Which California National Parks Are The Best For You?

California is one of the most diverse states in the USA, moreover, it has weather that makes being outdoors a joy year-round! It has nine amazing national parks. But which one would you like the best?

It depends on what you’re looking for and in which season you visit. We’ve lived in California for a full year and visited each of these national parks (with one exception that we’ll tell you later). In this post we show you the highlights of each, along with the best time to visit and the best ways to explore them. Come on, let’s find your perfect parks:

Yosemite National Park, the most visited

Yosemite National Park, CA, USA

Located in California’s Sierra Nevada, Yosemite is one of our favorite national parks in the world. We’re certainly not the only ones, this park tempts millions of visitors each year, especially easily accessible and incredibly picturesque Yosemite Valley.

What makes it unique?

Its landscape formed by glaciation. Yosemite Valley itself is a deep glacial valley that’s home to giant, amazing waterfalls. Yosemite backcountry is an unspoilt wonderland with rocky landscapes and alpine lakes.

The best way to explore

Yosemite Valley is best to be explored on foot, and using the free park shuttles. You can also drive around in Yosemite Valley, but once you find an available parking spot, you wouldn’t want to move your car for the day.

Yosemite backcountry is much less busy than the valley and is suitable both for one day and multi-day hikes. Lots of day hikes start along the Tioga Pass Road which is a nice scenic drive through the remote areas of the park.

Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, CA, USA

Our TOP 5

  • Yosemite Falls, the 5th tallest waterfall in the world
  • Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, a short and impressive hike from Yosemite Valley
  • Glacier Point, the best panoramic views of Yosemite Valley (accessible on foot or by car)
  • Mariposa Grove, a grove of about 500 mature giant sequoias
  • Tunnel View, a roadside stop with an impressive view of Yosemite Valley

The best time to go?

May and early June is the best time to see the waterfalls, and hiking season in general is from May until October. Many park roads and trails are closed or inaccessible from mid-November until late spring. Yosemite Valley is open year-round.

Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on Earth

Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, CA, USA

279 feet below sea level, Death Valley National Park is the hottest and driest place in America, with temperatures that can reach above 120 degrees in the summer. Actually, it holds the record for the highest reliably reported air temperature in the world (134 °F/56.7 °C).

It’s the most incredible desert we’ve ever seen, mainly because it’s so diverse!

What makes it unique?

The variety and the vivid colors(!) of desert landscapes. The extreme hot temperatures. Desert blooms (or super blooms in lucky years) from mid-February to mid-spring.

The best way to explore

Death Valley National Park is not for hiking, it’s for driving through it! Not that you can’t find some nice trails, it’s just too hot for hiking most part of the year. It’s ideal for a scenic drive though.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, CA, USA

Our TOP 5

  • Zabriskie Point
  • Dante’s View
  • the drive down Badwater Road
  • the walk on the salt flats of Badwater Basin
  • shifting sand dunes and wildlife at Mesquite Flat Dunes

The best time to go?

Anything is better than summer. Winter can bring storms, but otherwise Death Valley is as pleasant as it could be in the winter months. We visited once in October and once in May, and it was hot enough.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the majestic twins

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA, USA

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are distinct parks, but they are co-managed, share a border and an entrance fee. They offer insight into the unique and wild beauties of the Sierra Nevada, with both easily accessible attractions and large remote areas that can be explored on multi-day hikes.

What makes it unique?

Sequoia is home to the largest tree in the world, by volume. Some of these giant sequoias are as old as 3500 years. Kings Canyon National Park is home to two of the most pristine rivers in California: San Joaquin and Kings River. Kings Canyon, the south fork of the river is one of the deepest canyons in the country, carved out by glaciers. There are about 200 caves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

The best way to explore

Only a small fraction of these remote and rugged parks are accessible by road. You have to set foot on the hiking trails to really see the best of them. Some are easy strolls, some are moderate day hikes, and there are challenging multi-day routes.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Our TOP 5

The best time to go?

