The Best California National Parks

One of the main reasons people visit California is to see the incredible national parks.  California national parks are incredibly popular but are also very accessible. The parks feature out-of-this-world scenery, unique landscapes and real wilderness which entice visitors from around the world. 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. But if you have limited time which are the best California national parks to visit?

We could tell you which California national parks we think are the best,  but one of the best things about California’s national parks is that they have something for everyone.  The parks cover a variety of landscapes and weather, so no matter what your interests, everyone will have a favorite.  Below we’ve categorized the parks to help you select which parks you’ll enjoy the most. 

Map of California national parks
California National Parks in green

Best California National Park for Fun and Unique activities

Lassen Volcanic – 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. See our one week in Northern California itinerary for more information.

Best California National Park
Lassen Volcanic

Best California National Park for Inspiration

Yosemite – It’s hard not to be inspired and awe-struck by the fantastic vistas available in Yosemite.  The views of Half Dome, Hetch Hetchy, Tuolumne Meadows and many others have provided inspiration for great artists and photographers. For more information see our Two Week Itinerary In and Around Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Falls

Best California Park for Scenic Drives

Redwood – Scenic is an understatement when you are driving by 300-foot-tall trees.  The 8 mile Coastal Drive is spectacular. 

Best California National Parks
Redwoods National Park

Best California Park for Adventure

Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Park – This is a great spot for whitewater rafting, cave exploration, and rock climbing and waterfall hikes.  After you’ve had enough adventure enjoy the soaring redwoods.  For more detail on what to see, check out our One Week Itinerary for Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

best california national parks
Kings Canyon Waterfalls

Best California Park for Bear Spotting

Yosemite – the park is home to between 300 and 500 black bears.  There are no grizzly bears in Yosemite. For more information on Yosemite bears see this National Park Service article

Best California Park for Day Trippers

Joshua Tree – The park is only a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles.  Easy things to see in a single day include the Cholla Cactus Garden and Keys View. For more detail see our one week itinerary for Joshua Tree and Death Valley

Best California Park for Desert Solitude

Death Valley – 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. For more details on what you can do see the one week itinerary for Joshua Tree and Death Valley

Best California Parks
Death Valley National Park

Best California Park for an Island Escape

Channel Islands National Park – 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. Isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth.

best california national parks
Island Hiking

Another 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 are those are probably more representative than the current COVID affected numbers.

  1. Yosemite National Park – 4.5 million visitors
  2. Joshua Tree National Park – 2.988 million visitors
  3. Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks – 1.878 million visitors
  4. Death Valley National Park – 1.74 million visitors
  5. Lassen Volcanic National Park – 517,000 visitors
  6. Redwoods National Park – 504,000 visitors
  7. Channel Islands National Park – 409,000 visitors

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