9 BEST National Parks in California → A Local’s Guide

A woman walks past a giant sequoia tree in yosemite national park.

As your California local guide, I’m here to present you with the best national parks in California.

The list wouldn’t be complete without including world-famous destinations like Yosemite and Joshua Tree, iconic destinations with phenomenal nature to explore.

These national parks in California attract millions of visitors each year from all over the world and provide numerous outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and wildlife watching.

So, without further hold-up, pack your bags, and let’s explore the best national parks in California together!

Quick Picks for Your Stay

On your visit to these awesome West Coast national parks, you’ll want to start your adventures right away upon arrival, not begin researching plans. I highly recommend you book your hotels and activities in advance of your trip:

Talking about the best national parks in California, I prepared a map for you to see where each one is located:

Since we’re visiting several different national parks in California, I listed the best campgrounds and facilities below each park.

1. Experience epic rock formations at Yosemite National Park

A man sitting on a rock overlooking yosemite national park.

National parks in California serve as protected areas for unique plant and animal species and overall bring you a sense of calm, simplicity, and peace.

One of my all-time favorite reasons to hit the great outdoors is to revel in spring’s wildflower blooms in multiple parks throughout this great state.

To me, Yosemite National Park is the most perfect, quintessential national park in the whole bunch!

It’s also one of the most visited national parks in the country.

There’s so much to do and see in Yosemite, you’ll never get bored.

Things to do in Yosemite National Park

trail next to a rock

You have so many options when visiting this massive national park: photograph the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite, join ranger-led tours in Yosemite Valley, and marvel at Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan.

One of the most beautiful national parks in California, relax by pristine alpine lakes in the High Sierras, hike the many incredible trails, or go wildlife viewing throughout the area.

Visit Glacier Point, a breathtaking viewpoint offering a stunning panoramic vista of iconic landmarks such as Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the High Sierra peaks.

If you’re looking for a great adventure that combines them all, book this exhilarating full-day tour of the park and let someone else lead you to all the magic!

Hiking trails in Yosemite National Park

a man and a child walking on a trail towards a mountain

Yosemite is filled with a phenomenal network of trails great for scrambling, hiking, or mountain biking. Below are some of the best in each skill level:

  • Lower Yosemite Falls (see trail map) – easy – 1 mile (1.6 km) loop, this simple 30-minute hike will give you an incredible view of the falls and nature around the park.
  • Mirror Lake Trail (see trail map) – moderate – this 5-mile (8 km) loop will take you out to the lake to see the amazing Half Dome and is best seen during late spring when water levels are high.
  • Upper Yosemite Falls (see trail map) – difficult – one of the toughest waterfall hikes. This 6.6-mile (10 km) hike is steep, slippery, and difficult, but the amazing views from the top make it worth it.

Wildlife in Yosemite

You’ll love wildlife spotting at Yosemite National Park!

The park boasts a plethora of diverse wildlife, with over 400 species in total, including black bears, mule deer, coyotes, and bald eagles.

Yosemite National Park is also a critical habitat for endangered species like the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, so please be mindful of your surroundings.

Camping & accommodation in Yosemite National Park

Camping in Yosemite national park

It’s fun to stay within the confines of Yosemite, and the popular Yosemite Valley Campground offers a really budget-friendly camping experience at US$26 per night.

If you’d rather something a bit more ‘not-sleeping-on-the-ground-ish,’ try the Williams Cabin, which offers historic charm from US$170 to US$260 per night.

If you need real luxurious digs, try Inside Yosemite Luxury Winter Wonderland, which offers elegant rooms starting at US$450 per night.

Find more accommodation options

2. Discover the mystique of Joshua Tree National Park

There is so much to see and do at this Southern California national park – most famous for its iconic Joshua trees.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

palm trees in front of a rocky mountain

Joshua Tree is only a few hours from my hometown of San Diego, so I’m fortunate to visit Joshua Tree National Park quite often!

I highly recommend you spend some time in this park and really explore the mystique of Joshua Tree’s desert landscapes.

