Pro Tips to Know for 5 of the Best National Parks in California
Experts share their insights on traveling to—and through—some top scenic Golden State areas
Frolic among sea lions when you snorkel at Channel Islands National Park, just one of the fun adventures to be had at California national parks.
Ever since 2016—when the National Park Service turned 100 and threw itself the ultimate birthday bash— national park visitor numbers have reached record highs. “I think one of the driving factors is that more and more, Americans are forgoing the trip abroad to see more of their own country,” says George Land, public information officer at Joshua Tree National Park.
California has more national parks than any other state in the country, and each is worth a visit. Whether you explore the kelp forests of Channel Islands, marvel at the world’s largest trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon or walk the windswept dunes of Death Valley, you’ll find the adventure of a lifetime. To make the most of your vacation, read on for travel tips for five of the best national parks in California.
Go on a coastline adventure in Channel Islands National Park
If you want to escape the crowds, enjoy a sea breeze or go on a snorkeling adventure, Channel Islands National Park is the place for you. Here, you’ll witness Southern California’s coastline as it was decades—or even centuries—ago.
Off the California coast between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, these five islands—tops among the national parks in southern California and one of the best national parks in California overall—are home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals. The islands’ outfitter services can equip you for kayaking through sea caves or snorkeling in waters brimming with seals and sea lions. Hop aboard a whale-watching vessel to go in search of the 27 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that have been spotted in the channel. If you’re visiting during the summer, watch for blue and humpback whales that dive and breach. In the midwinter, migrating gray whales have been known to put on a show.
Feel small, in the best possible way, at Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park
At 275 feet tall, Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree is the largest living tree in the world.
East of the San Joaquin Valley, Sequoia National Park and neighboring Kings Canyon National Park stand tall among the best national parks in California and as testaments to nature’s power and size. The biggest reason to come is, of course, the trees. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest, visit the General Sherman tree, the world’s largest tree. In Kings Canyon, you’ll see the second largest, the General Grant tree. Plan your trip for fall, when temperatures are warm and you can catch a cool breeze under the canopy. If you want to feel as if you have the parks to yourself, visit in the colder months, when you can ski and snowshoe through a winter wonderland.
See spacious skies and massive mountains in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley may be North America’s quintessential hot spot—with a record high of 134 degrees Fahrenheit—but it’s home to more than 1,000 plant varieties and 400 animal species.
Our nation’s biggest national park outside of Alaska, the 3.4-million-acre Death Valley National Park is nearly the size of Connecticut! October through April is the perfect time to see it all, says public information officer Abby Wines. “We have highs around 65 degrees, and it’s sunny and gorgeous,” she says. “The wildflowers start to bloom around mid-February, and that’s really spectacular.”
If you don’t have time to wander the vast park from end to end, Wines suggests concentrating near the geographic center in places like Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.
“Badwater is pretty iconic,” Wines says. “It’s a flat, white salt pan, 282 feet below sea level, with mountains that go straight up on either side. It’s a really intense, dramatic landscape.”
While you don’t have to stay on the park’s trails, you do need to be mindful of where you drive. “We’ve been seeing an increase in resource damage, which we attribute to visitors who drive out into the desert,” she says. “Unless we do restoration work, the scars could be there for decades.”
If you’re hoping to take your own stunning photos of one of the best national parks in California and its otherworldly landscapes, Wines recommends starting your trip in the early morning or late afternoon. “The light in the park is prettiest around sunrise and sunset,” she says. “It’s worth the investment to get here early and stay late.”
Be transported to another world via Joshua Tree National Park
This national park’s namesake, the Joshua tree is easily recognized by its spikes and oddly formed, twisted branches. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the NPS
There are few places in the world as extraordinary as Joshua Tree, unquestionably one of the best national parks in California, with its desert ecosystem straddling both the Colorado and Mojave deserts. “If you blindfolded someone from the East Coast and set them down in the middle of the park, they’d believe they were on another planet,” says Land. “It has a different look than probably anywhere else in the world.”
Visit Joshua Tree in early spring and late fall, when scalding summer temps have subsided. In the cooler months, rock climbers and hikers find their paradise. Land recommends all park visitors pause to check out the park’s namesake plants. “Joshua trees aren’t actually trees,” he explains. “They’re a member of the yucca family, and they’re unique to the Mojave Desert. They’re big survivors, and ours are some of the biggest and most stately you’ll find.”
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