California has nine national parks within its borders, more than any other U.S. state. Whether you want to explore otherworldly desert landscapes or get lost in the remote and rugged islands off of Ventura’s coast, the Golden State delivers. Whether you want to make a road trip out of a few (or all) or just visit one at a time, here’s a detailed guide on how to make the most of your visit to California National Parks.
Complete Guide To Visiting California National Parks
California’s nine national parks are:
- Yosemite National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Channel Islands National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Devils Postpile National Monument
Here’s a link to a Google Map of all the parks.
Yosemite National Park
Arguably California’s most iconic national park, this destination should not be missed. From the snow-capped El Capitan in the winter to cascading Yosemite Waterfalls in late spring, this park always enchants no matter what season.
Tops Sights In Yosemite
- Yosemite Valley Visitor Center – start out your trip here to get a lay of the land and tips from the rangers on what to see. Learn about the local geography of the land through various informative exhibits, watch the short documentary showcasing the beauty of the park, and browse the bookstore. There is also a post office if you would like to send postcards home from the park itself.
- Glacier Point and Taft Point – a short drive from the valley, this scenic lookout provides views of Half Dome, the valley, and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There are plenty of hiking trails as well that are opened only in the summer and it’s recommended that you take a shuttle there from the valley instead of your car, due to limited parking at the trailhead.
- Yosemite Falls – hike up to the highest waterfall in the park, which reaches its peak usually in late spring and dries out to a trickle around July. It is replenished around November when the winter storms arrive. The entire hike is 8-miles long, but there is a 1-mile loop option that still gives you spectacular views of the falls.
- Tunnel View – this is the classic Yosemite view that was made famous by the artist Ansel Adams, featuring El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and Half Dome. Make sure to get there early if you go during sunset since there is limited parking.
Tips for Visiting Yosemite
Yosemite has four seasons and although summer is the most popular time to visit, the shoulder months of May and September are great alternatives depending on what you want to see. The difference between the two is that the waterfalls are at their full capacity in May, versus in September when they are dried up (though the scenery is equally as stunning).
The park is huge and it’s best to stay inside to avoid the long drive times down into Yosemite Valley. There are limited lodging in the form of campgrounds and cabins, as well as hotel rooms at The Ahwahnee. Make sure to book early, especially during summertime.
Due to COVID restrictions, Yosemite now requires advance reservations. A seven-day vehicle non-commercial pass from May 21-September 30 is $35. An annual Yosemite Pass is $70.
Death Valley National Park
Despite its ominous name, Death Valley is filled with breathtaking desert views. It’s one of the most unique national parks in the state with its extreme climate that reaches easily into the triple digits during the summer.
Top Sights In Death Valley
- Furnace Creek – the main hub of the park where there is a gas station, restaurants, a post office, lodging, and the park’s visitor center. Make sure to fill up on gas and get food here, since there are no gas stations or food options inside the park.
- Zabriskie Point – a popular lookout point that you can hike up to from the Badlands Loop or just drive up to and take in the view. There are also hiking trails that go into the hills for longer hikes. This is a great spot to watch the sunset (or sunrise if you don’t mind waking up early).
- Dante’s View – another popular viewpoint where you can see the Badwater Basin, one of the lowest points in North America at 282 feet below sea level. There are easy hiking trails in the area that allow you to see the landscape from different perspectives.
- Artist Drive – a scenic nine-mile drive through colorful hills as a result of oxidation from metals. The road is one way and goes from north to south. A spot worth stopping for a photo opp is Artist Pallete where you can really experience the vibrant hues on the hills.
Tips for Visiting Death Valley
The best times to visit are during spring for the cooler weather and super bloom at the end of March into early April if it has been a rainy winter. Late autumn through winter is also a good time to visit since the heat is gone, though the crowds reappear, especially during the holiday breaks at the end of December. Summertime is not recommended.