Whether you love to hike, rock climb, or just search for unique flora in Joshua Tree’s wilderness, this park has so much to offer!

One of my favorite visits to Joshua Tree was actually via this rad Jeep tour that cuts through the Mojave desert – if you have the time, definitely book it!

TOUR PRICE: from US$150 per person

Book your Jeep tour

Hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park

a group of people going on a rock trail

Joshua Tree is filled with other-worldly-looking rock formations perfect for scrambling and a network of trails that appeal to every skill level. See my top 3 favorites below:

  • Barker Dam Trail (see trail map) – easy – 1.5 miles (c. 2 km) loop, this simple 1-hour hike will take you out to the historic dam and to see the petroglyphs.
  • Hidden Valley Trail Loop (see trail map) – moderate – this 1-mile (1.6 km) loop is a captivating trail through a picturesque valley surrounded by massive rock formations.
  • Ryan Mountain Trail (see trail map) – difficult – this 3-mile (4.7 km) hike takes 2 – 3 hours and is a strenuous ascent but offers panoramic views of Joshua Tree National Park from its summit.

Wildlife in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is a habitat for unique and quirky-looking desert wildlife, including desert tortoises, camouflaged lizards, bighorn sheep, and coyotes.

Being that you’re smack in the middle of the Mojave and Colorado Desert, rattlesnakes and lizards are everywhere. So, keep your wits about you and your ears open for that familiar rattling sound.

Camping & accommodations in Joshua Tree National Park

view over a desert with mountains in the distance and benches in the foreground

Part of the Dark Sky Park, camping in Joshua Tree is extra special.

If you’d like to camp under the stars, try Black Rock Campground – it’s a steal at about US$25 a night.

Outside the park, I’d recommend Autocamp Joshua Tree, a super hip and trendy campsite with airstreams and an outdoor swimming pool. The nightly price is usually around US$300.

3. Explore the California desert in Death Valley National Park

One of the best national parks in California, Death Valley National Park has a unique history and topography all its own.

Things to do in Death Valley National Park

a highway in the middle of a desert with mountains in the background

When you get to the park, you’ll want to experience the vastness of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin.

Descend into the depths of Death Valley’s Golden Canyon and get a whole new perspective of the park.

One of my favorite things to do when visiting this park is to attend Native American cultural events in the park. Check the visitor center for the upcoming calendar.

Traverse sand dunes and salt flats in Death Valley and take a tour in an awesome off-road vehicle through the desert.

What’s cooler than to discover ancient petroglyphs in the Mojave Desert? Nothing.

For more interesting things to do in Death Valley, check my related article for the full lowdown.

TOUR PRICE: US$294 per person

Join the off-road tour

Hiking trails in Death Valley National Park

Death valley national park, california.

Death Valley is a unique and dry place to hike. See below for my top 3 favorites:

  • Golden Canyon Trail (see trail map) – easy – 3 miles (4.7 km); this picturesque stroll will take you through colorful, narrow canyons with views of the Red Cathedral.
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (see trail map) – moderate – this 2.7-mile (4.5 km) trek will take 1.5 – 2 hours through a sandy desert experience with iconic dunes and panoramic vistas.
  • Telescope Peak Trail (see trail map) – difficult – at 12.17 miles (19.6 km), this 8 – 10 hour hike is a demanding ascent to the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak, and when you arrive at the top, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the vista before you.

Wildlife in Death Valley National Park

If you’re a nature lover and want to get up close with the wildlife in the park, look for bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and kit foxes. 🦊

Additionally, the park is home to a remarkable diversity of bird species, and during migration periods, it is especially mesmerizing.

Camping & accommodations in Death Valley National Park

statue of mining man with donkey

If you’re looking for budget options, I highly recommend Furnace Creek Campground at only US$22 a night and Sunset Campground at US$18 a night.

If you want to get your head in a bed, try the historic Inn at Death Valley and the Ranch at Death Valley for moderate prices between US$200 – US$300. Note that these options are rated lower than I’d usually recommend, but there are very few hotel options in this park.

