California has more national parks than anywhere else in the United States; together they protect an area the size of West Virginia. And with such a wealth of choice, deciding which ones to visit can be tough. So we've made things easier for you – here's our list of the best national parks in California, so you can embrace the great outdoors in America’s Golden State.
For otherworldly landscapes: Lassen Volcanic
The eerily beautiful landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park is unlike anything else in California. In fact, its scorched earth, steaming fumaroles and belching mud pools are more Mars than Mendocino County. The names on the park map say it all: Hot Rock, Cinder Cone, Boiling Springs Lake, the Sulphur Works.
In the aptly titled Devastation Area, the ground is still bleached bare from when Mount Lassen erupted in 1914 and sent rivers of molten lava searing through its valley. As striking as this denuded landscape is, the park’s highlight is Bumpass Hell, where boardwalks snake round bubbling thermal pools at the end of a two-mile trail.
The Mars-like landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park © Pung/Shutterstock
For winter walks: Joshua Tree
Despite its harsh and unforgiving environment, Joshua Tree National Park is undoubtedly one of the best national parks in California, and surprisingly chock-full of life. The Mojave Desert supports pinyon pines, pungent junipers, the signature Joshua tree – a striking sight when its waxy branches are silhouetted against a vermillion sunset – and is home to black-tailed jackrabbits and the prehistoric-looking chuckwalla lizard. In the lower Colorado Desert, creosote bushes, smoke trees and spindly ocotillo shelter kangaroo rats and the endangered desert tortoise.
In summer, when the mercury often tops 50˚C, most of the park’s longer trails become unbearable at best. Visit in winter, when temperatures are more benign and you can properly appreciate Joshua Tree’s captivating landscape: stacks of oddly shaped granite; two-tone “jumping” cholla cacti; and blissful oases surrounded by towering fan palms.
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Joshua trees at sunset © Christian Carollo/Shutterstock
For weird and wonderful wildlife: Pinnacles National Park
It took a series of volcanic eruptions and the seismic shifting of the San Andreas Fault to create the dramatic landscape of Pinnacles National Park, and the resulting craggy spires, chaparral hills and talus caves make for a wacky wildlife heaven. If you're wondering what to see in California, Pinnacles is high on the list for a unique experience.
The park is a great place to spot tarantulas, red-legged frogs and Townsend big-eared bats, who roost in their thousands in Bear Gulch Cave. Then there’s the bees, more than 400 species of them, giving Pinnacles the highest density in the world.
But the birds are the main draw here, particularly the spectacular array of raptors: prairie falcons, red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles and – riding the thermals around the park’s volcanic peaks – the enormous and endangered California condor.
The prairie falcon © Nelson Sirlin/Shutterstock
For feeling insignificant: Redwood National Park
Want to feel like a literary legend? For a taste of what life must have been like for Gulliver when he made land in Brobdingnag, head to the far reaches of Northern California and Redwood National Park. The trees here are some of the largest on the planet, arboreal monsters that can grow as high as a 35-storey building and whose trunks are so thick you could drive a double-decker bus through them – sideways.
Follow the scenic trail to Tall Trees Grove to see the Libby Tree, a 368ft goliath that was once the tallest tree in the world. There are big beasts here (black bears and Roosevelt elk, the largest of North America’s elks) and tall tales, too – it’s alleged that these remote forests are home to Bigfoot.
A grove of majestic Redwood trees © welcomia/Shutterstock
For iconic views: Yosemite
With over 800 miles of trails that run through thick pine forests and alpine meadows, past towering cliffs and tumbling waterfalls, down scooped-out valleys and up over the High Sierra, there is literally a stunning view around every corner in Yosemite National Park. It's no wonder the park regularly tops lists of the best national parks in California.
But while the back country is breathtakingly beautiful, some of the most magnificent scenery can be soaked up from the roadside. Tunnel View, an overlook off the Wawona Road, provides the classic view of Yosemite Valley, framed by the sheer cliff face of El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and the granite hulks of Sentinel Rock and mighty Half Dome.
Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite © Colin D. Young/Shutterstock
From a kink in the Tioga Road – as it climbs up to Tuolumne Meadows – head to the lookout at Olmstead Point. You'll see a sculpted landscape of craggy peaks and a great canvas of milky rock worked smooth by ancient glaciers and dotted with erratic boulders.
And then there’s Glacier Point, the most famous view in Yosemite, a sweeping panorama nearly 3500ft straight up from the Yosemite Valley floor that takes in plunging waterfalls, the unmistakably eroded shape of Half Dome and the distant snow-capped peaks of the High Sierra.
Getting to the best national parks in California
Norwegian fly from London Gatwick to Oakland (for Redwood, Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite and Pinnacles), Los Angeles (Joshua Tree and Pinnacles) and Las Vegas (Joshua Tree). You'll get the most out of the parks if you can spend the night in them, either in a tent or in an RV; El Monte rent RVs that can sleep 2–8 people, and have pick-up and drop-off depots in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Sacramento and Los Angeles amongst others.
Top image © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock