An introductory guide to each of the national parks in California including beginner trails, what to pack, top sights to see and more!
Have you ever dreamed of exploring the diverse landscapes of California’s national parks?
California offers a breathtaking haven for outdoor enthusiasts, but getting started can feel overwhelming if you’re coming in with no experience. That’s why I’m so excited to share this guide with you today.
Whether you’re in search of pristine lakes, ancient forests, or majestic wildlife, The Golden State has it all.
In this guide, I’m going to be distilling 20+ years of my California travel experience to help you get started. We’ll dive into these must-visit national parks, insider tips for planning your trip, and some ideas about how to get started.
Get ready to step into a world of natural wonders and unlock the secrets of California’s national parks like a pro!
Table of Contents
National Parks In California
Did you know there are a total of 9 National Parks in California? That’s right! There is so much to explore.
But don’t worry if you’re just starting out with hiking. These California National Parks offer an array of trails perfect for beginners. Here are a few of my favorites to check out.
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful destinations in The United States. Covering almost 750,000 acres, 95% of which is designated “wilderness,” Yosemite is a nature-lover’s paradise. Since I live in Southern California, I flew into San Francisco and rented a campervan to explore Yosemite. I highly recommend this if you like this style of camping.
The Mist Trail, located in the heart of Yosemite National Park, is an absolute must-visit for first-time visitors seeking an unforgettable outdoor adventure.
This iconic trail is renowned for its awe-inspiring natural beauty and is sure to leave you breathless. Stretching over 7 miles round trip, the Mist Trail takes you on a captivating journey through some of Yosemite’s most breathtaking landscapes.
As you ascend, you’ll get to see panoramic vistas and jaw-dropping views of the magnificent Vernal and Nevada Falls.
The mist generated by the thunderous cascades envelops the trail, offering a refreshing and immersive experience that truly connects you with the raw power of nature.
Along the way, you’ll see forests, streams, and towering granite cliffs, creating a picture-perfect backdrop for your hike.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide To Yosemite National Park
This picturesque area boasts a selection of easy hikes that are perfect for those new to hiking or seeking a more relaxed outdoor experience. The gentle terrain and well-maintained paths in Tuolumne Meadows make it accessible for hikers of all fitness levels.
Among the options, a popular choice is a trail leading hikers toward Lower Yosemite Falls, which will bring you to the stunning waterfall. As you venture along the trail, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views across El Capitan Meadow, providing a captivating panorama along Glacier Point Road.
2. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a unique desert landscape that offers a captivating experience for beginners. Its distinctive Joshua trees and fascinating rock formations create a surreal atmosphere.
Joshua Tree’s accessibility, interpretive exhibits, and scenic drives really make it a fantastic choice for those seeking an introduction to California’s diverse national parks.
3. Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands is an eight-island archipelago off the California coast. Five of those eight islands are part of Channel Islands National Park. These islands include Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara. This park offers diverse wildlife and abundant marine life.
There are no accommodations on any of the five islands in the park, however, camping is possible. I’ve included my hotel recommendations near the ferry departure point on the mainland below. You can also read my Channel Islands camping guide.
Beginner Trail: Cavern Point Loop on Santa Cruz Island, an easy 2.5-mile trail showcasing the island’s coastal beauty.
4. Death Valley National Park
Straddling eastern California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is an extreme landscape full of sand dunes, salt flats, deep canyons, rock formations, and breathtaking hikes. Death Valley stands as the hottest and most arid location in all of North America, resulting in a scarcity of plant life and a starkly barren landscape.
This park is home to the lowest point in North America and the United States, with a depth of 282 ft (86 m) below sea level.
Due to the weather, I recommend avoiding a summer visit. Spring is by far the most popular time to visit Death Valley, due to the possibility of wildflowers and the comfortable weather.
Beginner Trail: There are a few Golden Canyon Trails, ranging from 2.5 to 7 miles to choose from. Each offers a beautiful hike through colorful canyons, ideal for sunrise or sunset.
Read more: Death Valley National Park Travel Guide
5. Kings Canyon National Park
What comes to mind when you hear of this park? Majestic canyons, towering sequoias, and breathtaking views; a natural wonderland in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Kings Canyon National Park features terrain similar to Yosemite Valley, and is home to the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world!
Beginner Trail: General Grant Tree Trail, an easy 0.6-mile walk to the second-largest tree on the planet. A great and easy hike for kids and adults of all ages.
6. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Showcasing volcanic landscapes and hydrothermal features. The dynamic geothermal wonders and landscapes make it a captivating destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Beginner Trail: The Manzanita Lake Loop is about 1.7 long and will take you on a beautiful hike around the scenic lake, where you’ll encounter breathtaking views of the water from every side.
7. Pinnacles National Park
Characterized by unique rock formations, caves, and diverse flora and fauna this lesser-known park is a great getaway destination. Located in Central California, Pinnacles National Park is one of the best places to experience a natural wonder that is slightly away from the usual crowds.
Beginner Trail: Prewett Point Trail is a short and great introduction to the park’s geological wonders. Overall, this park is not big and there are many short trails to enjoy.
8. Redwood National Park
The place where ancient coastal redwood trees meet the rugged California coastline… absolutely beautiful! This Northern California park has the tallest trees in all of California and it’s a sight not to be missed! The stretch of road on the way to Redwood National Park is nothing short of amazing — especially the Avenue of the Giants!
Beginner Trail: Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, an easy 1.3-mile loop among majestic redwoods. If you’re visiting in the summer, you can walk this trail on a ranger-led hike that starts in the parking lot to learn more about the history and natural wonders of the park.
9. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is famous for giant sequoias, including General Sherman, the world’s largest tree! A bucket-list item for many I know.
Beginner Trail: Congress Trail, a 2.7-mile loop featuring impressive groves of sequoias, including General Sherman. The path is paved and with a minimum incline so is accessible and great for beginners.
Why Should You Visit California’s National Parks?
As a native Californian, I may be biased, but California’s National Parks are some of the most beautiful in the country. Here are some of the things the parks have become famous for.
1. An Adventure Playground for Outdoor Enthusiasts
If adventure fuels your soul, these parks will not disappoint. California’s national parks offer a wide range of activities such as hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, wildlife watching, and more. Each park offers unique opportunities, whether it’s trekking through the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite or exploring the surreal landscapes of Death Valley.
2. A Rich Tapestry of History and Nature
California’s National Parks, from Yosemite to Joshua Tree, are packed with cultural importance and present a variety of scenery that is unique.
They provide opportunities to learn about the rich Native American heritage, early explorers, and the preservation efforts that have shaped these areas into protected national treasures. Many parks offer interpretive centers, guided tours, and educational programs to deepen your understanding of the park’s cultural and historical significance.
Every time I visit, I still find new and exciting things to explore in this beautiful state.
3. Incredible Wildlife and Biodiversity
California’s national parks are home to an incredible array of plant and animal species. From majestic redwood trees to elusive wildlife like bears, cougars, and condors, these parks provide a sanctuary for diverse ecosystems to thrive. Exploring these parks allows you to immerse yourself in nature and witness firsthand the wonders of biodiversity.
Planning Your First Trip
Embarking on your first trip to California’s national parks is an exciting experience. However, careful planning is essential to ensure a smooth and enjoyable adventure. In this section, I’ll share the important steps of planning your first trip to these remarkable natural wonders.
Step #1: Prioritize what you want to see.
With a myriad of national parks to choose from, each with its unique features, it’s essential to prioritize your must-see destinations. Whether it’s the iconic granite monoliths of Yosemite’s El Capitan, the otherworldly desert landscapes of Joshua Tree, or the majestic coastal vistas of Point Reyes, identify the parks and landmarks that resonate with your interests and aspirations.
(Keep reading for my recommendations of parks to start with as a beginner!)
Once you have a location in mind, you can start thinking about the details of the trip.
Step #2: Plan ahead.
Start by visiting the National Park Service website, which serves as an invaluable resource for obtaining up-to-date information on park hours, closures, and any special events or programs. It’s also a great way to gauge the popularity of different parks and identify peak visitation times to avoid crowds.
Start thinking about dates for your trip, transportation to the park, and if you want to stay overnight. Whether you plan on camping or staying in a hotel, it is best to make the arrangements ahead of time. Space can become very limited, especially during peak seasons, so I always try to book my accommodations a month or two in advance.
#3: Schedule downtime too.
While it’s tempting to pack your itinerary with as many activities and sightseeing opportunities as possible, remember that vacations are also about relaxation and rejuvenation.
Be sure to allocate time for leisurely strolls, peaceful picnics, or simply soaking in the serene beauty of nature. Allow yourself to pause, unwind, and fully immerse yourself in the tranquility of your surroundings.
Remember, your trip to California’s national parks is not just about ticking off boxes; it’s an opportunity to create cherished memories and find solace in the wonders of the natural world.
Something to Consider: Taking a Guided Tour
If you’re feeling particularly nervous, consider joining guided tours offered by experienced rangers at each national park. This can be a great way to dip your toes in the new terrain!
California National Park Packing Guide
As you prepare to embark on your adventure to California’s national parks, packing the right essentials is key to ensuring a smooth and enjoyable journey.
In this section, we’ll take a look at the essential items to pack for your trip, so that you are both well-prepared and comfortable.
Here are a few things you’ll want to take:
- Hiking gear, such as sturdy shoes or boots, trekking poles, and a comfortable backpack.
- A variety of clothing layers. Weather in these parks can change quickly. Depending on the time of year you are traveling, you may need everything from shorts and T-shirts to warm jackets and rain gear. I always try to bring an extra layer with me on my hikes.
- Your own food and water supplies. Many park locations don’t have convenient access to stores or restaurants, especially on the trails. So make sure you bring enough for yourself for the length of your trip.
- An up-to-date map of the area for navigating trails. A must.
- A first aid kit. This could prove invaluable if an accident occurs.
- And…don’t forget your sunscreen! The California sun can be intense even on cooler days.
In essence: smart packing means considering both comfort AND being ready for unexpected situations that may arise while exploring nature at its finest.
For more information on packing, check out my complete (and recently updated!) packing guide.
California National Park Tips
Should You Camp?
Camping allows you to fully embrace the natural beauty and tranquility of the park, waking up to the sounds of birds chirping and the crisp scent of fresh air. It provides an opportunity to disconnect from the demands of modern life and connect with nature on a deeper level.
However, camping requires careful planning and preparation. Factors such as your comfort level with outdoor living, equipment availability, weather conditions, and the duration of your stay should all be taken into account.
It’s also essential to familiarize yourself with park regulations, obtain necessary permits, and practice responsible camping practices to minimize your impact on the environment.
Whether you choose to camp or not, national parks offer a range of accommodation options, from lodges and cabins to nearby towns with hotels and vacation rentals.
Ultimately, the decision to camp depends on your personal preferences, comfort level, and desire for a more immersive and adventurous experience in the great outdoors.
If you do decide to try it out, here are a few resources to help you out:
- Camping Tips For Beginners: Equipment, Booking, Budget Tips & More!
- 20 Genius Camping Hacks Every Camper Should Know
- The Ultimate Packing List For Campers (Must-Have Essentials!)
For the nature-minded, California’s National Parks are an absolute must to experience their abundant wildlife.
The variety of wildlife you’ll encounter on your trip is astounding. From the majestic elk in Redwood National Park to the unique Bighorn Sheep in Joshua Tree, these parks offer unparalleled opportunities for wildlife watching.
Here are a few things to keep in mind, while exploring the parks.
Tips For Responsible Wildlife Watching
- Educate yourself before you go: Learn about local flora and fauna so that you know what behaviors might be dangerous or harmful to them. Remember not all animals react the same way when approached by humans.
- No Feeding: It’s tempting but remember human food isn’t healthy for wild animals and it alters their natural behavior making them dependent on people which often leads to conflicts later on.
- Keep binoculars handy: To get close-up views without disturbing any creature’s habitat.
- Campsite etiquette: Store food properly at night time as many creatures such as bears become active after sunset seeking out easy meals left unattended by campers.
- Nature photography tips: Use long lenses if possible instead of trying to approach too closely; patience is key to getting great shots while still respecting animal space.
- Maintaining a safe distance from wild animals: is crucial both for your safety and theirs. Parks like Yosemite have strict rules about feeding or approaching wildlife – violations can lead to hefty fines. But remember, it’s all done for the sake of safety.
If birdwatching is more your speed, places like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are home to over 200 species of birds and a great place to explore!
FAQs: Visiting California’s National Parks
The order to visit California’s national parks is flexible, but a popular sequence includes starting with Yosemite for iconic scenery, then Joshua Tree for unique desert landscapes, and concluding with Sequoia/Kings Canyon for awe-inspiring giant sequoia trees.
I recommend considering travel logistics, weather, and your individual interests when determining the best order for you and your trip.
The time it takes to visit all the national parks in California varies based on individual preferences and available time. A well-paced trip to cover major parks like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and Pinnacles could range from two to three weeks.
You can also visit some highlights in a shorter time frame. My recommendation? Consider prioritizing your must-see parks, plan efficient travel routes, and allocate enough time at each park to fully experience their beauty and activities.
Yosemite National Park is a fantastic choice for your first visit. Its iconic landscapes, breathtaking waterfalls, and diverse trails offer an unforgettable experience. Yosemite Valley’s accessibility and visitor amenities also make it a great starting point for beginners, when exploring this renowned national park.