California is one of the most diverse states, with stunning coastlines, incredible forests, and the tallest peak in the lower 48. Within its confines are almost 1/6 of America’s National Parks, representing the best of America’s scenery and outdoor history.
Today, we’re highlighting and ranking the best national parks in California — with some nuance. This list does not include national monuments, seashores, or other lesser designations. This list below is strictly the national parks, which are the best of the best!
Ranking the National Parks in California
Who’s ready for some good old-fashioned California National Parks rankings? As you’ll see, California has nine national parks, the most in any state.
Each national park has some incredible qualities, and stacked up against anything outside of Alaska will likely beat it. (Except Glacier National Park.)
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite has everything an outdoor enthusiast dreams of. Towering rock walls. Check. Gorgeous waterfalls. Check. Backcountry hiking to avoid the crowds. Check.
Then, add the ability to hike to incredible destinations like Half Dome, Taft Point, or alongside those stunning waterfalls, and you genuinely have the greatest national park in California.
Favorite Hike: Upper Yosemite Falls
2. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is astounding and home to the world’s largest tree. Driving in and seeing the giant sequoias will blow your mind, as few things do in this world. We see trees daily, yet seeing trees the size of water towers will make your head spin.
Many people may not know that Sequoia is also home to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.
Favorite Hike: Congress Trail
3. Redwood National Park
I didn’t know what to expect when visiting Redwood National Park for the first time. Only once you step foot in the lush environment of northern California can you fully appreciate how incredible it is.
Favorite Hike: Boyscout Tree Trail
4. Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park (KCNP) is unique, but an absolute favorite national park. Most of KCNP is hard to reach, which is why it isn’t high on most tourist lists. But if you’re looking for epic backpacking routes like Rae Lakes, this beautiful section of the Sierra Nevada range will give you goosebumps.
The main attraction in the easily accessible portion of the park is the General Grant Tree, the second largest tree behind General Sherman.
Favorite Hike: Rae Lakes
5. Death Valley National Park
This is one of the most slept-on national parks in the country. From a photographer’s standpoint, Death Valley National Park is in the top tier of the most impressive places to photograph.
Your jaw will continuously hit the floor as you explore the park and experience Badwater Basin’s unique octagon-shaped salt flats, the Star Wars-like Mesquite Sand Dune, and all of the park’s stunning formations and textures.
Favorite Hike: Mesquite Sand Dunes
6. Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you’re looking for a mountainous and less visited Yellowstone, let me introduce you to Lassen Volcanic National Park! Tucked away into the northern California mountains is a stunning area to explore. It’s even more northern than Tahoe.
This area has geothermal hot springs, all four types of volcanoes, alpine lakes, and tons of camping. While a lot of fanfare rightly goes to the southern national parks, this one punches above its weight!
Favorite Hike: Lassen Peak
7. Channel Islands National Park
Channel Island National Park is a gem just off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara. Thanks to boat-only access, it’s comparatively empty, which means you are generally free from tourists as you hike or camp on the island chain.
I recommend camping if you can, as it’ll allow you to hike throughout the island and experience it with only a hundred people.
Favorite Hike: Potato Harbor
8. Joshua Tree National Park
Many people head to Joshua Tree in the winter to enjoy the warm desert temperatures and sunny days. It’s truly a mesmerizing place, with a sea of Joshua Tree cacti spanning as far as the eye can see.
It’s also one of the best places to see the night sky in California. Hours away from the Los Angeles and Phoenix metro areas, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way with your naked eye — something everyone should get to enjoy once in their lives.
Favorite Hike: Hidden Valley
9. Pinnacles National Park
California’s newest national park is not large. While it does not rise to the grandiosity of its state rivals, taking a day trip there is still fun.
One thing to note is the temperature difference from the Monterey Coast to Pinnacles National Park can be 30 degrees or more. I learned this the hard way!
Favorite Hike: High Peaks Trail
What To Know Before Visiting The National Parks in California
Below are a few things to know about the California National Parks.
California’s National Parks Have Diverse Climates
Before you visit any of the national parks in California, check the weather conditions and local updates. Due to the unique nature of these places, you can have snow into the summer months or triple-digit heat in the spring.
Preparing for different weather patterns and conditions is best to ensure safety.
Are The California National Parks Open Year-Round?
More or less, yes, they are. The main national park in California with significant road closures is Lassen Volcanic National Park, thanks to winter conditions that last well into May and June. The high country of Yosemite is also closed when snowfall accumulates, but the Yosemite Valley is open.
Otherwise, all the other parks are open unless otherwise stated.
However, this doesn’t mean you should visit them year-round. Death Valley National Park is an example, which can reach 130 degrees during the summer months. If that’s not a giant red flag to stay away, I’m not sure what is!
Campgrounds Require Reservations
Since the explosion of people recreating outside increased in 2020, campsites nationwide fill up in record time. Most reservable campgrounds work on a six-month rolling basis, meaning most outdoor enthusiasts will lock in their reservations nearly half a year before a trip.
Because of this, trying to find last-minute spots is nearly impossible. So, if you plan to camp, make sure to make your reservations beforehand, get lucky on a first-come, first-served spot, or be okay with dispersed camping in the forest without amenities.
Quirky Tidbits About a Few of The National Parks
- Channel Island is one of only two national parks in the lower 48, where the only way to access them is by boat. (Dry Tortugas in Florida is the other.) To visit the Channel Islands takes a little pre-planning but nothing overwhelming.
- You cannot drive through Pinnacles National Park. There are two entrances – East and West – with a trail that connects the two. Make sure if you go and have camping plans, you are not on the wrong side.
- Redwood National Park is a bunch of state parks with added federal protection. That’s why each location will have a state park designation when you visit.
Many places, including these destinations, are feeling an influx of tourists. So, when you visit these stunning national parks of California, remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles.
This means staying on the designated hiking trails, not cutting switchbacks, camping on durable surfaces, securing food so wildlife does not get to it, and being friendly to others on the trail.
If you do this, everyone will have a more enjoyable time in our wonderful wild places.
FAQ: National Parks in California
Which Is The Hardest National Park in California To Visit?
The hardest national park to visit is Channel Islands National Park due to needing a boat to get there. This means you are not free to come and go as you please – you have to choose from the tour schedule to visit.
However, outside of that, I’d argue Redwood National Park is next. It sits near the Oregon border and is over four hours from the San Francisco Bay area. For some, this can be a barrier to entry.
What Is The Easiest National Park to Visit in California?
This depends on where you live. However, for the nearly 13 million people who live in the Los Angeles Metro Area, getting to Joshua Tree National Park is easy. It’s around a three-hour drive, and almost all of it is on Interstate 10, which makes it a piece of cake to reach!
Wrapping Up National Parks in California
California’s National Parks offer visitors diverse natural wonders and recreational opportunities. From the towering redwoods of Redwood National and State Parks to the stunning granite cliffs of Yosemite National Park, these protected areas showcase the state’s remarkable biodiversity and breathtaking landscapes.
However, we must recognize the importance of responsible tourism and conservation efforts to ensure the long-term preservation of these cherished destinations. By supporting park initiatives, practicing Leave No Trace principles, and promoting sustainable travel practices, we can help protect these precious ecosystems for future generations.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks. Featured Photo Credit: [@NPS/Victoria Stauffenberg]
Alec is an adventure photographer and travel writer with a love of exploring hidden and hard to reach destinations to show off our brilliant planet. His work has appeared in Backpacker, Adorama, and numerous state tourism boards. He’s also a two-time cancer and a bone marrow transplant survivor, hoping to show that there can be a future from this deadly disease.