14 Best National Parks in California

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Jun 7, 2024

National Parks in California reflect the vast array of landscapes throughout the state. From the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the below-sea-level salt flats of Death Valley, these places of extremes offer unsurpassed beauty. And like Yosemite National Park and the Redwoods, these public spaces have inspired generations of wanderlust and warrant the millions of visitors they receive each year.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

California has nine national parks, including a national seashore, and a total of 28 national park units. These additional units include national recreation areas and monuments, among others. And while spots like Lava Beds and Whiskeytown Lake don't have the same name recognition, they share the status as must-see California landscapes.

National parks in California are explorable throughout the year. And many of the desert-based parks, including Joshua Tree, have a visiting season spanning the winter. So no matter the time of year, it's the right forecast for exploring one of California's best national parks.

Check off some bucket-list adventures with our list of the top national parks in California.

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is the crown jewel natural space of the state, epitomizing the sheer natural beauty and charm of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Central California. Yosemite has lured famous photographers, naturalists, and rock climbers throughout its century-plus status as a national park, and today attracts over four million visitors from around the world each year.

Monolithic granite peaks like El Capitan and Half Dome tower over the valley as some of the most iconic features of the park. Whether appreciating their vistas from places like Tunnel View or scoring a sought-after permit to hike to the top of Half Dome, these impressive rock features are a cornerstone experience of visiting the park.

The Yosemite Valley is also home to moving features like the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls, setting the stage for impressive acts of gravity. And while many guests spend time seeing the outstanding sights of Yosemite Valley, there is plenty of space to find a personal experience within the 1,100-square miles of the park.

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park
Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

Hiking, history, and wildlife viewing are other common aspects of any visit to Yosemite, and visitors can head to Tuolumne Meadows for a taste of it all. Following the lush banks of the Tuolumne River, hikers in Tuolumne cross paths with the country-spanning Pacific Crest Trail.

Things to do in the Sierra Nevada Mountains span throughout the year. In summer, enjoy the hiking trails and campgrounds. In winter, you'll find fewer crowds and plenty of opportunity to ski, snowshoe, and enjoy the quiet surroundings.

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses a magical world of big boulders, stunning sunsets, and acres of the park's namesake trees at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The park's busy season is between October and May, before and after summer temperatures keep tourists and the resident wildlife inactive during the day.

Numerous outlets for adventure exist in Joshua Tree, as well as campgrounds to spend the night. Popular things to do at Joshua Tree include hiking, stargazing, and rock climbing on the park's 8,000-plus established climbing routes. Joshua Tree is also home to several spring-fed oases marked by palm trees, which are a great way to find some shade and cooler temperatures in the park.

Jumbo Rocks Campground is one of the most popular campgrounds, catering to families and solo travelers alike. Over 120 sites are available, lending access to massive rock outcroppings and special features like Skull Rock. Advanced camping reservations in Joshua Tree are highly recommended during the peak season.

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Sunsets are truly stunning in Joshua Tree, and there's something about the way the light filters through the desert landscape that hooks people for life. Of equal stunning celestial attraction, the night sky in Joshua Tree absolutely beams with a brilliant starscape and big views of the Milky Way.

Joshua Tree has four Visitor Centers, each near the three entrances of the park. Alongside interpretive information and exhibits, the Visitor Centers have water stations to fill up. There are no resources like water, gas, or food within the park itself, and visitors need to plan accordingly. The Oasis Visitor Center in Twenty-Nine Palms is especially notable, with a family-friendly hike to its namesake feature out its backdoor.

3. Redwood National and State Parks

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Redwood National and State Parks is a unique partnership between state and federal units, protecting over 100,000 acres and some of the world's tallest living things. And alongside the 350-foot trees within its borders, Redwood National and State Parks also encompass fern-covered canyons, tranquil beaches, and an abundance of wildlife.

The three state parks co-managed by Redwood National Park include Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. There's also the designated Redwoods National Park. Any one of the five visitor centers located within these parks is a great place to start exploring, like the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick. Here, visitors find trail information, educational exhibits, and special ranger-led activities.

Popular areas at Redwood National and State Parks include Fern Canyon, the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, and the wildflower-infused Enderts Beach. And popular activities in these towering Northern California landscapes include hiking, scenic driving, and camping in the shadows of giants.

All the different units of Redwood National and State Parks stretch for over 60 miles across the Northern California coast. It's possible to stop at each one in a single day, but not practical for exploring the treasures within. Instead, pick a couple or spend an entire week exploring all there is to see. Cities like Crescent City, Trinidad, and Eureka offer excellent bases to spend the night.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/redw/index.htm

4. Death Valley National Park

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is a land of sand dunes, salt flats, and mysterious moving rocks, and encompasses some of the largest environmental extremes found in the nation. The national park regularly reaches summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and is home to some of the lowest elevations in the country.