Lodging is limited with a few seasonal campgrounds and a few hotels in Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs Resort. Advanced booking is highly recommended, especially during the peak months in the winter.
The entrance fee to Death Valley is $30 for a seven-day non-commercial vehicle pass. An annual Death Valley pass is $50.
Joshua Tree National Park
Straddling both the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree has had a special pull to it with its surreal landscapes dotted with twisted Joshua trees and stunning rock formations.
Top Sights in Joshua Tree
- Skull Rock – a popular 1.7-mile hike that takes hikers past a rock formation that resembles a giant skull with the eye sockets formed from centuries of erosion. There is a parking lot across from Skull Rock but the trailhead starts actually at Jumbo Rocks Campground.
- Joshua Tree Visitor Center – pick up boxed lunches at the cafe and take them to one of the eight picnic spots in the park: Black Rock, Split Rock, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Indian Cove, Cap Rock, Live Oak, and Quail Springs.
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail – a one-mile loop trail that winds its way among boulders and is a popular rock climbing area. Rumor has it that this sheltered spot used to be the perfect hideaway for stashing stolen cattle.
- Cholla Cactus Garden – a short path that features thousands of teddybear cholla, a rare type of cactus throughout the park. This walk should not take more than 30 minutes and is flat the entire way on a wooden platform.
Related post: The Best Hikes In Joshua Tree
Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
The best time to visit is in the cooler months of spring and autumn since summer can get intensely hot. Winter is also a good time to visit, though the occasional rainfall can put a damper on your trip.
Right outside of the park, there are hotel options in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, as well as Airbnb options.
The seven-day non-commercial vehicle pass is $30. The annual Joshua Tree pass is $55.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
These two adjacent parks are located in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain range and feature towering sequoia trees. There is no better feeling than walking among these ancient giants that makes you feel small in the best way possible.
Tops Sights in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
- Giant Forest (Sequoia) – home to around 8,000 trees, the largest grove in the park is located between the Marble and Middle Forks of the Kaweah River. Check out the General Sherman Tree, who towers over all the others. Get your bearings at the Giant Forest Museum that gives an overview of local nature and humans who once inhabited the area. There are plenty of hikes to choose from, whether you want a quick stroll or a more strenuous day-long adventure.
- Moro Rock (Sequoia)– a granite dome that rewards hikers with stunning views of the western half of Sequoia National Park and the Great Western Divide. The trek to the top requires 400 steps and can be difficult especially for those who have trouble with higher elevations. Free shuttles run from the Giant Forest Museum to the Moro Rock parking lot in the summer, but in the winter the lot can be closed and visitors need to walk 2 miles from the nearest parking area.
- Grant Grove Village (Kings Canyon) – home to the Grant Grove tree (nicknamed the Nation’s Christmas Tree) and the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, as well as lodging, a restaurant, and a market to stock up for your hike.
- Cedar Grove (Kings Canyon) – often compared to Yosemite for its beauty, this area is located at the bottom of Kings Canyon and is home to the mighty Kings River and Kings Canyon. Head over to the Roads End on Highway 180 for scenic hikes. There is also a market and snack bar if you need any fuel or want to pick up a souvenir.
Tips for Visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
The best time to visit the parks is in the summer from June-August when the weather is in the 60-70s. During the cooler months, especially in the winter, there are parts that shut down or are harder to access with the snow.
There are lodging options in both parks, including lodges, cabins, and camping.
A pass for non-commercial vehicles is $35 for a seven-day pass that includes Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Hume Lake District of Sequoia National Forest/Giant Sequoia National Monument. An annual pass is $70 and includes the same access as a seven-day pass.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Located in western Marin County, the coastal views with rugged cliffs make a stunning backdrop for hiking. The nearby town of Point Reyes Station is a great place to stop and pick up lunch before heading into the National Seashore.
Top Sights in Point Reyes National Seashore
- Bear Valley Visitor Center – learn about the history and climate of the area, as well as browse the bookstore. Many of the trailheads are located near this visitor center. There is a large picnic area across from the center with picnic tables and grills.
