The most awesome national parks in California

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 28.09.2022

California has more national parks than any other state in the United States. With such a wealth of choices, deciding which national park to visit can be tough. So we've made things easier for you – here's our list of the best national parks in California. Embrace the great outdoors in America’s Golden State.

The information in this article is inspired by the Rough Guide to California, your essential guide for visiting California.

1. Trek through otherworldy Lassen Volcanic National Park

The eerily beautiful landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park is unlike anything else in California. Its scorched earth, steaming fumaroles and belching mud pools are more Mars than Mendocino County. Visit Lassen Volcanic National Park for its otherworldly landscapes. The names on the park map say it all: Hot Rock, Cinder Cone, Boiling Springs Lake, and the Sulphur Works.

When to visit

June to October, when the roads are clear from snow. You will want to rent a car.

    What to see

  • Devastation Area — You'll find here a striking denuded landscape. The ground of this section of the national park is still bleached bare from when Mount Lassen erupted in 1914 and sent rivers of molten lava searing through its valley.
  • Bumpass Hell — Take a walk on boardwalks that snake round bubbling thermal pools at the end of a two-mile trail.

    Where to stay

  • For campers — try Manzanita Lake Group Campground – excellent for fishing and kayaking.
  • Highlands Ranch Resort — if camping is not you're thing, we recommend this resort in Mill Creek. Enjoy everyday comforts while in the heart of nature.

Lassen Volcanic National Park — one of the best national parks in California © Shutterstock

2. See the unique foliage of Joshua Tree National Park

Just three hours away from Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is undoubtedly one of the best national parks in California. This desert area is surprisingly chock-full of life despite its harsh and unforgiving environment. Explore during sunrise or sunset when the whole desert floor is bathed in red light.

When to visit:

Joshua Tree National Park is best visited in the winter, when temperatures are more benign.

    What to see:

  • The Joshua Tree — this park's namesake comes from the strange yucca plant that can only be found in the Mojave desert. You'll find these striking trees in the northwestern quarter of the park.
  • Hidden Valley Trail — a simple 1-mile route that and one of the park's most iconic hikes.
  • Keys View — this summit offers one of the best views of the whole park. If you prefer to get off your feet and ascend, this area has superb rock climbing.
  • Take a Jeep or SUV tour to gain access to the untouched, remote areas of the park.

    Where to stay:

  • Sacred Sands — for a "boho chic" desert retreat.
  • The Art House — a stylish and airy private villa — with its own jacuzzi.
  • For campers — White Tank Campground, Hidden Valley Campground and Jumbo Rocks Campground are all atmospheric spots. However, be warned that the temperatures can be chilly at night.

There are so many beautiful places unique to the United States — don't miss our list of the 20 places to embrace the great outdoors in the USA.


Silhouettes of Joshua Trees — in one of many national parks in California © Shutterstock

3. Hike through the caves of Pinnacles National Park

California’s newest national park, approved in 2012, is the result of a series of volcanic eruptions and the seismic shifting of the San Andreas Fault. In this park, you'll find craggy spires, chaparral hills and talus caves that make for wacky wildlife heaven. If you're wondering what to see in California, Pinnacles is high on the list for a unique experience.

When to visit:

March through April

    What to see:

  • Balcones Trail — A day or two spent hiking some of the park’s 35 miles of lovely, well-maintained trails is its greatest allure. The most popular is the Balconies trail (two-mile loop; 100ft ascent), which skirts the multicoloured, 600ft face of the Balconies outcrop.
  • Bear Gultch Cave Trail — For real adventurers, you won't want to miss the experience of exploring this pair of caves. Spot tarantulas, red-legged frogs and Townsend big-eared bats.
  • Birdwatching — You'll find at this park a spectacular array of raptors: prairie falcons, red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles and the enormous California condor.

    Where to stay:

  • Pinnacles Campground — located inside the park itself. You'll find picnic tables, a fire ring, RV electric hook-ups and communal tables.
  • Soledad Motel 8 — around 10 miles from the park, will give for a classic American motel experience.

Are you travelling beyond California? Don't miss our guide to the best national parks in the US.


