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9 Must-Visit National Parks in California for Your Bucket List

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Have you ever dreamt of wandering through misty forests, exploring deserts, or standing beneath towering ancient trees? California's national parks let you do all that and more. 

One park spans an area bigger than Rhode Island and has the largest trees on earth!

Another contains a glacier-carved canyon surrounded by snow-capped peaks where giant sequoias stand tall. You'll even find half a volcano, moved 200 miles from its origin. These are real places you can visit! 

Away from the busy cities and packed beaches, California has a wild, unspoiled side waiting for you. Let's tour nine Golden State national parks and what makes each a must-visit.

1. Yosemite National Park

Have you ever wanted to experience towering waterfalls, ancient sequoias, and sheer granite cliffs? You can see all that and more in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Valley in the Yosemite National Park in California - USA

The scenic Yosemite Valley winds along the Merced River, with lush green meadows and granite monoliths rising on either side. Bridalveil Fall cascades into the valley at one end, its waters plunging over towering cliffs.

The iconic Half Dome rock formation stands at the other end, its granite face rising tall into the sky. This California park blankets over 1,200 square miles of alpine lakes and rugged wilderness. 

Walk among giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, some over 3,000 years old. Don't miss hiking the Mist Trail and experiencing the refreshing spray of waterfalls. 

Read more: Driving from Las Vegas to Yosemite [Detailed Guide]

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Imagine a landscape with unique trees, their twisted branches providing a fascinating backdrop. 

Yellow wildflower blooming in Spring, Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park, a beautiful blend of contrasting environments. The natural landscapes feature rocky formations, sandy plains, and diverse vegetation, creating a rugged yet serene experience.

You'll encounter Joshua trees throughout the Mojave Desert section as you explore the park. Their distinctively twisted branches create the signature charm of the area.

With its signature Joshua trees, varied desert scenery, and excellent stargazing, Joshua Tree National Park stands out as a worthwhile destination on your California National Park bucket list.

Read more: 5 Best Campsites in Joshua Tree National Park

3. Sequoia National Park

Enter a place where the trees touch the sky. Welcome to Sequoia National Park in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Here, giant sequoias stand tall, with the General Sherman Tree leading as the largest living tree on Earth. Its sturdy trunk spans 36 feet in width and has existed for over 2,000 years.

General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park

You might see some wildlife too. Black bears, mule deer, and mountain lions call this park home. And if you love bird-watching, keep an eye out for Steller's jays and American dippers.

4. Kings Canyon National Park

Kings Canyon National Park is a place of extremes in the best way.

Panorama of Zumwalt Meadows hiking in Kings Canyon National Park, a large grassland in the forest with wildflowers with the surrounding towering cliffs of Kings Canyon.

Picture this: on one end, peaks are soaring over 14,000 feet high, and on the other, the valley floor of Cedar Grove sits at an incredible 4,500 feet. 

The park's eastern edge stretches from Mount Goethe to Junction Peak, linking up with Sequoia National Park. 

Hiking through passes above 11,000 feet, such as Bishop Pass and Kearsarge Pass, will show you a different side of California.

The shape of the land is the work of ancient glaciers from the Ice Ages, spanning 2.5 million years. There's a lot of life here too. Kings Canyon is home to over 1,200 types of plants, 20 percent of all plant species found in California! 

And let's not forget about the wildlife, mainly the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, which the park is actively helping to conserve and boost their population. 

In Cedar Grove, the South Fork offers fly fishing opportunities, especially in early autumn, with rainbow trout being the native catch in these waters.

5. Channel Islands National Park

Ever wanted to escape to remote islands?

Coast of Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

Well, just off the coast of Southern California, you'll discover the Channel Islands—five unique islands covering 249,354 acres. 

The islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara feel worlds away yet sit only miles from the mainland. Interestingly, almost half of their area is underwater.

The national park covers the first nautical mile around each island, with the next three miles being California's territory. In total, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary extends six miles out.

Lounge on empty beaches, spot endemic species like the island fox and fence lizard, or camp under starry night skies.

The marine world features kelp forests, sea lions, and whales. Snorkel or dive alongside dolphins and whales. Hike windswept cliffs, kayak into sea caves, and boat among all five islands to explore this unique marine park.

Read more: Channel Islands National Park – A Quick Guide

6. Pinnacles National Park

Rising from California's Gabilan Mountains, Pinnacles National Park protects the jagged remains of an ancient volcano with towering rock spires, sheer-walled canyons, and massive monoliths. 

Hiking in Pinnacles National Park, California

The volcanic landscape formed 23 million years ago, with remnants shifting 200 miles to their current spot on the San Andreas Fault. In the park's 26,000 acres, visitors can wander through oak woods, canyons, and shrubby areas.

The park is divided into East and West sections, connected only by hiking trails. The East offers a cooler environment with its shade and water, contrasting with the West's impressive high walls. 

Find more things to do in our article Awesome Things To Do In Pinnacles National Park, CA

7. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Looking for both volcanic intrigue and rock-climbing adventures? You'll find what you're after in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Sunset at Lassen Peak with reflection on Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The park's jagged cliffs, sheer canyons, and massive monoliths offer stunning hikes and climbs. Condors soar over its East and West sections, connected by trails.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to all four types of volcanoes, with Lassen Peak - the world's largest plug dome volcano - at its center.

Explore over 150 miles of trails that take you past steaming hydrothermal areas, meadows and lakes, and volcanic formations.

Read more: Top 10 Things To Do In Lassen National Park, California.

8. Redwood National Park

Home to the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National Park is more than just sky-high trees. It's a diverse ecosystem encompassing vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild rivers, and 40 miles of rugged coastline.

Redwood National Park

The ancient redwoods here are awe-inspiring, creating a serene, almost cathedral-like atmosphere, ideal for hiking, wildlife viewing, and soaking in the tranquil beauty of nature.

Read more: Our Redwood National Park Visiting Guide (With Pictures!)

9. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley, notorious as North America's driest and hottest spot, offers a striking contrast of landscapes. From the below-sea-level basin, witness the surreal salt flats at Badwater Basin.

Death Valley NP

Explore the rugged mountains, and don't miss the vibrant wildflower displays on rare rainy days. Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes, where you can experience scorching heat yet find snow-dusted peaks in winter.

Read more: 11 Hidden Gems in Death Valley National Park That Few Travelers Ever See

Exploring California's Diverse National Parks

California's national parks offer unforgettable sights and adventures, from Yosemite's granite cliffs to the hydrothermal areas of Lassen Volcanic.

You connect with living history as you wander among ancient sequoias or see condors circling above. These parks also represent the future, as conservation efforts help frogs, sheep, and other species thrive.

Have you visited any of these incredible places? Please share your favorite national park experiences and memories with us in the comments!

 
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