Ranked: The Best California National Parks

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California National Parks have some of the most iconic outdoor landscapes. Out-of-this-world scenery, panoramic views, and beautiful natural formations attract adventurers. With travel prices soaring, ditch the plane tickets and hit the open road. If you're on a budget – camp! If you have more cash to spare, stay in a lodge or cabin. California's National Parks will live up to the hype, whatever your travel style.

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park in California
Image Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch Photography.

The most visited California National Park, Yosemite, was established in 1890 and is situated on California's eastern border amidst the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Yosemite Valley is at the park's heart—a 7-mile glacier-carved basin encompassing icons like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. Yosemite National Park is a hiking haven with trails catering to all ages and fitness levels. Some must-dos include Lower Yosemite Fall Trail (easy), Cook's Meadow Loop (easy), The Mist Trail (moderate), and Half Dome Trail (strenuous). Also known for its beautiful vantage points, some famous viewpoints include Glacier Point, Tunnel View, and Olmstead Point.

The best time to visit Yosemite National Park is generally between May and September, when temperatures range between 70°F and 90°F and rainfall is minimal. During summer, visitors sometimes require a reservation to drive through the park during peak hours (6 a.m. – 4 p.m.). If you have a Yosemite lodging reservation inside the park, your booking includes a reservation. Make sure you check reservation guidance online.

2. Redwood National and State Parks

Redwoods National Park in California
Image Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch Photography.

In Northern California, Redwood National and State Parks are about six hours from San Francisco or Portland, but the destination more than justifies the effort. Redwood National and State Parks encompasses three state parks and one national park, namely Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National Park. Together, these parks protect nearly 40,000 acres of old-growth redwood trees! The area's highlights include Hyperion (the world's tallest tree), Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Tall Trees Grove, and Trillium Falls.

Unlike other California National Parks, accommodation inside the Redwood parks is limited to four campgrounds spread across the three state parks. There are no developed campgrounds inside Redwood National Park itself. Jedediah Smith Campground, Elk Prairie Campground, and Gold Bluffs Beach Campground are available year-round, while Mill Creek Campground is only open from May to September. If camping isn't your style, consider booking accommodation in a nearby town like Eureka and Klamath.

3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia National Park in California
Image Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch Photography.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are separate parks managed by the National Park Service. Established in 1890 and named for the giant sequoia tree, Sequoia National Park encompasses more than 631 square miles of forest landscape. It also has the largest known tree by volume – the General Sherman Tree. Kings Canyon National Park was established in 1940 and encompasses 722 square miles. The granite walls of King's Canyon tower are 4,000 feet above the canyon floor in some places—all carved by glacier activity.

Since snow typically covers the High Sierra until late spring, the best time to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon is between June and August. Temperatures are most moderate then, especially for hikers and campers. During summer, daytime temps average 70°F, and nights can reach mid-40s. The entry fee includes both parks.

4. Point Reyes National Seashore

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Point Reyes National Seashore is a vast expanse of protected coastline in Northern California's Marin County that houses over 1,500 plants and animal species. The park maintains approximately 150 miles of hiking trails and four backcountry campgroundsDay trippers enjoy the park's historical structures, visitor centers, and beautiful beaches. Other highlights include Alamere Falls, Point Reyes Lighthouse (a stunning viewpoint for watching migrating gray whales), and Phillip Burton Wilderness.

Point Reyes National Seashore is open year-round, but May through September offers the best weather. However, January through April is the time to visit to witness the gray whale migration and elephant seal pupping. There is no entrance fee to Point Reyes National Seashore, though backcountry camping costs $30 per night per site and covers six people. Leashed pets are only allowed in certain areas, so check restrictions when planning your trip. 

5. Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park in California
Image Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch Photography.

One of California's most underrated national parks, Channel Islands National Park is a marine haven located off the coast of southern California. Consisting of five islands, the park is home to over 2,000 plant and animal species, 150 unique to the park. Anacapa Island offers ideal birdwatching and short hikes. Adventure seekers love Santa Cruz Island, which provides sea cave kayaking, diving, snorkeling, hiking, and camping opportunities. Alternatively, Santa Rosa and San Miguel are great for leisure seekers who want to relax on pristine sandy beaches with spectacular ocean views.