Craggy Pinnacles National Park, California © Shutterstock

4. Journey through unforgettable 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. These arboreal monsters 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.

The park’s impressive 131, 000 acres are divided into distinct areas: Prairie Creek Redwood, Del Norte Coast Redwood and Jedediah Smith Redwood state parks.

When to stay:


    What to see:

  • Tall Trees Grove — here's a web of fabulous Redwood hiking trails to choose from. For our favourite, follow the scenic trail to Tall Trees Grove — accessed from the southernmost and most used entrance, in the Orick area.
  • Libby Tree — a 368ft goliath that was once the tallest tree in the world is not to be missed.

    Where to stay:

  • Redwood national park has four main campsites, as well as seven further spots for backcountry camping (free permits required).
  • Orick Getaway — a great holiday home big enough for the entire family to stay,
  • Stylish Cabin — a secluded place to stay and has a wood-burning fireplace facing stupendous views.

Getting ready for a trip to the United States? Make sure to read our guide to the 18 things you need to know before travelling to the US.

Redwood National Park in California © 2009photofriends/Shutterstock

Redwood National Park in California © 2009photofriends/Shutterstock

5. Discover the understated Channel Islands National Park

Channel islands national park is the only coastal national park you'll find in Southern California. It encompasses the Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara islands. One of the least visited of America’s national parks (with fewer than 250,000 annual visitors), the isolated Channel Islands are often called the “North American Galapagos.” Over 150 endemic or unique species are found here.

When to visit:

the Autumn

    What to see:

  • This area is known for its whale watching, snorkelling and kayaking opportunities. Especially in the autumn.
  • Wildlife — 99 per cent of Southern California sea birds nest and feed here, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Sea lions, whales, dolphins, and giant black sea bass also swim in the surrounding waters.

Ready for your trip to California? Our tailor-made trips are completely customisable and are created by local travel experts. Take the hassle of planning and booking and go on the trip of your dreams.

Amazing view from Inspiration point, Anacapa island, California © Asif Islam/Shutterstock

The gorgeous shores of Channel Islands National Park in California © Shutterstock

6. Yosemite National Park — one of the best national parks in California

There is a stunning view literally around every corner in Yosemite National Park. This park contains 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. It's no wonder the park regularly tops lists of the best national parks in California.

Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the US. Our guide to the most beautiful places in the US offers even more inspiring travel destinations.

When to visit:

With an average of nearly four million visitors a year, it’s advisable to avoid this park on weekends and holidays. Don’t let that deter you — the park is massive enough to endure the crowds. It's best if you visit at any time of year out of high summer (including winter, when waterfalls turn to ice and trails are blocked by snow).

    What to see:

  • Glacier Point — You'll find here the most famous of all the views in Yosemite. You'll find a sweeping panorama nearly 3500ft straight up from the Yosemite Valley floor. Viewable from here is the unmistakably eroded shape of Half Dome, plunging waterfalls and the distant snow-capped peaks of the High Sierra.
  • Tunnel View — Here you'll find an overlook of the Wawona Road, which provides the classic view of Yosemite Valley, framed by the sheer cliff face of El Capitan.
  • Take a tour — A range of superlative tours is on offer within the park, from a Giant Sequoias day trip to a 3-day camping adventure.

    Where to stay:

  • For campers — Yosemite Valley's campgrounds can be crowded, but very worth it. Between June and September, you'll want to reserve beforehand.
  • Hounds Tooth Inn — If you're after more in the way of creature comforts, try this beautiful Inn. Kitted out in classic, muted tones, this Inn serves up a hearty breakfast
  • Kildrummy Lodge — a stunning private, 3-bed holiday home. Enjoy gorgeous mountain views from its balcony.

Want to go beyond Yosemite? We recommend visiting nearby Mammoth Lakes in California. Learn more about Mammoth Lakes.

Sunrise on Half Dome in the Forest, Yosemite National Park, California ©  Stephen Moehle/Shutterstock

Yosemite National Park — one of America's most famous parks © Shutterstock

6. Enjoy breathtaking views of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are less visited than Yosemite, but they do still attract over 1.2 million visitors each year. Come to this area to witness the 2,000-meter-deep Kings Canyon, with deep granite walls originally carved by glaciers. Or to see groves of giant, ancient sequoia trees — some of the most ancient in the world.

