9 Best National Parks in California

Santa Cruz Island ocean view in Channel Island National Park

With nine national parks, the beautiful state of California has more than any other in the nation – a fact far too overshadowed by the glamor of Hollywood and the magic of Disneyland. The city lights and culinary delights of places like Los Angeles and San Francisco are great. Still, California’s national parks are home to some of the most intriguing natural beauty on the West Coast and beyond.

These beautiful national parks are unique; many visitors find each better than the last. The interior of California offers everything ranging from desolate deserts to lush forests, from flat plains to jagged mountaintops, and from small plants and vegetation to massive trees reaching hundreds of feet to the sky.

Off the coast, you’ll find pristine island environments that few national park-goers will ever visit. There is even more to see beyond the nine main parks in the Golden State.

The United States National Park System also manages seven national monuments and two national recreation areas, while the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management manage dozens more national forests and wildlife preserves; there are hundreds of state parks throughout the state, too.

You’ll never be far from a place to enjoy the great outdoors in California, and with a properly planned trip, you can see a ton.

We’ve put together the ultimate guide to the best of California national parks and how to enjoy each. Know where to stay, what to do, and how to prepare for the trip of a lifetime to this part of the country.

Exploring The Best National Parks In California

1. Joshua Tree National Park

A grove of Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park
Brad Sutton / NPS

We’ll start in southern California at a park that can be reached just two hours from Los Angeles: Joshua Tree National Park. This expanse counts over 800,000 acres of remote, protected land near the posh town of Palm Springs.

Joshua Tree National Park is unique because of its crossroads ecosystems where two deserts meet. The Mojave and Colorado deserts bring together ecosystems of fascinating plants and animals. The most famous, as denoted by the park’s name, is the Joshua tree that can be found throughout.

Joshua trees are desert plants with a striking appearance. Tall, twisted, and seeming to have bushes at its branch ends, this member of the Agave family is spiky and sharp.

Their tough leaves were once used for clothing and tools, while lumber was used to build settler ranches. Most universally, Joshua trees are one of the only sources of shade from the hot desert sun.

Besides seeing its unique trees, Joshua Tree National Park visitors come for the fascinating desert scenery. Moon-like boulder formations and jagged desert floors make for fantastic hiking, biking, birdwatching, scenic driving, and photography. Camping and stargazing keep the fun going well after the sunsets – by the way, there is no bad place to see a sunset in this park.

Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

A hiker at the top of a boulder at Joshua Tree National Park
Hannah Schwalbe / NPS

With such a vast expanse, it can be hard to know where to go and what to see around Joshua Tree. Don’t forget that this is a true desert that gets incredibly hot on summer days and quite cold on winter nights – make sure you wear the proper gear and take steps to enjoy the outdoors safely!

Top Hikes in Joshua Tree
  • Barker Dam Nature Trail – Relatively easy two-mile loop through desert and boulder fields to an old reservoir.
  • Arch Rock Nature Trail – Short trek through boulder fields to reach a massive limestone arch.
  • Boy Scout Trail – Difficult, eight-mile loop through rocky desert dotted with Joshua trees that includes favorite spots for off-grid camping.
Top Activities and Attractions in Joshua Tree
  • Scenic Driving – Drive the park north to south, from Twentynine Palms to Chiriaco Summit, to stay on paved roads and see much of the landscapes the park is known for. A self-driving audio tour is available to provide some facts and commentary.
  • Off-Roading – If you have a 4×4 or high clearance vehicle, the Geology Tour Road is a popular route, visible on Google Maps. There are many others. Off-road tours are available to those without a proper vehicle or who don’t feel quite confident enough.
  • Rock Climbing – Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise, with thousands of possible routes. You can take a beginner’s rock climbing tour if you want to try this for the first time, as it can be dangerous.

Where to Stay for Joshua Tree National Park

A yucca plant on a mountaintop at Joshua Tree National Park
Robb Hannawacker / NPS

While Joshua Tree National Park may be a bit remote, there is actually a wide range of places to stay around it that make for easy access. Proper planning lets you see even more of southern California and things around the park.