Reaching the islands requires a short boat trip, the duration and cost of which depend on which island(s) you plan on visiting. Although the park is open year-round, summer is the best time to visit, as the weather tends to be mild and the boat trip less choppy. However, early Fall is the best season for snorkeling and diving since the ocean is warmest (though still freezing!). Note that there are NO restaurants or lodging on any islands, though primitive camping is permitted year-round. Therefore, overnight visitors should plan to bring food, water, and equipment.

6. Pinnacles National Park

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California's newest national park, Pinnacles, includes 26,000 acres of spectacular landscapes. The park features woodlands, canyons, and wildlife sightings, including the rare California Condor. Other recreation opportunities are rock climbing, birdwatching, and cave exploration. Pinnacles is one of the least visited California National Parks, and you'll likely find the solitude you won't easily find elsewhere.

Summer temperatures can soar to a whopping 100°F! For this reason, getting an early start is essential to avoid peak heat, and always carry sufficient sun protection and water with you. The two entrances to Pinnacles National Park do not connect inside the park. The west entrance follows a narrow one-lane road, discouraging RVs, trailers, or oversized vehicles.  Alternatively, the east entrance provides access to the park's only campground, visitor center, and several hiking trails. 

7. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway California
Image Credit: Frank Schulenburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Situated in the northeast corner of California, Lassen Volcanic National Park typically offers visitors many outdoor adventures with a fraction of the crowds seen by other California National Parks. However, the 2021 Dixie Fire damaged much of the park in 2021, and portions will remain closed until further notice. Otherwise, the park would have ranked much higher on our list. 

Lassen is home to hiking trails along mountains and meadows, with crystalline lakes ideal for fishing, swimming, and kayaking. The big draw is all four types of volcanoes—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome. Lassen Volcanic National Park has the largest plug dome volcano globally—Lassen Peak. Many geothermal areas include roiling fumaroles, mud pots, boiling pools, and steaming grounds. Lodging inside the park includes Drakesbad Guest Ranch and eight developed campgrounds across the park. Generally, the best time to visit is from May to September, as several tourist attractions close in winter due to snowfall. 

8. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, California
Image Credit: Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. Traveling through the park, you'll see granite monoliths, rock and boulder formations, and a wide range of biodiversity, with the namesake Joshua Tree being the most prevalent. Joshua Tree National Park activities include hiking, rock climbing, birdwatching, biking, camping, and stargazing. Although the park is open year-round, most prefer not to visit in summer when daytime temperatures soar over 100°F. 

Nevertheless, if you plan on visiting during the summer, it makes sense to book lodging with A/C. There are over 500 campsites available, but portions of some of the campgrounds close in the summer. More importantly, get an early start, drink plenty of water, and wear adequate sun protection for outdoor activities. No grocery stores or restaurants are in the park, so bring all supplies with you.

9. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park in California
Image Credit: James St. John – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

One of the hottest and driest places on the planet, Death Valley National Park is set on the eastern border of south-central California, in the northern Mojave Desert, and borders the Great Basin Desert. Covering 3.4 million acres of desert landscape, Death Valley encompasses several miles of majestic dunes, technicolor rocks and canyons, wildlife, and mountain peaks with heights of 11,000 feet.

Some of the park's most noteworthy points of interest include Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Golden Canyon, and Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America). Death Valley National Park is well known for its extreme weather conditions and exceptionally high summer temperatures that can quickly soar to a staggering 120°F. As such, visiting the park in Spring or Fall is generally best.

Take a Road Trip to California National Parks

Kings Canyon National Park in California
Image Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch Photography.

California offers nine National Park sites ranging from arid desert to beautiful coastline. Each park uniquely appeals to visitors, and road-trippers will love the sights along the way. California's National Parks are a fantastic option for the budget-conscious traveler. Break out the map and plan your grand California adventure today!