4. Explore Lassen Volcanic National Park

An aerial view of a sand dune

This Northern California national park is brimming with exciting things to do, from an otherworldly landscape of steaming hydrothermal features, serene lakes, and volcanic peaks.

Things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park

One of the most popular things to do when visiting is to stand atop Lassen Peak. In addition, experiencing geothermal wonders in Lassen Volcanic National Park feels almost like you’re stepping onto another planet.

If you time your trip right, winter-ski down Lassen Volcanic’s snowy slopes for an extra special way to enjoy the park.

Hiking trails in Lassen Volcanic National Park

aerial view over the lassen volcanic national park

Lassen Volcanic National Park has an atmosphere all its own, and hiking through it is always breathtaking. See below for my top 3 favorite hikes:

  • Kings Creek Falls Trail (see trail map) – easy – 2.7 miles (4.5 km); this scenic trail leads you to the beautiful Kings Creek Falls. You’ll love the mist from the falls hitting you at just the right moment on your hike.
  • Bumpass Hell Trail (see trail map) – moderate – 2.6 miles (4.3 km); this trail takes you to the park’s most famous hydrothermal area and offers a unique opportunity to witness boiling mud pots and steaming fumaroles. So cool!
  • Lassen Peak Trail (see trail map) – challenging – 5 miles (8 km); this strenuous hike takes you to the summit of Lassen Peak, where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding volcanic landscape. Get your camera ready!

Wildlife in Lassen Volcanic National Park

In this unique high-elevation environment, you get to see an array of wildlife you wouldn’t see down below in the valleys.

Mule deer, black bears, and the red-tailed hawk are just some of the many animals roaming the region.

Camping & accommodations in Lassen Volcanic National Park

A tent is set up in a wooded area.

If you’re keeping it budget, try Manzanita Lake Campground at US$26 per night or Summit Lake Campground at US$24 per night.

Want an even more rustic experience? There are also backcountry campsites available by permit.

Manzanita Lake Cabins and Drakesbad Guest Ranch are my go-to for a cozy stay with all the necessary comfy amenities.

5. Discover the beauty of Redwood National and State Parks

Two people walking through a redwood forest.

Tucked away on the stunning northern California coast, Redwood National and State Parks are renowned for their towering ancient redwoods – some of the tallest trees on Earth.

Things to do in Redwood National and State Parks

First and foremost, you’re going to want to witness the tallest trees at Redwood National Park.

What is truly incredible about this network of parks is it offers diverse ecosystems ranging from deserts to coastal forests.

Check out the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree for one of the most peculiar and incredible experiences – driving through a giant redwood tree!

Explore Jedediah Smith State Park (see info) in the heart of California’s ancient redwood groves, with cathedral-like towering trees, serene riverbanks, and an enchanting natural vibe.

Hiking trails in Redwood National and State Parks

a sign showing the way to trails among tall trees

Redwood National and State Parks have so much to offer, and the hiking trails are spectacular. See below for my top 3 favorite trails:

  • Tall Trees Trail (see trail map) – easy – 3.6 miles (5.8 km); this enchanting trail guides you through the heart of ancient redwood groves. Stand in awe of these colossal trees; it’s really phenomenal!
  • Fern Canyon Loop (see trail map) – moderate – 1.1 miles (1.8 km); venture into a lush, fern-covered canyon – Jurassic Park scenes were filmed here! Meander through a tranquil creek and towering walls of lush greenery.
  • Damnation Creek Trail (see trail map) – challenging – 3 miles (5.5 km); for the adventurous, this rugged coastal hike offers dramatic ocean vistas and an opportunity to witness the transition from the towering redwoods to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. It is such a cool contrast!

Wildlife in Redwood National and State Parks

Home to a diverse array of wildlife, including black bears, Roosevelt elk, and marbled murrelets. It’s always an adventure when you hit the trails in Redwood.

Believe it or not, the parks are also known for their unique banana slugs, playing a vital role in the parks’ ecosystem.

Camping & accommodation in Redwood National and State Parks

tents and trailers camping between tall redwoods

What could be cooler than to camp beneath the towering trees in Redwood National and State Parks?! ⛺

Check out Jedediah Smith Campground for US$35 per night or Elk Prairie Campground for US$35 per night, and get backcountry permits if you’re looking for something even more secluded.

