The natural beauty of California is remarkable. Its terrain includes cliff-lined beaches, redwood forest, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Central Valley farmland, and the Mojave Desert. California’s national parks are home to some of the most iconic views and landscapes on the planet. See for yourself with this list of bucket list worthy National Parks in California.
5 Bucket List Worthy National Parks in California
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a characterized by rugged rock formations and stark desert landscapes. Named for the region’s twisted, bristled Joshua trees, the park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the western Mojave Desert. These two arid ecosystems create a profoundly contrasting appearance within the park.
Joshua Tree National Park Highlights Include:
The Ryan Mountain Trail is three miles round trip. It’s a moderately strenuous hike to the 5,458-foot summit and has lookout points with views of Queen, Lost Horse, and Pleasant Valleys. The summit of Ryan Mountain is the best place to get a top-down view of the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. This hike can be demanding at times and lots of water is recommended.
The walking trail at Indian Cove is one of the best places to enjoy the park’s namesake flora. Its official name is Yucca brevifolia, but it’s better known as the Joshua tree. Accessible from the east end, this 0.6 mile path is surrounded by boulder formations. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.
If you’re into climbing, Echo Cove has plenty of routes great for first-timers and advanced climbers alike. Bring your own gear or rent everything from shoes to chalk at Nomad Ventures. The friendly local shop has been in business since 1980.
The highest point in Joshua Tree, Keys View offers breathtaking vistas. Nighttime serves up remarkable stars, and not the kind you find in Hollywood; and during clear days, visitors are treated to sweeping views of the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, and the surrounding peaks that stretch all the way to Mexico. Keys View is at its very best at sunset, when bright oranges and reds drench the desert sky.
Yosemite National Park
North America’s highest waterfall, the world’s tallest uninterrupted granite monolith, both a UNESCO Heritage Site and a National Park, and some of the nation’s largest trees are just a few of the reasons to visit the first National Park in the United States. Yosemite National Park is a major California bucket list destination, attracting 4 million visitors each year. Regardless of the time of year, Yosemite has bounds of natural beauty. Spring brings extravagant waterfalls, summer allows for tackling all outdoor pursuits, fall boasts colorful trees, and winter becomes a snowy wonderland.
Must-see sites at Yosemite National Park include:
Towering 3,593 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, El Capitan is the king of the granite monoliths and a mecca for intense rock climbers. Get a good look at the earth’s largest single piece of granite from El Capitan Meadow.
Upper, Lower, and Middle Yosemite Falls combined make up the highest waterfall in North America, topping out at an inpressive 2,425 feet. A challenging trail accesses the upper fall’s, but the base of the lower falls can be visited with an easy stroll.
One of the West’s most photographed landmarks, Half Dome inspires awe from every angle. Hardcore hikers can trek to its summit; everybody else can admire its beauty from afar.
Glacier Point’s 7,214-foot overlook provides an unforgettable vista of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra crest. From the lookout, you can marvel at Vernal and Nevada Falls and the Merced River canyon.
Redwood National Park
Most people know Redwood National Park as home to the tallest trees on Earth. The parks also protect vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and rugged coastline. Camping, kayaking, wildlife viewing, and magical trails are waiting to be discovered.
While in Redwood National Park, don’t miss:
Start your trip at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, one mile south of Orick. Of the five visitor centers in Redwood National and State Parks, this one is the largest, with numerous exhibits and a video on redwood ecology, a great bookstore, and access to a sandy beach.
From Highway 101 at Orick, drive the unpaved Davison Road 10 miles to this spectacular Fern Canyon. It’s a hidden paradise of ferns lining a narrow gorge. Some of the seven different types of ferns clinging to the steep cliffs are ancient species, with ancestry tracing back 325 million years. Living underneath their leafy shade are some eye-catching amphibians, including Pacific giant salamanders, which can measure nearly a foot in length. The trail follows a series of small footbridges deep into the canyon. Drooping ferns create hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. Every curve and turn leads to another photo-worthy view.
