California has more national parks than any other state. From arid deserts to lush forests and small islands, there is a wide variety and thousands of miles of national parks to explore.
California has 10 national parks – 2 in Southern California, 5 in Central California and 2 in Northern California. 8 of these are protected areas on land, Point Reyes National Marine Park is a coastal reserve, and the Normandy Islands are a group of offshore islands.
National parks are the most protected natural and wilderness areas in the United States. There are a number of other types of protected areas with a different status, including national forests, national monuments, national recreational areas and national historical sites, as well as state and local protected areas.
Here is a list of 10 national parks in California with the most important details and our opinion on why you should visit them.
1. Yosemite National Park
Place: Sierra Nevada in central California – 279 miles from Los Angeles and 167 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: 1,169 square miles, 4 million visitors per year
Known: The Yosemite Valley with El Captain Rock.
Merced River in the Yosemite Valley with El Captain in the background.
Yosemite National Park is the most famous national park in California and one of the most popular in the United States. Located in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Ridge, you can visit it on weekends from Los Angeles and San Francisco, which contributes to its popularity.
Although Yosemite is very large and covers more than 1,000 square miles, most visitors go to the small Yosemite Valley on the west side of the park. In this region you will find El Capitan, Half Dome and Sentinel Dome, as well as tourist facilities and various accommodation options.
The park, with its characteristic granite mountains, has 800 miles of hiking trails and several breathtaking scenic routes. Route 120 runs the entire length of the park and connects to Route 395 at Lake Mono.
Remember, given the popularity of the park, that you need to plan ahead – booking a place to stay or camping is just as important as obtaining permits if you want to hike in the wilderness or even the Half Dome. To get to the top, you have to take part in a lottery and hope your number appears that day!
2. King’s Canyon National Park
Place: Southern Sierra Nevada, 240 miles from Los Angeles and 238 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: .722 square miles, 699,000 visitors per year
Known: High peaks and Kings Canyon 1 mile deep
Forest that grows along the King’s Canyon River in Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park is located next to the larger and more popular Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada, about 240 miles from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The park has one of the most impressive landscapes with one of the largest giant redwood forests in the country, several peaks up to 14,000 meters altitude and deep glacier gorges.
In this wildlife park there are two large areas that can be reached by car – parts of Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. Giant redwoods grow in Grant Grove, including the second largest tree in the world, the General Grant (the largest tree is in Sequoia National Park, a few kilometres to the south).
If you go to the end of the Royal Canyon (which is actually quite picturesque!), you can park and walk to the Zumwalt meadows. From the same location there are several hiking trails stretching for miles north and south. If you want to camp in the wilderness, you can explore them for days and hike to the Post Office Pill Devil National Monument above the Mammoth Lakes, although it takes at least a week to camp in one direction!
3. Sequoia National Park
Place: Southern Sierra Nevada – 204 miles from Los Angeles, 262 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: .631 square miles, 1.2 million visitors per year.
Known: With the tallest tree in the world
The tallest trees in the world are in Sequoia National Park, California
California Sequoia National Park is a more popular and well-known area south of King’s Canyon. With almost twice as many visitors, the tallest tree in the world, General Sherman, is one of the main attractions.
Although the trees are incredibly tall, they are not as tall as the red coastal forests that grow closer to the Pacific Ocean. However, the redwoods that grow here are incredibly large – their trunks are incredibly broad, and some of the tallest trees in the world grow in a park, including the largest in volume, with a circumference of 102.6 feet.
There are several places you should visit during your trip to Sequoia National Park. The 400-step climb to the top of Moreau Rock is worth the incredible views from the top of Sierra Nevada.
If you look at the redwood peaks, you can’t miss the crystal cave. Among the traditional stalactites and stalagmites, there are light-coloured stones that will make your visit unforgettable.
Follow Crescent Meadow Road through the giant forest near the Moro Rock Trail for a picnic overlooking the city. On the way you’ll pass through a motorway tunnel cut out of a giant sequoia – but beware, it’s only 2.4 m high!
4. Redwood National Park
Place: Northern California is 685 miles from Los Angeles and 311 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: .217 square miles, 483,000 visitors per year
Known: With the tallest tree in the world.
