One of the main reasons people visit California is to see the nine incredible national parks. California National Parks are incredibly popular but are also very accessible. Featuring volcanic peaks, strange rock formations, lush meadows and dry deserts, the diversity of the landscape in California comes to life in these national parks. Here is the list of the California National Parks.
1. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Located in northeastern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to a unique landscape of active volcanoes, hydrothermal features, and lush forests. The underground volcanic activity makes this a great park for a fun visit. Fumaroles, mud pots, and bubbling hot springs make for some unique (and possibly smelly) experiences. The park also offers visitors a chance to explore the rugged beauty of the Cascade Range and witness the ongoing geological activity that shapes the landscape. Lassen Volcanic National Park is located approximately 230 miles northeast of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 4.5 hours. See our one week in Northern California itinerary for more information.
2. Yosemite National Park
Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous national parks in California. Known for its towering granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and giant sequoia trees, Yosemite offers visitors a chance to explore some of the most iconic landscapes in the country. The views of Half Dome, Hetch Hetchy, Tuolumne Meadows and many others have provided inspiration for great artists and photographers. The park is located about 170 miles east of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 3.5 hours. For more information see our Two Week Itinerary In and Around Yosemite National Park.
3. Redwood National Park
Located in northern California, Redwood National and State Parks is home to some of the tallest trees on Earth. The park features a mix of old-growth redwood forests, rugged coastline, and grassland prairies, and is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including elk, black bears, and bald eagles. With its 300 foot tall trees, the park is home to some of the most scenic drives in California. The 8 mile Coastal Drive is spectacular. Redwood National and State Parks is located approximately 300 miles north of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 5.5 hours.
4. Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Park
Numbers 4 and 5 on our list of California National Parks are Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. They are two separate parks, but are administered as one park. The parks are located in a stunning wilderness area located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. The park is home to some of the largest trees in the world, including the giant sequoias, which can reach heights of over 250 feet and have a circumference of more than 100 feet. In addition to the trees, the park features rugged mountains, deep canyons, and beautiful rivers and lakes. This is a great spot for whitewater rafting, cave exploration, and rock climbing and waterfall hikes!
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is located approximately 230 miles southeast of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 4.5 hours. Some of the work renowned attractions include the General Sherman tree, the largest tree in the world by volume, and the beautiful Kings Canyon, which is over a mile deep and features stunning waterfalls and rock formations.
For more detail on what to see, check out our One Week Itinerary for Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Located in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is a unique desert landscape characterized by its iconic Joshua trees and stunning rock formations. The park is a popular destination for hiking, rock climbing, and stargazing, and offers visitors a chance to explore the rugged beauty of the Mojave Desert. There are so many things to see in the park, but easy things to see in a single day include the Cholla Cactus Garden and Keys View. Joshua Tree National Park is located approximately 550 miles southeast of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 8.5 hours. The park is only a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles. For more detail see our one week itinerary for Joshua Tree and Death Valley
6. Death Valley National Park
Located in the eastern part of California, Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest and driest places on Earth! The park is characterized by its expansive desert landscapes, towering sand dunes, and unique geological formations, and is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species adapted to the harsh desert environment. Peace and solitude can be found in the park’s 3.4 million acres of space. The scorching temperatures scare away many visitors so even in high season (outside summer months) the park is never overcrowded. Death Valley National Park is located approximately 410 miles southeast of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 6.5 hours. The park is a 4.5 hour drive from Los Angeles. For more details on what you can do see the one week itinerary for Joshua Tree and Death Valley
7. Channel Islands National Park
Located off the coast of Southern California, Channel Islands National Park is a unique landscape characterized by its rugged coastline, diverse marine life, and remote islands. The park is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, including seals, sea lions, and several species of whale, and offers visitors a chance to explore the beauty of the California coastline. The islands are only 14 miles offshore but are a world apart. Unless you have your own boat the only way to get to the islands is by park concessionaire boats. There is NO transportation available on the islands. All areas must be accessed by foot, kayak etc. But there is camping available on the islands. Isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth.
8. Pinnacles National Park
The last on our list of California National Parks is Pinnacles. Located in central California, Pinnacles National Park is a unique landscape characterized by towering rock formations, narrow canyons, and caves. The park is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, including the endangered California condor, and offers visitors a chance to explore the rugged beauty of the Gabilan Mountains. Pinnacles National Park is located approximately 110 miles southeast of San Francisco and can be reached by car in approximately 2 hours.
A factor to remember when choosing a park is how crowded it will be. Below you can see which parks are most popular via the total visits reported by the National Parks Service. These are the pre-COVID 2019 numbers.
- Yosemite National Park – 4.5 million visitors
- Joshua Tree National Park – 2.988 million visitors
- Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks – 1.878 million visitors
- Death Valley National Park – 1.74 million visitors
- Lassen Volcanic National Park – 517,000 visitors
- Redwoods National Park – 504,000 visitors
- Channel Islands National Park – 409,000 visitors