The Best National Parks in California

These protected areas are sure to provide a breath of fresh air in today’s fast-paced society.

John Muir, also known as “The Father of our National Parks,” said it best in his book, Our National Parks (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901), “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

In today’s technology-dependent and on-the-go society, taking time to relax and enjoy the peace of nature is becoming more and more important. For the best in what nature has to offer, a visit to a natural park is a must. Celebrating 100 years today, the National Park Service helps preserve the 412 areas in the national park system (including 59 national parks across the U.S.).

“What is most important about national parks is that they belong to us—to all of us,” says Laura Joss, regional director for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region. “It was a uniquely American idea to set aside some of the most beautiful and pristine places, not for private use, but for public enjoyment. It is an idea that has since spread the world over.”

There isn’t a national park in every state, but some states contain more than one. In fact, California has the most national parks in the country, with a total of nine. The parks are open year-round to visitors looking to enjoy the great outdoors with friends and family.

Here are a few must-visit national parks in California:

Yosemite National Park

Kenny Karst

Yosemite National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to the some of the nation’s tallest waterfalls and largest granite rock formations. Visitors to this national park can hike some of the park’s more than 800 miles of trails (there are options to suit all fitness levels); bike the more than 12 miles of paved bike paths to sites like Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and El Capitan; or walk among some of the world’s oldest and largest trees.

“Yosemite was the first state park ever established in the U.S., more than 150 years ago,” said Noel Morrison, communications manager at the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “This act of preservation laid the foundation for what would later become the entire National Park system. The landscape is that inspiring and majestic. It is considered the ‘crown jewel,’ not only of California national parks, but of all the national parks in America.”

While Yosemite is a great place to visit year-round, the best times to enjoy the park are late fall, winter and early spring, according to Morrison, when the park is quieter and cooler than in the summer months. Early spring is the best time to view the waterfalls; hiking in the early fall offers the most spectacular views; and cross-country skiing in winter allows visitors the chance to enjoy breathtaking vistas and snow-covered landscapes.

Death Valley National Park

Kurt Moses

For a really cool experience, be sure to visit the hottest place on earth, Death Valley National Park. Death Valley gained national park status in 1994 and boasts approximately 3.4 million acres, making it the largest national park outside of Alaska. Located largely in eastern California with a small portion located in western Nevada, Death Valley boasts a stunning and unique landscape that is full of contrast and contradictions. Perhaps it’s the notion of an arid, desert landscape, complete with absurdly hot temperatures that routinely top 120 degrees, surrounded by soaring mountains with white-capped summits. Or perhaps it’s the fact that you can go for a stroll on the vast salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at -282 feet below sea level, and then test yourself by hiking the strenuous seven-mile (one way!) Telescope Peak Trail, which leads to the highest point in Death Valley National Park, 11,049 feet above sea level, all in the same day.

Ultimately, however, the weather, the temperature and when you visit Death Valley will likely dictate the level of physical activity that you can perform safely. In the summer months, given the extreme and dangerous temperatures, many visitors opt to see Death Valley either very early in the morning or via their vehicles. Another option is to visit Death Valley at night. In February 2013, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Death Valley as a “Gold Tier” International Dark-Sky Park, its highest classification. According to the National Park Service, 91 percent of Death Valley is designated wilderness, which greatly reduces the potential for light pollution within the park. As a result, Death Valley has some of the most impressive star- and planet-filled skies found anywhere on earth, and they all are visible with the naked eye.

Redwood National Park

Michael Schweppe

Located on the northwest Pacific coast of California, Redwood National Park is a true example of just how massive nature can be, as it is home to the tallest trees on Earth. When the park was created in the 1960s, one of this park’s trees was the world’s tallest known tree (at 368 feet tall). Since then, trees in other parks have surpassed that height, but in 2006, the Redwood Creek basin took the title again, when the 379-foot-tall Hyperion tree was discovered. However, the location of this record-breaking tree’s location is kept secret to protect it from damage from visitors. Visitors to this national park are encouraged to walk, bike, hike, camp and horseback ride on the more than 200 miles of trails in the park, including prairies, redwood forests and beaches. With 37 miles of rugged coastline, visitors can also look for whales, sea lions, seals, pelicans and seabirds. Or they can take a stroll along the one-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop beneath the towering redwood trees.

Joshua Tree National Park

Brad Sutton

Joshua Tree National Park, which is a 792,510-acre park located in southern California, is comprised of two different desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, and some very distinctive-looking trees and wildlife. Given that Joshua Tree National Park is made up of two different desert ecosystems, there are many different species of plants and trees found in the park, but none are as unique as the park’s namesake. The Joshua tree, which grows almost exclusively in the Mojave Desert, is an odd-shaped, large yucca tree with green spikes that seem to stick out in clusters from its crooked branches. The tallest Joshua tree found in the park is approximately 40 feet high and located in the Queen Valley forest. Arguably the most famous example of a Joshua tree is pictured on the back cover of the U2 album by the same name. Ironically though, that particular Joshua tree is not located in Joshua Tree National Park (the cover image was actually taken at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley).

When visiting Joshua Tree National Park, a popular and picturesque family destination is Keys View. Here, visitors have the opportunity to absorb panoramic views of the vast Coachella Valley. Also visible from this vantage point is the Salton Sea, the usually snow-covered 11,503-foot peak of San Gorgonio (the highest point in Southern California), and the San Andreas Fault, which runs directly through the valley floor below. Another interesting and family-accessible feature within Joshua Tree National Park is Skull Rock. Here, what started as tiny depressions in granite collecting rain drops, eventually eroded to form two hollowed-out eye sockets in a rock that resembles a human skull.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Delaware North

Established in 1890, Sequoia National Park is California’s first national park and America’s second oldest. Kings Canyon was established as General Grant National Park during the same year, but received its current name in 1940. Nature’s size can be especially appreciated in this national park, as it is home to the five largest living giant sequoia trees in the world (the General Sherman Tree is the largest sequoia tree on Earth, weighing approximately 2.7 million pounds and standing 274.9 feet tall). In addition, Mount Whitney, the highest mountain peak in the continental U.S., and the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River, one of the deepest canyons in America (peaks rise more than 8,000 feet from the canyon floor), can be enjoyed during a visit here. “Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are world-renowned for breathtaking views and rugged terrain,” says Colin Baldock, general manager for Delaware North at Sequoia National Park. “Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks span 865,964 acres, which is 104,696 more acres than Yosemite National Park. However, it was for their awe-inspiring natural beauty that John Muir once called them ‘a rival of the Yosemite.’”

A visit to one of the California national parks listed above, as well as the other spectacular protected areas in the state, can provide lifelong memories and unforgettable moments. Getting in touch with nature through a visit to a national park is just what the doctor ordered for many people in today’s fast-paced environment. “They are an antidote to the hustle and bustle of urban and suburban living,” says Joss. “It is a scientific fact that getting outdoors is good for your health.”

After you visit these outstanding national parks, make your way along the Pacific Northwest! Our itinerary covers Seattle, Portland and more! And if you want to travel outside of the U.S., we'll take you on a journey through Tuscany.