Yosemite waterfall in May.
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California National Parks + more Road Trip!

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Embark on an epic California National Parks Road trip that stitches together the Golden State’s historic monuments and natural beauty. From the misty forests of the north to the sun-baked deserts in the south, this journey promises an unforgettable adventure.

A forest path through ancient redwoods in Northern California.
Redwoods in Northern California. Photo credit: YayImages.

Millions of people are captivated each year by California’s national parks’ rich history and diverse natural beauty. From the state’s protected wilderness to the haunting allure of Alcatraz Island and beyond, there are nearly 40 National Park Service sites to explore. This guide will help you chart your course through California’s national treasures from north to south.

California is synonymous to scenic adventure. From rugged coastlines to mindblowing mountains, to astounding deserts, California is a wide canvas of adventure to be enjoyed—but it could get overwhelming to choose, especially if it is your first time.

Choosing a California national park to visit depends on several factors, including your interests, preferences, and logistical considerations. Need help planning a road trip? Check out this post on how to make a fun and affordable road trip.

Number one: Consider your interests. Is it photography? Hiking? Camping? Or simply just after a relaxing trip? And from there, you can start your research tailored to your goals. Read first-hand reviews and recommendations for your reference. Time is also a major factor, especially it will dictate the type of weather you will be dealing with when you do the trip.

It is understandable that many visitors would try to aim visiting one to two spots in one, that is why it is crucial to plan your itinerary and prepare for the trip! Be open to the changing weather conditions, park closures, or other situations that may happen on your trip. Don’t forget the sunblock, snacks, and to have a good time!

Enjoy our detailed California national park guide for your trip.

driving through tall trees in California.

Tule Lake National Monument

Reflect on the poignant history of Japanese American internment during WWII at Tule Lake National Monument. Surrounded by stark volcanic landscapes and ancient Native American rock art, this site offers reflective and educational experiences related to America’s complex past.

This site preserves the history and memory of the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, which was one of ten incarceration camps where Japanese Americans were forcibly detained during World War II. Pilgrimages, exhibits, and remembrance ceremonies are some of the activities visitors are encouraged to participate in when they visit the monument.

Lava Beds National Monument

Near the California-Oregon border, Lava Beds National Monument is a spelunker’s paradise with North America’s largest collection of lava tubes. From the icy depths of Skull Cave to the accessible Valentine Cave and biologically rich Sunshine Cave, it offers a unique underground adventure. Above ground, explore Native American rock art and historic battlefields.

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks, a 5-hour drive north of San Francisco, offer a free escape into the world of the tallest trees on Earth. Highlights include the Avenue of Giants, a scenic drive leading to ancient redwoods, hiking trails, unique drive-thru trees and dark sand beaches.

Woman standing next to a Redwood Tree.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, near Redding in Northern California, is a haven for nature lovers and adventure seekers. Dive into Whiskeytown Lake for swimming or kayaking, hike over 70 miles of trails and marvel at the 220-foot Whiskeytown Falls.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Explore the unique landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park, home to the world’s largest plug dome volcano. Experience hydrothermal sites with bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and hot springs. Driving through the Lassen National Forest is an adventure itself!

snow covered trees Lassen National Forest.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Just a short drive from San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore offers a tranquil coastal retreat. With its breathtaking seascapes, misty trails and rustic accommodations, Samuel P. Taylor State Park is an essential stop for those seeking the unique charm of California’s coastline.

Historic lighthouse on a rocky outcrop along Point Reyes National Seashore.
Historic lighthouse on a rocky outcrop along Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo credit: YayImages.

Muir Woods National Monument

A stone’s throw from San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument offers an accessible escape to ancient coastal redwoods towering skywards. Ideal for early morning tranquility or for sci-fi fans imagining Endor’s lush landscapes, it’s a serene introduction to California’s towering redwoods.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

In the heart of San Francisco lies the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a diverse urban park that stretches beyond the famous bridge. Offering stunning waterfront views and miles of trails, it’s a great stop on any California road trip.

Fort Point National Historic Site

Tucked under San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point National Historic Site offers a glimpse into Civil War-era history paired with unmatched views of the bridge. A blend of historical significance and scenic beauty, it’s a must-visit for those looking to combine cultural exploration with iconic photo ops, making it a unique stop on a California National Parks road trip.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Set sail into history at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, located at the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf. This park is a treasure trove of nautical heritage, featuring a collection of historic vessels and a maritime museum that chronicles the city’s seafaring saga.

Alcatraz Island

A must-visit on your California National Parks road trip, Alcatraz Island reveals the intriguing history of the infamous federal prison in San Francisco Bay. Accessible via an official ferry, the experience includes a compelling audio tour detailing life on the island for inmates and guards. The tour lasts about 3 hours, sharing tales of legendary inmates and dramatic escapes, all while providing stunning views.

Alcatraz Island from the San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz Island from the San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Sage Scott.

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park

In Richmond, the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park honors the American civilians — particularly women — who supported the war effort during World War II. This park ensures the stories of resilience and contribution on the home front are celebrated and preserved.

John Muir National Historic Site

In Martinez, the John Muir National Historic Site honors the man known as the Father of the National Parks. Visitors can explore Muir’s Victorian mansion, stroll through the orchards he planted and pay their respects at his gravesite. Interactive exhibits detail his conservation efforts, making this site a tribute to Muir’s enduring legacy in advocating for wilderness preservation.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial

Located in Concord, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial commemorates the tragic explosion of July 17, 1944, which remains the largest domestic loss of life during World War II. This site honors the 320 servicemen killed — many of whom were African American — and educates visitors on the event’s significant impact on the desegregation of the U.S. Navy.

Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

In Danville, the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, or Tao House, celebrates America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Visitors can explore his home through guided tours, wander the inspiring gardens and engage in programs that honor his legacy.

Yosemite waterfall in May.
Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

A crown jewel of the American wilderness, Yosemite National Park captivates with its soaring granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls and ancient sequoias. Iconic landmarks like El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls underscore its grandeur. Whether seeking adventure through its vast trails, capturing the beauty from Tunnel View or enjoying sunset at Glacier Point, Yosemite offers experiences for every visitor.

“The NPS site for Yosemite is essential. Not only do you need to check this site for the opening and closing of roads throughout the park — namely Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass — but you’ll need to hop on during Yosemite’s peak season and grab a reservation as well before heading out.”

— Nina Ragusa, California is for Adventure
Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite National Park

Pinnacles National Park

Just a few hours from California’s urban centers, Pinnacles National Park is a sanctuary of dramatic landscapes and home to the endangered California condor. Offering trails from moderate to strenuous, it’s a haven for hikers and nature lovers with unique cave explorations and prime wildlife viewing.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks 

Home to the world’s largest trees, including the General Sherman Tree, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks provide a majestic escape into nature. Adventure seekers can enjoy hikes to Tokopah Falls, explore Crystal Cave and marvel at panoramic views from Moro Rock.

And for those seeking a chill activity, you can take scenic drives along Generals Highway and Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to enjoy stunning vistas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, deep canyons, and alpine lakes.

women with a camera in the Redwoods.

César E. Chávez National Monument

Don’t miss the César E. Chávez National Monument on your California National Parks road trip. It’s a meaningful tribute to the civil rights advocate widely recognized as the most important Latino leader in the United States during the 20th century.

Manzanar National Historic Site

Situated between the majestic beauty of sequoias and the extremes of Death Valley, the Manzanar National Historic Site memorializes the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It invites reflection on civil liberties through its preserved camp remnants.

Visitors can explore the site’s exhibits, including reconstructed barracks and mess halls, to learn about the experiences of Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated at Manzanar. The site serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices of the past and the importance of preserving civil rights for all.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the U.S.  Marvel at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the salt flats of Badwater Basin — the lowest point in North America — and the colorful mineral deposits at Artist’s Palette. Panoramic views await at Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View, and the park’s Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status offers unrivaled stargazing opportunities.

Mojave National Preserve 

The Mojave National Preserve is a desert oasis between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It features singing sand dunes, ancient volcanic cinder cones and springtime wildflower explosions.

Enjoy hiking, camping, 4-wheel driving, horseback riding, and more in this desert. Attractions such as Kelso Dunes, lava tube dive, and Teutonia Peak are not to be missed.

Castle Mountains National Monument 

The secluded Castle Mountains National Monument is a hidden gem tucked between Mojave National Preserve and Nevada. Designated in 2016, this 21,000-acre area boasts grasslands, Joshua tree forests and a rich history of Native American culture and gold mining.

Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree National Park is a climber’s haven with over 8,000 routes and a variety of experiences. Daytime adventurers can enjoy hikes among unique formations like Skull Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden, and at night, the entire park transforms into a stargazer’s paradise.

A Joshua tree at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California.
A Joshua tree at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Photo credit: Sage Scott.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area 

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a tranquil haven near Los Angeles. It offers a rich mix of activities, from challenging hikes to leisurely wildlife viewing.

Channel Islands National Park 

Channel Islands National Park includes five remarkable islands off Southern California’s coast. Accessible via ferry from Ventura Harbor, this vehicle-free sanctuary lets you embrace the tranquility of camping or backcountry exploration, but come prepared — pack food securely and stay tick-aware.

California National Historic Trail

For hiker history buffs, the California National Historic Trail will tell a tale not to be forgotten. This trail is the preservation of the route used by thousands of emigrants in the 19th century during the Gold Rush era. Discover historic landmarks such as emigrant gravesites, trading posts, stagecoach stations, and pioneer homesteads that date back to the 19th century. You can also see the diverse wildlife that thrives within the area. So tighten up those boots and get ready for ranger-lead trail hikes and camping nights!

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Want a completely breathtaking unmatched hiking experience? In the Ansel Adams Wilderness, embark on memorable hikes through pristine alpine landscapes, backpack into the heart of the wilderness for immersive outdoor adventures, and fish into crystal-clear lakes and streams teeming with trout. Enjoy the company of diverse wildlife and capture beautiful sightings. Camp under the stars. Ansel Adams Wilderness is a total package of an adventure.

Cabrillo National Monument 

Conclude your California National Parks road trip with a visit to Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. This site is a tribute to the age of exploration and Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s 1542 landing, melding historical education with natural wonders like tide pooling and panoramic ocean views.

Wrapping up your California National Parks road trip

As you journey through the vast landscapes and delve into the rich history of the Golden State, you’ll enjoy unparalleled experiences. From the majestic redwoods reaching skyward to the arid expanses of desert, these National Park Service sites showcase America’s natural splendor and historical depth while beckoning visitors to return.

If you’re planning to take some downtime this year to reflect and pause to reconnect with nature, you might also check out these Utah National Parks as well! Or take a venture and visit the National Parks near Phoenix. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, cultural enrichment, or simply a chance to commune with nature, you’ll find endless opportunities to do so.

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