Seven must-visit California parks

By Michele Bigley, California-based travel writer

Photography by Getty

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Containing the world’s tallest trees and a contender for the most beautiful valley on earth – California’s national parks are all national treasures. California writer Michele Bigley shares her guide to the state’s most exciting national parks.

For bucket list travellers: Yosemite National Park

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

Four million people visit Yosemite annually and most of them arrive in summer. During this peak season, a free shuttle loops round all the big-ticket valley floor destinations, like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and Mirror Lake. Nature is so abundant here that you might still spot bear cubs on the quieter trails even on the busiest weekend of the year; but if you prefer more peaceful periods, visit during late spring and early autumn. If you don’t want to hike, there are 12 miles of paved cycling trails. Stay at Rush Creek Lodge on the quieter side of the park to get the most out of the great outdoors.

In the know... The park’s quiet winters are ideal for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. Want to visit in summer, but don’t want crowds in your photographs? Camp in the Tuolumne Meadows and spend your days hiking to secret watering holes.

Fly to: San Jose.

Book the Total Yosemite Experience from San Francisco

For hikers: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Grab twenty strangers and try to hug a giant sequoia tree – spoiler alert: you won’t have enough arm-spans to make it round the circumference – they really are that big. California’s sequoias 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.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon 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.

Winter weather can close the roads through the park, so visit in early fall; the crowds start to thin, the changing leaves put on a technicolour show, and the weather is still warm enough for splashing around in the rivers. John Muir Lodge is the natural solution if you’re looking for accommodation: it’s a timbered lodge with handcrafted furnishings and, more often than not, a welcoming fire crackling away in the lounge.

In the know… Soak your aching muscles in the Remington Hot Springs. These pools on the Kern River are kept cosy by geothermal activity and they’re totally free to visit.

Fly to: San Jose, or Los Angeles.

  • 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 those needing some perspective: Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood trees average 91 metres in height, and only grow in a small slice of coastal Northern California (and a slice of Southern Oregon). The Redwood National and State Parks protect these natural wonders and offer visitors 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. As you wander the trails keep your eyes peeled for elk, bears, hawks and eagles in their natural habitat.

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 on the banks of an icy river.

Fly to: San Francisco

Book a Redwoods and Wine Country Escape from San Francisco

For solace: Lassen Volcano National Park

Head east from the redwoods to explore the volcanic legacy that shaped California. At Lassen Volcano National Park it’s possible to see all four of earth’s existing volcano types. As California’s least-visited park, Lassen is perfect for travellers looking to escape into nature – among bubbling hydrothermal pools and boiling vents, no less – away from the crowds.

Isolated as it is in the far northeastern part of the state, most travellers camp in the park, though it is possible to visit on a day trip. Don’t miss the bubbling mud pools at Devil's Kitchen, a hike through the Devastated Area (don’t let the name put you off), and a picnic on the shore of 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.

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

  • Explore the enchanting forests of Redwood National & State  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. Book flights from London to San Francisco, plus car hire for seven days:

    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 during summer and autumn to spot elephant seals in the wild (these seals attract great white sharks, so use caution in the water). Kayakers can island-hop across waters that teem with sea lions, seals and dolphins, while divers sojourn to Anacapa Island’s kelp forest.

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

The Colorado and Mojave deserts meet at Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a unique part of the world, where epic light and strange sculptural plants (Joshua trees are actually a species of yucca plant) have long served as inspiration for artists. In fact, you can stop at a unique sculpture park on your way in, at the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum.

Once you’re in the park, hike through the park’s namesake trees to the top of Mastadon Peak. From here you have great views over the Salton Sea, a huge saline lake to the south. For more great views, come at night: the park is a dark-sky preserve and stargazers flock from around the globe to witness midnight meteor showers. Stay in nearby Palm Springs, at Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort And Spa, and you can drive to the park in under an hour.

In the know… Music fans head to Pioneertown, a ‘fake town’ that was purpose-built in the forties as a film set for Westerns. Nowadays, it’s been given new life, thanks to Pappy and Harriett’s Pioneertown Palace, a barbecue and country music bar on the edge of town. Paul McCartney, Arctic Monkeys and Kesha have all played in this unique honky-tonk venue.

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 Death Valley, which sits at the lowest elevation in the United States.

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

Check into Ranch at Death Valley for quaint rooms and that ever-so-essential swimming pool.

In the know… During the day, explore the Devil’s Golf Course (not an actual 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.