Summer is the best time for hiking in both parks. Spring can be great for a waterfall hunt in the Foothills. With few exceptions, park roads are closed during winter months.

Redwood National & State Parks, home of the tallest trees on Earth

Redwood National & State Parks

Nearly half of the remaining redwoods are found in the adjoining Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. Walking under these majestic redwoods feels like walking in a cathedral, and they also made us feel like travelling back to prehistoric times.

What makes it unique?

California’s Northern Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth. 379 feet Hyperion is the tallest known coastal redwood. The parks are also home of fern-covered canyons, lovely waterfalls and tranquil beaches.

The best way to explore

Quiet trails give access to most of the beautiful sights and beaches of these parks. You can choose from a variety of shorter and longer ones, and none of them are really strenuous.

If you’re looking for a redwood scenic drive, unpaved Cal-Barrel Road or paved Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (both in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks) offer 20-30 minutes long drives through old-growth redwood forest. Astonishing Howland Hill Road (unpaved) runs through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, with towering redwoods, several pullouts and trailheads on the way.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks

Our TOP 5

  • James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
  • Coastal Trail in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park (multi-day trail that can be divided into shorter sections)
  • Big Tree Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
  • the scenic drive on Howland Hill Road through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
  • a walk on some of those unspoilt beaches – Trinidad State Beach, Crescent Beach or Gold Bluffs Beach

The best time to go?

These parks can be visited year-round, but winters are rainy and chilly (it’s Northern California, after all), and storms can damage trails and roads. On the other hand, it’s quite pleasant from late spring to mid-fall, neither the coast or the redwood forests get too hot.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, home to spectacular phenomena of active volcanism

Cinder Cone Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA, USA

Not nearly as well-known as Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic is a spectacular park to learn about volcanism. Mount Lassen is a sleeping volcano, and its last powerful eruption was in 1915. Hydrothermal areas with hot springs, boiling mud pots and steaming fumaroles are all exciting signs of active volcanism.

What makes it unique?

Active volcanism and the variety of volcanoes. Lassen Volcanic National Park is the only place on Earth that features all four types of volcanoes: a shield volcano (Prospect Peak), a plug dome (Lassen Peak), a Cinder Cone (the same name, Cinder Cone) and a composite volcano (Brokeoff Volcano).

The best way to explore

Driving through the park is a wonderful experience itself, and lots of picturesque attractions are accessible by a short walk from the road. But it won’t disappoint hikers either. You can hike down to a crater of a volcano, explore hydrothermal areas or find beautiful lakes and mountain panoramas.

Cinder Cone Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA, USA

Our TOP 5

  • Cinder Cone Trail
  • Butte Lake
  • Bumpass Hell Trail
  • Manzanita Lake
  • Boiling Springs Lake and Devil’s Kitchen Trail

The best time to go?

From July to September. Roads in the park can be covered with snow from October-December to May-July depending on the weather. Once the roads are open, it’s good to go, but it’s hard to predict the exact date of road openings, as sudden snowstorms in late spring can affect it.

Pinnacles National Park, the youngest in California

High Peaks Trail, Pinnacles National Park

A national park since 2013, Pinnacles is the youngest in California – and also one of the most underrated and least known parks in the state. East of the Salinas Valley in Central California, it’s easily reachable from San Francisco. Filled with volcanic rocks, craggy spires, wildflowers and cool caves, it’s a delightful park.

What makes it unique?

Well, the pinnacles for one. These towering spires are quite picturesque, and some offer rock climbing opportunities, as well. Then we could climb through the talus caves of the park (with a flashlight!) that are home to several species of bats.

The best way to explore

This is a park for hikers and rock climbers. Roads run from the east and the west, but don’t connect in the middle, which helps keep the heart of Pinnacles wild. Because of this, check the trailhead you’re looking for to decide which entrance to use to access the park.

Pinnacles National Park, CA, USA

Our TOP 3

  • High Peaks Trail, the most scenic region with hundreds of pinnacles
  • Bear Gulch Cave (in the east) and Balconies Cave (in the west)
  • North Chalone Peak

The best time to go?

