With nine national parks inside its boundaries, California has the most national parks in any one state. Alaska comes in at a close second with eight parks. I was in California for about three months, and I have had the pleasure of touring eight of its nine parks. I missed out on Channel Islands National Park, which is off the mainland and requires a pricey boat ticket.

This was quite difficult to do because all eight of these parks are incredible, but I have ranked them. Even though some were better than others, the are all absolutely worth visiting. And of course, this is just my opinion, not a definitive ranking. Depending on what kind of environments you prefer and what outdoor activities you enjoy, your favorites list could be completely different.

 

8 — Pinnacles National Park

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Machete Ridge, a prime place for rock climbing, can be found along the Old Pinnacles Trail. FAITH MECKLEY

Pinnacles was originally established as a monument in 1908, and it did not become a national park until 2013. It is the youngest and fifth-smallest national park.

Pinnacles may be small and new, but it should not be skipped, especially for rock climbers like myself. The park is nestled in the midst of cattle grazing country, and protects impressive rock formations and caves, which are home to at least 13 bat species. Bats happen to be my favorite animal!

Much of the park’s visitor population can be found in the Pinnacles Campground. The trails are peaceful, quiet, and lacking in heavy foot traffic. Bring a flashlight to explore the Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves. If you enjoy rock climbing, head over to the Machete Ridge area. If you have a partner and the appropriate gear, there are tons of big walls to play on. I went solo with my bouldering pad, and had a fun time with a couple of easy to mid-range bouldering routes. The ranger at the visitor’s center was able to give me a bunch of information on the various routes and provided me with a free climbing map of the Machete Ridge area.

What I saw/did:

Old Pinnacles Trail

Balconies Cave Trail

Bouldering at Machete Ridge

Still to do:

Bear Gulch Cave Trail

Top rope climbing at Machete Ridge

Heads up:

There are two entrances to this park, one to the east and one to the west, however there is no road connecting the two of them. If you want to go through the other entrance, you’ll have to drive all the way around.

7 — Sequoia National Park

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The view from Generals Highway, the main park road, is spectacular, especially at sunset. FAITH MECKLEY

Sequoia, established in 1890, is our second oldest park after Yellowstone. It is home to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48, and the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. The park is completely surrounded by national forests, and is neighbors with Kings Canyon. The sister parks are closely intertwined in terms of park personnel and how they are managed.

At the time I visited, this park was quiet and low-key. There were a few tour buses there and a couple of instances where I saw a pack of tourists approaching wildlife with their cameras (seriously people, just don’t). But besides that it was quite peaceful.

The drive through Sequoia along the General’s Highway is stunning. On a clear day, you will have sweeping views of valleys and mountains, and on a foggy/cloudy day, you will feel as if you are driving through the heavens. It was consistently foggy and rainy during my visit, but it did not dampen the experience for me at all. Many of the main attractions for the park are located right along the main road. If you want some more solace, indulge in a longer hike where there will be fewer people. I would also recommend camping in the section of Sequoia National Forest located between the two national parks. For two nights, I had Buck Rock Campground entirely to myself (it is at higher elevation and will be quite a bit chillier).

What I saw/did:

General Sherman Tree

Congress Trail

Buck Rock Lookout (technically in Sequoia National Forest)

Still to do:

Giant Forest Museum

Crystal Cave (closed at the time of my visit)

Trail of the Sequoias

Heads up:

Black bears! If you are planning on camping within the park or the national forest, be aware that you are camping in bear country and you need to manage yourself differently. Locking your food in a vehicle is NOT sufficient for deterring bears, it is just a great way to end up with smashed windows. Your food either needs to be stored in bear canisters overnight (you can rent some from the visitor’s centers), or hung in a tree. You should never litter, but it is especially important not to do this while in bear country. Only dispose of your trash in lockable trash cans that are stationed throughout the park. A bear that eats human food will often become a nuisance, and nuisance bears are usually put down. You could end up responsible for their deaths.

