California has some of the most iconic national and state parks on the planet. From Joshua Tree in the South to Lassen Volcanic Park in the North, California is full of diverse and wonderful parks just begging to be explored. In fact, it was hard to pick just 10! Most of these parks deserve days, if not weeks to fully see and appreciate them, so you’ll definitely want to book a vacation rental and maybe call in sick to work. Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.
1. Death Valley National Park
We know what you’re thinking. Why on Earth would I want to visit a place called Death Valley? Most of the year, this east Californian desert is brutally hot, but if you visit in the winter or early spring, you might be surprised to find beautiful and vibrant colors. One of the best places to visit in Death Valley is Zabriskie Point at sunrise or sunset. This viewing point is easily accessible from the parking area. The park has nine campsites and several air-conditioned lodges like the historic Furnace Creek Inn and the Panamint Springs Resort, so don’t be afraid to stay a while.
2. Yosemite National Park
200 miles east of San Francisco lies one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system, Yosemite National Park. This granite wonderland was sculpted by massive glaciers over three million years ago when ice covered most of the Sierra Nevada. Of course, Yosemite is a mecca for rock climbing, but you’ll also find fantastic hiking, rafting, fishing and wildlife watching. The park is best explored over at least several days, and you can choose accommodations ranging from wilderness camping, vacation rentals, or the luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel.
3. Point Reyes National Seashore
California is known for its beautiful beaches, and at Point Reyes, you’ll find more than crowded boardwalks and bikini clad sunbathers. This national seashore 37 miles north of San Francisco is one of California’s few wild beaches. It was protected in 1962 to save the area from residential development and is completely cut off from the mainland by Tomales Bay, an elongated body of water. The headlands and sea cliffs are crawling with wildlife, including raptors, nesting sea birds, and tule elk. You can also spot grey whales from late December to mid-March as they migrate from Alaska to Baja California to breed.
4. Joshua Tree National Park
This park was named after an unusually tall species of yucca trees that look almost otherworldly but what makes this park truly unique is the rock formations. Rock climbers from all over the world travel to Joshua Tree to scale these boulders. It’s also a perfect place to see the stars thanks to no humidity or light pollution. Keep a look out for big-horned sheep on the trail to Lost Palms Oasis. This hike follows an ancient Native American footpath to a cool oasis hidden in a boulder canyon. It can be a bit strenuous, but it’s definitely worth it!
5. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Located 50 miles east of Redding, this park could give Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic features a run for their money. The park surrounds the world’s largest volcanic dome, 10,462-foot Lassen Peak. Lassen’s last eruption was in 1915, making it one of only two volcanoes that have erupted in the continental United States in the 20th century. The park was created to preserve the devastated areas for observation and study. Visiting the site 100 years later, you can see the beautiful juxtaposition of flora and fauna flourishing between hardened lava rocks.
6. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
These are two separate parks, but they are co-managed and share a border and entrance fee, only $5 per person. Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world. Redwoods may be taller, but giant sequoias win by volume. The General Sherman’s trunk has a volume of 1,487 cubic meters and is estimated to weigh over 2,000 tons! King Canyon National Park protects the south middle forks of the Kings River and the south fork of the San Joaquin River. The south fork section of Kings River is known as Kings Canyon and was carved out by glaciers during the last ice age.
7. Pinnacles National Park
Previously known as Pinnacles National Monument, these dramatic cliffs 40 miles southeast of Salinas became a national park in 2013. The spires and canyons here are actually the remains of an ancient volcano that was split in two by the San Andreas Fault and hauled 150 miles from its original location. Another popular spot among rock climbers, you can also find bats, falcons, and the extremely rare California condor. Don’t miss Bear Gulch and Balconies Cave, Pinnacle’s unique talus caves. They were formed when steep, narrow canyons filled with boulders and are home to colonies of Towson’s big-eared bats.
8. Devils Postpile National Monument
Devils Postpile is one of the world’s best examples of columnar basalt. These columns were created when a mass of basaltic lava that cooled and contracted to form columns which are mostly pentagonal or hexagonal. The National Monument is near Mammoth Lakes on the east side of Yosemite. Getting to the base of the Postpile from the campsite is only a half-mile walk, but we recommend taking the moderate uphill hike to the top. It only takes about 15 minutes and is the best way to see these unique polygon formations.
9. King Range National Conservation Area
There’s a 65-mile slice of land between Eureka and Rockport known as the Lost Coast. This area is the longest stretch of wild beach in California and is protected by the King Range National Conservation Area. There are no roads here so bring some comfortable walking shoes. The 6.5-mile round trip hike from Mattole River campsite to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse has been referred to as one of the most beautiful beachwalks in the world. It’s also a great area for surfing.
10. Redwood National Park
So Sequoia National Park technically has the largest trees in the world, but Redwood National Park in northern California boasts the tallest trees, including the world’s tallest living tree, Hyperion. While the location of Hyperion is a closely guarded secret, walking among any of these towering trees will make you in awe of the power of nature. The easiest walking trails are the Ladybird Johnson Grove Trail and Tall Trees Grove Trail in the southern portion of the park.
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