Spring is the most popular season to visit Death Valley National Park. And the best chance of catching a wildflower superbloom is between late March and early April. The Furnace Creek area of the park is a common base camp for many visits, with resources like a visitor center and numerous lodging options, including seasonal campgrounds.

The Badwater Basin region at the park offers a unique opportunity to explore a landscape 280 feet below sea level and filled with polygon salt formations. Other dynamic environments of the desert are throughout the park, including exploding salt crystals at the Devils Golf Course and mountain-sized sand dunes at Mesquite Flats.

Death Valley National Park is a popular day trip from Las Vegas. It's only about a two-hour drive from the city but takes a full day to explore. Don't underestimate the desert conditions or the immensity of the national park. Be sure to arrive with a full tank of gas and extra water stowed away.

5. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

A high Sierra lake in Kings Canyon National Park
A high Sierra lake in Kings Canyon National Park

The adjoined Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park is home to big trees, deep canyons, and dramatic Sierra Mountain scenery. It rivals its more popular neighbor to the north, Yosemite National Park, while the nation-spanning Pacific Crest Trail weaves through them all.

The massive General Sherman tree within Sequoia National Park stands as the world's largest tree by volume, measuring over 36 feet in diameter at its base. It's within the Giant Forest region of the park and surrounded by numerous other sequoia groves. This is also one of the most well-visited areas within either park.

Hiker in Sequoia National Park
Hiker in Sequoia National Park

Free shuttles run between May and September throughout Sequoia, delivering the many annual visitors to popular places like the Lodgepole Campground, the Giant Forest, and Morro Rock–the park's signature vista hike. The bald granite dome of Morro Rock, at over 6,700 feet tall, is accessible via a hiking trail and stone steps with a handrail at the top. A stunning view of the Great Western Divide rewards hikers for their efforts.

Backpacking into the vast wilderness of Kings Canyon is a popular way to experience the park, especially since much of the land is inaccessible to vehicles. Other popular activities include rock climbing, driving the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, and exploring underground at the marbled Crystal Cave. Common wildlife sightings at both parks include mule deer, black bears, and plenty of other tourists craning their necks up towards the canopies.

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6. Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pinnacles was established as a national park in 2013, making it the state's newest national park. It's east of the Salinas Valley in Central California. The park is split between an east and west region with no interconnecting road. This means visitors will want to note which section they want to visit and depart from either Salinas or Hollister.

Last light of the day on Pinnacles National Park
Last light of the day on Pinnacles National Park

The route to Pinnacles passes through scenic farmland, a bit unassuming compared to the big world unveiled within the national park. But upon making it to the heart of the park, towering spires and big birds circling overhead define this volcanic-formed playground. Most notably, keep an eye on the sky for the park's California Condors, some with wingspans exceeding nine feet long.

Hiking is one of the most popular activities at the park. And with an early enough start, and enough water, motivated hikers can see a majority of the park in a day. More casual hikers have plenty of options, too, including several looped routes. The Bear Gulch Day Use Area is a popular hiking destination with several easy and strenuous trails departing from the area.

California Condors, Pinnacles National Park
California Condors, Pinnacles National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pinnacles National Park is increasing in popularity. Parking fills up completely on many weekends, requiring an early arrival to obtain a spot. Early arrival is recommended regardless, especially during the summer, as much of the park becomes dangerously hot by noon. Few water stations are available, especially along the trails, and packing plenty of water is essential.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/pinn/index.htm

7. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bumpass Hell region of Lassen Volcanic National Park
Bumpass Hell region of Lassen Volcanic National Park

In the state's northeast corner, less than an hour from Redding, Lassen Volcanic National Park encompasses many unique hydrothermal areas still fuming to this day. Aptly named areas in the park like the Devils Kitchen and Bumpass Hell provide boardwalk trails and sensory immersion into a dynamic environment.

Other popular things to do at Lassen Volcanic National Park include swimming in Manzanita Lake, climbing Lassen Peak, and staying the night at Drakesbad Guest Ranch. This rustic lodge dates to the 1880s and provides a memorable place to stay in the heart of the park.

It's a busy national park but has much more manageable crowds compared to places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree. This makes planning a last-minute summer trip to Lassen a possibility. If campsites aren't available within the park, there is always a spot to pitch a tent or park an RV in the surrounding Lassen National Forest.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm

8. Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Channel Islands National Park is a chain of five islands off the Southern California coast, providing a remote getaway from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. The islands are only accessible via boat or seaplane, with ferries from Oxnard and Ventura transporting tourists to the islands on a regular basis.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the five islands and is one of the most popular to visit. Upon landing on the shore, common activities include hiking, kayaking, and camping at the Scorpion Ranch Campground. Other popular things to do on all five islands include hiking, picnicking, and exploring the rugged shore in a sea kayak.

Dolphins, enroute to Santa Cruz Island
Dolphins, enroute to Santa Cruz Island | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The other four islands comprising the archipelago are Anacapa Island, Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbara Island. These islands see less visitors and provide an even more remote experience. The exception might be Anacapa Island and it's aptly named Inspiration Point, providing one of the most popular hikes in this wild environment.

