Best National Parks in California: Things to Do & When to Visit

Best National Parks in California, USA

The Golden State, California has NINE national parks spread out more than 600 miles probably the most of any other states in the USA.

The sheer diversity of landscapes, dynamic flora, granite rock formations, lush meadows, wild desert, groves of the tallest trees on earth, volcanic peaks and remote island sanctuary, makes California’s National Park so special and worth to visit.

Plan your trip with this in-depth guide to California’s best national parks, including the best time to visit and things to do and see.

Best National Parks in Northern California

1. Redwood National and State National Park

Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Redwood National & State Park, Image Credit: Pixabay

Redwood National and State Park is an American National Park and a UNESCO world heritage site located north of San Francisco and close to northernmost coastal California.

The Park is home to the world’s tallest trees – the redwood trees. Nature at its best, here you also have grassland prairie, indigenous flora, and fauna, rivers, and stream.

When to visit The Redwood National and State Park

Arrange visits during the day, as it’s tough to make your way through the park at night. Summer is the best time when there’s less rainfall, warmer temperatures  

Things to do and see in The Redwood National and State Park

Fern Canyon, tall trees grove, prairie creek, Lady Bird Johnson Grove trail are the main attractions.

  • Drive the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway: This 10-mile road cuts through the center of an old-growth forest in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. If you’d like a more immersive experience, jump out and go for a hike in one of the numerous trailheads, such as Big Tree Wayside and Ah-Pah.
  • Hike to Fern Canyon on James Irvine Trail: A beautiful yet easy 4.5-mile hike (one-way) through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to the beach at Fern Canyon.
  • Ride Trees of Mystery: The Trees of Mystery comes with a 0.8-mile interpretive trail, over 50 wooden chainsaw-carved sculptures, and the main attraction, the SkyTrail gondola ride, which provides a Bunyan-esque perspective of the forest from 130 feet above the earth.

2. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Located at North-eastern corner of California, near Redding and Susanville city, Lassen Volcanic National Park hosts each of types of volcanos – shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome. The park is famous for its Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano on earth.

You can explore the meadows freckled with wildflowers, plopping mud pots, clean mountain lakes, bubbling pools, roaring steam vents, and numerous volcanoes.

When to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park

Summer and fall (From mid-July to mid-October) will be the best time to visit the volcanic areas when the snow melts. In the winter, the majority of the main roads are closed because of snow. Nonetheless, you’re still able to enjoy snowshoe hikes and cross-country skiing at the southern and northern entrances.

Things to do and see in Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Hike through Bumpass Hail Trail: It’s the most significant section of hydrothermal activity with bubbling mud pots and tons of informative stuff in regards to the geothermal activity happening in the region. The trial is beautifully scenic, with mountain views, including a perfect view of Mt Lassen around a lake at the same point.
  • Explore beautiful Manzanita Lake: Absolutely beautiful lake having an adjoining campground and cabin. You’ll get the park’s definitive view of the 10,457-feet Lassen Peak, especially in the morning. You can also rent a paddle-board and kayak.
  • Devil’s Kitchen: From the Warner Valley Trailhead, the 4.2-mile round trip Devil’s Kitchen Trail spans meadows and marshes before reaching its namesake hydro-thermal area – that the park’s next largest.

Best National Parks in Central California

3. Yosemite National Park

Winter vibes along the Valley Loop Trail at Yosemite National Park, California
Winter vibes along the Valley Loop Trail at Yosemite National Park. Image Credit: Twitter

With 4.4 million visitors annually, Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular and visited National Parks located in eastern central California, close to the surrounding Sierra Nevada gateway towns.

The Park is so huge, covering over 1,100 square miles, Yosemite famous for its towering waterfalls, granite cliffs, millennia-old Sequoia trees, mountains, lakes, and more. Despite its size, the majority of the tourist activity takes place within the 7-square-mile area of Yosemite Valley where you find the park’s most famous landmarks – Half Dome and El Capitan.

When to visit Yosemite National Park

May and September would be the best time to go to Yosemite when the park is not too crowded. Aside from fewer crowds, May is the best time to visit the park, especially for free-flowing waterfalls.

Things to do and see in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is an outdoors lover’s dream. Find the best overlooks, rock-climbing mountains, day-hike trails and trees!

  • Yosemite Falls: At 2424 feet, Upper, Lower, and Middle Yosemite Falls combined make up the highest waterfall in North America and a major attraction in the park, located in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range of California.
  • Half Dome: This granite dome is Yosemite’s most popular and photographed landmark. Also, Hiking Half Dome Cables Route is very strenuous but an incredibly rewarding journey.
  • Tuolumne Meadows: It is Sierra Nevada’s largest high-elevation meadows at 8,600 feet located in the east section of the park accessible from June to October. You can experience plenty of scenery including lush forests, windy, scenic mountainscapes, tree species, and bubbling river.
  • El Capitan: It is the largest single piece of granite from El Capitan Meadow and a hotspot for daredevil rock climbers, which stretches roughly 3500 feet from the base to top.

