Search for a place or activity

The Best National Parks in California for Every Type of Traveler

From volcanoes to waterfalls to the world’s tallest trees, California’s national parks offer a wild array of adventures.

granite rock face in yosemite national park, california
Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

Choosing between California’s national parks is like choosing between jackpots. Each offers spectacular scenery around every turn, plus hiking trails, iconic drives, idyllic campsites, and more, which is why we’re tailoring each park to a certain type of traveler. After all, the best national parks in California are all of them—just for different reasons. Here’s exactly where you should go based on your interests, hobbies, and travel style.

1. For windshield warriors: Redwood National Park

redwood trees, redwood national park, california
You don't have to get out of the car at Redwood National Park, but we suggest you do.Photo credit: Zack Frank / Shuttertock

Scenic driving makes this spot an easy-to-admire gem.

If you prefer taking in stunning landscapes via scenic driving routes, there’s no California national park better than Redwood National Park (and the surrounding state parks, which are typically lumped into one: Redwood National and State Parks). California’s famous Highway 101 snakes through this region, nicknamed the “Redwood Highway.” From coastal scenes to ancient forests, everywhere is spectacular, even through a windshield.

And if you prefer someone else to handle the driving so you can look out the window, hop on a tour. All you’ll have to do is sit back, relax, and take in the tallest trees on the planet.

2. For photographers: Death Valley National Park

alien landscapes of death valley national park, california
Be sure to pack water on a trip into Death Valley National Park.Photo credit: Jamie Boggess / Shutterstock

It’s like nowhere else on the continent, so bust out your camera.

The hottest, driest, and lowest spot on the planet naturally lends itself to incomparable photos. Be ready to snap shots of incredible landscapes like mountains, sand dunes, and badlands at Death Valley National Park.

Head to spots like Badwater Basin, 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, for wide-angle views of the Earth cracking into salty hexagons. Racetrack Playa, Zabriskie Point, and the rainbow-hued Artists Drive are also extremely photogenic spots. Many tours depart from Las Vegas, such as this one, where a pro photographer takes you to the best spots.

3. For campers: Joshua Tree National Park

joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Trees might be one of the most recognizable trees on the planet.Photo credit: Dennis Silvas / Shutterstock

Warm nights, thousands of stars, and plenty of campsite options.

Set between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, Joshua Tree National Park offers easy access to nature, where the weather is almost always warm. And with some 500 campsites, there’s no shortage of spots to pitch that tent, pull up the RV, or roll out that sleeping bag). Pair your overnight adventure with a guided hike or rock-climbing adventure, and you’ve got an easy recipe for an off-grid weekend.

4. For wildlife fans: Pinnacles National Park

deer in pinnacles national park, california
Bring binoculars to spot wildlife in Pinnacles National Park.Photo credit: Faina Gurevich / Shutterstock

Go beyond bears and elk with a wildlife-rich visit to this volcanic wonderland.

The newest California national park on this list, Pinnacles is a quirky wonderland of caves, canyons, and ancient volcanoes. It also serves as home to many critters and creatures, such as mountain lions and the rare California condor. In fact, this is the only national park where you can spot this massive, critically endangered bird. Get to the High Peaks area in the early morning or early evening for your best chance at spotting this elusive creature.

5. For nature buffs: Yosemite National Park

cliff face in yosemite national park, california
Yosemite is one of the most famous national parks in the country.Photo credit: Brittany Hosea-Small / Viator

The spot that inspired the National Park Service is Mother Nature at her best.

John Muir deemed Yosemite National Park “nature’s cathedral.” Teddy Roosevelt saw it and was convinced to protect the country’s wildest, most beautiful spaces. Ansel Adams also fell in love with—and photographed—Yosemite’s granite wonders, waterfalls, and meadows.

However, Yosemite does have its fair share of crowds. You can leave them behind in a few ways. Go beyond Yosemite Valley to spots like Tuolumne Meadows (take a private hiking tour); get out early, like around sunrise; or visit in winter, ideally with a guide who knows the lay of the land.

6. For winter lovers: Sequoia National Park

sequoia trees, sequoia national park, california
Bundle up if you plan on visiting Sequoia National Park in the winter. This may be California, but it gets cold here!Photo credit: AlbertoGonzalez / Shutterstock

When white snow blankets the giant trees, Sequoia’s ethereal beauty awakens.

Many California national parks are high-elevation, meaning they’re subject to wintery conditions. For those who love winter, that’s good news: The crowds clear out, and the snow makes for ethereal, glistening scenes.

There’s nowhere better to experience a California winter than Sequoia National Park. You may need tire chains for certain areas, but lower-lying spots like the Giant Forest are often accessible without them. Get out of the car, and you can play underneath some of the biggest trees on the planet, draped in a veil of white. To really make an adventure of it, venture beyond the frontcountry on a snowshoe tour.

7. For avid hikers: Kings Canyon National Park

hiker in Kings Canyon National Park, california
You'll find Yosemite vibes without all the crowds at Kings Canyon National Park.Photo credit: Margaret.Wiktor / Shutterstock

A Yosemite-like wilderness with a fraction of the crowds.

Kings Canyon rivals Yosemite—according to John Muir—but with fewer roads, more snow, and the highest peak in the lower 48. This is a park for those with worn-in hiking shoes: You could traverse the John Muir Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or any of the many trails that course through the park under massive sequoias or up mountains.

Of course, this spot feels wild. If you’re not used to backcountry hiking, book a pro guide to make your hike worry-free.

8. For water lovers: Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, California
It's worth the long ferry ride to get to Channel Islands National Park.Photo credit: Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock

An aqua oasis with 360º views.

Channel Islands National Park sits off the coast of California near Ventura. There are five explorable islands in total, each offering a surprisingly distinct set of activities. But one thing’s for certain—they all offer great access to the water. Along with the journey there itself (it takes one to three hours by ferry), plan to go snorkeling, or book a sea cave kayaking tour to enjoy some of the park’s best views.

9. For families: Lassen Volcanic National Park

boardwalk at Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Family-friendly hikes abound at Lassen Volcanic National Park.Photo credit: Lost_in_the_Midwest / Shutterstock

Get the kids dashing through meadows and under volcanoes.

With a mix of lakes, cinder cones, volcanoes, and meadows, Lassen Volcanic National Park offers a little something beautiful for everyone but without the crowds. The Manzanita Lake Loop is a solid option for those with small kiddos, a 1.7-mile (2.7-kilometer) trek with plenty of volcano views and birdlife. Older kids will love the hike up Cinder Cone Trail, a steep 200-foot (61-meter) dash across moving cinder.

If you’d like to make the trip easier, book a guided tour, where you and the kids will skirt along the Volcanic Peak Highway, experiencing nothing but views, nature, and fun.

Find things to do in California

1 / 5

Keep reading

1 / 4
en
979ea19d-61e2-48ba-9f25-1cc9aa3ed78f
article
Do more with Viator
One site, 300,000+ travel experiences you'll remember—direct to your inbox.
Stay in the know