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Exploring California's 9 National Parks

07.21.17

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Exploring California's 9 National Parks

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  • Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Stout Memorial Grove. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Stout Tree, Stout Memorial Grove.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • View into the redwoods.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Burled trunk of an old-growth coast redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Jedediah Smith Campground on the banks of the Smith River. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City is backed by the rugged coastal cliffs of Redwood National and State Parks. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Point St. George Heritage Area near Redwood National and State Parks.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Redwood topped cliffs line the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park coastline.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • A sea of fern and mosses line Fern Canyon's walls in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is estimated to be 1,500 years old.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • One of the most iconic National Park vistas is the overlook at Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Sunrise illuminates the back of Half Dome as seen from Glacier Point.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The promontory of Taft Point with El Capitan's sheer face across Yosemite Valley.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Merced River flowing over Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Nevada Falls during spring runoff.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The glacial-carved granite domes of Half Dome, Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap as seen form the John Muir Trail.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Yosemite Falls during peak flow.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Yosemite Falls.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The Dawn Wall and North American Wall of El Cap. If you look closely you can see climber's portal edges part way up the Dawn Wall.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Half Dome's cables aid hikers in their climb to the summit.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • View toward Half Dome from Olmstead Point.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Upper Tenaya Canyon.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Tuolumne Meadows.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Dawn in Tuolumne.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Upper Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Lupine near Cathedral Lakes.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Male western fence lizard near Vogelsang Lake.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Giant sequoias of General Grant Grove.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • General Grant Tree.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The off-season is a great season to see General Sherman.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • More views and granite features as seen from Moro Rock.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • South Fork Kings River near Road's End. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Phenomenal Kings Canyon views.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Downstream view of Roaring River.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Kanawyer Loop Trail.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Cedar Grove Overlook.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • South Fork Kings River.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • South wall of Kings Canyon.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Roaring River Falls.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) stand apart in Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • A coyote at Death Valley National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Along the Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Panamint Mountains in Death Valley National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Death Valley National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Golden Canyon.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Artist's Palette. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Little Hebe Crater. - Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The Hidden Valley Nature Trail winds through incredible rock piles.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • A bright mariposa lily seems to emerge out of dead stalks.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Mojave mound cactus (Echinocereus mojavensis) along the Lost Horse Mine Trail.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  •  Twin Tanks Backcountry Campsite.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) along the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • View back toward Indian Cove Campground from the nature trail.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Water behind the Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Skull Rock in Joshua Tree National Park is accessible by a roadside path.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The cactus wren is known to make nests in the dense cholla cactus fingers in Joshua Tree National Park..- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • A climber makes his way up Beginner's Three on Intersection Rock's south face in Joshua Tree National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Night campfire at Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Looking up the Feudal Wall rock climbing crag.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Exploring an arch at night along the Arches Rock Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Evening sun at Jumbo Rocks Campground.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • View up into Rattlesnake Canyon from the Indian Cove Day Use Picnic Area.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Lassen Peak rises above the Lassen Loop Road/Highway 89.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Lassen Peak's northeast face illuminated under a moonlit winter night.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • View southwest toward Brokeoff Mountain (9,235 ft). The Northern Sacramento Valley can be seen in the distance.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Kings Creek is a popular hiking destination within Lassen Volcanic National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Kings Creek Falls in Lassen Volcanic National Park is not too be missed.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Vista from the Upper Cascades Viewpoint near Kings Creek Falls in Lassen Volcanic National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Bumpass Hell has Lassen's largest concentration of active hydrothermal features.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Bumpass Hell's boardwalk allows close views of the fumuroles and boiling pools.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Bumpass Hell's mineral-infused soils take on a range of colors.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Steam vents dot the landscape around Sulphur Works.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Brokeoff Mountain rises above impressive terrain in Lassen Volcanic National Park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Ascending the summit trail in spring to ski from Lassen's summit.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Lassen's peaklets run southwest from her main peak, an area once filled by Mount Tehama. From right to left: Eagle Peak (9,222 ft), Pilot Pinnacle (8,886 ft), Mount Diller (9,087 ft), and Brokeoff Mountain (9,235 ft).- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Fun terrain on Lassen's southeastern slopes.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • The push up Lassen's north ridge.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Descending Lassen's northeast aspect.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Descending Lassen northeast aspect.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Descending Lassen northeast aspect.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Brokeoff Mountain is the remnant of former Mount Tehama's southwestern slope.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Exciting lines on Brokeoff Mountain.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Ridge Lakes winter camp.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Winter climb of Mount Diller with Mount Shasta (14,197 ft) in view.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Pilot Pinnacle (8,886 ft) with Lassen Peak (10,457 ft) rising above.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Chaos Crags under stars and planets post sunset glow.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
  • Nearby Subway Cave, one of many underground lava tubes in the Lassen area, lies to the north of the park.- Exploring California's 9 National Parks
Article
Contributor

California has—count ‘em—nine national parks, the most of any other state in the U.S. With respect to parts of the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps parts of the East Coast, there simply isn’t anywhere else in the country that demonstrates the kind of ecological diversity that can be found in California. From towering temperate rainforests with the largest arboreal organisms on the planet to the lowest point in North America, a desiccated and scorching desert wasteland, to iconic glacier-cut granite valleys and active volcanoes, to sandy beach shores and Pacific islands—California has it all. We’ve tackled each of the nine to bring you the highlights.

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks are famous for the arboreal giants, Sequoia sempervirons, giant redwoods, that grow to heights above 300 feet and ages beyond 2,000 years. Conditions here are better than anywhere else in the world for the woodland giant, and the trees that grow here include the tallest in the world.

The collection of parks includes Redwood National Park, and to the north, Prairie Creek, Del Norte and Jedediah Smith State Parks. The most famous groves of redwoods grow in Redwood National Park and Jedediah Smith State Park—Tall Trees Grove, Grove of Titans and Stout Grove. Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Park, home of the former world-record tallest tree, can be accessed from below via the Redwood Creek Trail or above via the Dolason Prairie Trail, which offers hikers an opportunity to experience a different perspective of Redwood National Park, beginning outside the forest on former ranch land. Grove of the Titans grows in an undisclosed location within Jedediah Smith State Park, but Stout Grove is a short hike over the Smith River from the visitor center.

But don’t miss the forest for the trees. Beach and canyon hikes in the parks have much to offer, too—Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon in particular, where you can see the forest in all its glory.

Yosemite National Park

The John Muir Trail is one of the best ways to experience Yosemite National Park. Granite peaks and alpine pools are best experienced while on the trail, where food is packed in and cooked at sunset and the sights are seen after a day hike through some of the finest backcountry in the world. That said, permits can be hard to come by, so some of us must see fit to explore the park in other ways.

The southern half of Yosemite is most accessible, more extensively paved than the northern half, and generally speaking has the park’s most recognizable sights. Three bucket-list hikes include the Half Dome Hike, the famed ascent with a cable-aided summit, the Cathedral Lakes Hike and the Yosemite Falls Trail, which is best visited during the spring runoff when the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls is at its peak.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Side-by-side, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have 800,000 acres and 800 miles of hiking trails to enjoy. Like Redwood National and State Parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are famous for the massive trees that grow in their forests, and the parks were created with the goal of preserving the groves where they grow. Whereas the coast redwoods are famed for their height, the Sequoiadendron giganteum that grows in this portion of the Sierra Nevadas is famed for its girth, and the world’s largest tree by volume grows here.

General Sherman is the tree in question, and grows in Sequoia National Park. Nearby Giant Forest hosts several more of the world’s largest trees. Moro Rock provides a stunning vantage of the surrounding foothills and granite formations; pair it with Crescent Meadow, which John Muir called the “Gem of the Sierra,” at the head of the High Sierra Trail.

Kings Canyon National Park might well be called “Little Yosemite” for its glacially carved valleys and granite walls. More forest giants grow at Grant Grove, where grows the third largest tree by volume, General Grant Tree. Road’s End, which includes Cedar Grove, the South Fork Kings River and Zumwalt Meadow, is a great place to acquaint yourself with the park. Several long hikes begin here, including trails to Mist Falls and Cedar Grove Overlook. Zumwalt Meadow has wide views and showcases the canyon’s stunning scenery, huge granite formations that loom on either side of the canyon.

Death Valley National Park

It’s hard to believe that Death Valley National Park was a lake a mere 20,000 years ago, no more than the blink of an eye in geologic time. These days, the park earns its name as one of the hottest, driest, most desolate places in North America, but don’t let that discourage you.

Explorers of the park should keep in mind that destinations are spread out, and amenities are only available along Highway 190. Furnace Creek is a central location to begin your exploration of the park, and the area includes some of the park’s most interesting attractions. The salt formations of the Devils Golf Course are otherworldly, and Natural Bridge Canyon features an erosion-formed arch.

Beyond Furnace Creek, Scotty’s Castle is a fascinating landmark of Death Valley’s recent past. Ubehebe Crater in the Grapevine area is a striking example of Death Valley’s volcanic past.

It’s been said throughout the annals of time that visitors should invert their days and nights when traveling in the desert, whether the Sahara or Atacama, and there’s some good sense in that recommendation here, too. Night time travel in Death Valley—far from the lights of urbanity—will revel in a panoramic dome of stars that simply isn’t available in parts more impacted by the progress of humanity. It also won’t be so damn hot.