The Channel Islands are a wild and remote environment with no services or amenities, and visitors need to bring everything they need for the day or night. The boat ride to any one of the five islands adds to the experience of visiting, with common wildlife sightings including dolphins and whales.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm

9. Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes Lighthouse
Point Reyes Lighthouse

Point Reyes is an hour north of San Francisco and the only federally designated seashore on the West Coast. Over 150 miles of hiking trails span the estuaries, forests, and marshes of the national seashore, as well as the numerous wild beaches lined with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

This coastline is popular for tourists and wildlife alike, and common animal sightings include elk, seals, and grey whales during annual migrations. For a postcard-worthy place to visit, the Point Reyes Lighthouse serves as a beacon for tourists from around the world.

The national seashore only offers backcountry campgrounds to spend the night, split between hike-in and boat-in. That means personal vehicles cannot reach the five designated camping areas, and visitors must pack in supplies. This offers a wilder experience for those willing to make the extra effort.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/pore/index.htm

10. Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Fog rolling in over the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Fog rolling in over the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The urban-infused Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of three designated National Recreation Areas (NRAs) in California. It spans both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, is bordered to the north by Point Reyes National Seashore, and includes 37 distinct park units.

Among many other units, Golden Gate NRA is home to the iconic Muir Woods National Monument. This beautiful grove whisks visitors through a world of big trees on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Other notable sites on this side of the bridge include Stinson Beach and the Tennessee Valley.

Cultural attractions and the stunning natural landscape converge south of the Golden Gate Bridge in the NRA. Here, places like The Presidio and Crissy Airfield are often filled with locals and tourists enjoying the urban parkland. The Golden Gate NRA spans much of the San Francisco northern shoreline, offering ocean-facing hiking trails and a variety of ways to fall in love with the city.

Golden Gate NRA is also well regarded as one of the most dog-friendly national park units in California and is very popular with pet owners.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/goga/index.htm

11. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area offers an easy escape into a wild environment, backdropping the bustling streets of Los Angeles. Popular activities in this ocean-bound public space include hiking and backpacking, tent camping, and RV parking, as well as surfing and other beach activities.

The mountains stretch from Santa Monica inland and up the coast to Oxnard. Special areas in the Santa Monica Mountains include Solstice Canyon, Point Mugu State Park, and the original Paramount Ranch. Malibu Creek State Park is also a popular elevated spot to explore, with miles of hiking trails weaving throughout its 8,000-plus acres.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/samo/index.htm

12. Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Whiskeytown Lake, California
Whiskeytown Lake, California

Whiskeytown Lake is a quick 15-minute drive west of Redding in Northern California. This massive reservoir and its surrounding region are steeped in history. This legacy includes the old-west town at the bottom of the lake, lost to the map when the Whiskeytown Dam was built. President John F. Kennedy dedicated this dam on September 28th, 1963, marking his last visit to California.

Alongside the region's unique history, including the ancient Wintu peoples that lived off the landscape for millennia, it tends to be the bountiful recreation options that draw a crowd. Paddling, fishing, and swimming are a few ways to enjoy the water. And the larger recreation area is home to miles of hiking, biking, and horse riding trails, as well as several notable waterfalls.

Adding to Whiskeytown's history, the Carr Fire of 2018 wreaked devastation throughout the recreation area, affecting more than 39,000 of the recreation area's 41,000 acres. Massive rehabilitation and restoration efforts by volunteers and the forest service have brought back significant visitor resources, and today, much of the park is back open to the public. While much of the forest has bounced back, long-time visitors will note several of the park's buildings missing.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/whis/index.htm

13. Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile
Devils Postpile

Devils Postpile is a national monument in California, protecting a rare natural phenomenon and a towering example of columnar basalt. It's within the Sierra Nevada Mountains and surrounded by rich recreation activity, including the long-distance Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. The monument is most accessible during the summer months as it's covered in deep snow throughout the winter.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/depo/index.htm

14. Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds National Monument | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Lava Beds National Monument is in far northern California, less than 20 miles south of the Oregon border. It's a prominent stop on the state-spanning Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway and offers a surreal underground world to explore. Among its many volcanic remnant attractions, the monument's hundreds of miles of lava tubes are perhaps the most intriguing.

Self-exploration of these ancient lava passageways is allowed and encouraged. Visitors will want to stop by the visitor center first to obtain a free permit and detailed knowledge to explore safely. Helmets and flashlights are available for sale at the visitor center, but visitors are welcome to bring their own. Cave maps are also available and highly recommended for exploring any of the more intricate systems.

There's also plenty to do above ground at Lava Beds National Monument. Places in the park with foreboding names, like the Devil's Homestead, reveal a scarred environment still abundant with natural beauty. And for overnight adventures, the Indian Well Campground at the monument offers primitive and affordable sites.

Map of National Parks in California

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