California has more national parks than any other state in the USA; together they protect an area the size of West Virginia (1/4 the UK). These parks generally charge entry fees per car. If you plan on visiting a few, invest in an America the Beautiful Annual Pass (from any national park entrance or online), which grants both driver and passengers (or if cycling or hiking, the holder’s immediate family) twelve months’ access to all the federally run parks and monuments, historic sites, recreation areas and wildlife refuges across the country.
In most cases, the only way to reach the national parks is by car- although limited bus routes do exist for Joshua Tree, Redwood, and Yosemite.
Cell reception can be iffy once in the area - in Joshua Tree it’s non-existent - so make sure to arrange things beforehand like getting your hands on a good-quality local topographic map from ranger stations within the parks or camping stores.
With such a wealth of choice, 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, so you can embrace the great outdoors in America’s Golden State.
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.
With its forbidding climate, the best time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park is June-to-October when the roads are clear from snow. A car is a must for getting to and around the park that is situated in the north of the state.
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 experience in Lassen Volcanic National Park: Otherworldly landscapes
What area is best to stay in Lassen Volcanic National Park?: For camping near the 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, Highlands Ranch Resort in Mill Creek puts you in the heart of nature with everyday comforts.
Best things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park: 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.
Just three hours away from LA, Joshua Tree National Park is undoubtedly one of the best national parks in California, and surprisingly chock-full of life despite its harsh and unforgiving environment. The Mojave Desert supports pinyon pines, pungent junipers, the signature Joshua tree (found in the northwestern quarter of the park) – 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. Explore during sunrise or sunset when the whole desert floor is bathed in red light.
Best experience in Joshua Tree National Park: Winter walks
What area is best to stay in Joshua Tree National Park: 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.
Best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park: 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. Other highlights include Keys View, which offers one of the best views of the whole park. If you prefer to get off your feet and ascend, this national park has superb rock climbing. Some of the park’s side roads are unmarked, hard to negotiate and restricted to fourwheel-drive use and normal cars are not permitted here. If you’re keen on visiting the untouched, remote areas of the park, join a Joshua Tree National Park Jeep or SUV Tour for access to the rugged backcountry trails.
California’s newest national park, approved in 2012, is best visited in spring (especially March- April). 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. A day or two spent hiking some of the park’s 35 miles of lovely, well-maintained trails is its greatest allure. One of the best hikes is the Balconies Trail (two-mile loop; 100ft ascent), most easily accessed from the west, which skirts the multicoloured, 600ft face of the Balconies outcrop.
Wildlife spotting is a must. 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 experience in Pinnacles National Park: Weird and wonderful wildlife
Top places to stay in Pinnacles National Park: 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.
Best activities in Pinnacles National Park: 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.
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 park’s impressive 131, 000 acres are divided into distinct areas: Prairie Creek Redwood, Del Norte Coast Redwood and Jedediah Smith Redwood state parks. 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.
In addition to the wildlife, expect to encounter school summer camps popular through the months of June until September.
Best experience in Redwood National Park: Feeling insignificant
Top places to stay in Redwood National Park: 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.
Best things to do in Redwood National Park: There'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 - to see the Libby Tree, a 368ft goliath that was once the tallest tree in the world.
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.
With an average of nearly four million visitors a year, it’s advisable to avoid Yosemite Valley and Wawona at weekends and holidays (there's a maximum of 21,000 visitors a day allowed into the valley at peak periods, with cars turned away once the cap is reached). Don’t let that deter you- the park is massive enough to endure the crowds: 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). Lesser-known reaches of the park, especially around the crisp alpine landscapes of Tuolumne Meadows and the wild backcountry beyond, are much less busy all year round.
Top places to stay in Yosemite National Park: As is the case when visiting any national park, camping is the best way to really feel part of your natural surroundings, though this is less true in Yosemite Valley’s crowded campgrounds. Between June and September, it’s almost essential to reserve beforehand and the first-come, first-serve campsites are often filled by noon. 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.
Best things to do in Yosemite National Park: Some of the best hiking trails in Yosemite take in the backcountry, 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.