California’s rich and diverse natural landscapes are among the best things about the Golden State for both residents and visitors. Here you’ll find isolated islands, rocky pinnacles, long waterfalls, sheer cliffs, super-sized sequoias, and oddball trees that look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.
With such a wealth of natural wonders, it’s no surprise that California has nine national parks—the largest number of any state (Alaska’s next, with eight). Here’s our guide to these special spaces (plus a bonus beloved national monument) and what makes each so special.
Channel Islands National Park
Off the coast of Southern California, the Channel Islands are named for the deep troughs that separate them from the mainland. The archipelago is home to more than 2,000 species of animals and plants, 145 of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Of the eight islands, five (Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa) are part of this national park, together with their submerged lands and the waters within one nautical mile of each. Revered for its endemic plants and plentiful wildlife, the “Galápagos of North America” has no lodgings, restaurants, or stores. It’s all about solitude, unplugging, and enjoying nature.
Just getting to the park is an exciting experience—depending on your destination island, it’s a one- to three-hour journey by boat or about 30 minutes by plane (Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands only). Most boat trips depart from Ventura Harbor, which is also home to the park’s Visitor Center. Each island has scenic hikes with spectacular views and opportunities to see wildlife. Explore 15 trails on Santa Cruz Island, hike to a lighthouse on Anacapa, or wander through Santa Rosa Island’s Lobo Canyon looking for sandstone formations, pygmy mammoth fossils, and local island foxes. And even though there aren’t hotels in the park, each island has a campground, the largest of which are Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island and Water Canyon Camp on Santa Rosa Island.
Death Valley National Park
The queen of extremes—the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the country—Death Valley is known for its salt flats, behemoth sand dunes, painted sandstone canyons, 140-year history of boom-and-bust mining, and mysterious sailing rocks that leave tracks as they drift across the cracked mud of Racetrack Playa. Its morbid name might suggest that little survives between the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak (the park’s highest elevation) and Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level (its lowest), but a great diversity of life thrives here, including fields of wildflowers and a variety of wildlife.
Death Valley’s 3.4 million acres are an outdoor playground for visitors. You can view many of its most famous places easily by car or on short walks: the geologic rainbow of rocks along Artists Drive, the jagged spires of Devil’s Golf Course, the view of golden badlands from Zabriskie Point, and the otherworldly salt flats of Badwater Basin. But hiking trails abound, too, bringing visitors to even more remote sites such as the 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater, the dark lava flows and volcanic cinders of Rainbow Canyon, and the long-closed Keane Wonder Mine. At night, look to the stars; in 1993, Death Valley became the third International Dark Sky Park in the U.S. National Park System. Best spots for stargazing are Harmony Borax Works, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, and Ubehebe Crater.
Joshua Tree National Park
While Joshua Tree National Park’s desert plains and boulders lure a fair number of visitors to this Southern California spot, its spiky, Seussian namesake trees are by far the park’s biggest draw. “J-Tree” is located at an ecological crossroads—the place where the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert meet—and boasts around 750 species of vascular plants, nearly half of which are annual plants, like wildflowers. The original name proposed for the park was “Desert Plants National Park” because of this diversity.
Newbie and experienced climbers flock to the more than 8,000 rock-climbing routes here, but you don’t have to scale a rock to get the best of this park’s features. Keys View is a favorite destination for its sweeping views of the Coachella Valley and San Andreas Fault. Or head to Skull Rock for funky rock shapes. Secluded Indian Cove, tucked next to behemoth boulders, lies on the north side of the Wonderland of Rocks—12 square miles of massive, jumbled granite. Joshua Tree has some of the darkest night skies in Southern California, with clear, unobstructed views of the Milky Way. Birders flock to J-Tree year-round to spy resident bird species like the greater roadrunner and Gambel’s quail, as well as brightly colored warblers that pass through on seasonal migration. The best spots to look for birds are in fan palm oases and water impoundments.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for what can only be described as a “cranky” landscape—one of fumaroles, bubbling hot springs, boiling mud pots, and five types of volcanoes. It’s been the site of volcanic eruptions since about 400,000 years ago and is part of the seismic zone called the Ring of Fire, where the Earth’s plates grind against each other and subduction creates magma and molten rock.
Experience this activity up close on the popular Bumpass Hell Trail, which winds around the rim of a large valley that was once the site of Mount Tehama (also called Brokeoff Volcano). As you descend into the basin, you can smell sulfur and hear the hissing of the steaming and boiling earth. The more challenging Cinder Cone Trail is your key to viewing the Fantastic Lava Beds and the red, ochre, and orange Painted Dunes (especially striking in the late afternoon light). Fifty miles from the nearest big city, Redding, Lassen enjoys little light pollution and offers Starry Night ranger-led programs throughout the park. And for winter visitors, rangers lead snowshoe walks through the forest near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
Pinnacles National Park
The towering spires and ramparts of Pinnacles National Park look surreal, as if they fell from an imaginary world onto rolling chaparral-covered hills. In reality, they’re what’s left of a volcano commuting north really slowly. The Miocene-era Neenach Volcano, which originated 195 miles to the southeast, straddles the San Andreas Fault. Every time the Pacific Plate creeps north, it pulls the volcano’s remains along on its journey, leaving these cliffs and crags in its wake.