  • Palm Springs and Palm Desert area – You can be at the Joshua Tree town entrance of the park as little as 45 minutes from the resort town of Palm Springs. A large amount of budget and resort properties are available here, as are entertainment and additional things to do. Besides seeing Joshua Tree, a drive in the other direction will bring you to the beautiful Mount San Jacinto State Park for more mountainous hiking.
  • Twentynine Palms – This smaller town has a park entrance directly into Joshua Tree, along with quite a few hotel and vacation rental options. This is a great option for those who want to make multiple excursions into the park, as it’s conveniently close.
  • Yucca Valley & Joshua Tree town area – These towns are side-by-side and directly to the north of the park, also making for easy access. You’ll have access to plenty of dining and several accommodation options. Big Bear Lake and Mountain are just over an hour from here, making for another great outdoor destination.

See Related: Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park: Best Accommodation Options

2. Redwood National Park

A grove of massive redwood trees in Redwood National Park
John Chao / NPS

Next, we’ll head to northern California, where another famous species of tree attracts national park-goers from around the world. Redwood National Park, more often referred to as Redwood National and State Parks, is a giant forest network home to some of the largest trees in the world – the redwood.

You’ll find these forests in the far north of the state, near the border with Oregon, along the coast. There are three state parks within Redwood National Park: from south to north, they are Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. The national park encompasses all of them, plus a large portion of additional forest to the south of Prairie Creek.

The massive, majestic redwoods once populated much, much more of the northern Pacific coastal area, and these parks protect what remains. Redwoods are different from California’s other famous giant tree, the sequoia, which also has its national park. Sequoias grow in the highlands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, while redwoods are coastal trees; redwoods have narrower trunks and grow taller than sequoias, too.

The surreal forests of Redwood National and State Parks provide a special place for peaceful hiking and exploration. But besides being home to massive trees, they are also full of vibrant wildlife, rugged coasts, roaring rivers, and lush prairies. There’s a ton to do in this corner of California.

Things to Do in Redwood National Park

The Fern Canyon Loop Trail in Redwood National Park
NPS / NPS

Like the tree, Redwood National Park is massive, with forests from Jedediah Smith State Park in the north to the hills behind Big Lagoon in the south. This provides plenty of pristine places to view the giant trees and everything else that the forests conceal.

Top Hikes in the Redwood Parks
  • Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail – One of the many routes representative of the typical redwood landscape with plenty of massive trees to admire, less than a mile and a half in length.
  • Fern Canyon Trail – A popular and simple one-mile loop that follows a canyon lined with massive, vertical walls covered in ferns.
  • Boy Scout Tree Trail – For something a bit more challenging and lengthy, this deep-wood path will take you more than five miles into the remote forest where some of the most giant redwoods of the northern park can be found.
Top Activities and Attractions in the Redwood Parks
  • Scenic Driving – Try Howland Hill Road in the northern part of the park if you aren’t worried about twists and turns that take you very, very close to some of the area’s biggest redwoods. The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is a less-intimidating option if you’re nervous about the ride and provides views just as representative.
  • Beaches – Don’t miss the chance to see the actual coast the redwoods inhabit. Crescent Beach has a lookout spot to admire the golden sand against the forest and the waves that roll in on it. You can hike to Enderts Beach a mile beyond for even more remoteness and spot a whale.
  • Kayaking – Especially in the summertime, get on the water and paddle your way through the redwood forests for a different perspective. The Smith River is a top place for this, and National Park Service Rangers provide a limited amount of guided tours on the water. There are also private guides and rentals available on the rivers, coves, and lagoons.

Where to Stay for Redwood National Park

A view of Enderts Beach from above in Redwood National Park
John Chao / NPS

This corner of California is quite a distance from the cities and population centers that most people know, so a day trip isn’t going to cut it. Stay in one of the small communities along the coast to really enjoy Redwood National Park and this special part of the state.

  • Crescent City – The small, seaside community of Crescent City is the main gateway to the northern parts of Redwood National and State Parks, with a number of great places to eat, shop, and stay. This is an easy choice if the main attractions and activities you want to include in your trip are in the northern parts of the park.
  • Klamath – If you’re looking to really see as much of the park as you can, consider the small riverside community of Klamath. It’s about the halfway point between the park’s two ends and about a 30-minute drive to each. There’s not a ton of dining or entertainment, and accommodation is a bit scarce, but road trippers appreciate the great spot, and the surrounding nature is beautiful.
  • Arcata and Eureka – This is the area you’ll want to be in if you want a wider variety of accommodation options and appreciate a large town with more to do. Arcata is a smaller community on the northern end of Arcata Bay, while Eureka to the south is much larger, with lots of restaurants and a picturesque downtown. Both will require about 30 minutes on the road to drive north to the park’s southern reaches.

