The Best California National Parks – Top Sites to Visit

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One of the great parts about California is the number of trails to hike throughout the state. It is mind boggling the number of trails to choose from. As such, you want to prioritize certain places over others. Here are the top locations you will not want to miss.

Yosemite – John Muir’s Home Away from Home

If you were to prioritize one place to visit above all others in California, it would be Yosemite. It sits on the Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Forged in the last Ice Age from massive glaciers, Yosemite features jaw-dropping cliffs and out crops seen today. It possesses environments such as oak, chaparral, and sparse alpine high country.

The first place you will want to stop at on your entrance into Yosemite will be the Tunnel View Spot on state route 41. It gives you the most scenic initial view of the Yosemite Valley. El Capitan is on the left. Half Dome on the right and Bridalveil Falls is just beneath it.

President Theodore Roosevelt described Yosemite Valley as a “great Solumn Cathedral.” He was right. If you look around you while on the floor, you will be awestruck by the sheer rock faces, tall sequoias, and majestic water ways. Throughout the Valley, you will see the Merced River wind through. Depending on the time of year, it widens or narrows with the snowfall of the year.

Bridalveil Falls is one of the feeders of the Merced River. While peaking in May, the falls is open year round. If you want to increase your chances to marriage, inhale the mists and love will surely follow. 188 meters in height, the falls come crashing down the cliff face. The water contributes to the erosion of the rock.

John Muir, the guardian of Yosemite, once said that everyone needs “beauty as well as bread.” Take the Mist Trail and you will realize how right he was. As you head up the hike, you will follow the Merced River as it makes its tumble down the mountain side. While along this trail, you will find the John Muir trail, another scenic path.

If you want a holistic view of the valley, hike up to Glacier point. It will provide you with a majestic view of the valley. Heading further up the trail, you will stop at Washburn Point. If you do not have much time, both sites can be accessed by road.

Yosemite Village provides an overview of the Valley’s history as well as gifts for friends and family. The park is busiest from March to October, so plan accordingly. Bikes provide a unique way to explore. There is also a free bus service to take around the valley.

On your way out, you will want to stop at Valley View to get a last glimpse of the valley. After that, you can head up the scenic Tioga Road. Along the way, you can pull over at Olmsted point. Keep in mind that the road is closed from October to May. Heading up further, you can stop at Tuolumne Meadow, possessing even more trails. Following that, you will find Lembert Dome.

John Muir described Yosemite as a place that is “far easier to feel than explain,” making it a high priority trip for all campers and hikers.

Joshua Tree National Park – It’s a Hot One

Joshua Tree National Park is located in the Mojave Desert, home of, you guessed it, the Joshua Tree. The first pioneers to visit it were the Mormons. When they saw it, they were reminded of the biblical hero Joshua, so they named it after him. Despite being called a tree, it is actually a fruit bearing member of lily family.

This park combines two ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Despite what many think when it comes to deserts, these actually have grasses, making it perfect for high ground ranching. Bill Keys was one of those first ranchers to the area. He came there in 1910. Filing under the Homestead Act, he was able to get a piece of land for himself. Man made sites to visit include the Wonderland Ranch, Wall street Mill, and the Keys Desert Queens Ranch.

You are probably not visiting the park for the man made sites. One of the natural places to visit is Skull Rock. Forged by the winds of the desert, this outcrop looks like, big surprise, a human skull. Dotted throughout the park are granite outcrops, providing rock climbers with a great workout. Another place is the Oasis of Mara. This water spot serves as a year round attractant of birds to drink from. You will be sure to spot the iconic road runner as well as hummingbirds.

While a hot place to visit, Joshua Tree National Park will give you a wholesome pioneer experience.

Sequoia National Park – Where the Ancients Live

Located near the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park is one of California’s best well-kept secrets. It is one of the many homes of the mighty sequoia. Standing next to these trees is like standing next to an NBA player, looking at a picture of them does not do them any justice.

Visible throughout most of the park, Mt. Whitney is another site to behold here. At over 14,000 ft, it is the tallest mountain in America, a truly breathtaking mountain. If you are into mountaineering, this mountain is perfect for a two-day trip.