Coast redwood in Redwood National Park are the tallest trees on the planet.
This small national park is located along the Pacific coast and more than 5 hours drive from San Francisco, making it one of the most difficult parks to reach.
It’s really worth it – it’s a park with the tallest trees in the world, including the largest Hyperion, which rises up to 115.5 m above the ground. These red trees on the coast are much narrower than the giant redwood of the Sierra Nevada – hence the difference between the tallest and tallest trees.
In addition to Redwood National Park you’ll find a number of natural attractions – Patricks Point State Park offers a bird’s eye view of the coast and Agate Beach is one of the best places to sit and watch the waves.
Then three natural lagoons, separated from the ocean by subtle saliva, and the Redwood Highway wading between all these lagoons, in one bloody and breathtaking journey.
5. National Park battlefields
Place: Central California is 268 miles from Los Angeles, 123 miles south of San Francisco.
Statistics: 42 square miles, 222,000 visitors per year
Known: The caves of Talus, where more than a dozen different species of bats live.
Bear Gulch Lake in Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is by far the smallest of California’s national parks, but it’s also one of the most interesting to visit, especially since it’s relatively easy to reach from the major California cities.
The Pinnacles are the remains of an ancient extinct volcano that gives the rock formations their unique appearance. The real volcano originated about 200 miles from where Pinnaklsen National Park is located, but tectonic movements erode the rock up to 6 cm per year.
The park was first recognised as a national monument and was transformed into a national park in 2012-2013. Despite its small size, there are some interesting things to see.
First of all, it is one of the few places in the world where the Californian Condor can be seen in the wild near falconry meadows. In addition, the caves of Talus are home to 13 different species of bats that formed when the rocks fell from above into a narrow gorge, creating these unusual structures.
6. Death Valley National Park
Place: Large pool on the border between California and Nevada – 214 miles from Los Angeles and 467 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: 5,262 square miles, 1.7 million visitors per year.
Known: Because it’s the hottest place on the planet…
Scorched Earth at the World’s Hottest Spot, Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park lies on the border between California and Nevada in the northern Mojave Desert.
The desert landscape combines different types and characteristics of the desert – there are rocky hills, dry lake beds, long stretches of hard, flat sand and even large sand dunes in different parts of the national park.
Known as the warmest place on earth, with an absolute temperature record in 1913 and the warmest average month in 2018, Death Valley is best avoided during the summer months, when it is almost impossible to stay outdoors during the day with average temperatures in excess of 50°F (120°F) from June to August.
Despite its proximity to Las Vegas, perhaps the brightest city in the world, Death Valley National Park is known as one of the darkest skies in the United States. If you go to the north of the park, the whole area is a dark zone that is marked from the sky and where you can see not only the stars and the sky, but also several other galaxies that can only be seen clearly with your eyes at night.
7. Yeshua Tree National Park
Place: Southeast California, near Palm Springs – 131 miles from Los Angeles, 501 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: .1235 square miles, 2.9 million visitors per year
Known: Distinctive Yeshua trees that grow all over the park.
The Yeshua trees were named by the Mormons after a biblical figure who stretched out his hands to lead the Israelites.
Joshua Tree National Park, the closest national park to Los Angeles and San Diego, is a very popular destination for those who want a weekend away from the city and get in touch with nature.
California has much milder temperatures than other deserts, with average summer temperatures peaking in the 1990s (36°C) and falling at night until the 1960s (below 20°C). This means that campsites in the desert are so popular that there are over 300 campsites and 9 large campsites with facilities to choose from.
The walk in the park leads through different landscapes with rock formations that separate the desert – there is much to see: Old Women’s Rock, huge marble boulders and Arch Rock at White Tank Camping.
Since more than half of Yeshua Tree National Park has been designated a wilderness area, you need to bring everything you need: no amenities, no shops, no water, no food. You must also respect the animals in the wild – local regulations prohibit the opening of fires and you must register with the NPS if you want to camp in the wild.
8. Volcanic National Park Lassena
Place: Northern California, 575 miles from Los Angeles and 248 miles from San Francisco.
Statistics: .166 square miles, 499,000 visitors per year
Known: Lassena Peak is the largest dome-shaped volcano in the world with an outlet and volcanic heritage.
