I am fortunate to live in a state where we have roughly 30 National Park sites. I realized when I worked in Yosemite National Park that people traveling from other countries under estimated the size of California. Many visitors thought a person could visit Disneyland and Yosemite in the same day with plenty of time to explore. Although a person can drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite in the same day, it will take you roughly five hours to do so (that’s without traffic).
To help organize your California visit, I have divided the parks into two groups: hiking/backpacking and historical sites. Although a park might overlap the two categories, the parks are placed in the category that it best fits.
- Redwood National Park (Humboldt County)
- Lava Beds National Monument (Tulelake)
- Lassen Volcanic National Park (Mineral)
Redwood National Park offers countless hikes with a unique setting of both forest and ocean. We hiked the West Ridge Trail, California Coastal Trail, Friendship Ridge Trail, James Irvine Trail, Fern Canyon Loop Trail and the Miner’s Ridge Trail. These trails offer breathtaking views of the vegetation, redwoods and coast line!
Lava Beds National Monument offers several great day hikes. I would suggest taking time to hike the Three Sisters Trail (8.7 miles), Lyons Trail (9.4 miles) and Whitney Butte Trail (3.3 miles). There are several shorter trails if visitors don’t have time for a longer hike. Take time to visit the visitors center before you embark on your hiking adventures to gain a better understanding of what you are seeing out on the trail.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of our favorite parks in California. They have great campgrounds and a number of great day hikes. Hiking to the top of Lassen Peak is a short day hike if the trail is open as the peak has snow late into the summer months. Make sure to get a picture next to the evaluation marker! The hike is a 5 mile round trip that starts at 8500 feet elevation with a 1975 feet elevation gain, reaching an elevation of 101457 feet. I would also suggest hiking to Bumpass Hell! On the way to Bumpass Hell, you walk past Cold Boiling Lake, where you will see the cold springs bubbling to the surface. On the way back from Bumpass Hell we sighted a Pine Marten and got some good pictures.
Although we have visited Whiskeytown, we did not spend time hiking the area. There are places to hike but we visited the park during the warmest months and chose not to explore.
- Point Reyes National Seashore (Close to Bay Area)
- Muir Woods (Mill Valley – Bay Area)
- Pinnacles (Paicines – Close to Bay Area)
The Bay Area parks offer many day hikes. Point Reyes and Pinnacles have great campgrounds! While visiting Point Reyes we hiked the Underhill Trail to the end of Chimney Rock Trail. We also hiked to the coastal camp site using the Laguna Trail. It is a short hike but it is worth the views! If you are looking to camp by the beach, this is a great place! There are a handful of campgrounds within Point Reyes. For more information, click here!
Pinnacles: We enjoyed our visit to Pinnacles and would recommend camping in the park campground. The campground is small and very clean. There are several day hikes in Pinnacles, the longest is the North Wilderness Trail Loop (9.3 mile round trip). Our favorite hike is the High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop (8.4 mile round trip). Click here for the Pinnacles National Park Trail overview! Make sure to check out Bear Gulch and Balconies Caves! Before you plan your visit, check the status of the caves!
Muir Woods is beautiful! Although the hikes are short, Muir Woods is a great place to see beautiful trees and if you are lucky, the lady bugs.
- Yosemite National Park
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park (outside of Fresno)
- Devils Postpile National Monument (Near Mammoth Lakes)
- Death Valley National Park (Death Valley)
If you could only pick one grouping from this list to visit, this should be the one! Although Grand Canyon is not part of the California National Parks group, I would highly suggest adding this to your trip.
This grouping of parks offers some of the best hiking! A person can visit Yosemite National Park for a month and still not hit all the great hikes. Yosemite is the starting point for the John Muir Trail and offers countless waterfalls to hike to. Our family has hiked to the top of Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls and Yosemite Falls. We have made the hike to the top of Half Dome seven times and it was amazing each time! Mariposa Grove offers amazing sequoia trees and some great day hikes.
Visitors often miss visiting Tuolumne Meadows, so make sure to take the drive up Highway 120! There are great day and overnight hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area. If you can get permits, try hiking part of the John Muir Trail starting from the valley floor and ending in Tuolumne Meadows (about 22 miles). Please note, hiking to the top of Half Dome and any overnight camping in Yosemite require permits. Permits can be hard to obtain, so plan ahead (six months is suggested).