Make sure you ask a ranger about current road conditions. Road closures happen often due to frequent rockslides and flash flooding.

6 — Redwood National and State Parks

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Enjoy tranquil stretches of ocean shoreline and take a walk among giants. FAITH MECKLEY

Redwood National Park was established in 1968, complimenting the existing three state parks, which had been around since the 1920s. Collectively, the four parks protect 45 percent of the remaining old-growth coastal redwood forests.

I found the ecosystem diversity within this park to be fascinating and refreshing. Driving north along US 101 into the park, you will cross a thin strip of sandy land separating the ocean from a lagoon. While the redwood trees are certainly impressive, the dramatic shoreline with sandy beaches dotted with harsh rock outcroppings and foliage are just as stunning.

The highlight of my visit to this park was hiking the Trillium Falls Trail. With the massive redwoods reaching for the sky overhead and large ferns blanketing the forest floor at my feet, I felt as though I were wandering through a scene in Jurassic Park. I had the trail completely to myself that day.

What I saw/did:

Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail

Trillium Falls Trail

Gold Bluffs Beach

Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway

Still to do:

Tall Trees Trail (requires permit)

Coastal Trail

Heads up:

Entrance into this national park is free! The three state parks encompassed within the national park (Del Norte Coast Redwoods, Jedediah Smith Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods) will honor your annual NPS pass. Any other state parks besides those three will not.

5 — Yosemite National Park

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Lower Yosemite Falls and Half Dome in the background. FAITH MECKLEY

Yosemite is probably the most famous of California’s parks, and, overall, one of America’s most famous. It absolutely deserves this recognition. However, its fame wasn’t enough to put it at the top of my personal list.

Yosemite is stunning, jaw-dropping, breath-taking, heart-stopping — all of the clichés. But unfortunately, there is a trade-off. Everyone wants to see Yosemite. It is a busy and crowded park, especially in Yosemite Valley, the most visited part of the park where you will be able to feel dizzy as you look up at the famed El Capitan and Half Dome. It’s where you will be able to take a dip in the gentle Merced River, and walk right up to Yosemite Falls. However, the whole place is chocked full of mindless tourists and flashing cameras and has the feel of a summer carnival. My friend and I made the mistake of going into the valley on a holiday weekend. Avoid visiting Yosemite on holidays at all costs!

It’s important to remember that Yosemite is much more than just the valley floor. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area and Tuolumne Meadows often get overlooked, but both offer more spectacular views, great hiking, and a much higher chance of peace and solitude. Give yourself a few days to really explore this magnificent place and learn about its history, and it will be worth navigating the crazy crowds.

Taking the drive up to Glacier Point for sunset viewing and stargazing is required! Glacier Point offers a fabulous view of Half Dome, and its an unforgettable experience to watch the granite monoliths change color with the sky at sunset.

What I saw/did:

Drove the Valley Loop

Bridalveil Fall

Swam in the Merced River

Hiked up to Lower Yosemite Fall

Sunset/stargazing at Glacier Point

Hetch Hetchy Dam

Still to do:

Hike up Half Dome

Tuolumne Meadows

Rock climbing

Heads up:

Yosemite is in bear country. See “heads up” under Sequoia National Park section. Gas inside the park is expensive and you will have to wait in a line. Try to avoid gassing up inside the park. Campgrounds fill up fast — if you want to stay in an official park campground (they cost money), consider reserving a space in advance.

4 — Kings Canyon National Park

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The view of Kings Canyon from a distance is unbelievable, but driving through the canyon is the real treat. FAITH MECKLEY

Kings Canyon began as General Grant National Park, which was created in 1890 to protect a grove of giant sequoias. Over the years this park grew and incorporated Kings Canyon, and the area became known as Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

The road through Kings Canyon is, hands down, the most scenic drive I have ever been on. In my opinion, Kings Canyon is even more spectacular than Yosemite Valley, and you don’t have to fight with bumper-to-bumper traffic and massive crowds. On the day I visited, most of the other cars I saw on the road were park employees.

