The 13 Best National Parks in California

You won't regret adding one of these national parks to your California itinerary.

By Rachel Center, Staff WriterApril 10, 2019
By Rachel Center, Staff WriterApril 10, 2019, at 10:00 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

The 13 Best National Parks in California

View all in one page
1 of 14
Parks in California
Credit

(Getty Images)

Choose one of these national parks for an unforgettable adventure.

California's geographical diversity is by far its greatest gem. It's rare that in one state you can hit the beach, hike mountains, explore dense forests and wander through the desert. But in California, that’s all possible. And often, you don't have to travel far to get from one landscape to the next. California has the most national parks of any state in the U.S. and that doesn't include its numerous other National Park Service-designated sites and monuments. To help you pick the best places to visit, U.S. News has rounded up California's top national parks and sites most worthy of a trip or detour.
Parks in California
Credit

(Getty Images)

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is not only California's most visited national park, but it is also one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. Located about 140 miles southeast of Sacramento in northern California, Yosemite welcomes around 4 million visitors per year thanks to its unique geological makeup and bevy of adventure activities. The park stands out in particular for its striking granite rock formations and towering waterfalls: Half Dome and Vernal Fall are Yosemite's can't-miss landmarks. As for where to stay, campgrounds are abundant and cost anywhere from $6 to $385 per night depending on location and group size. Lodges and various hotels, including the AAA Four Diamond Award-winning Majestic Yosemite Hotel, are also available (nightly rates vary). Weeklong vehicle admission is $35 and the park is open year-round with no hourly restrictions. However, parts of the park may be closed due to snow from November to May or June.
Next:

Choose one of these national parks for an unforgettable adventure.

California's geographical diversity is by far its greatest gem. It's rare that in one state you can hit the beach, hike mountains, explore dense forests and wander through the desert. But in California, that’s all possible. And often, you don't have to travel far to get from one landscape to the next. California has the most national parks of any state in the U.S. and that doesn't include its numerous other National Park Service-designated sites and monuments. To help you pick the best places to visit, U.S. News has rounded up California's top national parks and sites most worthy of a trip or detour.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is not only California's most visited national park, but it is also one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. Located about 140 miles southeast of Sacramento in northern California, Yosemite welcomes around 4 million visitors per year thanks to its unique geological makeup and bevy of adventure activities. The park stands out in particular for its striking granite rock formations and towering waterfalls: Half Dome and Vernal Fall are Yosemite's can't-miss landmarks. As for where to stay, campgrounds are abundant and cost anywhere from $6 to $385 per night depending on location and group size. Lodges and various hotels, including the AAA Four Diamond Award-winning Majestic Yosemite Hotel, are also available (nightly rates vary). Weeklong vehicle admission is $35 and the park is open year-round with no hourly restrictions. However, parts of the park may be closed due to snow from November to May or June.

Joshua Tree National Park

For the quintessential California desert experience, there is no better place to explore than Joshua Tree National Park. Situated just 50 miles east of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree offers 800,000 acres of dreamy desert landscape complete with climbable boulders and rare Yucca brevifolia, or Joshua Trees. Journey down the park's main roads, Pinto Basin and Park Boulevard, and you'll stumble upon photogenic rock formations, including Arch Rock and Skull Rock, as well as other top attractions like the scenic Cholla Cactus Garden and Keys View lookout. It's important to note that the only lodging options in the park are campgrounds, which typically range from $15 to $20 per night. The entrance fee is $30 and the park is open all year with no hourly restrictions.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is dry, the land is barren and temperatures often soar past 120 degrees Fahrenheit. As such, this park may not be for everybody. However, the mysteries that lie within, including moving rocks and singing sand dunes, will no doubt intrigue more adventurous travelers. Death Valley, situated about 120 miles west of Las Vegas on the border of Nevada, boasts the distinction of being the hottest, driest and lowest place in the U.S. While here, admire the diverse desert terrain at top attractions such as Zabriskie Point, Dante's View, Mesquite Flat Dunes and Badwater Basin. Stretching across 3.4 million acres, this is California's largest national park, so you'll have no problems finding accommodations on-site; options include seasonal campgrounds, inns and motels. Death Valley is open year-round and weeklong admission for a car costs $30, and $15 if you travel by foot or bicycle.

