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TravelThe best national parks in California

The best national parks in California


From eerie sandstone moonscapes and jagged granite towers to rare, endangered wildlife and some of the tallest, oldest trees in the world, California’s national parks encompass a multitude of singular and beloved natural majesties.

While visiting these parks is on many travelers’ bucket lists, it can be intimidating to plan. It’s also difficult to figure out how best to avoid the crowds that flock year-round to witness these national treasures.

Here’s a guide to California’s top national parks, from south to north, with a local park fanatic’s tips on what not to miss in each.

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

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Reactions upon seeing a Joshua Tree for the first time can range from reverence to ridicule. Named by Mormon pioneers who thought the unusual looking trees resembled Joshua preaching with upraised arms, these spiky-headed members of the agave family might just as well have sprung from the pages of a Dr. Seuss children’s fantasy.

Just as surreal, the landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park feature labyrinthine rock piles where boulders the size of semis lie jumbled like the discarded building blocks of a juvenile giant.

Created by the force of colliding tectonic plates and sculpted by howling desert winds and flash floods, the 1,242-square-mile park ranges in elevation from 900 to 5,500 feet.

Driving Park Boulevard, you can’t miss the crowds pulling over to see Skull Rock, Cap Rock, Arch Rock and other famous formations. But stroll deeper into the Wonderland of Rocks to have equally eerie geological features to yourself.

It’s a long winding drive up to Keys View Overlook but well worth it to gaze from the crest of the San Bernardino Mountains over the Coachella Valley below.

Located at the junction of the higher Mojave and lower Colorado desserts, the park encompasses numerous distinct ecosystems; this is plain to see when you stumble into the fan palm oases of Cottonwood Springs and the Oasis of Mara.

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If you only have one day in the park, make it a long one. Start with sunrise in the Cholla Cactus Garden and finish by stargazing at the Sky’s the Limit observatory near the Twentynine Palms park entrance.

Where to stay

Marriott Bonvoy loyalists will be happy with the Fairfield Inn & Suites Twentynine Palms-Joshua Tree National Park. The grab-and-go breakfast will come in handy for sunrise photo shoots, and the pool offers a welcome relief after a hot hike in the park. Rooms start from $259 or 32,000 Bonvoy points.

It’s a longer drive to the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, but you’ll be the family hero when the kids spy the property’s Splashtopia water park. Rooms start from $478.

Channel Islands National Park

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The five islands (Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa) that form Channel Islands National Park are separated from the mainland of Southern California by a deep trough. They can only be reached by boat departing from a visitor center in Ventura or Oxnard.

Transportation, provided by Island Packers, includes year-round access to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands as well as seasonal access to Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara from March through November on a limited schedule. Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands can also be reached by plane.

Often referred to as the “Galapagos of North America” for their rich diversity of wildlife, the islands are home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals — 145 of which are found nowhere else.

Related: From Coronado to Alcatraz: Your guide to California’s coastal islands

Hiking is the primary activity here. Among the most popular trails are those leading to the Anacapa lighthouse, Scorpion Valley on Santa Cruz Island and Lobo Canyon on Santa Rosa Island. Whale and dolphin watching is another focus of Channel Islands boat trips.

Where to stay

There are no hotels on the Channel Islands, only campgrounds — the largest of which are Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island and Water Canyon Camp on Santa Rosa Island.

You’ll still fall asleep to the sound of the surf at the Four Points by Sheraton Ventura Harbor Resort, which is pet-friendly as well as family-friendly. It’s connected by the promenade to Ventura Harbor Village and all its restaurants and shops. Rooms start from $191 or 21,000 points.

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

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Like nature’s theme park for extreme sports, Death Valley National Park appears designed to push every limit with its dizzying fluctuations of temperature, altitude and topography.

Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America, with summer temperatures pushing the mercury toward 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also the lowest point in North America, dipping 282 feet below sea level in the salt-crusted basin known as Badwater.

Related: 11 of the best national parks to visit during winter

Many travelers zoom through Death Valley, admiring the views of the Amargosa Range from Zabriskie Point and marveling at the eerie rock-strewn Devil’s Golf Course. But, to truly appreciate this mind-altering landscape, you need to immerse yourself in its extremities.

So put on sturdy footwear and pack plenty of water. Take the time to clamber up the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, peer into 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater, hike multicolored Mosaic Canyon and drive to Agueberry Point — which, at 6,000 feet, rewards with a bird’s-eye view of the valley floor.

Stay overnight, or at least past dark, to see the Milky Way splash across one of the darkest skies in North America. For an extra thrill, sign on for a jeep tour through Titus Canyon, where nearly vertical limestone cliffs seem ready to close in around you.

Where to stay

There’s no place better positioned to immerse you in the park than The Oasis at Death Valley. It’s not far from the visitor center in a lush date palm grove watered by natural springs.

Built in 1927, the venerable property has undergone more than $250 million in renovations. It has expanded lodging options to include the romantic The Inn at Death Valley, the more relaxed Ranch at Death Valley, casitas, cabins and even a campground. Rooms start from $289, or campsites from $29.

Pinnacles National Park

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This is the newest of California’s national parks, upgraded from a national monument in 2013. Pinnacles National Park takes its name from a cluster of dramatic rock towers, buttresses and spires that look like nothing so much as a castle of rock erupting from the rolling hills and valleys of the coastal range.

More than 30 miles of hiking trails traverse fields of wildflowers along Chalone Creek, ascend to the heights on the High Peaks Trail and follow the river caves of Balconies and Bear Gulch.

Related: The best US national parks you should visit at least once (or twice)

Striped in red, ochre and salmon hues like the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, Pinnacles shares another similarity with Utah’s red rock canyons: It shelters the endangered California Condor, with 86 of the majestic birds now counted in the park.

Where to stay

There are no hotels in or immediately outside the park; the historic and supremely comfortable Inn at the Pinnacles is the closest option if you can get one of its in-demand rooms. Rates start at $365.

Soledad offers a few budget options, including a Motel 6 and Motel 8. But, to make your visit a true vacation, head for Carmel Valley Ranch, part of the Hyatt Unbound Collection; your stay might include communing with horses, hilltop yoga, a round of golf, or hiking the 500-acre grounds. Rooms start from $895 or 25,000 World of Hyatt points.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

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Look at a map, and it’s clear that Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two separate entities. However, that’s not as clear when you tour the two parks, which are administered jointly, share many of the same highlights and are linked by the Generals Highway.

As you might expect, Sequoia houses the famed tall trees, including the monstrous General Sherman Tree — the largest living thing on the planet with an estimated total volume of more than 50,000 cubic feet.

The surrounding Giant Forest features more such majestic ancients; see them along the Congress Trail and learn more about them in the Giant Forest Museum.

To best grasp the grandeur of King’s Canyon, one of the deepest in North America, head up to Panoramic Point and take the trail to the overlook, where you can gaze into the chasm itself.

King’s Canyon has its own arboreal claim to fame in the form of the General Grant Tree and surrounding Grant Grove. Take time to visit pine-fringed Hume Lake, along the General’s Highway in the national forest; you’ll find sandy swimming beaches as well as boat and kayak rentals.

Where to stay

Madera, between Yosemite’s south entrance and Sequoia and Kings Canyon, makes an efficient base from which to visit all three parks with a minimum of moving and a maximum of exploring. At the Hampton Inn & Suites Madera, rooms start from $124 or 30,000 points and include a hot breakfast.

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

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Craggy granite peaks, thundering waterfalls and verdant meadows all contribute to the mystique of Yosemite National Park, credited with being the foundation of the national park system.

Prepare to be stunned by the vista from Tunnel View, the valley framed by the silhouettes of El Capitan and Half Dome. Another popular view of Half Dome is that reflected in Mirror Lake. And, of course, many challenge themselves to make the 17-mile ascent to the top, aided by cables laid every year from May to October. (Permits are required, available by lottery only.)

Yosemite’s waterfalls are perhaps the park’s most beloved attractions. Bridalveil Falls is enveloped in its shimmering mist, while the Upper, Lower and Middle falls make up the 2,425-foot cascade of Yosemite Falls, the tallest in North America.

Home to more than 500 majestic redwoods, some more than 2,000 years old, Mariposa Grove was almost destroyed by fire in 2015. Now protected by raised boardwalks, the grove reopened in 2018 after a three-year, $40-million restoration project.

Where to stay

Just half a mile outside Yosemite’s west entrance, Rush Creek Resort is the epitome of rustic chic, with a Scandinavian-style lodge and villas occupying 20 acres of wooded hillside. In addition to a restaurant, tavern, and general store, the complex includes a saltwater pool and hot tubs, a nature-themed spa, a network of hiking trails and outdoor adventure features like a zip line and giant slide. Rates start from $297 per night.