Find out a handy guide and must-see attractions in Yosemite National Park.

4. Pinnacles National Park

Explore a Bear Gulch Cave, Pinnacles National Park, California
Explore a Bear Gulch Cave, Pinnacles National Park, California. Image Credit: Twitter

Located east of the Salinas Valley near Soledad city, Central California, Pinnacles National Park – compact 26,000 acres. Designated as a national park in 2013, it is the youngest national park in California State offers a wide variety of activities.

This hidden gem is known for fantastic rock formations, intriguing caves, the rich diversity of wildlife and variety of spring wildflowers. The park has been split into two East and West Districts connected by trails. West gate entrance is the best as the scenery is so spectacular.

When to go to Pinnacles National Park

May to October is the best to time to visit Pinnacles National Park when the temperature is warm. Hiking is at its best during the spring when the grasses are green and variety of wildflowers can be seen along any trail.

Things to do and see in Pinnacles National Park

  • Explore a Talus Cave: The Bear Gulch Cave is closer to the east parking areas, and the Balconies Cave is closer to the west entrance; are two talus caves at Pinnacles. Talus cave is a unique cave formation which is narrow canyons filled in with boulders from the cliffs from above.
  • Hike Moses Spring Trail: It is a 0.9-mile one-way trail takes visitors up 377 feet of elevation gain to Bear Gulch Reservoir via Moses Springs. You can enjoy Sky-high volcanic structures line the trail, which comprise several easy-to-navigate caves.
  • Bird-watch close to 200 different species: From the California Condor, a nine-foot wingspan, bald head and the largest North American land bird, to the Acorn Woodpecker, you can find almost 200 other different species, including turkey vultures, golden eagles, hawks, and peregrine falcons.
  • Rock climb a towering peak: There are dozens and dozens of routes on each side. But, west side the rocks are higher, the routes are somewhat more challenging and also the soft volcanic breccia is significantly more flexible compared to granite – making it a better choice for advanced climbers.

5. Sequoia National Park

General Sherman Tree - World's Largest Tree on the Earth, Sequoia National Park, California
General Sherman Tree – World’s Largest Tree on the Earth, Sequoia National Park, California, Image Credit: Instagram

Sequoia National Park is an American national park known as “A Land of Giants” located about eighty miles east of Fresno, California at Tulare County.

Huge mountains, rocky foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s biggest trees: Sequoia National Park encompass a number of the most majestic sights anywhere on the planet. Every year, more than 1 million people visit to see the magnificent and majestic trees at Sequoia.

When to visit The Sequoia National Park

It is an all-year Park, However, June through August is the best time to visit, when the weather is stable. December is quite challenging when it snows, so please bring with you the necessary gear and accessories.

Things to do and see in The Sequoia National Park

Besides Trekking, camping, fishing, Fishing and Back-packing, these appeals are high lights using lots of park people:

  • Take a Drive through a Fallen Giant: Back in the day, situated over the Crescent Meadow Road in the Giant Forest, The tunnels were cut into living giant sequoias along with their cousins, coast redwoods, to create popular tourist attractions.
  • The Largest Tree in the World: The General Sherman Tree is the biggest on the world: 275 feet tall and with a stout, 36-foot-diameter base. You can quickly hit via a short paved trail in Giant Forest. You can also try two-mile Congress Trail, which leads to the stately President Tree.
  • Sleep under the Stars at the Lodgepole Campground: Camping in the mountain forest is the best idea, particularly when you pitch your tent at Sequoia National Park’s 214-site Lodgepole Campground.
  • Go deep inside the Sierra Nevada at Crystal Cave: In Crystal Cave, the underground marble cavern is stuffed with stalactites and stalagmites. Additionally, it features all sorts of colorful minerals, forming blue, green, yellow, black, white, orange and red, which regularly surprises visitors.
  • Climb to the Top of a Granite Dome: The majestic granite dome Moro Rock is situated in the center of the park, at the head of Moro Creek between Giant Forest and Crescent Meadow.

6. Kings Canyon National Park

Zumwalt Meadow Trail, Kings Canyon National Park, California
Zumwalt Meadow Trail, Kings Canyon National Park, California. Image Credit: Instagram

Renamed in 1940 as Kings Canyon National Park is nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where giant sequoias reach the sky. The park is known for its lovely mountain meadows, swift-flowing rivers, majestic waterfalls and deepest canyons.

The white water of the Kings River is a wonderful sight to behold as it rushes between the granite canyon walls.

When to visit The Kings Canyon National Park

Weekends, holidays are busy. Like most forested parks, June through August offers ideal climatic conditions.

