California National Parks

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California has some of the most iconic national parks like Yosemite as well as some much less well-known ones. Its parks range from temperate forests of towering redwood trees to barren desert landscapes to a prison. They include the lowest and hottest spot in the United States and snow-capped volcanoes. It has 9 parks designated National Parks and a number of other parks in the National Park System. Its historic parks remember poets, Spanish explorers, and Japanese internees.

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9 National Parks

Yosemite National Park - California National Parks

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park as some of the most stunning scenery of any park in the United States. It would certainly make my list of the top 10 national parks in the United States. The best time to visit Yosemite is in the spring when the snow melt makes the waterfalls the most full. Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in the continental U.S. (Molokai in Hawaii has a taller one). If you can visit in the middle of the week to avoid the weekend crowds. There are more than 25 waterfalls in the park. In the “Valley Floor” where most tourists go you can also find Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls and Bridal Vail Falls plus some seasonal falls that you will only see in Spring.

The seriously intrepid may be interested in the strenuous hike up the backside of Half Dome. For those looking for something more casual, the hike to Mirror Lake is lovely in any season. I have done it in summer and winter. 

On a busy summer day though, it can seem like the valley floor is being loved to death. The area outside of the valley floor is less crowded so don’t miss the Mariposa Grove and Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne Meadows is north of the Valley Floor and higher in elevation. It closes in winter. 

One of the most classic views of the park is from the Tunnel Overlook on the way to Glacier Point. If you only have one day in the park I would recommend the drive to Glacier Point and a quick loop around the Valley Floor with stops at Bridal Veil and Yosemite Falls. 

If you have more time and are visiting in Summer then drive up to Tuolumne Meadows and out through the east side of the park to Mono Lake and the ghost town that is Bodie State Park.

In winter you can have the park to yourself but don’t go for the waterfalls which are a trickle. 

Death Valley National Park - California National Parks

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is the lowest and hottest spot in the United States. Temperatures in the summer reached a record 134º Fahrenheit (56.7º C) in 1913. It can be a very barren but stunning landscape but then in the Spring, it can burst into color with a bloom or even a super bloom of wildflowers. Death Valley is the largest of the U.S. National Parks in the lower 48 states.

In my opinion, the best time to visit the park is in the winter or spring. In the spring, the wildflowers bloom and transform the park. Some tourists though, are drawn to the summer just because it is so challenging to visit. A must see spot for me is Bad Water Basin which is the lowest point in the U.S. 

Joshua Tree National Park - California National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located in the high desert east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. It is a rugged park with brush, cactus, and the iconic Joshua Trees. You can do a quick trip through the park in a day or come for longer and explore the different hiking trails. It is a popular spot with rock climbers as well, around 99° F.

My favorite hike in Joshua Tree is the Hidden Valley Nature Trail which is an easy 1 mile loop trail.

Summer temperatures are quite warm

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

These two parks in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Fresno are managed as one. Here you can find sequoia redwood trees including the 2,300+ year old General Grant tree which is the largest living tree in the world.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen is a large volcano in the Cascade Range in northern California. Lassen Volcanic National Park is filled with boiling lakes, mud pots, cinder cones, and that one big volcano. Lassen is an hour east of Redding California and can be done as a day trip from there for the main loop road. But if you have more time you can explore lesser visited sites in the park such as climbing Cinder Cone in the eastern side of the park.

Lassen is at elevation so the park road is often closed until early summer. If you are very ambitious, you can climb to the top of Lassen Peak. There are also numerous other hikes in the park for different fitness levels. Some of the easiest include the short interpreted trail at Devastated Area or the hike around Manzanita Lake. Intermediate hikes include the hike down to the waterfall at Kings Creek or the popular hike down to Bumpus Hell.

Pinnacles National Park - California National Parks

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is the newest of California’s National Parks and the one closest to my hometown of Salinas. Hiking and rock climbing are why people visit the park, especially for the popular hike through caves formed by falling boulders.

Redwood National Park

While Sequoia National Park has the largest living tree in the world, Redwood National Park in Northern California has the tallest. The Hyperion tree is 379.7 feet tall. Redwood National Park straddles Highway 101 on the way between San Francisco and the Oregon coast. Redwood National Park and the adjacent Redwood State Park have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are only 24 UNESCO sites in the U.S. These are sites that are considered some of the most important to preserve for all people.

Channel Islands National Park

You can’t visit the Channel Islands National Park without getting on a boat or a small plane because this national park is comprised of 5 rugged islands off the coast of California near Santa Barbara and Ventura. The islands have plants and animals not found elsewhere in the world including 4 different sub-species each of the island fox and the island deer mouse.

6 National Monuments

Cabrillo National Monument

The Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the first spot where a European stepped foot on what is now U.S. soil in the year 1542. The European in question was the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

Castle Mountains National Monument

Castle Mountains is another one of California’s desert parks set in the Mojave Desert. It has Joshua Trees, grasslands, and some of the best-preserved segments of a wagon road that linked Arizona and California. It was made a National Monument in 2016.

César E. Chávez National Monument

This national monument near Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley remembers farm labor organizer César E. Chávez.

Devils Postpile National Monument - California National Parks

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument is east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains so few visitors ever get to its columnar basalt rock formations.

Lava Beds National Monument

This is another of California’s volcanic themed parks. Lava Beds National Monument is north of Lassen Volcanic National Park on the Oregon border.

Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument is one of the closest groves of redwood trees to San Francisco and it is overrun with busloads of tourists. The trees are spectacular but for a better experience go to one of the California State parks south of San Francisco like Big Basin or Henry Cowell Redwoods.

WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument – Tule Lake Unit

This is a multi-state national park. The most famous part of this park is the Arizona War Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The California branch of this park is the Tule Lake Unit which includes one of the largest of the Japanese internment camps from WWII.

2 National Historic Parks

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park - California National Parks

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park

This park is built on the site of some of the Kaiser shipyards from WWI where thousands of workers were producing ships needed to win WWII. This area produced Liberty and Victory ships (freighters). The park includes one of only 2 surviving Victory Ships, the Red Oak.

San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park - California National Parks

San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park

This park is on the northern shore of San Francisco right by Ghirardelli Square and the cable car turnaround. It has a number of historic vessels from sailing ships to a WWII submarine.

4 National Historic Sites

Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O’Neill lived in Danville east of San Francisco Bay in this hillside home where he wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Fort Point National Historic Site

For Point now sits right under the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built as a Civil War era fort to defend the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.

John Muir National Historic Site

John Muir’s home in Martinez in the San Francisco Bay Area remembers this “Father of the National Parks”. John Muir was America’s most famous naturalist and conservationist.

Manzanar National Historic Site - California National Parks

Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar in the Owen’s Valley is the second of the two national park sites in California that remembers the internment of Japanese Americans.

1 National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore - California National Parks

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is a lovely spot isolated spot for a hike that is not far just up the coast from San Francisco.

2 National Recreation Areas

Golden Gate National Recreation Area - California National Parks

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a large and sprawling park comprised of a number of non-contiguous units in and around San Francisco including Alcatraz, Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Ocean Beach, The Cliff House, and the Presidio.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is in the hills above Malibu in Southern California. Despite being so close to Los Angeles it offers 500 miles of hiking trails.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is in Northern California near Mount Shasta. This large park surrounds the Whiskeytown reservoir and includes four waterfalls.

3 National Historic Trail

California National Historic Trail

This multi-state site includes states from Missouri to California and marks the route of the covered wagons.

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

This trail follows the route of the de Anza party as they made their way to settle the San Francisco Bay Area.

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

This trail was the Spanish trail between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California.

Pony Express National Historic Trail

This is another multi-state trail from Missouri to California on the route used by the short-lived pony express riders who could deliver the mail in 10 days from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California.

1 National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve

This is a huge (1.6 million acre park) desert park preserving habitat for animals like bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, and coyotes.

1 National Memorial

Port Chicago Naval Magazine

In WWII, Port Chicago Naval Magazine in the San Francisco East Bay was the site of a tremendous explosion on July 17, 1944. This park remembers the 320 people who died when two ships being loaded with ammunition for the Pacific theatre exploded.


California has some great national parks that are worth adding to your itinerary. What’s your favorite?

Also, check out Everything Everywhere’s list of California National Parks

California also has more than 100 great state parks. Listen to Best California State Parks – Amateur Traveler Episode 669 for more information.


Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won numerous awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine. He move to California in 1964.

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