If you love nature activities like hiking, biking, kayaking, camping and being in the great outdoors – the national parks are calling you. California has it all. Big cities and small towns, the mountains, the deserts, the forests, the beaches and everything in-between!
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is nothing short of breathtaking and it’s the most famous of national parks, only a 6 hour drive from Orange County.
The crown jewel of Yosemite is without doubt Yosemite Valley, which is framed by some of the best plunging waterfalls and incredible high granite summits you’ll see anywhere!
This glacial valley is about 7.5 miles long and approximately 3,000–3,500 feet deep. The legendary naturalist John Muir called this place the “Incomparable Valley.”
One of the best things about Yosemite is its diversity. You have majestic waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, incredible hikes, gorgeous lakes, alpine forest, scenic drives, and you might even spot a black bear.
If you’re looking to visit the best National Parks in California, I rank this park in the Sierra Nevada at number one!
Best Things to Do in Yosemite National Park
- Bridalveil Falls
- Vernal Falls (mist trail)
- Lower Yosemite Falls
- Mariposa Grove
- Hetch Hetchy
- Scenic Drive Hyw 120
- Tunnel View
- Yosemite Valley
- Half Dome
- El Capitan
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is one of the most underrated national parks. This park is so diverse that even on your second or third visit you will easily find new things to do. Located in the Mojave Desert of California, Death Valley is famous for its rugged l andscapes, extreme temperatures, and unique natural sights. It’s known to be one of the hottest and driest places on earth and for many Death Valley has truly lived up to its name… but don’t let that fool you! There is so much beauty within the park and it truly is a bucket list destination.
Death Valley National Park has such a wide variety of landscapes to keep visitors busy during their stay. Although the dry and barren appearance of Death Valley may look pretty one-dimensional at a glance, there are so many unique areas to explore once you know where to look!
Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
- Zabriskie Point (sunrise & sunset)
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats
- Artists Drive
- Golden Canyon Hike
- Dante’s View
- Mesquite Sand Dunes
Channel Islands National Park
If you are looking for adventure and unique California places to visit, look no further than Channel Islands, the least visited of the California National Parks and parks in the USA! It’s the most least visited national park not because it lacks adventure or beauty, but because of its remoteness off the coastline – it’s a 80 minute ferry ride from Ventura Harbor.
If you’re looking for national parks near Orange County it’s only 90 miles north of the OC.
The Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands:
- San Miguel
- Santa Rosa
- Santa Cruz
- and Santa Barbara
There’s not much over on the Channel Islands except for you and remote beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, and sea caves to explore on kayaks. This park makes for a perfect one-day trip, and provides a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle of southern California.
Walking around on foot is only half of the fun at the Channel Islands. The marine life here is unparalleled, and in fact, the Channel Islands have even been referred to as the Galapagos of the US! The waters immediately surrounding the Channel Islands are a marine sanctuary, which has helped retain healthy kelp forests that all kinds of animals call home.
At the very least, you should absolutely swim or snorkel. You can bring your own gear or rent it from one of the kayaking companies that service the Channel Islands.
If you have more time, consider renting a kayak or taking a kayaking tour. This is one of the best ways to visit the Channel Islands’ infamous sea caves, as well as some of the more secluded beaches on the islands. Kayaking tours booked ahead of time typically include the ferry ride in the price or as an add-on, too.
If you plan on renting a kayak and venturing out on your own, keep in mind that the safest and easiest islands to kayak at are typically Anacapa and Santa Cruz. The other islands (Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) should be reserved for the most experienced kayakers, and you should absolutely exercise caution as the water conditions here can be much more demanding.
Also, make sure you reserve kayak space ahead of time on the ferry when booking your transportation!
Joshua Tree National Park
In the 1930s, desert lover and community activist Minerva Hoyt recognized the human threats of the nearby ecosystem and persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Joshua Tree a National Monument in 1936.
It was renamed the Joshua Tree National Park in 1994 and now protects 792,510 acres where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts converge.
What is a Joshua Tree you ask?
Well, one of the interesting Joshua Tree facts is that it is not actually a tree, but a species of yucca! They grow over 40 feet tall at the leisurely rate of an inch a year – typical of a desert plant – and from February through April it blooms clusters of cream-colored flowers.
But this park is not just about the Joshua Trees. There are also junipers, scrub oaks, Mojave yuccas and prickly pear cactus.
There are also incredible rock formations, scenic drives, leisurley or adventurous hikes, picturesque dams, mountain ranges and incredible sunsets and sunrises.
Joshua Tree NP is situated in San Bernardino County and one of the national parks in Southern California to visit.
It’s within 2.5 hrs drive from San Diego (making it the easiest of national parks near San Diego to visit), or 2 hrs drive from Orange County.
Redwoods National And State Parks
Planning a visit to the redwoods and the national parks in Northern California is a little consfusing as Redwoods National Park actually consists of 4 parks, with three of them being State Parks:
- Redwood National Park
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Combining all the parks, there are some incredible hiking opportunities and scenic drives.
One of sevearal highlights is hugging a Redwood tree, but not any tree, a 346 foot giant Redwood tree at Humboldt State Park. As well as a gorgeous drive though old forests, small farms, and a few small towns.
Cheatham Grove is a true hidden gem of Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park (one of the best California State Parks) and you might recognize it from as backdrop from the scooter chase scene in the Star Wars movie, Return of The Jedi.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the 3rd largest of the California state parks and home to the world’s largest remaining contiguous old-growth forest of coastal redwoods.
And it’s here you can drive the 32 mile Avenue of the Giants, making this one of the best places to visit in California to see redwoods by car.
Best Things to Do in the Redwoods NP
- Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park (hike Cheatham Grove)
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park (drive Avenue of the Giants, Founders Grove Trail, Big Tree Grove)
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (drive Howland Hill Road)
- Redwoods National Park (Lady Bird Johnson Grove)
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (Fern Canyon Trail)
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park (Coastal Trail)
- Hwy 199
How Many National Parks are in California?
There are nine national parks in California
Here are the four other National Parks in California: