A Traveler’s Guide To California’s 9 National Parks

Forbes March 29, 2024

Lifestyle

A Traveler’s Guide To California’s 9 National Parks

With nine National Parks, California has more than any other state. If you’re in the early stages of planning a road trip, which should you choose? I’ll answer that question without having to scroll at all: Whatever you want to see most. National Parks are all incredible in their own ways, and offer unique experiences.

This is a quick look at California's varied and incredible parks. Not a ranking per se but a modest nudge if you’re trying to decide stops on your upcoming road trip. I’ve been to 34 US National Parks plus dozens more all around the world, and California’s are worthy of their National Park designation in every way.

In alphabetical order, we’re talking about Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwoods, Sequoia, and Yosemite.

I start with Kings Canyon as it’s technically, and admittedly temporarily, the park least worth visiting. This is solely because so much of the park is closed due to road damage. Some will open in 2024, others later. Depending on the current weather/season you can still see huge General Grant tree, and the drive from Sequoia National Park on the Generals Highway is a stunning. A loop through that park, then through a corner of Kings, and down to Fresno or Bakersfield, is a great day.

The General Grant tree in Kings Canyon National Park.

One of the gorgeous views at Lassen Volcanic.

I visited Lassen at the end of a road trip that included Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and a flight and drive to the incredible Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska. Parts of Lassen are incredible, with burbling mud pots and rolling views. Sadly, the 2021 Dixie Fire scorched more than 2/3 of this park. It’s slowly growing back but for now there’s less to see than most of the other parks on this list. Definitely worth a drive through if you’re nearby, though.

 
Pinnacles

The odd rock formations of Pinnacles.

All apologizes to Pinnacles, and I really like this park. I visited there on a test run when I was building out my campervan. It offers some great hikes, gorgeous rock formations, and is the habitat for the legendary California Condor. It’s a short drive from San Francisco, yet it’s one of the least visited parks in the National Park system. Underrated, for sure, but compared to California’s greats, it’s not exactly worthy of a road trip in itself (though I did). Compared to all 63 National Parks, it’s mid-pack at least. Which is to say, worth visiting for sure but if you’re pressed for time some of the other parks might be a better option.

 
Channel Islands

Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

This is the only National Park in California I haven’t visited. However, the parks that are higher on this list are incredible so Channel Islands would have to be pretty remarkable to place any higher. A lot of that is to do with its remoteness. It’s the only NP in California you can’t drive to. Instead, you drive to Ventura or Oxnard Harbors and take a boat. There is camping, though with limited or no facilities. This park is unquestionably a stunner, though.

 
Sequoia

The rest of the parks on this list are next-level incredible, and all worthy of a trip on their own. I love them all. They’re all among my favorites in the entire system (that I’ve visited so far, that is). Sequoia is home to the largest trees in the word, and walking among them really is like being a child again where everything is enormous.

Keep in mind it takes a long time to get into the park during busy times, and crowds can be an issue. Most of the park is extremely high in elevation too, so getting around can leave you wheezing. However, stunning views and gorgeous nature make this a must-see.

 
Joshua Tree

Cholla cacti in Joshua Tree National Park

Tied for my most-visited National Park, Joshua Tree is such a unique landscape. Yes, it’s the desert, but it’s not barren. There’s so much life, from the trees that give the park its name, to the Cholla cactus, and more. Then there’s the smooth stones and rock formations and stunning night skies. It’s one of the easiest parks to visit from LA, and well worth the drive.

 
Death Valley

A road through Death Valley National Park

I’ve visited Death Valley 3 times in the last year, and I’m headed back in a few weeks. It’s like another world. Stunning multi-colored mountains, salt-covered basins, huge craters and rolling sand dunes. It’s the largest park outside of Alaska, and it combines the resiliency of nature with one of the most desolate and inhospitable landscapes in the world. This might be my favorite park for how it transports you to another world.

My last two visits I got to see the rare Lake Manly, a temporary lake in Badwater Basin that only occurs every decade or so. As of this writing it's still there, and a remarkable sight in itself.

Unless you’re really into extreme heat, which in fairness is a perfectly valid reason to visit DVNP, it’s best to visit in winter or winter-adjacent months. During my last visit, it was a lovely 67 degrees in Badwater Basin, but 5,700 feet above at Dante’s View, it was snowing!

Lake Manly at DVNP

 
Redwoods

Giant redwoods and a Mazda MX-5 Miata for scale.

Speaking of another world, Redwoods is that for sure. Specifically, the forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi. It’s more than that, though. The tallest trees in the world (to Sequoia’s largest), it is walking among giants. It’s a misty, temperate world that is just so remarkable.

I think someone from the Pacific Northwest would find Sequoia more otherworldly. Being from LA, the humid, moss-and-leaf covered environs of Redwoods is far more “other” than the dryer Sequoia. So for those visitors, they might prefer Sequoia instead. Both are incredible though.

 
Yosemite

Yosemite Valley with granite cliffs, waterfalls, and Half Dome in the distance.

Yosemite is not my favorite park. It’s not even my favorite park in California. It’s last on this list despite how exceptionally frustrating it can be to visit. In fact, I recommend most people avoid this park on weekends or during school holidays. It’s just too busy, too crowded, and because it’s predominantly a valley, there’s limited space for anything, especially parking. It can be hard to enjoy being in a place of natural beauty with honking horns and endlessly babbling visitors.

Yosemite Falls from Merced River by Geoffrey Morrison

That said, wow this is one of the most stunning places on Earth. Huge cliffs of sheer rock, towering waterfalls, pristine pastures, it’s almost impossibly beautiful. It can fill you with wonder, then let you look in another direction, and you’ll discover something else even more beautiful. It’s remarkable.

So I cautiously recommend everyone visit Yosemite, but it’s best to do it during the shoulder or off seasons.


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