California – the promised land on the far side of the Rockies. For centuries this was the holy grail of pioneers on the cross-continental trail. It was a place to dream of, filled with fertile ground, freedom, and opportunity.
Fast forward to the modern age and there’s still an air of mysticism surrounding the so-called Golden State. Much of it is down to the legendary national parks in California, each continuing to draw the eye of adventurers of all shapes and sizes. They go from the ribbon-like waterfalls of Yosemite to the sun-cracked pans of Death Valley. They include the alpine forests of Tahoe and run down to the whale-splashing shores of SoCal coast. Yep, there are all sorts of natural wonders still lurking between the peaks and coves out West.
In fact, California lays claim the most designated reserves of any state. And it has a history wrapped up in tales of the great John Muir and other iconic naturalists who helped to shape the very history of the national park service itself. So, if you’re seeking an adventure, read on. This list of the top national parks in California is most certainly one for you…
Yosemite National Park
If there’s a California national park that’s never needed an introduction, it’s Yosemite. Encompassing more than 3,000 square kilometers across the spiked tops and deep valleys of the Sierra Nevada, it’s become something of a symbol of the Golden State as a whole. Just check out the chiseled face of El Capitan – considered by free climbers to be one of the most challenging walls of rock on the planet. And don’t miss the Half Dome, a soaring granite megalith that’s hewn in two. Scale that to find some of America’s most famous lookout points (a pass might be needed).
But beyond the mainstay attractions that loom above the idyllic Yosemite Valley, you can also find plenty of hidden gems in the deeper recesses of the Yosemite National Park, California. Hikers can run rings around the reflective waters of the Cathedral Lakes. It’s possible to duck under mist-pluming waterfalls along the Tuolumne River. Or, you can wander bear-stalked forests of giant sequoias. In addition, there are cabins and campsites in abundance around the western edge of the reserve. Day passes for vehicles cost $30.
Joshua Tree National Park
Named for the curious species of yucca that sprouts all over this dusty and dry corner of the Mojave, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most alien landscapes in North America. It all starts beyond the deluxe spas and hotel resorts of Palm Springs, west of the Los Angeles Inland Empire. There, the pine forests are quickly replaced by seemingly endless stretches of arid scrub. They slope down from the rocky tops of the Little San Bernardino Mountains into basins of swirling sand and sculpted granite.
Talking of granite – the stone is contorted into jaw-dropping shapes and features here. Among them, the Giant Marbles and the Old Woman Rock are perfect examples of the anthropomorphic protrusions that have fed into the myths and legends of the wilderness.
Popular excursions include the one-mile loop around the Hidden Valley. On that, you’ll need to keep an eye out for daring climbers on the vert faces above. There are also treks into the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, which passes over scrambling sections to mirage-like visions of green trees and babbling waters. At night, others will come to make the most of cloudless skies and some of the country’s very best stargazing. Find out where to camp in Joshua Tree National Park.
Devils Postpile National Monument
You’ll find the Devils Postpile National Monument deep on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. It’s sandwiched between the fabled reaches of Yosemite and the adrenaline-pumping ski runs of Mammoth Mountain (some of the best in California!). The spot is famed mainly for its eponymous geological wonder. Cue the Devils Postpile itself.
Formed from the fast cooling of free-flowing magma less than 100,000 years ago, it’s among the world’s most pristine examples of columnar basalt. Rising above the woodlands, it resembles a chiseled sculpture of modern art more than a product of nature. Once you’ve had your fill of that, be sure to turn your attention to the cascading Rainbow Falls. They stream beautifully over a series of bluffs between the black cottonwood and pine trees, gurgling into a boulder-speckled riverway below. Mhm – there are reasons why this national park in California is hailed as a veritable dream for photographers!