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park is likely the only national park in the U.S. where it would be wise to do some neck stretches before entering. This is because Sequoia National Park houses some of the largest trees by volume in the world. The General Sherman Tree, the park's biggest attraction, is the largest, measuring 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. You can find this incredible tree and more giants in the aptly named Giant Forest, one of several giant sequoia groves in the park. Such incredible natural beauty, however, comes with a price. To get here, you will have to drive more than 200 miles from Los Angeles or San Jose, the closest cities with international airports. The upside is that there are accommodations on-site, including the Wuksachi Lodge (rates hover around $250 per night) and campgrounds, which range from $22 to $70 per night depending on your group size. The entrance fee for a vehicle is $35 and lasts a week; this pass also grants you admission to Kings Canyon National Park. The park is open all year, with no hourly restrictions.

Kings Canyon National Park

Kings Canyon National Park is perfect for those who crave the landscapes and adventures Yosemite offers, but don't want to deal with massive crowds. Kings Canyon looks a lot like Yosemite, boasting rocky peaks and picturesque valleys awash with granite rock and lush forestry. Like its neighbor Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon also has sequoia groves, but it's the park's sweeping valley vistas that steal the show. Visit Moro Rock for panoramic views of the Great Western Divide, drive along Kings Canyon Scenic Byway or work up a sweat hiking scenic trails. You'll find Kings Canyon National Park in central California, about 240 miles north of Los Angeles. You can stay at one of the park's three lodges (rates vary by season and room type) or campgrounds, which run between $22 and $70 per night. Like neighboring Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon admission is $35 for a vehicle and the park is open all year, with no hourly restrictions. Note that the entrance fee grants you access to both Kings Canyon and Sequoia.

Cabrillo National Monument

This small national monument located on the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego is worth the detour for the views alone. Cabrillo National Monument honors Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to reach the west coast in 1542. The top of the monument features a commemorative statue and offers incredible 360-degree views. From here, you'll get an eyeful of the Pacific Ocean to the right, downtown San Diego to the left and, on a clear day, Mexico to the south. If you can peel yourself away from the stunning vistas, follow Cabrillo Road down to the coast, where you'll find a scenic waterfront pathway leading to a small beach (not safe for swimming) and tide pools. Cabrillo National Monument is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it costs $20 to enter for a vehicle or $10 for a walker or bicyclist.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is the kind of place that takes your breath away. Located in northern California about 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore brims with awe-inspiring coastal landscapes, captivating cliff side beaches, sprawling wilderness and more. Leisure travelers will relish the spectacular views at Point Reyes Lighthouse and the nearby Elephant Seal Overlook, while adventurous travelers will enjoy traversing the equally stunning Tomales Point and Alamere Falls trails. And you won't want to leave without driving through the enchanting Cypress Tree Tunnel before you go. If you don’t want to camp, the HI Point Reyes Hostel is the only place to stay within the National Seashore, with nightly rates ranging between $35 and $105. Meanwhile, backcountry campgrounds cost $20 to $50 per night. Point Reyes is open from 6 a.m. to midnight and charges no admission fee.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers a hearty mix of natural and historical landmarks that all lie within the greater Bay Area. There is so much to experience in San Francisco, as well as in neighboring Marin and San Mateo counties, that you'll definitely need days to see it all. Alcatraz and the redwood-filled Muir Woods National Monument are probably the most popular spots, though you should also budget time to visit Kirby Cove, Baker Beach or China Beach for awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The recreation area also features a bevy of hikes, including those at Lands End, the Marin Headlands and Rancho Corral de Tierra. What's more, accommodation options (from vacation rentals to hotels) abound in San Francisco. Hours vary by site, though most of the area is open from sunrise to sunset. It is free to explore the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but there are fees to visit Muir Woods National Monument and to take the ferry to Alcatraz.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which runs along the Malibu coastline, is impressive: It encompasses nine state parks and some of the most popular beaches in Los Angeles, including Zuma Beach and El Matador State Beach. If you're only interested in hanging by the ocean, spend time at R.H. Meyer Memorial State Beaches or Leo Carrillo State Park. For hiking, hit up Malibu Creek State Park, home to California redwoods, or Point Mugu State Park for scenic canyon trails. While there is so much to do here, you can't leave without going on an ocean-view hike. Head to the Rising Sun Trail in Solstice Canyon or the Los Liones Trail in Topanga State Park for more of a challenge. The recreation area also offers campgrounds, which run between $10 and $225 per night. There is no admission fee and the parks and its trails are open year-round with no hourly restrictions. However, it’s important to know that parking lots are only open from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Redwood National and State Parks

