The best National Parks in California: wild adventures on sea and land
In the best National Parks in California, you’ll discover lush groves of giant sequoia trees, rich marine biodiversity and stark desert landscapes
California is home to more National Parks than any other state, boasting a whopping nine parks and a stunning array of diverse ecosystems including iconic desert landscapes that have inspired artists as well as rock climbers, the biggest trees on the planet, rugged coastline and glacier-carved valleys. Though every National Park in California is well worth exploring, we’ve compiled a list of the ones that we think should be at the very top of your list of places to visit. Each of these park’s is truly unique, and while some are popular year-round with visitors from around the world, there are still a few where you can escape the crowds and lose yourself in nature. Grab your best hiking boots, a pair of binoculars and a sense of adventure for these crowd-pleasing destinations.
1. Channel Islands
About 90 minutes off the coast of Los Angeles lie five virtually untouched islands surrounded by a remarkable diversity of rare wildlife. Here you can kayak and snorkel among breaching whales and leaping dolphins, hike with soaring bald eagles overhead and chill out with sea lions basking on the secluded beaches. A visit here provides a rare glimpse into what California’s coastline would have been like before people arrived in large numbers, as the islands have enjoyed almost total seclusion despite regular ferries from Ventura. This park is seldom-visited compared to most other parks in the country, and as soon as you leave the city lights behind, you’re heading into the wild. Make sure to bring everything you ended for your trip, as there are no provisions on the islands!
Yosemite National Park is one of the best-known National Parks in the world and its reputation is rightfully earned. The park centers around Yosemite Valley, which cuts 3,500ft deep into the earth and is walled by hulking granite summits like El Capitan and Half Dome. In the springtime, the glacier-carved valley creates some of the longest and most stunning waterfalls you will ever see. Its 1,200 acres are also home to pine forests, idyllic lakes, colorful wildflower meadows and sun-dappled giant sequoia groves. It is a playground for campers, hikers, bikers, runners and of course, rock climbers and a must-see for anyone who loves nature. Incredibly, all of this is just a four hour drive from San Francisco, or just over an hour from Fresno, home to an international airport.
3. Joshua Tree
Just two hours east of LA’s massive urban sprawl, Joshua Tree’s vast desert wilderness has captured the imagination of countless artists and musicians over the decades, but this iconic landscape is a true haven for the hikers and rock climbers who come to explore its patterns of dense forest, low desert scrub and rugged rock formations. The park actually straddles two distinct desert ecosystems: the higher, cooler Mojave Desert which boasts its famous prickly joshua trees and giant, billion-year-old boulders and the lower, warmer Colorado Desert, where you can play among the sand dunes and cacti. The best hikes in Joshua Tree will also treat you to some of the best sunrises and sunsets you’ll ever see across the enchanting windswept landscape.
If cool, moist air, a soft forest floor and enormous trees sounds like just what the doctor ordered then head north to Redwood National Park. Up in northern California, close to the border with Oregon, this partnership of four state parks encompasses about 139,000 acres and protects almost half of all remaining old-growth coastal redwoods in the world. Coastal redwoods are an evergreen tree that lives 1,200 to 2,200 years or longer and reach up to 379 ft in height and 29ft in diameter. These trees are the biggest on the planet and also among the oldest living organisms on Earth. In this remote park, you can discover the temperate rainforests, ancient fern-lined canyons and waterfalls you’d expect as well as stretches of rugged coastline.
5. Death Valley
Known for being the hottest place on earth in the summer months, Death Valley straddles the border between California and Nevada and its vast, stark desert landscape treats visitors to beautiful, otherworldly adventures. Explore its sub-sea level salt flats, towering sand dunes, endless badlands, deep canyons and looming mountains. At night, when things cool off, the park boasts some of the darkest skies in the country and is well-known for its unparalleled stargazing opportunities.
6. Lassen Volcanic
Most people seeking hydrothermal wonders head straight to Yellowstone National Park for obvious reasons, but believe it or not, volcanoes, boiling pools and bubbling mud pots also abound in northern California. Perhaps even lesser known than Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic houses the largest lava dome volcano in the world, Lassen Peak, as well as fine examples of all four types of active volcanoes. Located near Redding, this park features huge mountains formed by lava flows, steaming sulphur vents and crystal clear lakes to create an almost surreal and unexpected landscape.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.