Lassena Peak is the main attraction of Lassena Volcanic National Park.
H Peter Ji photographer/Shutterstock.com
Lassen Volcano National Park, north of Sierra Nevada, offers a spectacular natural spectacle – there are lakes, mountains, all kinds of volcanoes, bears and mountain lions.
Lassena Peak is the highest point in the park and a huge active volcano that rises over the whole area. It is one of the two volcanoes that formed in the 20th century. The first eruption of the earth’s crust took place in the United States in the 19th century, at the same time as Mount St. Helens, further north in the state of Washington.
The whole area is still very active geologically – there are hot springs, steam escaping through the ground and hot mud holes. Always stay on the official roads and paths – this firm ground can be softer and much warmer than it looks.
Besides Lassen there is another volcano that is worth seeing in the Cinderella Park. The dome and the crater of the volcano are made of ash that was released during the eruption and formed a huge black heap.
You can climb to the top to see not only the inside of the volcano, but also most of the park. Walking is not the easiest way, so prepare yourself and you will be rewarded when you reach the top!
Access to the park is only possible from July to October, when the snow melts and the roads are open. In winter you can still reach some parts of the park, but you have to go much further and it is difficult to get to the centre.
One thing you won’t miss when you arrive is a phenomenal road built at the beginning of the 20th century. It was built at the end of the 19th century on the other side of the park. The Lassen Peak Highway is one of the most breathtaking highways in California and the entire United States.
Your navigator will probably take you to Lake Manzanita – don’t go back until you’re on the highway and then head north and south (better view south)!
9. Normandy Islands National Park
Place: Southern California, just behind Ventura and Oxnard – 68 miles from Los Angeles, 357 miles from San Francisco (+ ferry).
Statistics: .390 square miles, 366,000 visitors per year
Known: Sea caves and rocky bays
Santa Cruz Island is one of the groups that make up Normandy Islands National Park.
The Normandy Islands are a group of 8 islands off the coast of Southern California, close to the cities of Santa Barbara and Ventura. These Aeolian islands are home to many species of plants, birds and fish, and you can even spot animals like the little deer mouse or the island fox.
More than 100 species living on or around islands are endemic and exist only on these islands, nowhere else in the world.
Temperatures are consistently mild throughout the year, with daytime temperatures ranging from 63.4°F (17.4°F) in February to 76.7°F (24.8°F) in August. The summer months are very dry, and even in the middle of winter it doesn’t rain much, so the islands can be visited in spring and autumn, when most tourists come in summer.
Once you’ve paid for the ferry, access to the park is free and you can explore the park with food or by kayak. Known for its many small streets and cracks around the perimeter of the islands, there are several places of breathtaking beauty where seals and sea lions can relax on the rocks.
With a bit of luck a group of dolphins will find you and swim next to you. At certain times of the year blue whales appear on the islands, which can be seen from the shore.
You can spend the night on the islands, but you have to camp. If you want to enjoy the luxury of a hotel room, you have to take the boat back to the mainland and spend the night in Ventura.
10. Point Reyes National Coast
Place: Pacific Coast – 427 miles from Los Angeles, 48 miles north of San Francisco.
Statistics: 111 square miles, 2.4 million visitors per year
Known: The only protected national coast on the west coast of the United States.
Point Reyes California Coast Line.
Xu Yu Photography/Shutterstock.com
Point Reyes is a short distance from San Francisco, via the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County in Northern California.
Historically known as the place where Sir Francis Drake first landed on the American continent, the peninsula stretches from Bolinas in the south to Bodegas Bay in the north.
Point Reyes offers many interesting sites. On the north side of the peninsula there is a protected spotted moose public – if you follow the Tomale Trail you will see many interesting things along the way.
And the Point Reyes lighthouse, recently renovated. You have to go down 300 steps to reach the rock on which it is located, but it’s worth it, and the view of the waves colliding with the rock is amazing.
On the way to the lighthouse you will stop at the Cypress Tunnels – this part of the road goes through a real tunnel of trees that meet above the road.
It looks much more like a road that leads to a plantation in the deep south than something on the coast of Northern California, and it’s definitely worth taking a picture of it.