See Related: Most Exotic Places in California to Visit

3. Lassen Volcanic National Park

The boardwalk through geothermally active Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park
NPS / NPS

We’ll stay in northern California but turn off the coast for this next park, which is one of the coolest in the state, in my opinion: Lassen Volcanic National Park. Located just east of Redding, this off-the-beaten-path expanse has many features that make it special, including being one of the world’s only places where all four types of volcanos can be found.

The skyline is dominated by Lassen Peak, and there are over a dozen other peaks and volcanos reaching into the sky here. The land’s features here include geothermal mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs, crystal-clear mountain lakes, flower-carpeted meadows, and volcanic rock fields. In other words, there is a bunch of really awesome stuff here!

The hydrothermal features are one unique feature that brings a ton of people to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Bubbling mud, boiling lakes, and steaming vents called fumaroles are found throughout the park. Water from rain and snow in higher elevations travels deep below the earth’s surface and boils when it finds the heat between tectonic plates, forcing it back to the surface.

Some spots require a bit of hiking, like the famous Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area in the park, while others can be seen directly from the road, either with or without binoculars. You have to use extreme caution near these sites – the hot water is no joke and can cause serious burns to those who don’t follow the rules. But with some very basic safety measures, you can enjoy these very cool natural phenomena with no problems.

Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Kings Creek Falls at Lassen Volcanic National Park
NPS / NPS

For a national park that’s relatively small compared to some of California’s others, there is an unbelievable amount to do and see here. Plan for more time than you think at Lassen National Park.

Top Hikes in Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Bumpass Hell – Open in the summer and fall only, this popular hike is a three-mile round trip into the largest hydrothermal area in the park, where you can get up close to boiling ponds via a network of boardwalks and sidewalks.
  • Lassen Peak Trail – A five-mile trek that zigzags up the park’s dominant peak leading to expansive views of the lakes, forests, and lava fields below.
  • Boiling Springs Lake – An easy walk through meadows and forests leading to a large, 125-degree lake with mudpots surrounding it.
Top Activities and Attractions in Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Scenic Driving – The Lassen Volcanic National Highway is the main route through the park, running north to south and open from June to November. Many sights can be seen directly from the road or via a short excursion off of it.
  • Water Activities – There are more than 200 lakes in the park, and the ones that aren’t boiling are perfect for boating, kayaking, swimming, and fishing. Look towards the lakes of Manzanita, Butte, Juniper, and Summit for this kind of fun.
  • Snowshoeing – Not visiting during the golden months of the summer, or just a winter person in general? While the park is under the snow, grab some gear and see it in a state that few visitors ever will. The Southwest and Manzanita Lake areas are the most accessible places for snow activities.

Where to Stay for Lassen Volcanic National Park

Devils Kitchen boardwalk in Lassen Volcanic National Park
NPS / NPS

Lassen is in a pretty remote part of northern California, and you won’t find an abundance of accommodation nearby. Unless you plan on camping at the cabins near Manzanita Lake or staying at the Drakesbad Guest Ranch within the park, here are some options for staying nearby.

  • Mineral – This is the main town near the Southwest entrance to the park. It’s very small and residential but provides a convenient way to access the beautiful nature at its doorstep. Look to vacation rentals for the most variety here.
  • Old Station – Another small town where vacation rentals are your best bet, Old Station provides convenient access to the northern entrance of the park near Manzanita Lake. It’s also within day-trip distance to Lava Beds National Monument and Tule Lake National Monument, which are about two hours to the north.

4. Death Valley National Park

The amazing view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park
NPS / NPS

Let’s contrast that last one to Death Valley National Park – California’s largest national park. This infamous desert is in east-central California, and while you won’t find water that’s boiling here, you will find temperatures that feel like something is – and you probably won’t find any water at all!

That’s because Death Valley is one of the hottest, driest places in the world (hence the name). Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, while Furnace Creek once recorded a temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, there are a lot of extremes in Death Valley National Park.

However, such extreme conditions make it an incredibly beautiful place, too, and thousands of visitors brave the heat to see the surreal sand dunes, vibrant-colored rock formations, and miles of empty salt flats. In reality, the heat isn’t a year-round problem, and you can have more than a pleasant time in Death Valley.

Things to Do in Death Valley National Park

View of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park
NPS / NPS

We’ve already written a guide of the best things to do in Death Valley, and there is plenty more than what I’m going to list below, so take a look there for a full picture. But here’s a snapshot of some of the great things to see in this part of the desert.

