I may be biased, but California is easily one of the most exciting states in the USA.

Cali is home to some of the world’s most incredible cities, a long Pacific coastline, and inland mountains draped in snow. It’s a paradise for beach lovers, ski bums, and city slickers.

California’s national and state parks are home to some of the most iconic and impressive landscapes in the United States. The golden state has nine national parks, more than any other state. It also boasts a multitude of reserves, state parks, and monuments worth checking out.

First named a national park in 1864, Yosemite one of the most famous national parks in the world. The expansive and searingly hot Death Valley is one of the largest in the world too, topped only by the Arctic.

Without visiting a national park in California, you’ll simply be missing out on one of the state’s best offerings. Parks are well-maintained, affordable, and plentiful, with well-organized trails and hikes that make them easy to explore.

Whatever type of park you are looking for, Cali has got you. And so have I. Let’s explore what California has to offer in terms of national parks; shall we?

yosemite national park 5
Welcome to Cali 🙂
Photo: @joemiddlehurst

What are National Parks?

Something that you cannot miss when traveling through Cali, seriously. I’ll give you the definition as defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica… A national park is an area of land set aside by the national government for the preservation of the natural environment, its flora, and fauna.

Some parks are protected for public recreation, while others are secured for historical or scientific interest. Especially in a state like California, which is home to some seriously impressive cities, preserving our natural surroundings is becoming increasingly essential.

California has more natural parks than any other US state. There are nine dedicated national parks, including many national monuments, seashores, recreational areas, and state parks. It’s safe to say that there is no shortage of glorious land in Cali. 

yosemite national park 4
This kinda thing
Photo: @joemiddlehurst

California’s National Parks are managed by the National Park Service, which cares for over 400 parks nationwide. They partner with local communities to preserve the natural areas and help create the critical recreational spaces you can visit today.

From the rugged cliff faces and waterfalls of Yosemite National Park to the crystal clear water around the Channel Islands National Park, the parks in this state showcase some incredible variety. 

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    National Parks in California

    California offers some of the most impressive and unique national parks in the USA. Whether you explore the otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park or the world’s most impressive trees in Sequoia National Park, you’re gonna love it. Trust me.

    Yosemite National Park

    yosemite national park 1
    Yosemite is my favorite national park in California
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst
    • Size: 1187 sq mi
    • Location: Between the Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest in Central California, near Mariposa
    • Entrance Fee: $20 per person or $35 per car, valid for seven days

    Yosemite is one of the most well-known and visited national parks in the world. I think this earns it a well-deserved spot at the top of this list.

    This park is the crown jewel of the country’s national park system. It’s located just a 140-mile drive southeast of Sacramento and 200 miles east of San Francisco in central California.

    With a unique history behind it, Yosemite was first designated as a protected state park zone in 1864. (Making it one of the oldest national parks in the country.)

    Recognizable for its glacier-sculpted landscapes, rugged cliffs, and majestic waterfalls and canyons, the park has graced the screensavers of computers for its pristine scenery. This Californian national park was carved by enormous glaciers millions of years ago, during a time when ice covered just about the entire state.

    Today, the impressive landscape is known for its outdoor adventures, including plenty of hiking trails, rafting, fishing, and wildlife-watching opportunities. During winter, parts of the park are restricted due to snow safety concerns. However, the park stays open year-round and blossoms into a winter wonderland of snowshoeing, cross-country, and backcountry skiing during the colder months. 

    Yosemite deserves a multiple-day trip and simply cannot be experienced in its entirety within one day. Overnight accommodation is available throughout the park, ranging from campsites to cabins and even a luxurious hotel known as the Ahwahnee Hotel.

    Where to Stay near Yosemite National Park:

    Located at the entrance to Yosemite National Park, this gorgeous one-bedroom cabin has space for four guests to stay in Yosemite and sleep comfortably. Suitable for summer or winter visits, you could cozy up by the indoor fireplace or enjoy a barbeque in the sunshine on the terrace.

    Sequoia National Park

    Sequoia National Park California
    Wow, just wow
    • Size: 631 sq mi
    • Location: In the Southern Sierra Nevada, east of Visalia
    • Entrance Fee: $20 per person or $35 per car, valid for seven days

    Located just southeast of Yosemite, Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world (in terms of volume). The impressive General Sherman trunk has a cubic volume of 1487 cubic meters and is estimated to weigh over 2000 tonnes. Damn.

