While California is a draw for many because of its sprawling, world-famous city’s, many visitors choose to visit this sunny state for a different reason: a vast range of nature and wildlife. California has nine national parks, more than any other state in the US and each is truly unique in its own way. From epic shorelines to trees larger than you can imagine, volcanic activity to desert landscapes, the diversity of nature in California will make you feel like you’re visiting multiple different planets.
There’s no denying that there is something for everything at these best national parks in California (hint: it’s all of them), so whether you’re after some time alone in nature, are an adrenaline seeker who loves climbing, prefer the simplicity of an easy hiking trail, or just want to stare at the Milky Way, these California parks are bound to impress.
Top National Parks in California
These famous parks in California are all known for a reason: they’re epic.
But first: Don’t miss all of the national park guides in California & more for more detailed trip info.
Yosemite National Park
This national park is not just one of the best parks to visit in California but in all of the US. The grand scenery of the Sierra Nevada Mountains draws in visitors from around the globe (over 4 million a year!) to witness nature’s masterpiece up close. While some are outdoor lovers and others are more interested in posting on social media, Yosemite National Park can still be enjoyed despite the tourists.
Venture to this park in the summer and yes, there will be crowds. But take to the trails in the off-season and you will find plenty of solitude on the trails. Yosemite is one of the best places to visit in California during winter because it truly transforms into a winter wonderland that makes this majestic park even more magical. But the spring and fall will have more trails and roads open for easier access and slightly fewer crowds.
While Yosemite Valley is the most popular area of the park to visit, there’s also plenty to see and do in Yosemite amongst the 1,100-square miles in the surrounding areas. From towering granite peaks to plummeting waterfalls, Yosemite is a true gem that offers visitors an abundance of outdoor activities to participate in such as hiking, camping, rocking climbing, fishing, rafting, and wildlife spotting. Perhaps I’ll see you on some of the best hiking trails in Yosemite, or even on a part of the famous Pacific Crest trail that runs through the park.
- Half Dome: The most famous rock formation in Yosemite that you can hike to the top of
- Vernal & Nevada Falls: Two famous waterfalls that you can see in one hike
- Glacier Point: One of the most photographed viewpoints in the entire park
Death Valley National Park
If you’re interested in visiting one of the most hostile environments on Earth, then look no further than Death Valley. You can find sand dunes, salt flats, colorful mountains, and other worldly-looking rocks. While the name doesn’t seem very inviting, there is actually much life here to see. Visit in the spring and you’ll have the highest chance of seeing a wildflower superbloom (March-April), or come during the winter to do some of the best hikes in Death Valley when the temperatures are bearable. In the summertime temperatures can rise to above 120°F (48°C), making it no surprise that the highest temperature ever recorded was here!
Despite being the driest place in the country, Death Valley is also the largest national park and has plenty of unique sights that encourage visitors to explore the extreme terrain. Take one look at a picture from this park and you’ll think it’s from another planet. With a number of things to do in Death Valley, a trip to this part of the desert will no doubt be surreal.
Death Valley Highlights
- Badwater Basin: The lowest spot in North America
- Artist’s Palette: A colorful part of the Black Mountains where a variety of colors really pop in the afternoon
- Eureka Dunes: The tallest sand dunes in California
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Perhaps the best spot in Death Valley for sunset
Joshua Tree National Park
There is no shortage of reasons to visit Joshua Tree as this national park is nothing short of magical. Outdoor adventurers, even influencers, and spiritual seekers come to this park to witness the mesmerizing nature of the famous Joshua trees, unique rock formations, and the epic starry sky that is the perfect blanket of wonder to camp under.
From epic hiking in Joshua Tree to visiting an abandoned mine, spotting desert wildlife to rock climbing, there is a number of exciting things to do in Joshua Tree for all types of travellers and nature seekers. The most famous and iconic part of the this park, the Joshua trees themselves, were actually named so because Mormons of the time thought that they looked like the arms of Joshua pointing to the promise land.
Don’t miss visiting this beautiful part of the desert in California that has natural, historical, and cultural attractions that are bound to impress all.
