You may already know where California ranks on our top 15 most beautiful states in the USA. If so, you can guess why the Golden State ranks so high on our list.
California is home to 9 of the United States’ 63 national parks, plus a variety of other federally protected natural areas. Since it’s one of the largest states in the US and has such a long coastline, there is an incredible variety of natural landscapes to enjoy, especially at the best national parks in California.
While some of these sites listed below are not technically national parks, here are the 13 best national parks, recreation areas, and monuments in California, from north to south:
13. Redwood National & State Parks
The California coast is home to the coastal redwood tree, which is the tallest tree species in the world. Apart from these lovely giants, the Redwood National and State Parks have so much to offer: flowing rivers, vast prairies, and 40 miles of rugged coastline.
A scenic drive through the Redwoods is an excellent way to get acquainted with the area if you’re a first-timer. Howland Hill Road is a 10-mile route and has lots of short trails to stop and explore on foot while you drive through. Head to Klamath River Overlook for a spectacular ocean view — you might even be able to catch a glimpse of gray whales!
The Redwoods is the ideal place to camp, and you can choose between a site at a developed campground or backcountry camping. During high season in the summer, you must make a reservation at a developed campground to get a spot. If you want to go more rugged, there over 200 miles of hiking trails in the park, so you are sure to find the perfect secluded backcountry camping spot.
12. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Although this is the least-visited national park in California, Lassen Volcanic National Park’s gorgeous views and epic hikes do not disappoint. This is an excellent park for travelers who crave being in nature without bumping into other hikers, as Lassen’s trails tend to be uncrowded. Especially in the early mornings and evenings, there’s a chance you could be the only one out on the trails.
There are plenty of things to do at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Check out the glittering green Ridges Lakes by taking the one-mile hike to get there. You’ll also want to make sure to check out the alpine lakes, like pristine Lake Helen. The most famous feature of the park is the Lassen Peak hike, which is a 2.5-mile steep hike up — and worth every step.
You can find dispersed camping by taking road 29N22 into the surrounding forest. It is best to use a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as many of the roads are rocky and difficult to access without one. More campground information, along with reservation information, is available here.
11. King Range National Conservation Area
Located along 35 miles of California’s coast and encompassing 68,000 acres of protected land, King Range National Conservation Area is one of the most underrated natural areas in California. Although it’s not technically a national park, it is part of the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s land.
This part of California’s coast is where mountains seem to jut out from the sea and is so rugged that no highways could be built there. For that reason, this area has the nickname of California’s Lost Coast. King Range was the nation’s first-ever national conservation area and attracts adventurous surfers, mountain bikers, and hikers.
10. Point Reyes National Seashore
California’s beautiful beaches come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. From shorefront hangouts like Venice Beach to the seal-filled havens on the north shores, you’ll find a bit of everything here. If you’re looking for something more like the latter, Point Reyes National Seashore is the beach paradise for you.
Point Reyes is 37 miles north of San Francisco, but might as well be a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This peninsula has been under protection since 1962 to save it from residential development. As such, it’s one of the very few wild beaches left in California. Point Reyes National Seashore will make a great addition to your next NorCal road trip!
In this 180-square-mile park, you’ll find sea cliffs teeming with wildlife, highlands with tule elk grazing, and some especially noteworthy gray whale watching from December to mid-March.
9. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
On both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco lies the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is one of three national recreation areas in California. It borders Point Reyes to the north and is home to the Muir Woods National Monument, which has towering redwood trees and miles of hiking trails. It’s definitely a must-see while visiting the Northern California Coast.
This recreation area is a favorite among dog owners because of its proximity to the city and availability of specifically dog-friendly areas. It’s also one of the best places to get an awesome view of San Francisco Bay.
There are four campgrounds at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In the Marin Headlands, there are two that require a reservation. Robin Hill Campground on the Presidio is a crowd favorite; reservations can be made here.
8. Yosemite National Park
This is possibly the most obvious listing, as it is the most-visited national park in California. You’ll find this massive park in central California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, and it has some of the United States’ most beautiful natural landscapes.
The most famous part of the park is the Yosemite Valley, which is home to Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitán, some of Yosemite’s most noteworthy attractions. You can also take Glacier Road or Tioga Road to get some awesome views of the valley from above.
High season at Yosemite is during the summer months, so if you want to avoid the crowds, consider visiting during the winter. Here are Yosemite’s best winter hikes for some winter-wonderland hiking inspo!
Camping options are plentiful at Yosemite; a complete list of available campgrounds can be found here. You may have to make a reservation, so make sure to check your desired campground’s rules and requirements.
7. Devils Postpile National Monument
This national monument the Sierra Nevada Mountains is one of seven in California. The columnar basalt, which the monument is famous for, is a rare geological phenomenon worth stopping to see. Towers of rock stretch up to 60 feet tall and display impressive symmetry that seems too precise to be created by nature.
Devils Postpile is right next to the Pacific Crest Trail and therefore has a wealth of recreational activities nearby. Within the protected area, you’ll find the 101-foot high Rainbow Falls and eight miles of trails around the monument.
While there is no longer a campground within the park, there are five Forest Service campgrounds within the Reds Meadow Valley. Four out of the five are first-come, first-served.
6. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley has some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in the world, let alone California. While many people see a name like “Death Valley” and run the other way, this otherworldly national park is a favorite among desert enthusiasts.