That said, a vast majority of the park is wilderness, accessible only on foot and with a backcountry hiking permit. If you are not planning on some serious back country hiking, really all you can do is drive through the park and take some short hikes up to a couple of scenic waterfalls.

I do plan on returning here at some point for a long stay in the backcountry. If the view from the road is that stunning, I can’t even begin to imagine what going off-grid is like.

What I saw/did:

General Grant Tree

Drive through the canyon

Grizzly Falls

Roaring Falls

Still to do:

Backcountry hiking

Heads up:

Check in with a ranger to learn about current road conditions and see if there are any road closures. Kings Canyon is in bear country. See “heads up” under Sequoia National Park section. The only gas in the park is at Hume Lake.

3 — Death Valley National Park

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It’s difficult to comprehend how large Death Valley is until you stand atop one of the scenic overlooks. FAITH MECKLEY

Death Valley is massive — it’s the largest national park outside of Alaska. Do not cheat yourself with a quick one-day drive through (which is nearly impossible anyway). Even two days is not an ample amount of time to see this place. I would recommend a 4+ day stay here (I ended up staying here much longer due to mechanical issues). Plan for many hours of driving to get around and see the sights.

It was tempting to put Death Valley at the top of my list simply because of the sheer number of things to see and do in this park. There’s something for everyone. If you enjoy history, you will be thrilled with the opportunity to visit ghost towns, abandoned mines, and see other remnants of Death Valley’s wild west-era mining boom. And of course, the original Native American inhabitants, the Timbisha Tribe, still lives here, and you can visit their reservation.

If you love geology, Death Valley will be an exciting place for you. At Badwater Basin, you will find salt crystals at the lowest elevation in the entire Western Hemisphere. The various sand dunes, including the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, are made of the ground-up bones of eroding mountains. With each earthquake, the valley sinks deeper, but it is also filling at the same time with mountain debris. From Dante’s View and the lesser-known Aguereberry Point, you will find panoramic views of the massive valley and the mountains that surround it.

Usually, official park campgrounds cost money. However, Death Valley has several free options, fortunately — driving in and out of the park for free camping would get a bit ridiculous on the gas tank. Emigrant, Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany Flat Campgrounds are all free. Emigrant is closer to Stovepipe Wells, while the other three are quite a bit out of the way near the southern end of the park (there’s a lot to see there as well). I would highly recommend a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to access Thorndike and Mahogany Flat.

If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you will be able to unlock and access much more of the park. You cannot (should not) see the famous sailing stones at The Racetrack without four-wheel drive.

What I saw/did:

Darwin Falls

Eureka Mine

Aguereberry Point

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Titus Canyon Road

Leadfield ghost town

Golden Canyon Trail

Zabriskie Point

Twenty Mule Team Canyon road

Artist’s Drive/Artist’s Palette

Badwater Basin

Dante’s View

Still to do:

The Racetrack

Ubehebe Crater

Heads up:

I cannot emphasize enough how HUGE Death Valley is. If you get yourself into trouble, chances are you won’t have cell service to call for help, and help is guaranteed to be a long way away. You will need to buy gas inside the park. You need to come prepared, especially if for some insane reason you are visiting in the summer. Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth. You need to have a lot of water. And you need to drink that water. At least have a basic understanding of how to change your vehicle’s tires before coming into the park. Many of the park’s roads require high clearance and four-wheel drive. Listen to the rangers’ recommendations for what roads are and aren’t suitable for your vehicle.

2 — Lassen Volcanic National Park

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Beneath the summit of Brokeoff Mountain. FAITH MECKLEY

Lassen Volcanic National Park is an active volcanic region with a stunning history. It’s named for Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world (and is still active). Lassen Peak and another famous feature in the area, Cinder Cone, were designated as national monuments in 1907. Following series of minor eruptions at Lassen Peak that began in 1914 and continued for several years, and the incredible photography of the events by Benjamin F. Loomis, the area was established as a national park in 1916.