Sequoia National Park also boasts General Sherman, a 2,000 years old massive sequoia. It is the largest living thing on Earth. Because of their size, virtually nothing kills them. Nothing can be made out of them, as they shatter when they fall. Another sequoia to see is the Giant Tunnel Log. When it fell in the 1800s, instead of moving it, the lumberjacks carved a tunnel through it.

Another site to see here is Crystal Cave. The cave system contains over eighty caves, perfect for spelunking (not recommended). It showcases beautiful stalactites. These rocks are most often formed from limestone drips. Stare in awestruck wonder of this cave. Additionally, there is Moro Rock to be seen. It is a granite dome rock formation. From the top of it, you get a spectacular view of most of the park.

Sequoia National Park is surely a spectacular destination to visit.

Big Sur – the Coastal Refuge

Big Sur is a wonderful spot to visit in California. It possesses many trees, including redwoods, conifers, sycamores, oaks, alders, cottonwoods, maples, and willows. Wild life to be seen include squirrels, raccoon, deer, birds, and many more, making Big Sur a great place to visit.

If taking highway 1, you will see Bixby bridge, an excellent place to get a scenic view of the coast and surrounding area. Nearby, there is McWay Falls, an 80 ft waterfall that flows year round. Step under it and get a quick shower. North of Big Sur, you will also find Point Lobos, a quaint spot to spend afternoon. Along the coast, if you’re lucky, you will find sea otters and crabs.

Inside of Big Sur, one of the top trails is the Ewoldsen. It has redwood groves, rocky streams, and ocean vistas. Additionally, there is the Pfeiffer Falls trail. While a short one, it more than makes up for it in majestic scenery. After a long day, there is the Tassajara Hot Springs to visit. If you’re looking for tranquility and peace, this will be sure to do the trick.

Big Sur is certainly a wondrous place.

Lassen Volcanic National Park – It’s about to Get Steamy

Located 55 miles from Redding, California along highway 89, Lassen National Park boasts the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Its last eruptions occurred between 1914-1921. If it were to erupt again, it would come as no surprise, making it one of the most likely volcano in the cascades to erupt. If you want to find out the history, the Loomis Museum describes the park’s past and its volcanoes.

Nearby, you can find the Manzanita lake, which features catch and release fishing as well as kayaking. Spend the night in one of their cabins or camp outside. Nearby, there is the Kings Creek Falls, where you can see a majestic crash of water on top of rocks.

In regard to trails, there is the Devastated area trail, where you can learn about the eruption as you hike. The signature trail to see is the Bumpass Hell Trail. It is a hydro thermal area, featuring turquoise hot springs and boiling pools. There you can find the Big Boiler, the world’s hottest non erupting volcano. Sulfur works is nearby, a very neat, bubbling hydro thermal area. And there is, of course, the Lassen peak trail, 5 miles round trip.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is an underrated national park where you can learn about volcanism.

Making the Right Choice

All of these options each present their own unique sites and advantages. They all guarantee a magical, jaw dropping experience. Whether you want to hike a volcano or take a short walk by a stream. You will find a park that resonates with you. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

While you are still here, be sure to check out my review on the Teton Sports Scout 3400. If you are going to be spending any length of time in a national park, you will need a solid backpack to help you out.

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20 Comments on “The Best California National Parks – Top Sites to Visit”

  1. Alex, I love the detailed tour you provided of the various California Parks. Your pictures are also inviting and a great way to pre-plan a hiking adventure with friends and family.

    Hiking outdoors is so invigorating and it really helps to unclutter the mind and leave all cares behind.

    1. Yes, thank you so much Phildora. Hiking is one of the most underrated activities for cleansing your body and renewing your spirit. I appreciate your thoughts on this article. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hey Alex, one of my friends recently traveled here and apparently its amazing, he said the hike was quite long but besides that the view looked spectacular!

    It seems like a place I would want to travel too one day when I have enough money saved up, but your article was very interesting and provided a really good insight about the history of the area.

    I can’t imagine trying to hike through there during the Ice Age!

    Great post i’ll give it a share!