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park can be overlooked do to its close proximity to Yosemite (about an hour south.) Make sure not to make the mistake of not visiting these beatified parks. There are a number of campgrounds and even more day hikes. My favorite hike was to Mist Falls! If you go past Mist Falls to Paradise Valley, you will eventually meet up to the Pacific Crest Trail (about 18 mile hike). There are countless day hikes within Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. For a list of day hikes, please visit the following website: click here. If you are looking to hike into the back country, you will have plenty to chose from. Please note, that most places require permits. Visit the following website for more information and trail conditions: click here.
Devils Postpile National Monument: Although there isn’t a lot of day hikes within Devils Postpile National Monument and the park can be hard to reach, it is worth the trip! Devils Postpile National Monument is a one of a kind beauty! There are 21 camp sites on a first-come, first-served system. It is important to note that campers are exempt to the mandatory shuttle bus system. Devils Postpile is part of the John Muir Trail (JMT). For more information regarding the JMT, visit the following website: click here.
Death Valley National Park: Planing a trip to Death Valley National Park is all about the timing of your visit. The summer months are miserable in Death Valley National Park and makes hiking undesirable. We have visited Death Valley in all four seasons and prefer spring due to the desert flowers. Death Valley National Park offers backpacking with free backcountry permits. For more information, about hikes and backcountry permits, visit the following website: click here. Death Valley has great dunes. We spent several hours walking around the dunes and enjoyed the view. If you have time, make the hike to the top of Telescope Peak! The hike is marked strenuous with a 3000 feet elevation gain. Make sure to check trail conditions before you start any of the hikes in Death Valley!
- Mojave National Preserve
- Joshua Tree National Park (Twentynine Palms)
- Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (Thousand Oaks)
- Channel Island National Park (Ventura)
Mojave National Preserve is a place we have driven through on a number of trips and never stopped. We decided to make
it our last stop during our January (2015) trip and would highly recommend going out of the way to visit! We decided to camp overnight at the Hole-in-the-wall campground to give us more time to explore.
There is little to no shade in this campground, so plan accordingly. We hiked the Hole-in-the-wall trail before heading over to Kelso Dunes. We really enjoyed both hikes. For a map of Mojave National Preserve, click here.
Joshua Tree National Park offers different views then any other park I have visited. There are several easy hikes that allow for you to explore the areas around Joshua Tree NP. I would suggest the Lost Horse Mine & Mountain and the 49 Palms Oasis hikes. For an overview of day hikes at Joshua Tree, click here. There are a lot of critters that will want to eat your food, so make sure to practice Leaving No Trace!
If you pick this group of parks to visit, make sure to visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. I lived in Los Angeles for several years and spent time hiking this area with friends. As you can see by the map, there are countless trails to hike! To see the full version of the map, click here! I can’t say I have a favorite hike as all of Santa Monica Mountains NR is beautiful! If you are looking to walk on a ridge overlooking Los Angeles or hiking to the beach – Santa Monica Mountains NR area offers both!
I have not visited Channel Island National Park, but have had many friends that have. To reach the island, a person must take a boat or plane. There is no service or lodging on the islands, but you can camp. If you decide to camp, you must bring your own food and water. For more information on hiking and camping on the islands, click here.
National Historic Site:
California National Parks offers several historical sites. Most of the sites are in the Bay Area. If you visit the Bay Area or the Central California grouping, make sure to visit the parks listed below. If I could recommend only one park from the list of Historical sites, I would suggest visiting Manzanar Historical Site! The Park Service has done a wonderful job capturing the events that happened at Manzanar! So many people are unaware of the event that took place during WWII and Manzanar captures the story of so many Americans.
- Alcatraz Island (San Francisco)
- San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
- Fort Point National Historic Site(San Francisco)
- Presidio of San Francisco
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area (San Francisco)
- Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park (Richmond)
- Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site (Danville – Bay Area)
- John Muir National Historic Site (Bay Area)
- Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial (San Francisco – Active military base) – Make reservations and be picked up at the John Muir National Historic Site.
Southern Part of California:
- Manzanar Historical Site (Independence)
- César E. Chávez National Monument (Keene)
- Cabrillo National Monument (San Diego)