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 seven of the Golden State’s 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.
The scenic Yosemite Valley winds along the Merced River, with lush green meadows and granite monoliths rising on either side. At one end, Bridalveil Fall cascades into the valley, its waters plunging over towering cliffs.
At the other end stands the iconic Half Dome rock formation, 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.
El Capitan is a popular destination for climbers seeking a granite challenge. With options for all skill levels, you can challenge yourself and enjoy the sweeping vistas.
With its iconic natural landmarks, endless outdoor adventures, and breathtaking beauty, Yosemite National Park is a bucket list destination not to be missed.
To further immerse yourself in the splendor of Yosemite National Park, you can explore this article featuring 21 breathtaking photos.
2. Joshua Tree National Park
Imagine a landscape dotted with unique trees, their twisted branches providing a fascinating backdrop.
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.
As you explore the park, you'll encounter Joshua trees throughout the Mojave Desert section. Their distinctively twisted branches create the signature charm of the area.
Over in the Colorado Desert, the landscape changes. Look for new cactus types, wildflowers, and critters like roadrunners and desert tortoises.
Another highlight of this park is its rock formations. Features like Skull Rock and Arch Rock are great for photos and offer a glimpse into the park’s geological past.
Their trails lead you through boulder piles, hidden canyons, and tranquil oases. When night falls, the park becomes a stargazer’s paradise.
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.
For more information on where to see Redwoods in California, check out this article with six recommended locations.
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.
Beyond the trees, head to Moro Rock and see the wide-open views of mountains and forests. Or find some quiet at Crescent Meadow, a peaceful spot surrounded by greenery.
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.
With its giant sequoias, Sequoia National Park offers a unique chance to walk among ancient living things, making it a must-see spot on your California National Park bucket list.
4. Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park is a place of extremes in the best way.
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 a cool 4,500 feet.
The park's eastern edge stretches from Mount Goethe to Junction Peak, linking up with Sequoia National Park.
Hiking through passes like Bishop Pass and Kearsarge Pass, which sit above 11,000 feet, you'll see a whole 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, especially 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.
Kings Canyon National Park, with its towering peaks, deep valleys, and clear rivers, is a standout spot on any California National Park bucket list.
5. Channel Islands National Park
Ever wanted to escape to remote islands?
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 itself 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 island fence lizard, or camp under starry night skies.
The marine world features kelp forests, sea lions, whales, and more. 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.
With its raw natural beauty, a wealth of wildlife, and endless outdoor adventures, Channel Islands National Park is a worthy destination perfect for any California bucket list.
Experience the beauty of California's beaches with '22 Stunning California Beaches Pictures That Will Make You Fall In Love With The West Coast.
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.
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.
There are many trails for seeing beautiful views, climbing on the Pinnacles rocks, and exploring small caves.
Find even more things to do in our article ‘Awesome Things To Do In Pinnacles National Park, CA.’
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.
Wildlife includes prairie falcons, California condors, bobcats, and the threatened California red-legged frog, which has returned to the park thanks to a re-establishment project.
With its rock spires, wildflower displays, ancient caves, and rare wildlife, Pinnacles National Park is a remarkable California bucket list destination.
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.
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, through meadows and lakes, and around volcanic formations.
Bubbling volcanic features, climbable crags, and unforgettable outdoor experiences - this park delivers it all through California's scenic diversity. Looking for both volcanic intrigue and rock-climbing adventures?
You'll find what you're after in Lassen Volcanic National Park. 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.
With its volcanic wonders and miles of trails, Lassen Volcanic National Park is an unforgettable destination that belongs on any California bucket list.
Plan your visit to Lassen National Park, California, with ease using our list of the top ten activities in the article 'Top 10 Things To Do In Lassen National Park, California'.
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.
As you wander among ancient sequoias or see condors circling above, you're connecting with living history. These parks also represent the future, as conservation efforts help frogs, sheep, and other species thrive.
Have you visited any of these incredible places? Share your favorite national park experiences and memories with us in the comments!
Comparing adventures helps us all build the ultimate California bucket list.