Among the many natural attractions California is known for, the state's towering redwood trees are its most distinctive. Redwoods are the tallest species of trees in the world and California is one of only two states in the U.S. where they exist. Redwood is unique in that it encompasses multiple parks across the northwestern coast of California. Must-visit areas include Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which offers a train that goes through the redwoods, and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where you'll find the world's largest remaining contiguous old-growth forest of coastal redwoods. You'll find numerous camping options (for $35 per night); cabins are only available in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (for $100 per night) and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (for $80 or $100 per night, depending on the season). Redwood National Park is free to visit and there are no set hours of operation.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of California's more unique national parks. Located in northern California about 50 miles east of Redding, Lassen Volcanic National Park is situated at the crossroads of two volcanic mountain ranges (Cascade Range and the Basin and Range Province), creating an incredibly diverse volcanic landscape for visitors to explore. This is one of the few spots in the world where all four types of volcanoes exist. While here, marvel at the park's hydrothermal areas, including the popular Bumpass Hell, and explore the park's other natural attributes, such as its many scenic lakes and tranquil meadows. As for on-site accommodations, you will find campgrounds (for $12 to $72 a night), cabins ($74 to $99 per night) and the Drakesbad Guest Ranch (prices vary). Entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park is open year-round with no set hours. Fees vary by the season.

Channel Islands National Park

This national park located off the coast of Ventura County is probably California's most remote national park. Here, you'll find just five islands inhabited only by animal residents, some of which include bald eagles and elephant seals. The Channel Islands' isolated nature and ample wildlife have earned it the nickname of "the Galapagos of North America," according to the California tourism board. While here, enjoy adventure activities galore, including hiking alongside scenic cliffs, snorkeling through sea caves, picnicking on the beach or whale watching. There are campgrounds on the island (for $15 per night); however, you have to bring your own food and water. No food services are available and only two campgrounds have potable water. There is no admission fee to Channel Islands National Park and the park is open year-round with no set hours.

Manzanar National Historic Site

History buffs, especially those with a penchant for World War II history, will enjoy exploring Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar, located between Kings Canyon National Park and Death Valley off the 395 Freeway, was one of 10 Japanese internment camps during the war. Here, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and live in isolated, military-like camps after an executive order by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. The site features reconstructed barracks, a mess hall and excavated gardens, among other sites. The visitor center is the best place to start, as it has plenty of exhibits and information on self-guided and guided tours. There are no accommodations on-site, but considering its limited things to do, Manzanar National Historic Site is best for a daytrip. The site is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed December 25)and is free to visitors.
1 of 14

Rachel Center, Staff Writer

Rachel Center is an Editor for the Travel section at U.S. News, where she writes and edits ...  Read more

Recommended

The 5 Best Kauai Helicopter Tours

See the Garden Island's far-reaching beauty from the air.

Holly JohnsonJune 14, 2019

The 6 Best Las Vegas Helicopter Tours

Get a thrilling look at the lights and sights of Sin City and its surroundings with one of these tours.

Holly JohnsonJune 13, 2019

20 Road Trip Essentials for Your Vacation

These road trip must-haves can help you save money, travel more comfortably and ensure you stay safe on the open road.

Holly JohnsonJune 13, 2019

13 Top Charlottesville Wineries to Visit

Sip a glass of Virginia's signature viognier as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

June 12, 2019

The 16 Best Seattle Tours

Explore the Emerald City's natural beauty and urban offerings with these guided excursions.

Lyn MettlerJune 12, 2019

The 24 Best London Tours

Whether it's your first time in London or you're a repeat visitor, you'll experience a side of the city you've never seen with these tours.

Kim Foley MacKinnonJune 6, 2019

The 21 Best Paris Tours

Enhance your visit to the City of Love with one of these top tours.

Claire LawtonJune 5, 2019

The 20 Best New York City Tours

These guided tours help make the most of your time in the Big Apple.

John RodwanJune 4, 2019

The 24 Best Rome Tours

Enjoy the efficiency of an organized tour led by experts who bring Rome's history to life.

Kyle McCarthyMay 31, 2019

The 8 Best Savannah Ghost Tours

Prove you're not afraid of the dark by taking one of these terrifying tours.

Gwen PratesiMay 31, 2019