    In this national park in California, you’ll find five of the world’s ten largest trees in the appropriately named ‘Giant Forest’. Oh, and you can admire trees that have been standing for over 3500 years. Damn (again).

    In fact, Sequoia trees are among the world’s oldest living organisms and only grow on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California.

    Besides its unique sequoia forest, the park is known for its impressive Mount Whitney, which reaches an elevation as high as 4421 meters. Moro Rock is a site you quite literally cannot miss. It’s visible as you drive into the park and offers spectacular views for those willing to climb the 350 stairs to reach its summit. 

    If you’ve made the four-hour road trip from Los Angeles or San Francisco, you might want to spend a night or two in the area. You know, to fully appreciate the park’s wonder and that.

    Where to Stay near Sequoia National Park:

    Red Mountain Suite is a unique adult-only hideaway just a mile from the entrance to Sequoia National Park in California. Unwind in this gorgeous newly remodeled guest cottage, with warm wooden accents and glass windows inviting abundant natural light into the space.

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    Kings Canyon National Park

    Kings Canyon National Park California
    Not a bad spot for a picnic, eh?
    • Size: 722 sq mi
    • Location: In the Southern Sierra Nevada, in the Fresno and Tulare Counties
    • Entrance Fee: $20 per person or $35 per car, valid for 7 days

    Just around the corner from Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon offers the unique opportunity to visit two parks in one trip. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are co-managed and share a border and an entrance fee – result.

    Sequoia National Park will satisfy all your forest scenery dreams. But Kings Canyon is ideal for visitors looking for the panoramic landscape vistas and adventures of Yosemite without the intrusive crowds. 

    The canyon boasts its own impressive array of rocky peaks and cliffs, picture-perfect valleys, winding rivers, and sequoia groves. Add these all together, and Kings Canyons’ sweeping views will leave you in awe of its natural beauty.

    If hiking isn’t your thing, a short drive along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway will give you a glimpse at the magic the park has to offer. However, to experience the real beauty of the area, you’ll have to put on your hiking boots and trek one of the many well-organized trails.

    Some of the best hikes and trails include the General Grant Loop Trail, a short 20-minute walk with limited elevation. For a bit more exercise, the Zumwalt Meadow Trail in Cedar Grove Village is just 1.5 miles but reaches 157 feet in elevation. 

    For a more extended adventure, the Rae Lakes Loop Trail is a three to five-day hike of 39 miles, which allows you to experience the park’s varied beauty.

    Summer is undoubtedly the best time to visit the national parks in California, which bloom with wildflowers throughout the spring months. However, many trails and roads are open through winter in Kings Canyon, showcasing entirely different scenery.

    Where to Stay near Kings Canyon National Park:

    Just a short drive from the entrance to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia Highland Camp is a campground with panoramic views of the Sierra National Forest. 

    With a variety of cabins to choose from, the Delilah Cabin has two bedrooms and a barbeque deck, while The Hive features four comfortable bedrooms for larger groups. These cabins include everything you need for a perfect stay in a remote setting.

    Joshua Tree National Park

    joshua tree national park 2
    That’s a Joshua Tree, folks
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst
    • Size: 1242 sq mi
    • Location: In southeastern California, east of San Bernardino and LA
    • Entrance Fee: $15 per person or $30 per car, valid for 7 days

    The largest and most unique in California’s park system, Joshua Tree National Park is the place to go for the quintessential desert experience. Just 50 miles east of Palm Springs, the park is a majestic desert landscape that extends across much of southern California. 

    Although named after the iconic and rare Joshua tree that scatters the landscapes, the park’s shining star is actually its rock formations, which include boulders large enough to climb. Arch Rock and Skull Rock are among the most famous rocks. The scenic Cholla Cactuc Garden and the Keys View lookout point are both well worth a visit. 

    Other than its rare landscape and unique flora and fauna that it attracts, one of the best things to do in this Californian national park is star gazing. This sh*t is magnificent. With little to no artificial lights in the region and no humidity to cloud the sky, visitors can gaze up at the Milky Way best on a new moon.

    Scheduling your trip during a rare meteor shower will be sure to leave you with a lasting impression. Note that there are no built lodges in the park, and to spend a night, you’ll have to stay in a campground (or leave the park grounds).