- Point Reyes Lighthouse and Visitor Center – this historic retired lighthouse is located on one of the windest and foggiest areas of the West Coast. The observation area is a great place to spot whales and is open even if the lighthouse itself is closed (currently closed due to COVID). The nearby visitor center is a great place to get your bearings and learn about the history of the lighthouse and local marine wildlife.
- Tomales Point Trail – a moderate hike that takes around four hours to complete and boasts ocean views for most of the way. Wildlife like elk is commonly spotted along the trail. Make sure to bring extra layers!
Tips for Visiting Point Reyes National Seashore
The best time to visit is during late summer when the warmer, dry weather appears and the fog decreases. During the earlier summer months, there is a lot of fog and during the winter/spring months there is significant rainfall.
There are campgrounds in the National Seashore as well as nearby in places like Kirby Cove and Hawk Camp. There is also a HI Hostel in Point Reyes if you are looking for budget accommodations.
There is no entrance fee to Point Reyes National Seashore.
Channel Islands National Park
This national park is made up of five islands off the coast of Ventura and provides an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in a unique ecosystem.
Top Sights In Channel Islands National Park
- Santa Cruz Island – the most popular island for hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling since it offers the easiest access and boasts the best weather. Spend the day exploring or camp overnight to make the most of your trip. The island itself is pretty remote, but there is a visitor’s center located in the Scorpion ranch house.
- Anacapa Island – a lesser-visited island, but equally as beautiful that is ideal for a day trip or overnight visit. There is limited hiking compared to Santa Cruz, but the two miles of trails are incredibly scenic and including Inspiration Point. There is a tiny visitor center in one of the old Coast Guard Buildings that is worth stopping by.
- Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbara Island – these three last islands are harder to reach (but not impossible) due to their location and unpredictable weather. Recreational activities are limited due to high winds on Santa Rosa, but there are options to surf in limited areas. On Santa Barbara, water sports like snorkeling is top-notch, it just takes more planning since transportation is limited to that island.
Tips for Visiting Channel Islands National Park
Planning ahead is crucial since there are limited resources on the island and all visitors must bring their own water and food along with the proper gear. When is the best time to visit the Channel Islands? The islands offer different highlights for every season. In spring, visitors are treated to wildflower blooms, summer offers whale watching, fall is ideal for water sports, and pelicans start nesting in the winter.
There is one established campground on every island, though it’s limited and it’s best to reserve it way in advance.
There is no entrance fee for the Channel Islands.
Pinnacles National Park
Located in Central California’s Salinas Valley, California’s smallest and newest national park is the remains of an extinct volcano that moved from its original location on the San Andreas Fault. Visitors can hike through this stunning landscape that is made up of talus caves and looming rock spires. There is both a western and eastern entrance to the park.
Top Sights In Pinnacles National Park
- High Peaks – one of the most iconic hikes in the park where you can spot condors. Start out in the Chaparral parking lot, and continue on to the Juniper Canyon Trail (1.8 miles), jump onto the High Peaks Trail (.7), and then end on the Tunnel Trail (.6 miles). The “Steep and Narrow Section” of the hike can be difficult, so plan accordingly.
- Bear Gulch Cave – home to Townsend’s big-eared bats, this cave is usually open for hiking from mid-July through mid-May, through its best to double-check the status before you go.
- Balconies Caves – another bat cave worth trekking through, but make sure to check whether it’s open to the public. The trail starts out at the Chaparral parking lot and continues on to the Balconies Trail.
Tips for Visiting Pinnacles National Park
It’s recommended that you visit Pinnacles in the cooler months, due to extreme heat being an issue during the summer. The spring features wildflower fields that are always worth experiencing, especially after a rainy winter.
There is no lodging available in the park itself, but there are accommodations in nearby Soledad as well as further away in Salinas, Monterey, and Carmel.
