There Are 9 National Parks in California—Here’s What’s Special About Each One

PureWow editors select every item that appears on this page, and the company may earn compensation through affiliate links within the story. All prices are accurate upon date of publish. You can learn more about the affiliate process here.

As we set our eyes on traveling again, we’re focused on domestic getaways surrounded by nature that still allow for social distancing. So if you, like us, are seeking an outdoor escape with plenty of fantastic scenery and room to roam, turn your attention to the West Coast. California has nine national parks—more than any other state in the U.S. So you have tons of options! The toughest choice is which gorgeous locales to tick off your bucket list first and when to visit. Not to worry, we’ve gone ahead and done the research. Thus freeing up your time for more important matters, like reserving a campsite and buying hiking gear. Scroll on for a breakdown of the nine national parks in California. Happy exploring!


national parks in california joshua tree park
Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images

1. Joshua Tree National Park

Best for: Instagrammers, rock climbers, stargazers, desert wanders

An arid 800,000-acre expanse dotted with twisted trees, cacti, massive boulders and starry skies, Joshua Tree is a total vibe.

Perched at the intersection of the Mojave and the Colorado Desert, this otherworldly Southern California region offers a surreal landscape and sense of serenity—and it’s just a few hours outside of Los Angeles.

Rock formations are obviously a major drawcard for photographers, social media savants and pretty much anyone who digs desert scenery. Not surprisingly, Joshua Tree continues to be a magnet for climbers.

Amazing hikes also come with the territory. Mastodon Peak is a quad-torching odyssey that rewards trekkers with jaw-dropping panoramas. Seeking a less strenuous stroll? Try an easier path like Bajada Nature Trail.

In terms of accommodations, you definitely don’t have to rough it in the traditional sense. Joshua Tree has some of the most swoon-worthy rentals around. Or, why not sleep under the stars?

When to go:
Summer is brutal as the thermometer rarely dips below 100°F. Peak season—marked by pleasant weather and, admittedly, an influx of tourists—spans from October to May.

Where to stay:

national parks in california yosemite
Sam Saliba/Getty Images

2. Yosemite National Park

Best for: Rock climbers, wildlife viewers, hikers

One of the most famous and frequented national parks in the country, Yosemite is known for its ancient sequoia trees, granite cliffs, waterfalls, meadows and lush valleys. There’s also a plethora of wildlife, from black bears to Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

Hiking trails crisscross the sprawling 1,200-square-miles area. El Capitan and Half Dome are two of the most legendary spots for experienced rock climbing. Newbies can endeavor to scale more manageable crags.

Beyond outdoor recreation, Yosemite boasts a spate of shops, restaurants and lodging options, plus cultural attractions such as the Ansel Adams Gallery.

You could easily spend a week or longer exploring. At the very least, be sure to carve out three days. Shack up at a lodge or pitch a tent.

When to go:
Millions of people descend upon Yosemite during peak season (April through October)—and rightfully so. Though every month has something special going for it. Changing leaves extend into late fall. While winter brings excellent conditioners for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Where to stay:

national parks in california redwood
Modoc Stories/Getty Images

3. Redwood National Park

Best for: Tree huggers, hikers, campers

Magical. Mystical. Fantastical. It’s hard to put the beauty of Redwood National Park into words. (But, we’ll give it a shot.) This iconic preserve lures millions of visitors a year with its trademark sky-scraping trees that grow up to 350 feet and live for 2,000 years.

Freshwater rivers, imposing cliffs, hidden beaches, sand dunes and crashing surf probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of Redwood National Park—but it’s all part of the enticing package!

Before venturing into the wilderness, it’s worth checking out the exhibits at Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center. Stroll along one of the easy, shaded paths or work your legs on an uphill climb. We highly recommend cruising the scenic Coastal Drive.

Accomplished cyclists will likely prefer biking this remarkable route. Need a break? Stop for a picnic under a giant tree or near a secluded cove. With any luck, you might see whales, sea lions and pelicans. After a day of outdoor adventure, unwind at one of the many campsites.

When to go:
Because the weather remains pretty consistent, there’s literally no wrong season to explore Redwood National Park. Obviously, it’s a bit warmer in the summer. But that’s about all the variation. So pack your bags whenever the mood strikes.

Where to stay:

national parks in california lassen
Chiara Salvadori/Getty Images

4. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Best for: Volcano chasers, hikers, campers

Can you guess the crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park? We’ll give you one hint: The last time it erupted was a century ago. The chance of Lassen Peak blowing its top is unlikely. That should put your mind at ease as far as getting up close and personal with the park’s trademark lava rocks, steaming sulphur fumaroles, gurgling mud pots, hydrothermal springs and jagged peaks.

Of course, volcanic features aren’t the only noteworthy attributes. This northeastern California gem brims with prolific forests, glistening lakes and flower-filled meadows. We’d be remiss not to mention the 150 miles of hiking trails.

Looking for a place to rest your weary head? Choose between eight campgrounds, rustic cabins and Drakesbad Guest Ranch.

When to go:
FYI the window for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park is pretty tight. You’ll want to avoid heavy snowfall, which just leaves July to October. This period of clear skies, warmer days and open roads proffers ideal conditions for a few days of earthy expeditions.

Where to stay:

national parks in california point reyes
Xavier Hoenner Photography/Getty Images

5. Point Reyes National Seashore

Best for: Wildlife viewers, birdwatchers, whale watchers, beach lovers, campers, families with kids

Situated a mere 30 miles north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is an arrestingly beautiful coastal preserve famed for its fierce waves, dramatic cliffs, dense fog as well as more than 1,500 animal and plant species. An extensive network of trails connects isolated coves, pine forests, verdant grasslands and towering peaks.