When to visit:

The summertime

    What to see:

  • The Giant Forest Museum — In recent years the park has removed many facilities in an attempt to restore the forest floor to its original ecosystem. The Giant Forest Museum, however, has been built to showcase the huge sequoias and the diverse flora and fauna and is the closest thing to an urban centre in the area.
  • General Grant Grove — You'll find here a stand of massive 3,000-year-old sequoia trees notable for the wide-open parkland that surrounds their bases.

Enjoy the peace of solitude? See our guide to the best places to travel alone.

Looking into Kings Canyon along the Rae Lakes Loop hiking trail in Kings Canyon National Park, California © Wasim Muklashy/Shutterstock

Kings Canyon along the Rae Lakes Loop hiking trail in Kings Canyon National Park, California © Wasim Muklashy/Shutterstock

7. Death Valley National Park for an authentic desert experience

The lowest point on the North American continent, Death Valley can be intensely hot in summer but is awash with colourful desert wildflowers and cactus blooms in spring. Not for the faint-hearted, this park is known for its extremely harsh conditions and indomitable heat. Located 140 miles from Las Vegas, the nearest town to this desert is Pahrump, California. The nearest grocery store is a 97 km drive away.

When to visit:

For most, visit in the Winter or Spring. For the adventurous, visit during the white-hot summer. Today the valley’s fearsome reputation seems to attract as many as it intimidates.

    What to see:

  • Zabriskie Point — among Death Valley’s most beautiful natural spots. This area, made famous by a 1960s movie, promises vivid displays of colour among old outcroppings; and the empty Ubehebe Crater, an extinct volcano, nearly.
  • Death Valley Ranch — Also known as Scotty’s Castle, is a $2 million palace that is a facsimile of a Spanish-Mediterranean villa. The National Park Service runs hourly tours of this famous tourist attraction.

    Where to stay:

  • With a population of 200 people, there are few places within the desert to stay. However, there are many hotels and resorts to be found nearby the park's east entrances. Find accommodation in the Death Valley area.
  • Tour groups arrive in the sweltering summer months from Las Vegas, albeit sheltered from the worst elements by desert-tough, air-conditioned vehicles.

Take the hassle out of planning and booking and go on the US trip of your dreams with our tailor-made trip service. Our trips are completely customisable and are created by local travel experts.

Death Valley National Park in California © Jon Manjeot/Shutterstock

Death Valley National Park in California © Jon Manjeot/Shutterstock

8. For beautiful beaches — Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes national park is a seashore park and an untouched paradise. It is one of the country's most frequented National parks and for good reason. Gloomy forests suddenly open on lush, sweeping meadows, while the coast is rockbound with occasional pocket beaches. The park is open only to those who wish to walk or ride a horse.

When to visit:

Spring and autumn are usually the best. The summertime in this area is cooler and sometimes hit with seasonal storms.

    What to see:

  • Earthquake Trail — The epicentre of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a half-mile from where the main park headquarters now stands on Bear Valley Road. On Earthquake Trail, visitors can see where the quake moved one old stone fence at a distance of at least 15ft.
  • The Lighthouse — At the tip of the Point Reyes promontory perches a lighthouse that warns ships away from the treacherous coast. One of the foggiest places in Marin County, it usually has no view at all. When the fog lifts and at the right season, however, it is a good place from which to spot migrating whales.
Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California © yhelfman/Shutterstock

Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California ©Shutterstock

From awe-inspiring cliffs to standing next to some of the largest trees on the planet — California is sure to please with these stunning national parks. Feeling inspired to plan a trip? Check out the snapshot Rough Guide to California or the Rough Guides to the Southwest United States. If you travel further in the United States, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and the best things to do in the United States. For inspiration use the US itineraries from The Rough Guide to the USA and our local travel experts. A bit more hands-on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to California without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Top image: Yosemite falls, California © Shutterstock

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 28.09.2022

  • Activity
  • Nature & Wildlife
  • National Parks & Reserves
  • Walking Hiking Trekking
  • USA
  • California
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Death Valley
  • Inspiration
  • Where to stay

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