Pinnacles is the newest of California’s national parks, upgraded from a national monument in 2013. There are more than 30 miles of hiking trails here, from easy walks through fields of springtime wildflowers to rocky treks such as the High Peaks Trail, plus hundreds of climbing routes. The two main areas of talus caves (Balconies and Bear Gulch) are popular with visitors. While you’re here, keep an eye on the sky and the High Peaks, especially in the early morning and late evening hours—this region became part of the California Condor Recovery Program in 2003, and conservationists estimate there are 86 wild condors that range through the park and the rest of Central California.
Redwood National Park
An easy way to feel small is to stand somewhere in the 40,000 acres of Redwood National Park and look up. These ancient, towering trees are 45 percent of the world’s last old-growth redwoods, and spending time in their shade is a special treat. Here you’ll find coast redwoods—one of three types of redwoods and the tallest trees in the world. In 1994, the National Park Service and California State Parks agreed to cooperatively manage their contiguous redwood parklands here, which amounts to 133,000 total acres, and to protect vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and nearly 40 miles of rugged coastline.
Hike the backcountry Tall Trees Trail, or take a quick jaunt in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove on a much easier trail. If you’ve got a full day, hike from the redwoods to the ocean and back on the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon Loop (which crosses into state parkland): You’ll follow creeks through the forest, pass through Fern Canyon, where the walls seem to drip with greenery, and look for migrating whales at Gold Bluffs Beach. This beach is also a great place to spy Roosevelt elk, one of the largest members of the deer family.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Although Sequoia and Kings Canyon are two separate national parks, they’ve been administered jointly by the National Park Service since World War II. Their names alone promise giant trees and huge canyons, but Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet, is also within the borders of Sequoia National Park. Quick-growing and long-lived (some over 3,000 years), giant sequoias are massive trees. Yes, there are taller trees, but when measured by volume, the General Sherman Tree in Giant Forest at Sequoia National Park is the most massive living thing on Earth, with an estimated total volume of more than 50,000 cubic feet. View nearby giants on the two-mile Congress Trail.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the Sierra Nevada from 7,520-foot Panoramic Point. A paved trail leads to this overlook, which lives up to its name. Here you can see Kings Canyon itself (one of the deepest canyons in North America) and Hume Lake. Or go underground at Crystal Cave on a guided tour with Sequoia Parks Conservancy, which will bring you to subterranean chambers with delicate hanging stalactites. Tours are offered spring through fall; buy tickets at least two days in advance.
Yosemite National Park
Stand below Half Dome and El Capitan to learn why the country’s third-oldest national park wins the devotion of all who visit. From the cathedral-like spires of the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove to the ethereal mists of Yosemite Falls to the splendor of Yosemite Valley and the high country’s subalpine wilderness, the park’s more than 1,100 square miles feature unforgettable natural beauty.
Yosemite was first protected in 1864 as a public trust of California; environmental trailblazer John Muir then campaigned for the act of Congress that finally declared it a national park in 1890. Today, millions of visitors visit the park annually to bask in the valley’s majesty. While summer is the most crowded time (head to Tuolumne Meadows or Hetch Hetchy Valley to get some elbow room), Yosemite inspires a sense of awe and reverence during any season, with fall’s explosion of color, winter’s quiet solitude, or spring’s gushing waterfalls. Head to Glacier Point at sunrise or sunset, when the light turns the granite formations a rosy gold. For a rarer event, plan your trip for mid- to late-February to try to catch the setting sun that illuminates the upper reaches of Horsetail Fall during that time of year, creating a “Firefall.”
Bonus: Muir Woods National Monument
Called “the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world” by naturalist John Muir, this is one of the last remaining old-growth coast redwood forests on the planet. The average age of the redwoods at Muir Woods is between 600 and 800 years, with the most ancient being at least 1,200 years old—only middle age for these trees, which can live longer than 2,000 years.
Wander in the shade of majestic redwoods on the six miles of trails within the 560-acre park, and for greater discovery, follow one of the unpaved paths that connect to trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. An ideal time here is in the morning, right as the park opens, when you may stand quietly at the foot of one of the tallest trees in the Bohemian Grove, hear the scolding call of a Steller’s jay echo in the deep redwood canyon, and watch tendrils of fog melt in the sunshine. A short distance away, Cathedral Grove is regarded as the most pristine grove of redwoods in the park.
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Jill K. Robinson Jill K. Robinson writes about travel and adventure for AFAR, National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Outside, Sierra, and more. She has won Lowell Thomas, Society of American Travel Writers, and American Society of Journalists and Authors awards for her work.