Joshua Tree National Park

Few landscapes warp the mind quite like Joshua Tree National Park, a lumpy, Seussian dreamscape that beguiles the imagination. There are a couple of ways to best explore the park, and both take place on foot: hiking to points of interest and climbing.

While the best hikes in Joshua Tree show off the best of the rock outcroppings, especially at Arch Rock Nature Trail and Hidden Valley Nature Trail, the most interesting flora can be found while on the road. The Cholla Cactus Garden showcases one of the park’s most peculiar and comical plant inhabitants, and the Ocotillo Patch in the Pinto Basin ignites after rain when the 30-foot-tall ocotillo cactus blooms.

There are 8,000 climbing routes in Joshua Tree. In short, it’s a climbing mecca. The crag at Intersection is a classic place to start, called the birthplace of climbing in Joshua Tree, with routes that range from a non-technical 5.3 to 5.12b. Lost Horse, Real Hidden Valley and Indian Cove will certainly keep you busy as well, but here’s the deal: Camping is limited in Joshua Tree, so you’ll have to reserve in advance, arrive early, or scrap for what’s left. There’s also BLM land in the area for primitive camping.

Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands offer an unparalleled opportunity to find seclusion in a unique environment. There are only a handful of island national parks in the contiguous United States, and Channel Islands is the only one in California. The park consists of five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel and Santa Rosa clustered together due west of Santa Monica, and Santa Barbara, set about 50 miles to the southeast of Santa Rosa Island.

Despite their remote location, the Channel Islands have a lot to offer. Primitive campsites are available on every island that is open to hikers and boaters. Rugged cliffs and canyons, prairie-like grasslands, wildflowers, and the rare Torrey pine can be found along hiking trails, especially on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands. Check out Water Canyon and Carrington Point on Santa Rosa Island, and Scorpion Canyon and Scorpion Anchorage during the wildflower bloom on Santa Cruz Island. Scorpion Beach and eastern Santa Cruz Island are world-class destinations for sea kayaking. Diving and snorkeling are best on Santa Barbara, Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, where wind conditions are calmer than Santa Rosa and San Miguel.

Advance planning is required for a trip to the Channel Islands, which can be accessed only by concessionaire boats and can be traveled only by foot, kayak or boat. No bicycles are allowed. There are no amenities on the islands. There are no grocery stores or equipment rentals. Once you’re there, you’re on your own, so it’s critical to plan ahead and be prepared. Additionally, the park serves as a marine and wildlife conservation area, and some areas are entirely off-limits to travel or visitation and must be avoided.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

One of the least visited parks in the park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and its long-eroded progenitor, Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant in the park, with several geysers, boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mudpots, fumaroles and Hot Springs Creek.

Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer. In the summer, explore around Manzanita Lake. The Echo Lake hike offers beautiful views of Lassen Peak, which is also a highly recommended summit.

Kings Creek is a popular hiking destination with a beautiful cascade. Lassen gets more snow than nearby Shasta with its base sometimes totaling 30 feet, making the area a prime wintertime recreation area. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing activities are located around the Southwest Winter Recreation Area. Geothermal areas are just as striking in the winter, and many Lassen’s faces, including the southeast face, are open for backcountry skiing and snowboarding.

Pinnacles National Park

In 2015, about 206,000 people visited Pinnacles National Park, one of the least visited parks in the National Park Service system and California’s newest, incorporated from a national monument in 2012. Most of the park is designated wilderness for programs including the restoration of the California condor, and Pinnacles is one of four places where captive condors are released into the wild. Around 60 condors soar over the park today.

Geologically, Pinnacles is a rugged lava field, part of a long extinct volcano that was shifted 200 miles from its original location along the San Andreas Fault. The park is characterized by rock spires that attract climbers in the fall and winter months and talus caves that, during the summer, are an escape from the summer heat. For climbers, bolted and unbolted routes range from a 5.4 to 5.13a and beyond, but be forewarned: An acquired taste, Pinnacles is notorious for loose rock, and crags require a certain experimental mindset to climb. Eleven species of bats occupy the Bear Gulch Cave on the east side of the park and Balconies Cave to the west, both of which the park tries to keep open for 10 months out of the year. There are also 30 miles of hiking trails in the area, which showcase the park’s igneous spires—the High Peaks Loop and the Moses Springs Trail in particular.

Pinnacles is accessible via California Route 146 on either the east or west side of the park, but the route does not connect within Pinnacles. Note also that Pinnacles Campground is the only campground in the park and can only be accessed by the east entrance.

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