It's also absolutely awesome for spotting wildlife. Tule elk frolic in the grassy meadows. American wigeon, sandpipers and egrets flock to the fertile Giacomini Wetlands. And who doesn’t dream of peeping gray whales swimming in the Pacific Ocean?

Traveling with family (including fur babies)? We’re told kiddos love the interactive exhibits at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. While pups are welcome at Kehoe Beach.

Insider tip: you can make a reservation to spend the night at one of the campsites along the 17-mile Coast Trail or snooze by the sea at Wildcat Beach.

When to go:
January to mid-April attracts these incredible creatures to the waters near the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Spring is also a wonderful time to see the wildflowers in bloom.

Where to stay:

national parks in california channel islands
Cindy Robinson/Getty Images

6. Channel Islands National Park

Best for: Wildlife viewers, birdwatchers, whale watchers, hikers, kayakers, budding botanists, serenity seekers

Channel Islands National Park, aptly nicknamed the “Galapagos of North America” is an unparalleled destination to soak in the rare natural beauty and ecological diversity of Southern California. Comprising five diverse islands and one mile of ocean, this untrammeled paradise promises interesting scenery as well as an abundance of endemic plants, land mammals, birds and marine life, plus ample recreational pursuits.

A true untouched sanctuary, Channel Islands National Park doesn’t have shops, restaurants or hotels. Because the whole point of this unbelievable place is to immerse yourself in the glory of Mother Nature. For starters, we recommend exploring Santa Cruz Island’s many sea caves and kelp forests. Or head to Santa Rosa Island to spy pygmy mammoth fossils and stroll white-sand beaches.

Most people tend to visit during the summer. Early fall also offers prime conditions for snorkeling, diving and swimming. December through April is when grey whales make their annual migration. Spring welcomes new chicks and island fox pups.

When to go:
Keep in mind that Channel Islands National Park isn’t somewhere you go on a whim. Since the islands are only accessible by boat and small planes, it’s essential to sort out the logistics ahead of time.

Where to stay:

national parks in california death valley
Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images

7. Death Valley National Park

Best for: Desert wanders, flower fans, photographers

Less ominous and more alive than its name would suggest, Death Valley, which straddles eastern California and Nevada, is home to a fascinating array of natural phenomena—sand dunes, salt flats, dried mud beds and colorful craters.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Badwater Basin? At 277 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point of land in the western hemisphere. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, wow from sunrise to sunset. Stroll along the beautifully barren terrain and, of course, snaps some photos. Ready to test your stamina? Strike out on the 7.8-mile trail to Zabriskie Point for impossible-to-forget panoramas. Not so much of an outdoorsy type? Hop in the car and cruise Badwater Road.

When to go:
Temps often reach upwards of 120°F, so it’s best to skip the drought-ravaged summer months. Instead, you’d be better off visiting during the spring when the landscape erupts into a colorful display of wildflowers. Just be aware that campgrounds tend to be packed. Fall and winter tempt travelers with cooler days, fewer crowds and, yes, even snow-capped peaks.

Where to stay:

national parks in california pinnacles
Simon Zimmermann/Getty Images

8. Pinnacles National Park

Best for: Hikers, climbers, birdwatchers, camping enthusiasts

The baby of the bunch (aka California’s newest national park), Pinnacles isn’t as well known as the rest of the stunners on our list. But we have a feeling that under-the-radar status won’t last long. Not when the region is defined by breathtaking rock formations, cliffs, canyons, spires and caves created by an extinct 23-million-year-old volcano.

The most popular pastime? Hiking. Easy, moderate and challenging trails traverse the protected area. Adrenaline junkies with scrambling skills can attempt to tackle everything from straightforward topropes to expert-level multi-pitch climbs. Look up and you’re likely to witness endangered condors soaring through the blue skies.

When to go:
Speaking of birds, Pinnacles National Park ranks among the top locales to spot peregrine falcons, red-shouldered hawks and golden eagles—especially if you go during the spring, which is raptor breeding season. Aiming to avoid the crowds and don’t mind seriously scorching temps? Consider visiting during the sweaty summer months.

Where to stay:

national parks in california sequoia and kings canyon
bennymarty/Getty Images

9. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Best for: Tree huggers, hikers, climbers, fans of fishing, stargazers

A diverse and magical place, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park is blessed with magnificent scenery unlike anywhere else. These adjoining nature areas have a wealth of yawning canyons, alpine peaks and truly massive trees. It’s here that you’ll discover the majesty of the 14,494-foot Mount Whitney.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the General Sherman Tree. (At 275-feet-tall and with a 36-foot-diameter base, it’s the biggest sequoia on the planet by volume. Follow the paved trail in Giant Forest. Needless to say, an epic photo opp awaits.

Also on the agenda? Go caving, fishing and spelunking. Mosey to the top of Panoramic Point for spectacular vistas of Kings Canyon and Hume Lake. Park Ridge Fire Lookout is one of the many other jaw-dropping viewpoints.

When to go:
By now, you’re probably pretty sold on Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. Spring, summer and fall are ideal for all sorts of outdoor activities. As if all that’s not enough. You can comfortably sleep under the stars at the Lodgepole Campground during the warmer months.

Where to stay:

headshot 2
Lindsay Cohn

Freelance PureWow Editor

Lindsay Cohn is a travel writer and serial trip planner who has visited 46 countries across six continents (and counting). When not globetrotting, she’s most likely either doing...
read full bio