When it comes to the best places to visit in California, its national parks are a great option. California is home to nine of the U.S.’s 63 National Parks, including some of the least visited ones for those looking to explore our country’s protected lands without the record-level crowds. From the glacial depths of Kings Canyon to the sunny beaches of the Channel Islands, the National Parks in California offer some of the state’s most treasured natural beauty.
Things to do and Best Time to Visit the 9 National Parks In California
California’s parks include canyons, redwood forests, deserts, high peaks, and low valleys — something for every adventurer! What’s different about the national parks in California than other U.S. states is that there are options for year-round warm visits. For example, the average daytime temperature in Joshua Tree National Park in November is 72 degrees. You’ll need to bundle up at night but can still have a warm-weather adventure in winter. Here’s a glimpse of California’s nine national parks to know on your next trip to this golden state:
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular and beautiful national parks in California and the world. This national park is known for its waterfalls, valleys, meadows, groves of giant sequoias, and amazing rock formations like Half Dome and El Capitan. Yosemite National Park brings about 4 million people annually. Because it’s a widely popular park, Yosemite has more amenities, restaurants, and services than other California National Parks.
Top things to do: Tunnel View, Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, Hike Through Yosemite
The Tunnel View provides a panoramic view of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Yosemite Valley. In addition, you can see both the Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls near the Sentinel Bridge parking lot near Cook’s Meadow, or you can hike a strenuous trail to see the Upper Yosemite Falls or hike an easy trail to see the Lower Yosemite Falls.
Best time to visit: The best time to visit this park is in spring because there will be less snow on the trails, and waterfalls will be at their peak flow since it’s melting off from winter. However, Yosemite National Park is one of those parks that looks beautiful in all four seasons: Wildflowers & peak waterfall flow in the spring, access to Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass Road in the summer, fall foliage in the fall, and snow-capped rocks and peaks in the winter.
2. Pinnacles National Park
Visiting Pinnacles National Park is like going back in time. This national park in central California offers a largely sunbaked landscape, but it retains its trademark pinnacle formations that rise out of the land. Pinnacles National Park gets more than 200,000 visitors each year.
Top things to do: Bear Gulch Cave, Bear Gulch Reservoir, Balconies Cave
The top things to do in Pinnacles National Park are to visit the talus caves: Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Hiking through a cave is a unique experience and highly recommended for adrenaline seekers! You’ll see the Bear Gulch Cave at the end of the Bear Gulch Reservoir. It’s fascinating to see a water body in a desert environment.
Best time to visit: Due to wildflowers and fall foliage, spring and fall are the best seasons to visit the park. Due to the presence of bats, the Bear Gulch Cave is entirely open during the last weeks of March and October, so another reason to visit during the spring or fall. Winter lacks the flowers or foliage scenery, and summer temperatures go above 100 Fahrenheit due to the park’s inland location.
3. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is home to some of the most diverse terrain in California. Here you can find salt flats, sand dunes, canyons, badlands, and mountains. It is known to have the lowest, hottest and driest point in North America. This park brings in more than 1 million visitors annually. Even though this park is very spread out, it is possible to see Death Valley’s main attractions in a day!
Top things to do: Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin, and Dante’s View
The most famous sunrise view in Death Valley National Park is Zabriskie Point, which features a panorama of colorful badlands with intricate patterns on their surface. Badwater Basin is 282 feet under sea level, and it’s the lowest point on the continent! You’ll also see more than 200 miles of salt flats here. For sunset, ride up to Dante’s View for a magical view of the Death Valley basin and beyond.
Best time to visit: The best time to visit Death Valley National Park is during the winter months, when temperatures are milder than the rest of the year, and it’s one of the driest times as well. Avoid visiting Death Valley in the summer unless you have experience hiking under intense heat and are fully aware of taking precautions in extreme heat conditions. Death Valley summer temperatures once reached 134 Fahrenheit!
4. Joshua Tree National Park
In the Mojave desert, Joshua Tree National Park is a favorite among Californians. Its stunning rock formations and Joshua trees are just as surreal as beautiful. Joshua Tree gets more than 2 million visitors each year.
Top things to do: Skill Rock, Arch Rock, Keys View
Located right on Park Boulevard, Skull Rock is a rock that was naturally shaped to look like a human skull. First, hike the Arch Rock Nature Trail to see a natural arch; even more beautiful during sunrise, sunset, or night. Then, drive up to Keys View for sunset and a landscape view of Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, and various mountain ranges in the background.
