5 of the best national parks in California

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Keith Drew
6/11/2020

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.

1. Lassen Volcanic National Park

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.

Best for: Otherworldly landscapes

Where to stay: For camping near Lassen Volcanic National Park, try Manzanita Lake Group Campground – excellent for fishing and kayaking – Summit Lake South Campground or Juniper Lake Campground. If camping's not your thing, plump for a home away from home in the Roseberry House Bed & Breakfast in Susanville, a stone's throw from the park.

What to do and see in the area: The park is blessed with more than 150 miles of hiking trails. Bumpass Hell (see above) is among the best trails in Lassen Volcanic National Park, but there's plenty of other gems: climbing Lassen Peak will get you to the top of an active volcano, while Devil's Kitchen will take you to another geothermal area laden with hot springs and bubbling mud pots.

The Mars-like landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park © Pung/Shutterstock

2. Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Best for: Winter walks

Where to stay: For those who love sleeping in the great outdoors, there are plenty of Joshua Tree campsites to choose from. White Tank Campground, Hidden Valley Campground and Jumbo Rocks Campground are all atmospheric spots. That said, it can get chilly on those winter nights, so if you're after four walls and some pampering, try gorgeous Sacred Sands for a "boho chic" desert retreat, or The Art House, a stylish and airy private villa – with its own jacuzzi.

What to do and see in the area: Start with the Hidden Valley Trail, one of the park's most iconic hikes, and a simple 1-mile route. To the east of the park, opt for the 5-mile Cholla Cactus Gardens trail, or – for panoramic views – climb mighty Warren Peak. To learn more about your surroundings, book onto a hiking tour with some yoga thrown in, or soak up the night on a thrilling San Andreas Fault Zone 4WD Night Tour.

Joshua trees at sunset © Christian Carollo/Shutterstock

3. 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.

Best for: Weird and wonderful wildlife

Where to stay: If you're looking for camping near Pinnacles National Park, your best bet is Pinnacles Campground, inside the park itself. There's picnic tables, a fire ring, RV electric hook-ups and communal tables. For a classic American motel experience, try Soledad Motel 8, around 10 miles from the park.

What to do and see in the area: Bring your own binoculars and try to spot some of the area's magnificent wildlife for yourself. True adventurers, meanwhile, will want to explore the pair of caves on the Bear Gultch Cave Trail or get out the ropes and climb one of Pinnacle National Park's namesake towers.

The prairie falcon © Nelson Sirlin/Shutterstock

4. 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.

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.

Best for: Feeling insignificant

Where to stay: Camping in the Redwood Forest is certain to fire the imagination. As well as four main campsites, there are seven further spots for backcountry camping (free permits required). Alternatively, for a cabin of your own, there are plenty of options in the area. Homey Orick Getaway is big enough for the entire family, while secluded Stylish Cabin has a wood-burning fireplace and stupendous views.

What to do and see in the area: There's a web of fabulous Redwood hiking trails to choose from. For our favourite, 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.

A grove of majestic Redwood trees © welcomia/Shutterstock

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5. Yosemite National Park

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.

Glacier Point is the most famous of all the views 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.

Best for: Iconic views

Where to stay: The best places to stay in Yosemite Park include its thirteen resident campsites. If you're after more in the way of creature comforts, Hounds Tooth Inn, kitted out in classic, muted tones, serves up a hearty breakfast, while Kildrummy Lodge is a stunning private, 3-bed holiday home. The latter has gorgeous mountain views from its balcony.

What to do and see in the area: Some of the best hiking trails in Yosemite take in the back country, which is breathtakingly beautiful, but much 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. Meanwhile, 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.

A range of superlative tours are on offer within the park, from self-guided audio tours to a Giant Sequoias group tour and a 3-day camping adventure.

Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite © Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

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.

Inspired by our list of the best national parks in California? Plan your own tailor-made trip with the new Rough Guides trip planning service. We'll connect you with local experts who can plan and book every aspect of your travels for a fully customised experience.

Top image © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

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