The Redwood and National State Park
Ask any local for tips on the best national parks in California, and the Redwoods parks are a sure mention. Known for their evergreen forests, the Redwood reserves are one of the northernmost in all of California. Clutching the oceanside ridges of the Pacific Coast Ranges as they rise like daggers along the state line with Oregon.
As a combination of national and state parks, they add up to nearly 140,000 acres in total. And while that might seem vast, it’s just a fraction of the whopping two million acres of the West Coast that was once dominated by great swathes of this hulking species of evergreen. That means delving into these mist-gathering forests is like taking a step back in time. It’s a journey to see how the Pacific shores would have looked before the coming of the railroad and the gold rush. And it’s one you certainly won’t forget, with some of the specimens of sequoia here clocking up heights of over 110 meters!
Around them are clusters of ancient Douglass-firs and bigleaf maples. That creates the perfect habitat for bald eagles, cougars, and elk. And that’s not mentioning the amazing places to do a spot of Redwood National Park camping. Don’t forget to travel to the coastal corners of the reserve, either. There, waves smash into cliffs and wind-blasted beaches. And sightings of harbor seals and dolphins aren’t uncommon.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Why struggle when Point Reyes is easily one of the best national parks in California? Looking for a change? This sole national seashore on the West Coast of the United States certainly doesn’t disappoint. Draped over a wild peninsula just north of hip and happening San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s the perfect antidote to the buzz of the city.
You’ll find it split from the mainland by the reflective waters of Tomales Bay, which soon gives way to high bluffs of grassy meadows, coast flowerbeds, and sand dunes. Eventually, that tumbles to meet the Pacific in a string of coves, crevices, and golden beaches that’s simply irresistible.
Among them, you can go to face the spitting surf swells of Great Beach and the sulking elephant seals of Chimney Beach, or opt to scramble to soaring lookouts at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, where grey whales pass by between January and March. A comprehensive web of hiking and tramping paths links all corners of the park. That includes the ever-popular Bear Valley Trail where you hop the ferns and duck the rock arches and the 5,000-mile American Discovery Trail that runs coast to coast.
Death Valley National Park
As one of the planet’s hottest places and one of the largest national parks in California, Death Valley is the stuff of extremes. It clutches the border with Nevada with its dramatic landscapes that can often seem more Arabia than America. Yep, this is a world of ochre-tinted mountains, sun-cracked canyons, and sweeping sand dunes that shift like seas beneath a heat-blurred horizon.
Appropriately named Furnace Creek is the gateway to it all. It’s loaded with a smattering of campgrounds, inns, and even a small airstrip on the 190 highway. That’s the perfect base for organizing to join one of the high-adrenaline activities that carry on in this untamed territory. Perhaps you can start the day whizzing down the soaring Star Dune on a flat board? Or maybe the afternoon calls for a gnarly 4X4 ride over ancient dried-up lakebeds? To extend your adventure, wait for the sun to drop. At night is when the Milky Way can be seen glowing in a halo around the serrated tops of the encircling massifs. Your trip to this stunning national park in California won’t disappoint…
Channel Islands National Park
Look for the Channel Islands National Park rising straight from the cobalt-blue Pacific Ocean off the shores of surf-washed Santa Barbara north of LA. Famed for its isolation and untouched marine habitats, it encompasses five islands of the greater Channel Islands archipelago.
On the Cali mainland is where you’ll be able to delve into the dedicated visitor’s center in the Ventura Harbor Village. That offers exhibits on the park’s endemic mammal species, its food chains, and curious underwater flora. To get up close and personal with the isles, you’ll need to hop on a boat tour or a private plane.
They can whisk you away to empty bays filled with vine-strewn dunes on San Miguel. They can help you go in search of snapping white sharks and sea lions around the rock-ribbed coast of Anacapa. Or they can be your ticket to the historic backcountry ranches of Santa Cruz – the largest island of the lot, with its palm oases and brown-paper mountains.
Kings Canyon National Park
Joined at the hip to tree-filled Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon dominates a huge portion of the Sierra Nevada mountains west of Fresno. Its piece de resistance is surely its central valley – the eponymous Kings Canyon itself. That drops from gleaming granite summits to groves of spiked pine trees below. It has babbling streams and a veritable rabbit warren of hiking trails to go around. In fact, it was once eulogized by the great John Muir as a rival to even the iconic heart of Yosemite.
In the remoter corners of the park come glacier-carved peaks like the knife-edge ridges of Mount Agassiz and the cloud-shattering tops of the North Palisade (think over 14,000 feet above sea level!). As they cascade westwards, blooming wildflower meadows stalked by black bears and glistening alpine lakes take over. That’s a veritable playground for day hikers and long-distance trekkers, who make the most of a wilderness that’s only accessible on foot, often on world-famous routes like the Pacific Crest.
Aside from hoofing it in your boots, you can also hit wild swimming spots on the South Fork. Go whitewater rafting on the Middle Fork (experts only), and conquer some seriously hardcore climbing sections on the Tehipite Dome, you’ll never know what you’re adventure might bring you.
Sequoia National Park
If there’s one thing that really defines the Sequoia National Park, it’s trees. Huge, hulking, gigantic trees. They rise like planted totem poles from the pine cone-covered undergrowth of this stunning California national park. And they hit a jaw-dropping zenith with the colossal specimens of the so-called Giant Forest.
That hosts an estimated five of the 10 largest trees on Earth. The star of the show is mighty General Sherman himself – a mind-boggling sequoia that clocks up a height of 83 meters and a diameter of 11 meters at its base!
Though no roads or campgrounds surrounding this area, there are treasures beyond the woods in the Sequoia National Park. The so-called Back Country portion of the territory is an altogether more feral place. While the High Sierra Trail wiggles across overhangs and splintered ridges, eventually crossing the Great Western Divide. At its highest point, those ranges soar up with the bluffs of Mount Whitney. That’s the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, with technical climbing routes and scrambles required to bag the summit.
Pinnacles National Park
Forged from the spurting magma streams of supervolcanos more than 20 million years ago, the Pinnacles National Park is a land of Mars-like bluffs and black-rock spires. It’s gathered a blanket of greenery over the millennia, as forests of pine and chaparral mix with manzanita and live oaks amid the canyons. The result is a truly awesome and unique section of the Pacific Coast Ranges. It’s a place where hikers, spelunkers, campers, and climbers can come to escape buzzing coast towns like Salinas and Monterey.
You can enter the reserve from the east or the west. There are no-through-road links from the town of Pinnacles to the fertile wineries of the Salinas Valley. That means the sections in between are a true wilderness, with only walking routes and off-road tracks to navigate. The High Peaks Trail is one of the most popular. Hit that to weave through wildflower fields, peer into bat-laden caves, and have a chance of seeing the rare Californian condor in the skies overhead.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Crashing over the peaks and the valleys where the Sierra Nevada meets the Cascades is the Lassen Volcanic National Park. It’s a region that mixes cinder cones with craggy alpine mountains. And there are forests of manzanita merging with red pines and lupin beds.
The namesake of the park is the anchor that holds it all together. It rises a cloud-splintering 3,189 meters above sea level. You can see it as you hike the stunning woodlands and lakes below the summit. It’s the tallest plug volcano on the planet, and often comes dashed with snow plumes.
When you’re done with the mountains and trekking the Pacific Crest Trail, you simply have to see Lassen Volcanic National Park’s geological wonders. They take the form of steaming vents and bubbling mud pools. The most impressive is arguably Bumpass Hell. It emerges from fir forests in a sea of steaming fumaroles and rock deposits.
Whether if you’re a nature enthusiast or just seeking for an excursion, a trip to California’s National Park certainly won’t disappoint. We curated the best 10 National Parks in California but if we ever did leave out your favorite national parks in California, do leave us a comment. We’ll be happy to hear from you!