Rush Creek’s sister property, Evergreen Lodge (from $155 per night), is soon to be joined by Firefall Ranch, opening in May. One- and two-bedroom cottages and three-bedroom villas are strategically placed on the 300-acre property.

Related: Top-notch Yosemite National Park hotels to plan your visit around

You also might want to make the cute wild west town of Mariposa your home base. There, you can check out the host of new restaurants, cafes, and brewpubs — like The 1850 and The Alley — that have opened over the last few years.

Mariposa’s Best Western Plus Yosemite Way Station Motel includes a full hot breakfast, and the pet-friendly policy welcomes pups up to 80 pounds, a higher limit than most properties. Rooms start from $100 per night.

While in town, don’t miss the Yosemite Climbing Museum and Gallery, where photos and artifacts will make you fully appreciate the daring feats.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

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Like its big sister Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a vivid testament to Earth’s powerful forces. It’s a place where mountain tops remain flattened by volcanic eruption, vapor seeps from underground vents and pools of mineral-rich mud bubble and spit.

Most of the park’s best stops are strung along the 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which makes a semicircle around 10,457-foot Lassen Peak.

Don’t miss a single one of the park’s geological wonders, such as the massive black lava boulders of aptly named Chaos Jumbles, the sulfur- and silica-crusted mud pots of Sulphur Works, and the sapphire-blue Lake Helen with Lassen Peak mirrored on the surface.

Other highlights include Hat Creek, Little Hot Springs Creek and Diamond Peak. Hiking is a must to reach Lassen’s most renowned attractions. These include 30-foot Kings Creek Falls and Bumpass Hell — the park’s largest and most active geothermal area, which seethes with steam-belching fumaroles and witchy-looking mud pots.

Lassen has two visitor centers, Kohm Yah-mah-ee Visitor Center at the south end of the park and Loomis Museum Visitor Center at the north end.

You’ll still see plenty of evidence of the catastrophic Dixie Fire, which incinerated 963,309 acres — or 1,505 square miles — in fall 2021. But the park’s comeback has been extraordinary, with swaths of skeletal burned-out trees enveloped by waist-high wildflowers.

Lassen’s skies are famously dark, thanks to the clarity of the mountain air and lack of light pollution; check the schedule for ranger-led stargazing programs held in the summer.

Where to stay

You’ll find the same crystalline night air and star-dappled skies at Highlands Ranch Resort, tucked into its own alpine valley, known as Child’s Meadow, with nothing but woods and wildlife beyond. Choose a room in the 19-room lodge, the Village at Highland Ranch, or one of the spacious cottages; each has its own fireplace and private patio. Rooms start from $100 a night.

An hour away in Redding, you’ll find various points-friendly hotels, with the Sheraton Sundial Redding being a top choice. Rooms start from $242 or 35,000 Bonvoy points.

Redwood National and State Parks

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Encompassing Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks is a sprawling complex now known as Redwood National and State Parks. It’s a collection of separate park units that span northernmost coastal California and protect some of the largest remaining old-growth redwood forests.

A good place to start your tour is driving the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which parallels Highway 101 and provides a good overview of the park’s highlights.

The visitors center in Prairie Creek Redwoods offers maps to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove and the Big Tree Loop, which includes the Cathedral Trees Trail. If your goal is to see the primeval moss-draped forests that featured as Endor in “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi” and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” you’ll have to ask the rangers for guidance, though the short hike up Fern Creek will get you close.

More highlights include swimming (or wading, depending on your tolerance for cold water) in the Smith River in Jedediah Smith State Park or visiting Elk Prairie in Prairie Creek Redwoods. There, you can see Roosevelt elk, once close to extinction but now flourishing in their protected meadows.

Where to stay

In Crescent City, the town most convenient to the parks, you’ll find the Best Western Plus Northwoods Inn to be a points-friendly choice for clean rooms with breakfast included. Rooms start from $111 or as little as 5,000 Best Western rewards points.

For something with more personality, stay 15 miles south of the park at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in groovy Arcata. You can explore the quirky cafes, boutiques and galleries around the historic plaza and shop at the Saturday morning farmers market. Rooms start from $137 or 28,000 IHG rewards points.

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