Top Hikes in Death Valley
  • Zabriskie Point – Potentially the most popular in the park, this easily-accessed point is an icon of Death Valley for its expansive and comprehensive views of the park’s best features.
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – A great way to see some of the park’s massive, golden sand dunes with no formal trail and views that are a dream for photographers.
  • Mosaic Canyon – For a bit more of a challenge, hike a few miles into this slot canyon that got its name for being so beautiful that it looks like someone painted it.
Top Activities and Attractions in Death Valley
  • Artist’s Palette and Artist’s Drive – Incredibly scenic driving and/or hiking along a route that looks like someone painted the colors onto the mountain. Download a self-guided driving tour to hear more along your route.
  • Badwater Basin & the Devil’s Golf Course – You can stand at the lowest point in the United States at Badwater Basin, a (usually) dried lake bed that might, at times, contain a small pond of hypersaline water (hence, bad water). The nearby Devil’s Golf Course is a huge field of spiky-sharp salt flats that’s so rugged only the devil could play golf there.
  • Furnace Creek & Harmony Borax Works – The tiny village where a handful of brave residents live their lives in Death Valley and welcome visitors. On the outskirts, you can visit the remains of an 1800s-era borax mill and learn about Death Valley’s fascinating history.

Where to Stay for Death Valley National Park

The colorful hills of Artists Palette in Death Valley National Park
NPS / NPS

Far too many visitors to Death Valley National Park day trip in from Las Vegas. By staying a night or two in or near the park, you can see so much more of this harsh yet incredible environment.

  • Furnace Creek – This aforementioned town is within the heart of Death Valley National Park and is the most convenient place to base yourself for a multi-day visit. Don’t leave your hotel without excessive amounts of water if you plan to stay here in the summer.
  • Panamint Springs – On the western end of the park, where there’s even more Death Valley history and natural wonders to be discovered, another place to stay can be found within the park’s boundaries. There’s just one hotel here and little in the way of modern amenities, but secret waterfalls and old mines beckon exploration on this side of the park.
  • Pahrump, Nevada – If you need more in terms of civilization and amenities, there is a large town just across the Nevada border called Pahrump that’s less than an hour’s drive from the Death Valley entrance. You’ll find an abundance of vacation rentals here, and there’s enough dining and shopping to keep you satisfied while not exploring.

See Related: Things to Do in Mojave Desert

5. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
Fritz / Adobe Stock

Next up is one of the most visited national parks in California and in the entire country, drawing more than three million visitors per year: Yosemite National Park. Located on nearly 800,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern California, Yosemite is known around the world for the natural beauty of its cliffs, valleys, waterfalls, and forests.

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason that brings people to Yosemite National Park – the truth is, the park is full of diverse natural wonders. Yosemite Valley is a place for waterfalls, hiking trails, and vista points across the mountainous expanse. Glacier Point is one of the most popular, providing a window into miles of valleys and peaks shaped by ancient ice.

No visit to Yosemite National Park would be complete without admiring some of its waterfalls – it would be hard not to, as there are countless. Spring is the best time for this when snow is melting and water is rushing down the rocky slopes. Yosemite Falls is an easily-accessible favorite, and other great ones include Sentinel Falls, Horsetail Fall, and Vernal Fall.

Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

The cliff at Taft Point in Yosemite National Park
NPS / NPS

As the most popular of the national parks in California, Yosemite can get quite busy, and there was even a reservation system to control access in recent seasons (which has been discontinued, except for certain weekends in February). Plan to spend extra time in the park to ensure that you see everything you want to, even with some potential congestion.

Top Hikes in Yosemite
  • Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls – Arguably California’s most famous waterfalls, Yosemite Falls is a must-see. It’s an easy one-mile loop to the lower cascade, which will cool you off spectacularly with its mist in the spring. To get to the higher falls, it’s a more difficult climb of several miles that will reward you with views that far fewer visitors see.
  • Sentinel Dome and Taft Point – A moderate walk through meadows and forests to one of the most dramatic cliffside viewpoints you’ll ever see.
  • Wapama Falls – You’ll cross picturesque footbridges along Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and see magnificent wildflower blooms in the summer on your way to views of several waterfalls.
Top Activities and Attractions in Yosemite
  • Yosemite Valley Village, Viewpoints, & Hiking – This is a great place to base any stay in Yosemite or focus a limited-time visit to the park. Guided tours of the area are available if you want to see the area’s best in a day or if you aren’t a confident hiker.
  • Horsetail Fall – A narrow, seasonal waterfall over El Capitan that only appears in the winter, the sunset behind it can cause a spectacular orange glow on February evenings.
  • Rock Climbing – If you are going to need more than an intense hike to get your adrenaline going, Yosemite is another premier rock climbing destination in California.