Best time to visit: The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is during the spring months of March-May, when temperatures are milder than the summer months, Joshua tree wildflowers bloom and are still warm enough for camping. The downside is that it may be more crowded because many people like visiting in spring. Fall is also a good time to visit for fewer crowds. Unlike other national parks in California, it isn’t ideal for visiting in the summer unless you are ready for 100+ Fahrenheit temperatures.
5. Channel Islands National Park
Located below Santa Barbara but separated from mainland California, the Channel Islands National Park is only accessible by ferry. Although it is just outside Los Angeles, it feels like a world away—vast ocean views, mountains, canyons, and coastal plains are spread out before you! These islands are mostly undeveloped, and you’ll find fascinating wildlife and intriguing history at this park. More than 300,000 visitors visit the Channel Islands annually.
Top things to do: Painted Cave, snorkeling, whale watching
Go kayaking through the Painted Cave, one of the biggest sea caves in the world. Look at the cave’s colorful ceilings for its colors. Grab your best wetsuit and go snorkeling to see some incredible sea life. Go whale watching to see many types of whales, including humpback whales, blue whales, and gray whales.
Best time to visit: As with many of the national parks in California, it’s best to go during the summer to take advantage of the warm water. Summer is also a great time to spot humpback whales and blue whales. If you want to spot gray whales, visit during the winter season.
6. Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks is a park complex that comprises four parks: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. Hike and drive through old-growth redwood forests, prairies, and along rivers. The park’s crown jewel is the redwoods, the tallest trees on earth. More than 400,000 visitors visit this park system annually.
Top things to do: Fern Canyon, Lady Bird Grove Trail, Roosevelt Elk
Visit Fern Canyon to hike through a fern-filled canyon surrounded by lushness and greenery. Then hike through the Lady Bird Grove Trail for a peaceful walk among the fog. Finally, stop by at Elk Prairie Campground near Newton B. Drury Scenic Pkwy to see Roosevelt Elk.
Best time to visit: While you can see this charming area year-round, summer is definitely the best time to visit since temperatures would still be between the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit. You can also visit during other seasons but expect it to be rainy and muddy in certain areas.
7. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Are you interested in seeing all four types of volcanoes? Then it’s time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park! You can also hike around hydrothermal areas with steam vents, mud pots, and hot springs. More than 400,000 people visit Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Top things to do: Sulphur Works, Bumpass Hell, Manzanita Lake
Hike via a 3-mile trail to Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area. Sulphur Works is a more accessible hydrothermal area to check out as well. Finally, head to Manzanita Lake for a beautiful reflection of Lassen Peak on the lake.
Best time to visit: The best time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park is between late June and October because many areas are closed during winter due to significant snowfall. Summertime provides an excellent opportunity to explore what this national park offers; just be sure to bring bear spray if you’re hiking!
8. Kings Canyon National Park
At Kings Canyon National Park, visitors can enjoy hiking along the many trails and exploring scenic vistas, waterfalls, deep valleys, and sequoia groves. The Kings Canyon is a mile deep that was formed by glaciers. More than 400,000 people visit Kings Canyon, National Park.
Top things to do: General Grant, Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Grizzly Falls
Check out the General Grant Tree, the second largest tree in the world. Next, drive through the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, a scenic 50-mile highway with vistas. Then take an easy 0.1-mile hike to the 75-foot Grizzly Falls.
Best time to visit: Best time to visit Kings Canyon National Park is summer to explore the park fully. If you want to ski or walk around the snow-covered trees, visit during winter.
9. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is where you’ll find mind-blowing giant trees. This park is also home to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. More than 1 million visitors visit Sequoia National Park.
Top things to do: General Sherman Tree, Moro Rock, Tunnel Log
Gaze up at the General Sherman Tree, a 275-foot giant sequoia tree about 103 feet wide. Next, climb 350 steps to Moro Rock for 360-degree views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, San Joaquin Valley, etc. Next, drive through a 1938 sequoia truck, the Tunnel Log.
Best time to visit: The best and busiest time to visit Sequoia National Park is in summer. The sequoia groves also look beautiful during the winter.
National Parks in California Offers So Many Options
The national parks in California offer so much within one U.S. state. From hot deserts to snowy mountains, the national parks in California offer options year-round. There is plenty to do in these national parks, whether it’s a one-day trip or a one-week trip. If you find yourself visiting any of these national parks in California, we hope you can enjoy them as much as we have. The best part? You’ll be able to take in some of America’s history simultaneously!
Rasika is the owner of the travel blog Bae Area and Beyond. She is from the Bay Area and her blog covers California destinations. She hopes that her readers will fall in love with California, just like she did.