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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.