When it comes to national parks, it’s no surprise that California has the most to offer with nine awe-inspiring and also completely different parks. Having grown up there, yes, I am biased, but I believe California is the most varied and beautiful state in the US. Where else do you have the tallest trees, the lowest, hottest point in the US, and the tallest waterfall? They’re all found in our national parks.
I’ve been to all of them, and these are my rankings to help you narrow it down in case your time in the Golden State is limited:
1. Yosemite National Park – Best Waterfalls
Yosemite is my number one pick thanks to the magnitude of incredible hikes, the drama of the glacier-carved Valley, and of course the waterfalls. Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet (739 m).
Yosemite is also the most popular national park on this list, but if you visit, you’ll understand why. My favorite hikes are Nevada Falls from Glacier Point, the quick and easy Yosemite Falls, the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, and if you can get a permit, Half Dome.
Lately, Yosemite requires reservations to visit in the summer to help curb visitor numbers. If you can, I recommend going during a shoulder season like the fall, or even the winter when the park often receives snowfall, turning it into a winter wonderland. Be forewarned that during this time of year, many of the roads in, like the Tioga pass off of the 395, are closed.
2. Death Valley National Park – Most Impressive Land Formations
Although I love Yosemite, Death Valley is a very close second. Though you might not think of the desert as a beautiful destination, Death Valley continuously blows me away with its palette of colors, diversity, and that beautiful night sky.
That said, it regularly clocks in the hottest temperatures on Earth, and I do not recommend it in the summer months when daytime temperatures can top 120°F (48.9°C). In the winter months, however, it’s great for camping, marveling at the views from Dante’s View, wandering the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the US, the colors of the Artist’s Palette, the dunes of the Mesquite, and the sunrise at Zabrisky’s Point. The Golden Canyon from there is one of my favorite hikes in the state.
3. Lassen Volcanic National Park – Best Use of Limited Time
Second, to Pinnacles, Lassen National Park is one of the least-visited national parks not just in California, but in the whole of the US. Especially by hiking at less popular times like around sunset, I often have trails all to myself.
What I love about Lassen is how much you can see even if your time is limited. You’ve got hikes to beautiful views like Brokeoff Mountain or Lassen Peak, frigid but refreshing lakes to dip in like Lake Helen, and the 2.7-mile Bumpass Hell trail to a boiling landscape with baby blue pits of water.
Heartbreakingly, the 2021 Dixie Fire devastated much of the park, but the hikes mentioned above and featured in the video all appear to be open at the time of this writing.
4. Redwood National Park – Tallest Trees
California is home to the oldest (Bristlecone), biggest (Giant Sequoia), and tallest trees in the world – THE WORLD! It’s so nice, I had to say it twice. In Redwood National Park, you’ll get a chance to see the tallest – the Coastal Redwood.
This park is home to the Hyperion Tree, the tallest tree in the world. You won’t be able to find it, though, as its location is hidden for its own protection.
That said, the Big Tree hike is the perfect opportunity for a meander through the forest to some of the most impressive trees. They’re not just tall, but huge all the way around.
I love this part of the state, known as the Lost Coast of California, not just for the incredible trees, but the beautiful beaches and peaceful atmosphere as well.
5. Sequoia National Park – Biggest Trees
While we’re on the topic of impressive trees, why not see if the biggest tree in the world, the Giant Sequoia? Some of these trees are so big, you can even drive through some of them! While reminiscent of the Coastal Redwood in color and stature, as these get tall too, they get incredibly wide as well!
The General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest tree by volume. It stands 275 feet (83 m) tall and is over 36 feet (11 m) in diameter at the base.
I love this park in the wintertime as well, seeing the beautiful trees coated in the snow.
6. Kings Canyon National Park – Beautiful Lakes
Just adjacent to Sequoia National Park, if you’re going to hit one, you’d better hit the other, too. Known for towering granite rocks and refreshing lakes and waterfalls, Kings Canyon holds its own.
While most of the national parks on this list have impressive lakes, it’s the Rae Lakes that do it for me in King’s Canyon. They’re colorful, clear, and framed by the gorgeous granite that characterizes the Sierra Nevada.
7. Pinnacles National Park – Least Crowded
Located near San Jose, Pinnacles National Park is the least crowded in California. If you want to get away from it all, this is the place. Like number eight on this list, it’s popular with rock climbers, but also offers beautiful wildflowers in March and April and great hiking in the winter. Temperatures can be extreme in the summer months, however.
Some of the best hikes are the 1.5 mile Bear Gulch, the 6.4-mile high peaks loop, and the Condor Gulch overlook. One of the park’s claims to fame is the opportunity to see the endangered California Condor, a truly massive bird that coasts along the windy peak tops.
8. Joshua Tree – Most Unique Feature
Like Yosemite, prepare to see heavy crowds in Joshua Tree National Park, particularly over spring break. It may be the easy drive from Los Angeles at about 2 1/2 hours give or take, or the fame of this yucca plant that you can’t find elsewhere in the world.
Joshua tree is most famous for Joshua trees, of course, but rock climbers and boulderers love it as well for the abundance of granite rocks, ripe for the climbing. Stargazers also love it for the clear, dark skies. Keep in mind that the Joshua tree gets insanely hot in the summer during daytime hours.
Although just going for a drive through the park will show you a lot of beauty, there are several hikes like Barker Dam and of course, the Cholla cactus garden sunrise, which make it famous as well. If you decide to stay for a few days, the nearby quirky town of 29 Palms has some of the coolest stays and Airbnbs in California.
9. Channel Islands National Park – For Sea Lovers
As a student at UC Santa Barbara, I had the opportunity to visit the Channel Islands National Park several times. It consists of five islands, most famously Anacapa and Santa Cruz. You’ve also got Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Island, famous for nesting birds. Charmingly, the dorms at my school were named after each of them.
Although each island is beautiful, most with hiking trails and some with unique features like caves, seals, and kelp forests, I ranked it last on my list for the difficulty of visiting, and the memories of hot, uneventful hikes on the islands. If you are specifically interested in sea caves or plan on SCUBA diving, then you’ll be delighted by the islands. Plus, you have opportunities to see whales and dolphins en route. But much of the charm of these islands is similarly found on the coast as well, and IMHO, the other parks on this list are more unique and interesting.
If you’re lucky enough to visit them all, California’s national parks are also different and varied so you can’t possibly get bored. But if you have to narrow it down, I hope this list helped you pick the best national park for your California visit, straight from a born and bred local!