If you’re looking for more of a home base, try Redwood Farmhouse in Orick, not too far from the park, giving you plenty of space to spread out and get ready to adventure all week long!

6. Climb to new heights at Pinnacles National Park

A sign for pinnacles national park in california.

California’s newest national park, Pinnacles National Park, is renowned for its dramatic rock formations, deep caves, and diverse wildlife.

Things to do in Pinnacles National Park

When you visit Pinnacles National Park, hike to Bear Gulch Reservoir, then venture into the eery Bear Gulch Cave, where you can explore unique rock formations – and see the resident bat colony. 😱

Visit the park’s Condor Gulch area for a chance to spot endangered California condors in their natural habitat.

Hiking trails in Pinnacles National Park

Two people hiking on a trail in the mountains.

Pinnacles National Park has so many great hikes, below are my top 3 favorites:

  • Bear Gulch Reservoir and Cave Trail (see trail map) – easy – 1 miles (2 km); this fun trail leads you to Bear Gulch Reservoir and then into Bear Gulch Cave, where you can explore the rock formations and maybe even spot some bats!
  • Condor Gulch Trail – (see trail map) – moderate – 5.5 miles (9 km); hike the Condor Gulch Trail to witness stunning panoramic views of the park’s unique landscape and have the opportunity to spot California condors soaring above!
  • High Peaks Trail (see trail map) – challenging – 6.4 miles (10.3 km); embark on the High Peaks Trail through the park’s iconic rock formations, including the dramatic High Peaks.

Wildlife in Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is teeming with wildlife, including California condors, hawks, and bats!

If you’re lucky, you might even catch some bobcats, coyotes, or a variety of reptiles and amphibians while exploring the park’s rugged terrain.

Camping & accommodation in Pinnacles National Park

A group of tents in a wooded area.

Keep things budget-friendly? Try Pinnacles Campground for US$36 per night. You’ll love the scenic setting within the park and easy access to trails.

For the rustic adventurers, there are also primitive campsites available at the park’s High Peaks and Balconies trailheads.

7 & 8. Visit Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Two of my absolute faves – not to mention conveniently located next door to one another: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are renowned for their colossal groves of giant sequoias and the striking depths of Kings Canyon National Park.

Things to do in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Stairs leading to the top of a mountain

You will never run out of awesome things to do while you’re in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks!

You can horseback ride through Sequoia’s vast forests, cruise Kings Canyon scenic byway, or hike to the point of Kings Canyon’s majestic overlooks.

Feeling super, duper adventurous?! Trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (see trail map) through multiple parks and make an epic journey of it.

Visit the world’s largest tree, General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park and stand in awe of the sheer size of this colossal giant.

Hike up Moro Rock’s steep stairway for breathtaking panoramic views of the rugged Sierra Nevadas.

Explore Kings Canyon’s Zumwalt Meadow; the wildflowers in the springtime are to die for!

One of my absolute favorite tours, book this killer full-day guided tour of both the parks and all their hidden gems.

TOUR PRICE: from US$400 per person

Join the guided tour

Hiking trails in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Two people standing in front of a giant sequoia tree.

Here are my top 3 favorites:

  • General Sherman Tree Trail (see trail map) – easy – c. 1 mile (2 km); this accessible trail leads you to the iconic General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume, giving you an awesome intro to the giant sequoias of the park.
  • Zumwalt Meadow Loop Trail (see trail map) – moderate – 1.5 miles (2.4 km); hike the loop for a picturesque journey through lush meadows and along the Kings River, showcasing stunning views of the surrounding towering cliffs and lush greenery.
  • Rae Lakes Loop (see trail map) – challenging – c. 40 miles (62 km); for the most adventurous, this backcountry trek takes you through pristine wilderness, alpine lakes, and breathtaking mountain scenery.

Wildlife in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks thrive with rich wildlife like black bears, mule deer, and bobcats.