    One of the best daytime activities here is trekking. Follow the 7.2-mile loop trail to the Lost Palms Oasis, which follows an ancient Native American path towards a rewarding cool oasis hidden between dramatic boulders.

    By the way, summers are swelteringly hot! Visiting the park during early spring, late fall, or winter is advised. Additionally, you can explore the numerous attractions in Irvine for a diverse and fulfilling experience, which is a 2.5h drive from the park.

    Where to Stay near Joshua Tree National Park:

    Set on the edge of the national park, Sacred Sands is a great place to stay with outdoor bathtubs, hot tubs, and showers. Each guest house is beautifully designed and inspired by the natural surroundings. When you aren’t lounging in the bathtub, enjoy a meal on the patio overlooking the mountains.

    Lassen Volcanic National Park

    Lassen Volcanic National Park
    • Size: 166 sq mi
    • Location: In northeastern California near Redding and Susanville
    • Entrance Fee: $10 per person or between $10 and $30 per car, depending on the season

    Lassen Volcanic National Park is California’s version of Yellowstone. It boasts impressive volcanic features like geysers, springs, and bizarre landscapes.

    The park is known for the Lassen Peak, the world’s largest volcanic dome reaching 10426 thousand feet. Having last erupted in 1915, it’s one of two epic American volcanoes that has erupted in the 20th century. 

    The park was created after the eruption to preserve and study the vast wastelands that the eruption left behind. Today, over 100 years later, visitors can explore the park and pay respects to the vast power of Mother Earth. New plants and animals flourish in the fertile landscape between the harsh lava rocks.

    Summer is the best time to visit this national park in California. Explore over 150 miles worth of hiking trails throughout the volcanic sulfur spurts and geysers. Two of the most popular features include the Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell.

    During winter, the park receives heavy snowfall. It evolves into a winter wonderland popular with cross-country skiers, backcountry skiers, snowshoers, and mountaineers. Besides hiking and snow sports, the park offers an incredible educational opportunity for geologists and photographers.

    Where to Stay near Lassen Volcanic National Park:

    Make yourself at home in this snowglobe-inspired cabin in the woods by Lassen National Park. The cabin is surrounded by nature and includes an outdoor firepit area with a BBQ deck. The interior has a kitchen, living, and dining space and two spacious bedrooms for four guests.

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    Pinnacles National Park

    Pinnacles National Park California
    • Size: 41.6 sq mi
    • Location: In the Salinas Valley in Central California, near Soledad and San Jose
    • Entrance Fee: $15 per person or $30 per car / $25 per motorcycle

    Just 40 miles south of Salinas and 50 east of Monterey is Pinnacles National Park. This place is home to massive spires, pinnacles, and canyons that mark the remains of an ancient volcano.

    During an eruption caused by shifting tectonic plates millions of years ago, these rocks were thrown 150 miles from their original location. The park was recently upgraded to national park status after being recognized as a national monument in 2013. This makes Pinnacles the newest national park in California.

    With rock climbing and bouldering gaining popularity, the rocky pinnacles are popular with mountaineers. However, this unique harsh landscape is also known for its unique wildlife. Bats, falcons, and the rare California Condor all call the area home. 

    The eastern side of the relatively small national park in California is more developed than the west. The two sides are connected by road. However, to preserve the wild nature of the pinnacles, these roads don’t pass through the main center of the park. 

    When you’ve done a fair share of bouldering and your fingers start to blister, don’t miss out on the epic caves, including Bear Gulch in the east and the Balconies Cave in the west. The park has 30 miles of trails, ideal for birdwatching, hiking, and rock climbing.

    Where to Stay near Pinnacles National Park:

    Just a ten-minute drive from Pinnacles National Park, this charming cottage is ideal for two guests. The traditional log cabin exterior fits right into the natural landscape, while the interior boasts a variety of bespoke furniture, unique art, and antique touches. Located on a working ranch, the cabin is surrounded by animals, birds, and working farmers.

    Redwood National and State Park

    Redwood National and State Park California
    This one’s a must-visit
    • Size: 172 sq mi
    • Location: Along the coastline of Northern California close to Crescent City in Humboldt County and Del Norte County
    • Entrance Fee: Free

    While Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks boast the largest trees in the world by volume, Redwood National and State Parks are home to the tallest.