    Thanks Alex.

    1. Yes, California has an incredible amount of scenic national parks. It is truly spectacular and would be absolutely lovely if you could come see it. You can spend a lifetime here and not see all that California has to offer. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your thoughts on this article.

  3. Hi Alex, this post brings me back in time, more than 30 years ago to when I visited the states with a friend. We did the Yosemite and the Sequoia National Parks it was amazing and I will never forget.
    Hopefully, I’ll get another chance to see some more of this beautiful region.
    How are the prices nowadays, did it get much more expensive?

    1. Yes, you are right. The scenery is majestic there. It is stunning to stare at. Unfortunately, the prices have gotten more expensive as there is more demand to see Yosemite and Sequoia, but not so much so. There are some hotels nearby that are as low as $40 a night. On top of that, there is an entrance fee. In Yosemite, they offer a seven day pass that goes for $30 from April to October, while the rest of the year is $25. I hope that answered your question. Thank you for sharing. Yosemite and Sequoia are well worth the trip.

  4. What amazing places. I stumbled on to your site as we are planning a holiday to California next year and looking for which national parks to visit. Thanks for laying out all the info on these great sites.

    1. These are all great spots to visit. It is just a matter of choosing one, but they are all wonderful places to hike through. Thank you for sharing Vince.

  5. I have had the great fortune of visiting more than one place on your list already, so I can attest to how wonderful they really are. However, when I visited these places I was much younger. When I go back, I’d like to take on more of a challenge. Is it possible to hike in and camp at sites that are not campgrounds or must you set up camp in designated areas?

    I’ve got much to learn about self-reliance and I’d like to challenge myself in beautiful locations like Yosemite and Muir woods. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    1. Niel, it is nice to hear that these places were an excellent experience for you. The fact that you want to return and challenge yourself is a testament to your character. In regards to your question, it is possible to hike in and camp, but you have to do so in particular areas and with a permit.

      By doing so, you learn to be self reliant and resilient. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  6. Nice covering of Southern California’s hot spots for outdoors. I kind of wish that maybe you had added one or two of the good Northern California spots as well. A few of the great places include the Redwood Forest and the beautiful Fern Canyon. Appreciate the part about Lassen though.

    1. Hey Brittaney, you are right that I did not include everything. There are just so many in California to choose from, so the standards are high. It is wonderful to hear that you enjoyed the article though. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  7. I love hiking/trekking, my last trip to trekked in Swizerland was wonderful and left me with such beautiful memories, and I keep doing searching that where should be my next destination.
    Now I have found your post and I would say it really invited me, with clear detailed and vivid description, your article is simple to read and yet brings out the points that a hiking lover like me are really looking for. One more thing, those pictures are just amazingly beautiful, I can start imagine myself in the place right off the bat!
    You rock it!

    1. Darren, it is wonderful to hear that you went to Switzerland. I bet it is incredible. There are plenty of mountains to see there.

      California has its own peaks to choose from. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  8. This is an awesome post! I would love to visit all the places except for Joshua Tree National Park. I mean I would visit but, the other places look more tempting. I love the pictures of the parks they are so beautiful to look at. I learned a lot about Top sites to visit when or if I ever go to California. Thank you for sharing…Have an awesome day

    1. Hey Lakisha, it is wonderful to hear that you found this article helpful. I think I would have to disagree with you on Joshua Tree National Park, but you are right that there are a lot of other wonderful places to see in California. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  9. Hey Alex, great post on CA’s beautiful parks. I went to Yosemite when I was about 12 and have fond memories of the trip. If I still lived out west, I would definitely hit some more of your suggestions.
    Have you ever camped in the state of Arkansas. We have some beautiful scenery and camping for all levels of expertise.
    thanks for the post.

    1. Bryon, it is wonderful to hear that you enjoyed the article. The West coast has plenty of stunning national parks to choose from.

      I have never been to Arkansas before. I should go there. The South is often disregarded by people on the East and West coast unfortunately.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  10. I love nature, and these are the kinds of places that would thrill me. Thanks for your recommendations, and I’ll be sure to try them out!

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