Where to Stay for Yosemite National Park

Boardwalk along Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Wapama Falls in Yosemite National Park
NPS / NPS

At about three hours by car, this famous California national park is a popular day trip from San Francisco. There, visitors can enjoy the other nature preserves along the coast, such as the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Muir Woods National Monument, and more, making the Bay Area a logical stop on the itinerary. But if you plan to spend several days exploring Yosemite, look to these mountain locales to base your stay.

  • Yosemite Valley – The village is an obvious and convenient place to leave your luggage during a trip to the park, with an abundance of campsites and a few full-service accommodations. There is dining and basic shopping here, too, and some of Yosemite’s most sought-after sites are within a short hike away.
  • Yosemite West – A small village of mostly vacation rentals within the park that offers more supply of lodging options. Yosemite Valley is the nearest option for dining and provisioning.
    • Vacation Rental Recommendation: Storybook Chalet inside Yosemite National Park
  • Mammoth Lakes – A mountain community southeast of Yosemite that’s famous for its own natural beauty, like the basalt columns of Devil’s Postpile National Monument and the magnificent Rainbow Falls. While this is also a popular ski area, know that the eastern access points to Yosemite that would normally be less than an hour away are inaccessible from November to May or June due to snow.

6. & 7. Kings Canyon National Park & Sequoia National Park

Giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park
Alison Taggart-Barone / NPS

And now for a twofer! Just south of Yosemite, you’ll find two separate national parks that are side-by-side and often grouped together: Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. These two nature preserves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of central California are jointly administered and make for an easy way to get the beauty of two national parks at once.

King’s Canyon National Park is special for its spectacular canyons, valleys, waterfalls, lakes, and peaks, packed full of hiking trails that will bring you to corners of California that very few people have seen in person. Sequoia National Park, on the other hand, is distinct for its numerous groves of sequoias, the largest trees in the world. They are different from their coastal counterparts, the redwoods, in that their trunks are much wider, and they grow in the highlands of the mountains.

The Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is the only route into the canyon, twisting and turning between passes before mellowing out and offering breathtaking views along the way. Turning back at Kanawyers, the end of the road, it’s about an hour to the General’s Highway, which will take you into Sequoia National Park in non-winter months. This is why both national parks are often included on an itinerary together.

Things to Do in Kings Canyon National Park & Sequoia National Park

Mist Falls in Kings Canyon National Park
NPS / NPS

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are ideal places for giant forest and canyon exploration in some of California’s most remote and untouched places. Here are just a handful of the great things that can be done here.

Top Hikes in Kings Canyon & Sequoia
  • Zumwalt Meadows – An easy and short stroll past granite walls, past the Kings River, and through peaceful forests to see some of the most beautiful meadows in the canyon.
  • Mist Falls – Beginning at the end of the road in Kanawyers, this longer eight-mile hike is mostly flat and ends at one of the most peaceful waterfalls in the parks.
  • General Grant Tree Trail – An easy stroll along a paved path leading to one of the world’s largest trees, beginning a mile northwest of the Kings Canyon Visitor Center.
  • Monarch Lakes & Sawtooth Pass – If you need something more challenging, this hike of several miles climbs over a thousand feet in elevation, reveals tranquil lakes, and a panoramic spot over the mountains that will take your breath away.
Top Activities and Attractions in Kings Canyon & Sequoia
  • General Sherman Tree – Sequoia National Park’s main attraction and the largest tree in the world by volume, requires just a short walk from a parking area, where some tunnels have been cut in fallen sequoias for visitors to walk through.
  • Kings Canyon Scenic Byway – Even if you don’t have time to go deep into the wilderness, the fifty-mile trip to the heart of the canyon is packed full of beautiful vistas and short excursions. A self-driving audio tour can give you special insight along the way.
  • Fishing – There are numerous rivers and streams running through these two national parks that are packed with fish ready to fight.
  • Stargazing – While the daylight allows you to see the natural wonders on the ground around the parks, nighttime reveals a whole world more in the sky and provides a perspective of the sequoias that the crowds of the day won’t see. Stargazing tours are available to take you to the best spots.