On my very first visit to the parks, I saw a junior black bear – it was so incredible!

Keep in mind these parks are also home to the endangered California condor, one of the world’s rarest birds, so keep your eyes open for them.

The parks have over 250 bird species within their boundaries, like peregrine falcons, mountain bluebirds, and the charismatic Steller’s jay.

Camping & accommodation in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

sign that says Sequoia National Park

Go budget and book a few nights at the Lodgepole Campground, running you about US$22 to $26 per night, or Dorst Creek Campground at US$22 per night, both nestled amidst the scenic forest.

Backcountry camping is also available by permit if you want a more remote experience.

If you prefer comfy digs like me, check out Wuksachi Village and Lodge, which offers indoor amenities within the park. Although the rating is a bit lower than I usually like to recommend, this place is actually pretty rad.

9. Cruise the stunning waters of Channel Islands National Park

Such a cool spot off the coast of Southern California, this breathtaking natural treasure is composed of 5 rugged islands.

Channel Islands National Park comprises pristine, remote islands renowned for their wildlife, crystal-clear waters, and unparalleled outdoor adventure opportunities.

Things to do in Channel Islands National Park

a cliff and the ocean

Some of the best views and challenging terrain, try to hike the backcountry trails of Channel Islands if you have the time and the prowess.

I encourage you to discover the rugged coastline of the Channel Islands, whether by foot or by kayak out in the waters.

One of my favorite things in California is kayaking through pristine waters at Channel Islands National Park; there is nothing quite like it.

Hiking trails in Channel Islands National Park

Two people hiking on a grassy trail near the ocean.

And here are my top 3 picks for hiking trails:

  • Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail (see trail map) – easy – 4.4 miles (7.2 km); this beginner-friendly trail takes you through the beautiful Scorpion Canyon, offering a glimpse of the island’s coastal beauty and, possibly, wildlife spotting!
  • Potato Harbor Trail (see trail map) – moderate – c. 5 miles (8 km); hike this trail for amazing coastal vistas and a chance to witness the island’s diverse marine life.
  • Montañon Ridge Trail (see trail map) – challenging – 8.6 miles (14 km); if you want a fierce challenge, this hike provides a rugged adventure with stunning coastal vistas.

Wildlife in Channel Islands National Park

These islands are a total sanctuary for marine life. Be prepared to spot sea lions, harbor seals, and vibrant kelp forests just below the surface.

Above water, you might catch a glimpse of island foxes and nesting seabirds!

Camping & accommodation in Channel Islands National Park

A tent set up in a grassy area with a lighthouse in the background.

Okay, I’m not usually one to love camping – BUT, camping on some beautiful islands?! I can deal with that. 🤣

Camping is available on four of the park’s islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Anacapa – you can choose from a range of simple inland or beachfront campsites.

⛰️ Must-visit national park:Yosemite National Park
🚶 Best easy hike:Barker Dam Trail
🌳 Unique park:Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
🦅 Unique wildlife:Condors at Pinnacles National Park
🤩 Best views:Upper Yosemite Falls

FAQs about national parks in California

a woman is walking through a desert area

🏔️ How many national parks are there in California?

There are nine national parks in California: Yosemite National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National and State Parks, Pinnacles National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and Channel Islands National Park.

📅 What is the best time of year to visit California’s national parks?

The best time of year to visit California national parks is spring and fall.

🎫 Are there special passes or permits needed for activities in the parks?

Yes, there are often special passes or permits needed for activities in the parks. Check with the National Park Service website.

🤸 Which national park in California has the best outdoor activities?

It’s hard to beat Yosemite National Park, the most visited and arguably most exciting national park in California.

Conclusion

a person standing in front of a giant redwood tree at sunset

One of the reasons I love living in California so much is the access to incredible national parks within driving distance.

These 9 national parks in California are all unique in their own ways, and you will love getting to know the nooks and crannies of each.

Don’t forget, if you are heading out on your national park trip soon – book ahead! The parks get uber busy, especially during the peak seasons.

I hope you have the best time on your adventures. Please drop me a line below and tell me all about them!

Hayden


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