With expansive vistas and wide-open skies for stargazing, this desert park is the perfect place to find peace and quiet. Those entering the park from the California side will likely start at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, where golden hour is particularly stunning and the dunes are ideal for hiking. You also should not miss the Artist’s Palette, where you’ll find a colorful landscape formed by volcanic activity over the span of thousands of years. For more ideas on what to see in Death Valley, check out this 48-hour itinerary.
If you were iffy about just visiting Death Valley, camping there might sound like an even further stretch. However, this park is an incredible place to camp and connect with nature. With a few Death Valley–specific camping tips, it’s totally doable, even for beginner campers. Here you can find a map of all of the campgrounds.
5. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
These two adjoining national parks are often mentioned together because many visitors choose to visit both of them in the same trip. This spectacular natural area is home to gigantic trees, plunging canyons, and the serene Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Popular attractions are abundant in these parks. Visit the world’s largest tree by volume, General Sherman Tree, which has a 36-foot diameter at its base. How’s that for the most amazing tree hug? You’ll find this giant tree and more in Sequoia’s Giant Forest region.
Kings Canyon is also known for its wilderness, which is superb for backpacking, as much of it isn’t accessible by car.
The Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is a must-do drive. Expect the most beautiful views of the canyons and canopies along the route. Don’t miss the Crystal Cave either, which has picture-perfect marbling on its walls.
Camping at Sequoia and Kings Canyon is by reservation only during the summer. Plan ahead by reserving your campsite here. The most popular campgrounds are Lodgepole and Dorst, which require reservations all year round. Others may have first-come, first-served camping.
4. Pinnacles National Park
Twenty-three million years ago, the eruption of multiple volcanoes created the unique landscape that we see today at Pinnacles National Park, just 80 miles southeast of San José. The volcanic soil creates the ideal conditions for a springtime wildflower superbloom. Check out poppies, fiesta flowers, lupines, and plenty of other flowers from the High Peaks Loop, Balconies Trail, and Juniper Canyon Trail.
You’ll also find canyons, caves, oak woodlands, and the iconic rock towers that the park is known for. The rocky landscape is excellent for a hiking adventure, and there are plenty of trails to explore.
3. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
If you’ve been to Los Angeles, you’ve probably appreciated the gorgeous Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area from afar. Its proximity to the huge metropolis makes it the perfect getaway if you need some TLC from nature. Once you get there, you won’t believe how close these rugged landscapes are to the city.
This public recreation area stretches inland from Santa Monica all the way up the coast until Oxnard. Here you can explore over 500 miles of trails and see the picturesque beaches of Malibu. Within the recreation area, don’t miss Solstice Canyon, the original Paramount Ranch, and Point Mugu State Park.
There is only one campground operated by the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains: Circle X Ranch Campground. The downside is that it is a 10-person-minimum group camp. (Plus, the campground is currently closed. Stay tuned here for updates.) The other option is camping at either Topanga State Park or Point Mugu State Park.
2. Channel Islands National Park
Off the southern coast of California is a chain of five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park. It is only accessible via boat or seaplane, and you can take a ferry there from Oxnard and Ventura. The most popular island to visit is Santa Cruz, which is also the largest of the five.
Being an island oasis, kayaking is a popular activity at Channel Islands Park because much of the pristine sea environment would otherwise be inaccessible. Kayaking allows visitors to see the rocky cliffs of the island and is also the best opportunity for wildlife viewing. The unpredictable nature of sea kayaking makes it less than ideal for beginners, though. Read more about kayaking the Channel Islands here.
Since there are no services or lodges on the islands, camping is the only way to stay overnight there. Reservations are required for all campgrounds on the islands and can be made here. Scorpion Canyon Campground is a crowd favorite and is on Santa Cruz Island. Since the islands are so remote, you will have to bring all of your food and water with you.
1. Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re skeptical about intentionally wandering into the desert, this is the park to change your mind about this arid landscape. Joshua Tree National Park gets its name from its namesake yucca trees, which create unique shapes throughout the desert. You’ll also find plenty of species of cacti and other prickly plants.
Joshua Tree is quite remote, which is a draw for travelers looking for solitude. It’s only about 2.5 hours east of both Los Angeles and San Diego. The best time to visit is during spring and fall. Spring has mild temperatures ideal for hiking, with the added bonus of having some epic wildflower blooms. Fall also has mild temperatures and is the most popular time to visit, so campsites tend to book up quickly.
Some awesome hiking options in Joshua Tree include the easy Arch Rock Nature Trail, the mountainous 49 Palms Oasis Trail, and the Boy Scout Trail To Willow Hole Extended Route, which is great for backpackers. Beyond hiking, Joshua Tree is also a haven for rock climbers, so if you’re looking to climb in the desert, this is just the right place to do it.
Joshua Tree has the distinction of being an International Dark Sky Park, making it an epic place to camp and stargaze. It has over 500 campsites, spread out among nine campgrounds across 1,235 square miles. Some campsites require a reservation while others are first-come, first-served. You can find a complete list here.
Even if you are only planning to visit the park for a day, staying overnight and camping under the stars is one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree.
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You now have everything you need to prepare for your next epic outdoor adventure in California. Whether you’re exploring southern Cali or sticking to the north, don’t miss out on these bucket-list spots as well.
Are you a California native? Let us know what your favorite places are!