6 Must-See National and State Parks in California

California is famous worldwide for being the home of Hollywood, beautiful beaches and some of the most amazing national parks, not just in the United States, but the entire world. It has long enchanted artists, writers and nature-lovers from all walks of life.

In a state as large and vast as California, with hundreds of state parks and plenty of national parks as well, how can you pick which ones to visit during your stay?

The good news is, you pretty much can’t go wrong. There’s so much variety in this long coastal state, full of deserts, mountains and forests that you can get a nice variety without ever leaving the Golden State. As a California native, here are some of my favorite national and state parks. Some are under the radar and some are known and beloved by many, but for good reason:

Joshua Tree National Park: Great for Stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is a love story of when two become one - the Colorado Desert takes up the southern and eastern parts of the park, colliding with the Mojave Desert, which takes up the northern side of the park, expanding into an 800,000-acre panorama. The national park is famed for its dark night skies, perfect for star-gazing and surreal geologic features, as well as the Joshua Tree, which is known to only grow in the Mojave Desert. Though it can be covered in a day, I recommend spending a night or two to really take it all in.

The best activity:

  • Hiking: with more than 8,000 routes to choose from, Joshua Tree has something in store for hikers of all levels. Hidden Valley is great for a light, short day hike, as it is a one mile long route that can be completed in less than an hour, though you could be distracted by the interesting rock formations. For something moderately challenging, go for Lost Palms Oasis, a 7.4-mile-long hike that can be completed in a few hours but with challenge.

Getting there: Rent a car at LAX or Palm Springs airport and drive to the park.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Great for Photography Lookout Points

McWay Falls

The feminist in me can’t help but adore how this national park got its name. The land was owned by an heiress and a former senator, the McWays, who named it after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a friend of theirs who they felt was “a true pioneer woman” and embodied the true spirit of California. Burns State Park’s main claim to fame is McWay Falls, which is accessible along a small side trail off Highway 1.

The best activity:

  • Photograph the falls. A unique sight along California’s coastline, the beautiful McWay Falls run year-round, standing at 80 feet-above the sand on the shore. The Waterfall Overlook Trail is short and easy, and you will be rewarded with a majestic view of the falls sending fresh water into the Pacific Ocean. Recently reopened after the damage from the powerful storms this winter, many of the other hiking trails in the park are still closed, including the popular Ewoldsen Trail, so be sure to check online while you plan your trip.

Getting there: Rent a car at Alamo LAX or SFO and drive along PCH to the park.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park: Great for Tranquility and Tree Hugging

Coastal Redwood Trees

Humboldt, California, is the state’s best-kept secret. There you’ll find the largest expanse of ancient redwoods left on earth. The Coastal Redwood Trees are the tallest trees in the world, and seeing them in person is a humbling experience. Entering the forest, along the Avenue of the Giants, feels like traveling to a new dimension with plenty of hiking trails, ultimate frisbee courses, and gorgeous beaches nearby.

The best activity:

  • Camping: There are more than 250 campsites, many of which are free. Facilities are great and many of them are set among the giant trees, making the experience that much more special. A tip is to set up your camp close to the Eel River or Bull Creek, and enjoy swimming, hiking, fishing and rafting.

Getting there: Add it to your Pacific Coast Highway trip north of SFO, located here.

Death Valley: The World’s Hottest Desert with Amazing Rock Formations

The hottest surface temperature ever recorded on earth was recorded in Death Valley. It is also the point of lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Though it may not be the best place to visit midday in the summer, Death Valley is known for its geological beauty including salt pans, the interesting phenomena of the sailing stones and in February, desert flower blooms.

The best activity:  

  • Visit the Badlands and marvel at the incredible rock formations, but avoid it in the summertime!

Getting there: Rent a car from Fresno airport and drive over, making time for King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks on the way.

El Captain: Great for Coastal Camping and Dolphin Watching

El Captain

Just north of Santa Barbara on California’s dreamy Central Coast, El Captain has some incredible camp spots nestled on cliffs just above the water. The amazing thing about this part of the coastline is how rich it is in sea life, including the big guys like whales and dolphins. I can’t think of a time when I have been camping there and didn’t see dolphins show up within 10 minutes of staring at the horizon. They always seem to appear.

The best activity:

  • Surf and turf: For those who love nature, this is a great spot to stay if you still want to experience Santa Barbara, go winetasting or hit up some of the famous surf spots in the area, but come back to a tranquil camp spot at night.

Getting there: Either add it onto your Pacific Coast Highway itinerary or fly into Goleta and pick up a car from the airport. You can reach Gaviota here.

Yosemite: Famous for its Waterfalls and “The Valley”

We couldn’t talk about the national parks in California without mentioning Yosemite. Carved by glaciers from the last Ice Age, The Valley is so famous that it welcomes 4 million visitors each year, making it the third most visited national park in the US. The park is full of famous waterfalls and is a favorite among rock climbers. Since it is so popular, this one is great to visit during the off or shoulder seasons, especially if you can time it with the first snow of the season.

The best activity:

  • Go chasing waterfalls. With so many different waterfalls in the park, you can pick an easy, paved trail like Bridal Veil Falls or go for something more difficult and strenuous like Nevada Falls.

Getting there: Fly into either Sacramento or Fresno and drive into the park.

Additionally, if you want to start south and head north or vice versa, Alamo offers one-way rentals to make this easier.

Those are a few of my favorite parks in California, each with its own uniqueness and special beauty. All of them are ideal for outdoor lovers and if you’re lucky enough to visit all six, you’ll end up with some varied experiences that it’s hard to believe they are all in the same state.

About the Author

Kristin Addis

Kristin Addis is a solo female travel expert who inspires women to travel the world in an authentic and adventurous way. A former investment banker who sold all of her belongings and left California in 2012, Kristin has solo traveled the world for over five years, covering every continent (except for Antarctica, but it’s on her list). You can find more of her musings at Be My Travel Muse or on Instagram and Facebook.