Seven must-visit California parks

By Michele Bigley, California-based travel writer

Photography by Getty

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January 2018

From the planet’s tallest trees to North America’s hottest spot, California’s national parks provide a winning recipe for outdoor adventurers. California writer Michele Bigley shares her guide to the state’s most exciting national parks.

For those needing some perspective: Redwood State and National Park 

Redwood trees average 91 metres in height, and only grow in a small slice of coastal Northern California (and a slice of southern Oregon). This national park not only preserves these worldly treasures, but also offers plenty of chances to marvel at their vastness.

Drive or cycle the Avenue of the Giants, stopping for a hike through Rockefeller Grove. Then literally drive through a redwood tree before heading up north. Beyond the town of Eureka, hikers adore the prehistoric Fern Canyon, a Jurassic forest that spills out to the sea. Along trails keep your eyes peeled for elk, bears, hawks and eagles.

In the know… Redwoods thrive in cool misty conditions, so bring warm clothes (even in summer). Plan to stay a couple nights in the area, bedding down in the historic town of Eureka, the funky college community of Arcata, or camping along an icy river.

Fly to: San Francisco or Oakland

Drive or cycle the Avenue of the Giants, stopping for a hike through Rockefeller Grove, then literally drive through a redwood tree.

For solace: Lassen Volcano National Park

Head east from the redwoods to explore the volcanic legacy that shaped California. The planet boasts four kinds of volcanoes, and this park houses all of them. Lassen is the state’s least visited park, so allows travellers to escape into nature without the crowds.

Isolated in the far northeastern part of the state, most travellers camp in the park, though it is possible to make a day of your exploration. Don’t miss the bubbling mud pools at Bumpass Hell, a hike through the Devastated Area (don’t let the name put you off), and a picnic along Manzanita Lake.

In the know… Most of the park closes in winter conditions (I’ve been turned away in late May due to snow), so the ideal time to visit is late summer, just after the crowds disperse.

Fly to: San Francisco or Oakland and hire a car.

  • Take the plunge along some of America’s most pristine coastline at the Channel Islands National Park © Getty

    Shoal goals  

    Over four football fields in length, the Channel Islands National Park is home to the one of the world’s largest sea caves, Painted Cave, where various rock types create its multi-coloured effect.

    Book flights to LA
  • Feel the heat in the cinematic plains of Death Valley National Park © Alamy

    Behind the scenes 

    Five hours from Hollywood, Death Valley has seen its fair share of movie making, from John Wayne westerns to the original Star Wars epic.

    LA things to do
  • Discover your inner-hippie at Joshua Tree National Park © Getty

    Park portrait 

    For the ultimate photo opportunity, strike a pose next to Skull Rock or at the top of Keys View, gazing down upon the panorama of Coachella Valley.

    Take a road trip

For bucket list travellers: Yosemite National Park

Waterfalls gushing down vertical rock faces, sequoia groves, rushing rivers, wildflower-blanketed meadows, every traveller should explore Yosemite National Park at least once.

Four million people visit Yosemite annually, and most of them arrive in summer. While even on the busiest weekend, it’s possible to spot bear cubs on lonely wanders, but it’s best to visit in late spring and early autumn. During peak season, a free shuttle loops to all the big-ticket valley floor destinations like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Mirror Lake. Alternatively, cycle the 21-kilometres of paved trails.

In the know... The park’s quiet winters are ideal for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. Want to escape the crowds? Camp in the wildflower blanketed Tuolumne Meadows and spend your days hiking to secret watering holes.

Fly to: San Jose.

For hikers: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Grab twenty strangers and try to hug one of these giants – spoiler alert: they’re so vast, you’ll likely fail. California’s Sequoia trees might not be as tall as their coastal redwood cousins, but their height (85 metres) plus circumference (8 metres) make them one of the world’s largest living organisms.

The duo of Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks share a border, making it a breeze to sashay between the two. Hikers should ascend to Moro Rock for epic views, and wander through Cedar Grove to get up close with the granite cliffs.

Park roads can be closed in winter weather, so visit in early fall, when the crowd’s slim, leaves put on a technicolour show, and the weather is still warm enough to splash in the rivers.

In the know… Soak your aching muscles in free Remington Hot Springs.

Fly to: San Jose, or Los Angeles.

  • Explore the enchanting forests of Redwood State & National Park © Getty

    A tree-mendous find 

    Known for its exceptional forests, the Redwood National Park is home to the tallest trees on earth, the spectacular 100-metre-tall coastal redwood.

    Discover San Francisco

For spotting sea life: Channel Islands National Park

Off the coast of Santa Barbara, this archipelago houses endangered animals, quiet beaches, and sea caves. It’s possible to arrange a day trip from Santa Barbara or Ventura, or camp on Santa Cruz Island.

Animal lovers head to San Miguel Island’s Point Bennett to spot elephant seals that visit during summer and autumn (these seals attract great white sharks, so use caution in the water). Divers sojourn to Anacapa’s kelp forest. Kayakers island hop through waters teaming with sea lions, seals and dolphins.

In the know… Not into getting wet? Sign up for a whale-watching cruise to view the five isles from afar with Island Packers.

Fly to: Los Angeles.

For artists: Joshua Tree National Park

Traverse a path lined with sculptures to enter this SoCal park where the expanse of the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet. Active types rappel down rock faces, hike through the park’s namesake trees to the top of Mastadon Peak to view the Salton Sea. Stargazers flock from around the globe for meteor showers in this designated Dark Sky Preserve.

Invite the muses to lure out your creativity by bringing a sketchpad to a palm oasis. Or head up to the famed Pappy and Harriett’s Pioneertown Palace to hear how the spaciousness of this region inspires some of the world’s most famous rockers who pop in for guest appearances.

In the know… Epic light, a canvas of stars, and a creative tradition mark this national park as a favourite for creative types and artists.

Fly to: San Diego or Los Angeles.

For stargazers: Death Valley National Park

While this National Park might be the hottest spot in North America in summer, from November until April, pleasant temperatures beckon hikers to explore the depths of the lowest elevation in the United States.

Because this park receives minimal rainfall, night skies prove to be the best show in the universe. Wander out to Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the USA), or Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the most expansive stellar views.

In the know… During the day, explore the Devil’s Golf Course, or Artist’s Drive (ask at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center about trail conditions). Cap off your day by trying to spot the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Dante’s View, then take in the majestic sunset over Zabrieskie Point.

Fly to: Los Angeles and hire a car, or Las Vegas.