoy a more serene experience.

Point Reyes Lighthouse California

National Landmarks and National Monuments to Know

Don’t forget these three national landmarks across the state that are also worth visiting: 

Alcatraz Island

What was once a max-security federal prison is now a well-known National Historic Landmark in view of the Golden Gate bridge. 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.

View of Yosemite Valley floor with fog and fall foliage

Where To Stay Near Yosemite

Now that your versed on California’s national parks, let’s dive into Yosemite. Nestled amidst the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park beckons adventurers and nature lovers alike. Our upcoming article unveils the best accommodations to enhance your visit, from cozy mountain cabins offering serene forest retreats to luxurious lodges with breathtaking valley views. 

Discover where to stay near Yosemite National Park to immerse yourself fully in the natural beauty and tranquility of this iconic landscape. Whether seeking a romantic getaway, a family adventure, or a solo escape into the wilderness, our guide will help you find the perfect basecamp, be it in Yosemite Valley or just outside the park. Prepare for an unforgettable journey into the heart of the wild, where comfort meets nature in harmony.

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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