A seven-day vehicle entrance is $30. The Pinnacles annual pass is $55.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Another national park born out of volcanic activity, Lassen is located in eastern Northern California and features hot springs from surrounding Lassen Peak, an active volcano.
Top Sights In Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Sulphur Works – the easiest hydrothermal site to access in the park with a short paved road. If you want a different vantage point, the Ridge Lakes Trail offers views from above of Sulphur Works along the first hundred feet and takes about one hour to an hour and a half to complete.
- Bumpass Hell Trail – witness the largest hydrothermal activity of the area on this easy three-mile loop trail. The trail is only open to the public in the summer and fall.
- Manzanita Lake – one of the easiest lakes to access, the views are unparallel with Chaos Crags and Lassen Peak in the background. The hike is 1.7 miles round-trip and takes about one hour. The dirt trail begins at the Manzanita Lake Day Use Area or Loomis Plaza.
Trips for Visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park
The visiting season for Lassen is quite short, starting in July when the snow melts and ending in October when the snow returns.
Drakesbad Guest Ranch is the only lodging in the park, but there are also eight campgrounds scattered throughout the park.
A seven-day vehicle pass is $30. A Lassen Annual Pass is $55.
Devils Postpile National Monument
Located near Mammoth Mountain in eastern California, this rare rock formation is made up of columnar basalt that was formed out of an ancient lava flow. This lesser-known national monument is worth experiencing for its columns that reach up to 60 feet tall.
Top Sights In Devils Postpile National Monument
- Devils Postpile – the main sight is accessible via the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority shuttle bus and a short 1/4 mile walk afterward. Children under 2 are free. Parking for the shuttle is near the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge and also during busier days, there is additional parking downhill from the Main Lodge and the Adventure Center. Check here for a detailed parking map.
- Rainbow Falls – the tallest waterfall that comes from the San Joaquin River, it’s named for the many rainbows that are spotted in its mist. It’s located 2.5 miles from the monument ranger station, and visitors can catch the Shuttle Bus Stop 9 (Rainbow Falls Trailhead) or Shuttle Bus Stop 10 (Reds Meadow Resort) on the way back.
- San Joaquin River – the Middle Fork is the lifeline of the area, where visitors can fish or just enjoy a picnic lunch near its shores. Soda Springs Meadow is one of the best spots for river access.
Tips For Visiting Devils Postpile National Monument
Devils Postpile is usually open from mid-June to late October depending on the weather. The summer is the best time to visit Devils Postpile since the shuttle buses run from late June through early September (weather permitting). Fall is usually a bit more unpredictable with the climate, though it can be a quieter time to visit.
The campgrounds in the Devils Postpile are currently closed. There are five alternative Forest Service campgrounds in the Red Meadow Valley that are first-come, first-serve (reservations highly recommended). Lodging is available at the Red Meadows Resort as well as nearby Mammoth Lakes.
The entrance fee to Devils Postpile is the shuttle bus tickets: $15 for adults and $7 for children 3-15. When the shuttle is not running the vehicle fee is $10 for a day pass and $20 for a three-day pass. A season pass for vehicles is $35.
Tips For Visiting California National Parks
Should You Buy America The Beautiful Pass?
If you plan on visiting more than three or more national parks in California or in the U.S. in a year, this $80 pass will pay for itself since most park entrance fees are $35. You can buy the pass at the entrance to a national park or online. The Forest Service, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and US Army Corp of Engineers all honor this pass as an entrance fee.
If you want to split the cost with a friend or family member, you can share membership and cut the cost in half.
2021 Free Park Days
The following days are free to enter all U.S. national parks:
January 18 – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday
April 17 – first day of National Park Week
August 4 – one year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
August 25 – National Park Service birthday
September 25 – National Public Lands Day
November 11 – Veterans Day
There is also free access for veterans and Gold Star families, as well as 5th graders and their families (October 28, 2020, through August 31, 2021).