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California national parks 101

There are nine incredible California national parks that attract thousands of visitors each year to hike, bike, camp, and take in the beauty of nature.

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

California has the most concentrated number of national parks in a single state in the U.S.! Can you name all nine?

If you’re looking for entertainment or rich history, you’ll find it here with famous landmarks galore. There are also sunny beaches, breathtaking mountain peaks, otherworldly deserts, volcanoes, and clear alpine lakes and waterfalls. 

Each California national park has its own flair. Read on for insights on some of the coolest and most diverse national parks in the country.

1. Death Valley National Park

Woman in the distance walks through colorful rugged mountain landscape in Death Valley National Park.
Photo: Al Baker

Death Valley National Park, located in eastern California close to the Nevada border, is known for having the highest temperatures recorded anywhere in the world and is one of the driest spots in North America. You'll love seeing the vivid colors, unreal sunrises and sunsets, salt flats, sand dunes, desert peaks, ghost towns, and deep canyons of this nearly 3.5-million-acre park.

The park was named in 1849 by a group of California-bound gold rushers who got lost. One of the prospectors died while trying to cross this harsh environment. While the heat can be dangerous, there are ways to visit Death Valley while remaining safe and comfortable. (Think: Avoid the hottest part of the day by hiking in the early morning or evening, bringing more water than you think you'll need, and wearing layered clothing to help wick moisture and cool your skin.)

This California national park is a unique spot for hikers as the terrain is challenging, yet it's paired with big payoffs in incredible views. It’s not only a place for hikers. The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135-mile nonstop race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, California. It's the most extreme of the extreme displays of athletic grit that attracts superhumans from all over!

Favorite adventures
Hike Golden Canyon - 1.5-mile out-and-back hike with 685 feet of elevation gain
Artist’s Palette - 0.4-mile out-and-back hike with 89 feet of elevation gain
Badlands Loop - 2.56-mile loop hike with 463 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Death Valley National Park is a 2- to 2.5-hour drive to Las Vegas McCarran Airport in Nevada.

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Large Joshua Tree and tall rock formation under a starry night sky with fading colors of orange and pink on the horizon in Joshua Tree National Park.
Photo: Juan Moreno

Joshua Tree National Park in southern California straddles the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. It is known for its desert landscape, distinct Joshua Trees, and rugged rock formations. This bouldering paradise offers many large climbable boulders throughout the park. The rocks also provide intriguing photo opportunities. 

Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky Park, which means that its minimal light pollution makes it an incredible spot to view the Milky Way and capture some great night photography shots. The best time to visit Joshua Tree is in the Spring and Fall when temperatures are most tame.

Favorite adventures
Arch Rock Nature Trail - 1.24-mile out-and-back hike with 92 feet of elevation gain
Skull Rock Trail - 1.7-mile loop hike with 131 feet of elevation gain
Camp at Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks - 124 first-come first-serve campsites

Closest big city airport
Joshua Tree National Park is about a 49-minute drive from Palm Springs International Airport and roughly 2 hours and 28 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport in California.

3. Redwood National Park

Two hikers with backpacks admire giant trees in a forest landscape in Redwood National Park.
Photo: Austin Trigg

Redwood National Park features serene forests and woodlands, grasslands, prairies, and beaches along the northern California coast. It is most known for the giant Redwoods -  the tallest tree species in the world. 

It’s difficult to fully understand these living things' vastness until you are right there looking up at them from below. How cool is it to be surrounded by living landmarks that have seen more history than you ever will? These impressive mammoth trees can live to be 2,000 years old, and some extend upward over 300 feet!

Favorite adventures
Tall Trees Grove 3.9-mile loop hike with 690 feet of elevation gain
Tall Trees Grove, Redwood Creek, Emerald Ridge Loop - 4.41-mile loop hike with 1,043 feet of elevation gain
Hike the James Irvine Miners Ridge Loop - 12-mile loop with 1,350 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Redwood National Park is an approximately 5-hour and 38-minute drive from San Francisco International Airport in California.

4. Channel Islands National Park

Orange kayak sitting on the rocky shore of a blue ocean. A rock formation sits out in the distance under a cloudy blue sky in Channel Islands National Park.
Photo: Tiffany Nguyen

Channel Islands National Park embodies the sandy southern California beach vibe. Roughly 5 million years ago, tectonic forces created this collection of five ecologically abundant islands off the coast of Ventura County. The islands are called San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. Channel Islands is one of the most remote California national parks. 

Visitors will have a blast exploring the many sea caves by kayak and keeping an eye out for the roughly 150 species of wildlife, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Other popular activities include hiking, snorkeling, and whale watching!

Favorite adventures
Backpack Across Santa Cruz Island - 15-mile point-to-point hike
Hike to Smuggler’s Cove - 8-mile out-and-back
Hike the Potato Harbor Trail on Santa Cruz Island
Dive East Fish Camp

Closest big city airport
Channel Islands National Park is about a 1-hour and 11-minute drive from Los Angeles International Airport in California to Ventura, California. From there, visitors must take a ferry to the islands from Ventura Harbor, which takes 1 - 4 hours, depending on your chosen island destination.