Things to do and see in The Kings Canyon National Park

  • Zumwalt Meadow Trail: A 1.5-mile self-guided trail offers magnificent views of high granite walls, green meadows, and free-flowing Kings River. It is great for kids with its flat and gentle trails.
  • Cedar Grove: Located 35-miles east of Grant Grove at the bottom of kings canyon, Cedar Grove comes with a vast selection of stunning all-natural wonders like massive trees, cascading waterfalls, the mighty Kings River, and Kings Canyon. Surprisingly, it is one of the least crowded area.
  • Grant Grove Village: Situated at the entrance of Kings Canyon on Highway 180, Grant Grove Village is home to the General Grant Tree – well-known as “The Nation’s Christmas Tree” the second largest tree in the world.

Best National Parks in Southern California

7. Death Valley National Park

Heavenly Sunrise at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California.
Heavenly Sunrise at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California. Image Credit: Twitter

Designated as a national park in 1994, The Death Valley National Park that connects the Nevada-California borders, close to Lone Pine in California.

This is one of the most popular national parks in California. It gets its name because it is the driest and hottest of the parks out in the US. Yet other times there are snow-capped mountain peaks, odd rainstorms, and wildflower fields.

When to visit Death Valley National Park

Anytime from mid-October to mid-May, as it’s the offseason for all other parks. Spring is also idea when the wildflowers bloom.

Things to do and see in The Death Valley National Park

  • Catch sunrise at Zabriskie Point
  • Learn about the park at Furnace Creek Visitor Center
  • Take a drive Down Badwater Road, noted as the lowest point in North America and the USA
  • Discover a rainbow of rocks on Artist’s Drive, a nine-mile one-way road
  • Head into the high country at Dante’s View for hiking and picnicking in scenic surrounds
  • Look for wildlife in the Mesquite Flat Dunes
  • Walk along the Rim of a Volcano

8. Joshua Tree National Park

Naturally dark views of the night sky at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Naturally dark views of the night sky at Joshua Tree National Park, California. Image Credit: Pixabay

Designated as a national park in 1994, Joshua Tree National Park is an all-year American national park located in southern California, close to Palm Springs and San Bernardino. The national park is named for the

The park encompasses nearly 320,000 hectares of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, conserving two separate desert ecosystems. As a result, the area has lots of flora, fauna, geologic features for rock climbing, trekking, hiking, etc.

When to visit Joshua Tree National Park:

You need to make reservations for campout during the offseason from June till September. Most camp slots fill quickly from October right till May. The right time to book is during the summer months. Check out the group campsites that accommodate ten to seventy people easily. 

Things to do and see in Joshua Tree National Park:

The National Park is famous its Joshua trees, wide variety of other plants and animals including bighorn sheep, coyotes and jack rabbits.

Joshua Tree is also a magnet for rock climbers which has more than 8,000 established climbing routes. There are also about 300 miles of hiking trails – Hidden Valley, Boy Scout Hiking, etc.

Black Rock, Cottonwood and Jumbo Rocks are famous campgrounds. During the quieter summer months, all campsites are first-come, first-served and reservations are not available.

You can also enjoy bird watching at fan palm oases, the Barker Dam, and Smith Water Canyon. There are about 250 bird species including greater roadrunner, cactus wren, northern mockingbird, LeConte’s thrasher, verdin, and Gambel’s quail. The park also offers naturally dark views of the night sky.

9. Channel Islands National Park

Kayaking at the Channel Islands National Park, California
Kayaking at the Channel Islands National Park, California. Image Credit: Twitter

The Channel Islands National Park is one of North America’s most popular national parks close to Santa Barbara channel in Pacific Ocean. The park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands including Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara.

The Channel Islands National Park is known for its large number of complex, beautiful sea caves, marine and forest wildlife.

When to visit The Channel Islands National Park

Any time throughout the year, but the best time is June through August period for water activities, wildlife, whale watching, and bird migration 

Things to do and see in the Channel Islands National Park

The islands are ideal for quiet, uninterrupted time with family and friends-wonderful places to hike, camp, snorkel, kayak, birdwatch, take photographs, sketch, or just relax to the soothing sounds of the natural world.

  • Paddle a Kayak: Exploring the Channel Islands by kayak is the perfect way to observe that the islands’ riches of sea caves and kelp forests located near.
  • Hike and Look for Wildlife: The Channel Islands National Park offers scenic hikes, with pristine views and opportunities to see wildlife and birds. Santa Cruz Island has some 15 trails, Anacapa has a nice hike to a lighthouse, and Santa Rosa Island has Lobo Canyon, with sandstone formations.
  • Whale-Watching: The waters surrounding National Park are home to many diverse and beautiful whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Note: If you’re planning to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, please check official park websites, for the most recent updates and guidelines. Make sure you pack your mask.