    Giant Redwood trees once covered a considerable portion of California’s coastline. Unfortunately, up to 65% of these ancient giants were cut down for wood in the 18th and 19th centuries. Around half of the world’s remaining Redwoods are protected in these parks today. 

    The park includes multiple conjoining parks across northern California’s coastline, including the Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek. 

    This Californian national park is home to the world’s tallest living tree, known as Hyperion, which reaches 115.7 meters into the sky. The exact location of this tree is not known, but you’ll be inspired by just about every sky-high tree in this majestic forest.

    The best way to experience these forested areas is on foot. This allows you the opportunity to bathe in the incredible silence and feel the energy of the thousand-year-old trees. There are a range of trails and hikes through the redwoods along coastal trails. 

    Backcountry camping in California is another popular activity here. To do this, you’ll need to get a permit issued online for free.

    Some of the most popular hikes include the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, the Stout Grove Trail, and the Fern Canyon Trail, each an easy 30-minute hike. For a more strenuous adventure, the Trillium Falls Trail and James Irvine Trail will keep you occupied for hours.

    Where to Stay near Redwood National and State Park:

    Built on the stump remains of an impressive redwood tree, this epic treehouse is surrounded by spruce, huckleberries, and redwoods. It features a stunning indoor and outdoor living space where you can cook and relax, surrounded by nature at its finest.

    Channel Islands National Park

    Channel Islands National Park California
    • Size: 390 sq mi
    • Location: Off the coast of Southern California’s Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
    • Entrance Fee: Free

    Easily one of the most remote national parks in California, the Channel Islands are known as North America’s version of the Galapagos. The Channel Islands are an archipelago consisting of five islands just off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in Southern California.

    No human settlement exists in this ocean-surrounded state park. Instead, the islands are home only to a range of animal residents, including bald eagles and an elephant seal population.

    Around 150 endemic species of wildlife exist on these islands. (Meaning they cannot be found anywhere else in the world.)

    To get to the islands, you’ll have to arrive by ferry, private boat, or seaplane, most accessible from visitors center in Ventura, Oxnard, or Santa Barbara. The islands are suitable for a day trip or overnight visits.

    Aside from the Nature Conservancy on Santa Cruz Island, no permit is required to dock on the islands. There are public campgrounds on the island, two of which offer running water.

    Do yourself a favor and visit the Channel Islands National Park. Especially if you’re interested in hiking through undisturbed islands, snorkeling over sea caves, whale watching from the beach, or learning about wildlife,

    Where to Stay near Channel Islands National Park:

    Set on the mainland of California across the water from the Channel Islands, you can spend a night in this iconic refurbished Airstream from 1977. The Airstream is a slice of modern luxury, with its own outdoor deck, bathroom with washer facilities, and a fully equipped kitchen.

    Death Valley National Park

    Death Valley National Park California
    The valley of death..
    • Size: 5270 sq mi
    • Location: On the California – Nevada border east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Near Lone Pine
    • Entrance Fee: $15 per person or $30 per car 

    Don’t let the name put you off. Although a hostile landscape, Death Valley National Park is an enchanting place that can make you feel like you’ve left planet Earth.

    Named after its rugged desert landscape and brutal summer heat, Death Valley is located in eastern California on the Nevada border, around 130 miles west of Las Vegas.

    Even in the depth of winter, temperatures soar to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the time of year you visit, the mysterious landscape is dotted with moving rocks, colorful wildflower blooms, and sand dunes that sing. If this sounds intriguing, you’ve come to the right place. 

    Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest point of the USA, with a diverse desert terrain that attracts visitors to this unconventional landscape. Oh, and if the park didn’t have enough distinguishing characteristics, it’s also the largest national park in California.

    Some of the desert’s top attractions include the Badwater Basin, Dante’s Viewpoint, Mesquite Flat, and Zabriskie Point. Despite its brutal climatic conditions, the people of the Timbisha Tribe thrived here for thousands of years. Learn more about this native population from a guide or at one of the park’s visitor centers.

    The park was named by a group of gold miners bound for California for its deadly heat. But, this hasn’t stopped modern-day runners from completing the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race routed through the valley. 

    Where to Stay near Death Valley National Park:

    Basic yet beautiful, this unique cottage is built in an old vineyard bottling room and is the perfect place to stay near Death Valley National Park. Surrounded by vineyards and mountains at Tarantula Ranch Vineyard, this simple room features an air conditioning unit, comfortable bed, and kitchenette with an outdoor shower. This place also offers discounts for long-term visits.