5. Pinnacles National Park

A woman in a red jacket looks out at a vast rocky landscape covered in lush green trees in Pinnacles National Park.
Photo: Sonja Saxe

Pinnacles National Park is east of the Salinas Valley in central California. This park is known for its intriguing rock formations created millions of years ago after shifting tectonic plates led to volcanic activity. Converging magma layers formed the rock structures referred to today as pinnacles. These rock formations are so prominent they divide the park into East and West Districts. 

Though smaller than most other California national parks, Pinnacles is a fantastic place for hiking, rock climbing, birdwatching, and cave exploring! The famous California condor lives here, so keep your eyes on the sky.

Favorite adventures
Hike the Juniper Canyon, High Peaks, Tunnel Trail Loop - 4.3-mile loop hike with 1,200 feet of elevation gain
Hike the High Peaks & Balconies Cave Loop - 8.4-mile loop with 1,540 feet of elevation gain
Hike to Bear Gulch Reservoir - 1.5-mile out-and-back hike with 275 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Pinnacles National Park is a roughly 1-hour and 24-minute drive from Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, 1 hour and 51 minutes from San Francisco International Airport, and 4 hours and 46 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport in California.

6. Kings Canyon National Park

A hiker walks through a meadow dotted with yellow wildflowers that overlooks a green forest and mountainous landscape under a blue and purple sky in Kings Canyon National Park.
Photo: Kevin Kaminski

Located in central California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and next to Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park is known as a close rival to Yosemite National Park. It boasts similarly exquisite landscapes without the crowds.

Some of the park's defining features include its massive granite canyon walls, distinct rock outcroppings, deep valleys, towering trees, and vibrant green forests. The largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world is found at Kings Canyon National Park. Be on the lookout for bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes that have made their homes here.

Favorite adventures
Hike to Lookout Peak - 12-mile out-and-back hike
Explore Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls - 4.1-mile loop hike with 475 feet of elevation gain
Rae Lakes Loop - 39.08-mile loop with 7,316 feet of elevation gain
Hike to Mist Falls - 9-mile out-and-back hike with 600 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Kings Canyon National Park is about 58 minutes from Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California.

7. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Steam rises from a body of brown liquid enveloped by rocky sides under a bright blue sky in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Photo: Kandis Owens

In Northern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for its rich hydrothermal sites, lava rocks, mud pots, and hiking trails that traverse through gorgeous forest and lake landscapes. Here, you can explore volcanoes and vast meadows dotted with marvelous wildflowers. 

If you've never seen a volcano, you’re in for a real treat as this is one of the few places in the world where you can view all four volcano types: cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Favorite adventures
Seven Lake Loop - 11.54-mile loop with 1,545 feet elevation gain
Bumpass Hell Trail - 2.71-mile out-and-back hike with 502 feet of elevation gain
Visit Sulphur Works - 2-mile out-and-back hike with 200 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a roughly 2-hour and 49-minute drive from Sacramento International Airport in California and 2 hours and 55 minutes from Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada.

8. Yosemite National Park

Hiker with a red backpack looking out to a vast mountainous terrain with some greenery in Yosemite National Park.
Photo: Tyler Swoboda

Yosemite National Park is located in eastern central California among the Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite is one of the most popular and visited National Parks in the US and is well-known for its ancient sequoia trees, massive granite cliffs, deep valleys, and stunning waterfalls (also home to one of the tallest waterfalls in all of North America!). 

Yosemite Village in the park includes restaurants, shops, and lodging for visitors who want to extend their time immersed in the beauty of Yosemite’s natural surroundings. Though this park is often crowded, it doesn’t make the scenery any less exceptional, and it's a great spot to start if you’re less comfortable with more remote backcountry experiences.

Favorite adventures
Half Dome & Clouds Rest Loop - 22.7-mile loop with 7,000 feet of elevation gain
Explore Tenaya Lake - 2.5-mile loop trail
Hike to Tuolumne Peak Plateau - 11.7-mile out-and-back hike with 1,800 feet of elevation gain
Ten Lakes Basin - 13.38-mile out-and-back hike with 2,200 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Yosemite National Park is an approximately 1-hour and 19-minute drive from Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California. 

9. Sequoia National Park

Hiker with a yellow backpack hugging the trunk of a massive tree in a wooded area with sunlight pouring in in Sequoia National Park.
Photo: Garrett Schmidt

Ever wondered what it feels like to be an ant moving through the world? Just take a trip to Sequoia National Park in central California among the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. As you might have already guessed, the park is known for its gigantic sequoia trees, the largest trees by volume in the world. 

You’ll want to visit to the General Sherman Tree, the iconic 275-foot-tall, 36-foot diameter Sequoia – the largest in the world by volume. You can find this spectacle in the Giant Forest, among other colossal trees. Even the tallest person you know would feel minuscule here, which may give you a whole new perspective on life.

Favorite adventures
Drive through Tunnel Log
Hike the Congress Trail - 3.1-mile loop with 500 feet of elevation gain
Hike through the Giant Forest - 2-mile out-and-back with 154 feet of elevation gain

Closest big city airport
Sequoia National Park is about a 1-hour and 24-minute drive from Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California.

Did we miss something? Let us know at team@theoutbound.com. We love hearing from you and learning about your adventures! Download the Outbound App for offline navigation, photo sharing, and easy adventure finding! 

Cover photo: Greg Harlow

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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