Joshua Tree Highlights
- Skull Rock: A rock that looks like a skull, as the name suggests
- Wall Street Mill: An abandoned gold mine mill
- Jumbo Rocks Campground: One of the best campgrounds with epic stargazing
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail: An easy hike that shows lots of cool features of the park
Redwood National Park
Picture the woods from a fairytale and the scenic scenery of Redwood National Park is most likely to come to mind without having even seen it! This national park is actually a combination of state and national areas that protect over 100,000 acres of land. Located on the coast of Northern California, it’s here that you can expect to find dreamy fern-covered trails, streams that wander through valleys, and forests that are home to some of the largest living things in the world, 350 foot (106 metres) trees!
Spend some time along the coastline where you may just spot some whales, wander down paths to picturesque waterfalls, and roam through the untouched trees that tower over visitors. Even beach lovers will like it here and the number of things to do in Redwood National Park.
- Hyperion: The world’s tallest known living tree that stands at 380 feet (115 metres)
- Lady Bird Johnson Grove: One of the most famous hikes in Redwood National Park
Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park
These two neighboring parks are too close to not visit both. They’re a highlight for many who love the outdoors as you can hit the trails in Sequoia or Kings Canyon and have fewer souls on the path than you would in other parks. You’ll be able to wander through the massive sequoia trees that these parks are known for, and bear witness to the beauty of the Sierra Mountain range.
Just a few hours south of the much more famous Yosemite National Park, both Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks offer visitors the chance to get out into nature without having to book much in advance, if any. The natural scenery isn’t lacking here though, so it’s not for good reason that these parks are lesser frequented. Aside from day hikes, Sequoia & Kings Canyon activities also offers excellent backpacking opportunities and even scenic drives. Canyons, trees, and more adorn the list of the best things to do in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon Highlights
- General Sherman Tree: The most famous tree in the parks, it has the largest diameter that’s 36 feet (just shy of 11 metres) wide
- Kings Canyon Scenic Byway: A stunning drive that shouldn’t be missed
- Moro Rock: A famous hike with an epic view
- Giant Forest: Wander through the sequoia grove
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park has a more famous cousin, Yellowstone, but the location of Lassen Volcanic makes it less popular, which means fewer visitors. If you’re willing to make the trip, you will be pleasantly entertained with geysers, hydrothermal highlights, alpine lakes, mud springs, and of course mountainous vistas of the top end of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.
As expected, this park is home to volcanoes, the last of which erupted in 1914 and is a top spot to wander around if you wish to feel like you’re on another planet without actually leaving this one.
Lassen Volcanic Highlights
- Bumpass Hell: One of the most popular areas of the park for its hydrothermal activity
- Chaos Jumbles: A truly unique sight
- Manzanita Lake: An alpine lake with views of volcanic mountains
- Lassen Peak: Famous for climbing
Pinnacles National Park
The newest addition to the numerous national parks in California is Pinnacles. It sits in central California and offers visitors sights of nature formed by volcanic activity. Hiking is the most popular of things to do in Pinnacles National Park, but climbing, exploring caves, and wildflower spotting are possible too.
With this park being smaller and less popular, the chance of having trails to yourself is higher for those who crave solitude when outdoors. Keep in mind that there are two entrances to the park on either side, west and east, but they do not connect so be mindful of going through the right one to get to your desired location.
- Beach Gulch Cave Trail: A hiking trail that will take you through a cave, around streams, and more
Channel Islands National Park
Referred to as the ‘Galapagos of North America’, this national park is a chain of islands off of California’s southern coast. Most visitors will make their way to the largest of the five islands, Santa Cruz Island, to hike, kayak, dive, and take in some of the extremely diverse wildlife that is present here.
Channel Islands is very much a bucket list park as getting here is definitely more difficult (but definitely not impossible) than mainland national parks. Either a boat, plane, or ferry, usually booked well in advance, will get you to one of the islands. Camping is an option on Santa Cruz Island but whether you’re visiting for a day or more, there are no amenities here so bringing everything you need is necessary.
Channel Islands Highlights
- Ferry Ride: The ferry ride over alone is worth a visit
- Wildlife Spotting: Whales, dolphins, other animals aren’t rare to see
Enjoy these beautiful parks in California and have an amazing trip!