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    usa yosemite national park sign of bear warnings - wildlife danger
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

    Other Parks in California

    I hope you’ve found some backpacking inspiration from those epic national parks in California. But don’t go yet. I have a few more parks up my sleeve for ya.

    Point Reyes National Seashore

    Point Reyes National Seashore California
    • Size: 100 sq mi
    • Location: On the Point Reyes Peninsula in Marin County, just north of San Francisco
    • Entrance Fee: Free ($30 per night for a campground pass)

    California is known for its impressive coastline and famous beaches. Let me tell you, Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the best beaches to admire seals and coastal birds in their natural habitat.

    Located just 73 miles north of San Francisco, the area was designated as a protected zone in 1962 to prevent residential development in the area. And thank the lord it was.

    The peninsula is separated from the mainland of Tomales Bay by an elongated body of water caused by the infamous San Andreas tectonic plates. With years to flourish without human development, the headlands, cliffs, and seashore are thriving sanctuaries for wildlife. There are plenty of seabirds, sea life, raptors, and tule elk roaming the area.

    This Californian national park is popular with visitors throughout the year. It’s busiest from January through March, when tens of thousands of grey whales make their way past the peninsula from Alaska towards Baja California. 

    There are plenty of hiking trails, ranging from under an hour to multiple-day trails. In fact, the park is the starting point for the country’s longest trail – the 6800-mile American Discovery Trail. This epic trail starts in the park and ends all the way on the east coast of America. 

    Where to Stay near Point Reyes National Seashore:

    Set beneath the foliage in Inverness, (the closest town), this wooded cabin has an open-concept living space with a cozy fireplace and high vaulted ceilings. The cabin has space for four guests (in one bedroom) and a private patio with BBQ facilities and outdoor dining furniture.

    Muir Woods National Monument

    Muir Woods National Monument California
    • Size: 554 acres (under one square mile)
    • Location: In Marin County, just north of San Francisco in Northern California
    • Entrance Fee: $15 per adult and free for children under the age of 15

    Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco is Muir Woods National Monument. It’s part of the larger Golden Gate National Recreation Area that preserves a good portion of the Bay Area’s most beautiful landscapes. 

    The park is named after the devoted naturalist John Muir, who helped found Yosemite National Park and the country’s famed National Park Service.

    The small area is home to one of the Bay Area’s most coveted redwood forests. Cathedral Grove is one of the most scenic to hike and can be reached via the main hiking loop.

    The Ben Johnson-Dipsea Loop Trail is a four-mile hike that boasts views of the ocean, San Francisco, and of course, the gorgeous redwoods. Taking on the loop makes for a more extended adventure into the forests. Altogether, there are over six miles of trails to explore in Muir Woods.

    One of the smallest national monuments in the state, Muir Woods National Monument is just a short drive from San Francisco in Mill Valley. It’s super popular with those looking for a quick escape from the city.

    Where to Stay near Muir Woods National Monument:

    Wake up to the sound of birds chirping in the forest against a wallpaper backdrop of the iconic tree canopy. Just a short drive from the Muir Woods National Monument, this stunning suite in Tam Valley has a king-sized bedroom with French doors opening out into the woods. The suite has a spacious living area, coffee and tea facilities, and essential kitchenette appliances.

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    Final Thoughts on National Parks in California

    If we’ve gathered one thing from this article, it is that California may be the most exciting state to visit because it combines incredible cities and national parks. The parks in this state range from searing hot deserts to alpine peaks, offering an incredible variety of terrain, flora, and fauna.

    In fact, within these Californian national parks, you’ll find the world’s largest tree, the world’s biggest tree, the lowest elevation in the country, and the highest mountain peak apart from Alaska.

    Stretching from the Mexican border through the iconic cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the rugged Pacific coastline offers the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline outside of Alaska.

    As cliche as it may sound, if I had to choose to visit one of these impressive parks, I would jump at the opportunity to explore Yosemite National Park. While busier than many others, it seems like a once-in-a-lifetime experience to basically hike through the Apple and Microsoft screensavers you might stare at daily.

    Looking for more info on visiting California and the USA?
    usa california national park open road desert
    The open road awaits…
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

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