Embarked upon a leisurely drive, winding down a breathtaking road featuring some of the most massive redwoods ever seen as you explore Avenue of the Giants. Trailheads and side roads beckon.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
California has a lot of parks but you can cross two off your bucket list at once by visiting Sequoia & Kings Canyon. Famous for their giant sequoias, towering mountains, vast canyons, and roaring rivers, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park have plenty to see.
Sequoia is home to the largest tree in the world, General Sherman. Redwoods are taller, but giant sequoias win for sheer mass. When measured by volume, the General Sherman Tree is the biggest on the planet: 275 feet tall and a 36-foot-diameter base. General Sherman is easily reached via a short paved trail in Giant Forest.
Sequoia also boasts Mount Whitney, the high point of the John Muir Trail.
In Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest, you can still drive through an opening in the Tunnel Log, the remains of a giant, 275-foot tree that tumbled down in 1937.
A stone and concrete stairway leads to the top of a granite dome called Moro Rock. From the top, enjoy sweeping views of the hills below and the wilderness to the east. Moro Rock offers vast panoramic views. The trail is half a mile round trip. To get to the trailhead, turn off the Generals Highway at Giant Forest Museum and head east on Crescent Meadow Road. After 1.5 miles, turn right and continue to the parking area beneath Moro Rock. There are only fourteen parking spaces at the trailhead so if you arrive later in the day, take the free shuttle.
Kings Canyon National Park is home to Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the country, dropping down more than 2,500 m, carved out of solid granite by glaciers during the last ice age.
In the park’s northwest corner, drive along Grant Grove to Panoramic Point. A short, paved trail leads to this overlook, which provides sweeping views of Kings Canyon and Hume Lake. For a longer trek, hike along a 2.5-mile trail from the point to the still-operational Park Ridge Fire Lookout.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is the only place on Earth where all four types of volcano can be seen.
Ways to make the most of your Lassen Volcanic National Park visit:
Manzanita Lake is the centerpiece of the park’s main visitor area. Swimming, kayaking, ranger-led programs, cabin rentals, a large campground, a camp store, and a 1.6 mile hiking trail that circles the lake can all be found here. The north side of the lake is a great vantage point to capture Lassen Peak’s dramatic cone reflecting in the lake’s blue water. Manzanita Lake’s campground has 179 sites and all the campground niceties including showers, flush toilets, and coin-operated laundry. Camping gear is available for rent or you can stay in an assortment of cabins and bunkhouses.
When you head out on something called the Bumpass Hell Trail, you know it won’t be a routine walk in the woods. A well-marked trail, three miles round-trip, travels to the geothermal site, Bumpass Hell. Your nose will tell you when you near Bumpass Hell. The rotten egg smell from naturally occurring gases is pervasive, but worth the foulness. Bumpass Hell’s boardwalk trail lets you walk safely around the mud pots and steaming vents.
Located in a lush mountain valley within short hikes of steaming fumaroles, bubbling mudpots, and many fascinating hydrothermal wonders, guests have found hospitality, seclusion, and recreation at Drakesbad Guest Ranch since 1900. With kerosene lamps lighting most of the cabins, comfy wooden chairs resting in front of perfect views, and a hot springs pool, the rustic, remote Drakesbad Guest Ranch is a place to unwind and get back to nature. Drakesbad is as much for children as it is for adults. While children 7 and under can’t join the adults on the horse trail, they can participate in an hour-long pony ride through the meadow. There are always plenty of carrots to feed the horses as well. Each morning, arts and crafts projects are offered. There are s’mores around the campfire at night and a whole sea of stars above head for your viewing pleasure.
There’s so much to discover in the National Parks of California that my list could go on for days. Even narrowing it down to these bucket list worthy National Parks is like forgetting one of your children, but this is a great starting point for some of the most majestic beauty that California has to offer.