Where to Stay for Kings Canyon National Park & Sequoia National Park

A man fishing in a river at Kings Canyon National Park
Kirke Wrench / NPS

Know that you have to stay to the west of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks unless you want to drive all the way around them anyway, as that’s where the access points are. My ultimate loop, when I finally find the time, would be to start in Yosemite, drive south to Death Valley, hitting places like the Manzanar National Historic Site and Mammoth Lakes along the way, crossing back over the Sierra Nevada, and doing Kings Canyon and Sequoia on my way back north. Here’s where I might stay for that last part.

  • Three Rivers – The southern gateway into Kings Canyon and Sequoia, offering a number of campsites, lodges, and dining options. While it might be outside the parks, there are a ton of beautiful places around this little town to see, too.
  • Pinehurst – A small town near the northern access points with an abundance of vacation rental options for visitors. A small number of restaurants and shops are within a short drive, and this town is rather remote.
  • Fresno – If small and remote aren’t going to work for you, the small city of Fresno is within an hour’s drive of both access points to the parks. Here, you’ll find all kinds of accommodation as well as entertainment.

See Related: National Parks to Visit in November

8. Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Reservoir in Pinnacles National Park
NPS / NPS

Directly to the west of the massive wilderness of Kings Canyon and Sequoia is the much smaller but equally intriguing Pinnacles National Park. Its 26,000 acres sit between Fresno and the Pacific Ocean, near the town of Soledad.

A volcanic eruption around 23 million years ago created the pinnacle-like formations this national park is famous for. The volcano was originally near the San Andreas Fault and drifted some 200 miles to its current location. The result of this tectonic activity is a network of caves, spires, and geologic wonders unlike anywhere else.

Most people choose to visit Pinnacles in the spring or fall, outside of the intense summer heat that can make the beauty more difficult to enjoy. Within its caves, you’ll find colonies of rare bats, and in the open daylight, California condors soar above.

Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park
Gavin Emmons / NPS

Most people coming to Pinnacles want to do at least some of its 30 miles of trails and visit one or more of the rare talus caves they lead to. There are just short access roads within the park, and while they’re lovely, this is a place to get out and explore.

Top Hikes in Pinnacles
  • Bear Gulch Cave & Moses Spring Trail – One of the most popular hikes in the park, you’ll get to cross through talus caves, which are formed when boulders fall into crevices, before reaching a tranquil reservoir.
  • Chalone Peak Trail – A strenuous but rewarding hike that finishes at the highest point in the park, providing exceptional views across the volcanic remains below.
  • Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave – Take a flashlight for your passage through some of the most popular cave networks in the park, and be rewarded with the views from Machete Ridge.
Top Activities and Attractions in Pinnacles
  • Bear Gulch Reservoir – You’ll need to hike to get to this peaceful oasis among the volcanic rock, where picnics and sunset viewing are popular, and an endangered species of frog thrives.
  • Talus Caves – The most popular are the above-mentioned Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave, which may be closed if the bats are in pupping season.
  • Birdwatching – Besides the famous bat residents, birders can see Greater Roadrunner, California Thrasher, Canyon Wren, and California Condor here. Bring a proper pair of birding binoculars.

Where to Stay for Pinnacles National Park

The volcanic spires of Pinnacles National Park
Beth Hudick / NPS

For the easiest access to the popular Bear Gulch and Old Pinnacles Trail spots, you’ll need to enter the park from the northeast rather than the west, as the two roads leading into the park on either end don’t connect. However, it isn’t a great distance to go around if you find that you’d rather stay on the west side.

  • Hollister & Ridgemark – It’s a bit more than 30 minutes to the park’s eastern entrance from these medium-sized towns. You’ll be comfortable here with various restaurants and accommodation options, and it’s less than an hour from the major airport in San Jose.
  • Soledad & King City – If this side of the park suits you more, there are a few small hotels and vacation rentals in these little towns, with sufficient dining and shopping as well. It can take up to 45 minutes to drive to the east entrance of the park, but the western trails present interesting hiking opportunities.

9. Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park
Tim Hauf / NPS

Last but certainly not least, don’t forget about the national park off of the southern California coast: Channel Islands National Park. Five of the eight channel islands (not to be confused with the Channel Islands in the English Chanel) are included in the park, presenting opportunities for sailing, kayaking, spearfishing, hiking, and camping off the coast.