Any time, except summer. Summers are hot in Central California’s continental region, and though you can hike in Pinnacles in the summer, you won’t enjoy it. Fall and winter are far more pleasant seasons for hiking, and early spring is the time to hunt for pretty wildflowers.

Joshua Tree National Park, an ideal place for stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park, CA, USA

We have to admit we didn’t give this park the attention it would have deserved. Our visit was too brief, and we couldn’t really fall for Joshua Tree. We think the most spectacular desert landscapes in California are in Death Valley National Park, still Joshua Tree offers some unique beauties.

What makes it unique?

Its desert landscapes with climbable boulders, rare Yucca brevifolia and Joshua Trees. Its skies. Located in the high desert and far from major cities, this park is one of the best places for stargazing in the USA. It’s also home to some spring-fed oases marked by palm trees.

The best way to explore

You can drive down Pinto Basin and Park Boulevard, the park’s main roads and stop at photogenic rock formations, including Arch Rock and Skull Rock. Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, featuring exciting rock formations and palm canyons.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA, USA

Our TOP 5

  • Skull Rock
  • Keys View lookout
  • Cholla Cactus Garden
  • Stargazing
  • Climbing the large boulders

The best time to go?

It’s a desert in Southern California. Avoid summer. Late fall and winter is delightful, and early spring impresses with blooming desert landscapes.

Channel Islands National Park

This is the only California national park we haven’t been to, so all we can say is that we regret we missed it. They say it’s truly a place for all seasons, but falls are especially warm and calm. Read more about Channel Islands on the official NPS website.

National parks annual pass

Brokeoff Mountain, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA, USA

Get the “America the Beautiful” annual pass for unlimited admission to national parks – not just in California, but in the whole USA. It applies to one vehicle, and it’s definitely worth it if you plan to visit several national parks.

The best California national parks for each season

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks

Keeping in mind that even though most national parks offer something in any season, there are definitely better and worse months for a visit. Our recommendation below shows what we think are the very best choices for each season:

  • Winter and early spring (December to April): Joshua Tree, Death Valley and Pinnacles National Parks
  • Late spring (May): Yosemite National Park (waterfalls until about mid-June), Redwood National & State Parks
  • Summer (June to August): Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park (backcountry rather than waterfalls), Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Early fall (September): Redwood National & State Parks, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park (backcountry rather than waterfalls), Lassen Volcanic National Park, Channel Islands National Park
  • Late fall (October & November): Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Pinnacles and Channel Islands National Parks

California national parks near San Francisco

Bear Gulch Reservoir, Pinnacles National Park

Now let’s see which national parks are the closest to the largest and most popular cities of California, starting with San Francisco. Pinnacles National Park is only 2 hours by car, it could even be done as a day trip from SF. Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic National Parks are both about 4 hours drive (not in the same direction), and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are 4.5-5 hours drive from SF, so they’re better as weekend or long weekend getaways.

Located far in the north, Redwood National & State Parks are more than 6 hours drive from SF (but even further from LA and San Diego).

California national parks near Los Angeles

Joshua Tree National Park is 2-2.5 hours drive from LA. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are 3.5-5 hours drive, depending on which area you’d like to visit. Death Valley is 4 hours drive.

Kings Canyon National Park, California, USA

You can depart to Channel Islands National Park from Ventura, that’s very close to LA. This park can only be accessed by boat though – park concessionaire boats and planes or private boats.

California national parks near San Diego

Joshua Tree National Park is the closest to San Diego, about 2.5-3 hours drive from the city. It’s suitable for a weekend getaway rather than a day trip.

Now it’s your turn to decide which are the best for you. Do you have a favorite?

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By Beata Urmos

Bea is the co-founder of Our Wanders. She’s the writer and the trip organizer, and she’d love to help you plan your own amazing trips! She likes hiking, good novels and chocolate, as well. Her motto is: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” (John A. Shedd)

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