I came to Lassen for a three-day vacation while I was working in San Francisco as a tour guide, and I immediately fell in love. I was certain I would not see something as grand as Yosemite for many years, and yet here I was, barely a month later, thunderstruck by what I saw in Lassen.

With sweeping valleys, winding rivers, glorious mountains, and intriguing volcanic features like Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell, Lassen is a formidable rival to Yosemite. I was astonished to find barely any other visitors in the park during my visit. If you come to California and only have time to visit one or two parks, you must go to Lassen. Give yourself at least two days, preferably three or four.

The highlight of my stay in Lassen was my hike up Brokeoff Mountain. It took me the better part of the day, but the view at the summit was well worth it. I spent nearly an hour at the summit, relaxing, taking in the views, and writing in my journal. I shared the trail with about ten other people that day, and I was completely alone right up until I reached the summit.

What I saw/did:

Summited Brokeoff Mountain

Sulphur Works

Bumpass Hell

Kings Creek Trail/Falls

Drove through the entire park

Manzanita Lake

Still to do:

Lassen Peak

Devil’s Kitchen

Boiling Springs Lake

Cinder Cone

Heads up:

The only gas inside the park is at Manzanita Lake, so make sure you have enough gas. In areas with volcanic activity, like Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell, leaving the established trails and walkways is an excellent way to end up with third degree burns. Lassen is in bear country. See “heads up” under Sequoia National Park section.

 

1 — Joshua Tree National Park

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The romantic desert landscape is dotted with Joshua trees, creosotes, and chollas. FAITH MECKLEY

Joshua Tree takes the number one spot on my list, not just because of its natural splendor, but because it also holds a lot of emotional value to me. It is also a must-visit playground for both beginner and experienced rock climbers. Joshua Tree is relatively young, as national parks go. Slightly larger than the Rhode Island, it became a national park in 1994, and was previously a national monument since 1936. It is, of course, named for the iconic Joshua trees that grow almost exclusively in the Mojave Desert, where it is considered an indicator species.

Joshua Tree protects a vast track of stunning and romantic desert. Its endless rock formations make the place a mecca for rock climbers. The heart of climbing culture beats in Hidden Valley Campground, the center of it all. This is where the first of America’s pioneering rock climbers congregated, along with Yosemite, and the tradition continues today. Many people basically live here throughout the winter months (the ideal time to visit Joshua Tree), dodging park rangers and thwarting camping stay limits. It was some of the characters here that inspired me to get serious about building my very own van home.

With many fascinating, fun-loving people and an endless supply of hidden desert coves, Joshua Tree, both the park and the town, is a place where you can find true adventure. The kind that inspires you to burn your itinerary, sweeps you off your feet, and makes you forget all sense of time. This is why Joshua Tree is at the top of my list.

If you want to understand a bit more what I mean by that, give my long form narrative article that I spent an entire semester writing about Joshua Tree a read.

If you are a rock climber, I would recommend blocking off at least a week for visiting Joshua Tree. It won’t be enough.

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The sun sets over Hidden Valley Campground, a home base for rock climbers during the busier winter season. FAITH MECKLEY

What I saw/did:

Top rope climbing/bouldering (including the famous Gun Smoke Traverse)

Indian Cove

Hidden Valley (Cyclops Eye and Chasm of Doom)

Queen Valley Road

Cholla Cactus Garden

Still to do:

More climbing!

Backcountry hiking

Magical Mystery Tour at Hidden Valley

Heads up:

Like Death Valley, Joshua Tree gets dangerously hot in the summer. Bring and drink water if you’re not a fan of dying. Joshua Tree is a great place to come in the winter, when temperatures are more bearable. Although the desert may seem like a barren wasteland, it is actually a very fragile environment. Stay on the trails to avoid trampling sensitive vegetation and cryptobiotic crust or soil. Leave No Trace principles are important to follow here, for both rock climbers and the average visitor.

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4 thoughts on “Ranking California’s National Parks

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