Obviously, this national park takes “remote” to a new level. While the islands are relatively close to the coast near Santa Barbara and Ventura, you’ll need to access them by boat. You can sail your own, take a tour or charter, or buy tickets on one of the public shuttle boats – more on that below.

There is no infrastructure on the islands besides what’s there to support the National Park Service, providing a uniquely wild experience to those who visit. Kayaking through the sea caves is popular, as is hiking across the islands. Camping is available at organized campsites and in off-grid spots by permit.

Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park

Cavern Point Loop Hike on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park
Tim Hauf / NPS

Start your visit with a stop at the visitor center in Ventura’s harbor to learn about the islands, what to expect, and to see a short film. Then, set off for the ecologically-rich natural playgrounds that are these unique islands.

Top Hikes in Channel Islands National Park
  • Cavern Point Loop on Santa Cruz Island – A two-mile round-trip from Scorpion Beach, providing unbelievable sea cliff views and the opportunity to see whales in season.
  • Inspiration Point on Anacapa – A 1.5-mile trip up to a high point where you can admire the spine-like island chain reaching out of the ocean.
  • Point Bennett on San Miguel – This is an intense 16-mile trek across the island to a sandy beach full of seals and sea lions, an incredible opportunity to see the thriving wildlife of the Channel Islands for those capable.
Top Activities and Attractions in Channel Islands National Park
  • Sea Cave Hiking & Kayaking – One of the natural attractions that draw people to the Channel Islands, you can see some amazing grottos along the coasts of each island; Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island is one of the largest in the world.
  • Camping & Backcountry Camping – Each island has an established campground with picnic tables and pit toilets, but there is no water, shopping, or dining at all, making for some very serious camping. With a permit, you can camp in the backcountry, too, to get even further off the beaten path.
  • Wildlife Watching – Many people come to the Channel Islands to see the seals, sea lions, whales, birds, and other animals that thrive on them.

How to Get to Channel Islands National Park (and Where to Stay & What to Bring)

Point Bennett with hundreds of seals on San Miguel, Channel Islands National Park
Tim Hauf / NPS

Since there’s no infrastructure on the islands, accommodation options are quite simple. You can either camp on the islands or stay near the ferry departure points in Ventura and Oxnard for day-tripping. There are plenty of options there, including the Four Points by Sheraton Ventura Harbor Resort, which is in the marina.

Ferry services are contracted out to Island Packers. You’ll need to check their schedule, which changes seasonally and is different for each island, and you can expect a ride of one to four hours, depending on the island. You can reserve a trip in advance to ensure you get a seat, as with limited capacity, these boats can be busy.

Due to the lack of infrastructure on the islands, you’ll need to bring some essentials with you. This includes plenty of water and means to remove your trash after your visit – leave no trace, yo. While your packing list may be much longer, don’t forget some of these essentials:

FAQ

What are the best national parks in California?

It’s hard to define the “best” ones – everyone has a different opinion, and all of them are absolutely amazing in their own right. Some of the most visited national parks in California are Yosemite National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. Lesser-visited ones like Channel Islands National Park and Pinnacles National Park are equally incredible and may offer smaller crowds.

What’s the best way to see national parks in California?

As is the case with most national parks, it’s really best to have a vehicle to explore with, whether you’re making a road trip from home or renting something on your arrival. It doesn’t have to be a 4×4 or off-road vehicle – if it can get you around town, it can more than likely get you to some of the most beautiful spots in the parks.

Are the national parks in California safe?

Yes – millions of visitors are drawn to the national parks of California each year and explore without incident. California is prone to wildfires and some other natural disasters during certain seasons, but you can easily check for any impacts on the National Park Service website. It’s always a good idea to invest in a good travel insurance plan when visiting a national park.

Related Resources

Woodrow Matthews
WRITTEN BY

Woodrow Matthews

Woodrow is a travel writer who enjoys sharing experiences, tips, and tricks from his vacations. He’s been to 40+ countries, all 50 US states plus Puerto Rico and the USVI, and lived for several years in France, from which he explored many parts of Europe. Woodrow is an expert in travel hacking, finding bargain flights, and coined the term "upgrade engineering" referring to his talent to upgrade simple hotel room bookings into suite stays. Woodrow loves scuba diving, hiking, beaches, and all things aviation.