When we were planning our California road trip, visiting the best National Parks in California was at the top of our wish list.
In fact, our 11 month road trip across the USA was based around setting foot in as many National and State Parks as possible as we’re a family that loves nature activities like hiking, biking, kayaking camping and just being in the great outdoors.
All up we spent several months exploring the Golden State as there are so many beautiful places to visit in California.
To be honest, I believe this state has more diversity from a travel perspective than any other state in the United States and North America.
I could probably spend 6 months traveling in California and not run out of things to do when you consider all the National and State Parks, big cities and small towns, the mountains, the deserts, the forests, the beaches, the theme parks, and everything in between!
Below are the California parks we explored in the national park service, plus tips on the best things to do in each park, and where to stay at each park.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is nothing short of breathtaking and it’s the most famous of national parks near San Francisco.
I would currently list Yosemite in my top three favorite USA National Parks we have visited along with Yellowstone National Park and The Grand Canyon.
The crown jewel of Yosemite is without doubt Yosemite Valley, which is framed by some of the best plunging waterfalls and incredible high granite summits you’ll see anywhere!
This glacial valley is about 7.5 miles long and approximately 3,000–3,500 feet deep. The legendary naturalist John Muir called this place the “Incomparable Valley.”
We spent 5 days in Yosemite NP and there are an incredible amount of things to do in Yosemite National Park and it was a true highlight of our California road trip.
One of the best things about Yosemite is its diversity. You have majestic waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, incredible hikes, gorgeous lakes, alpine forest, scenic drives, and you might even spot a black bear.
If you’re looking to visit the best National Parks in California, I rank this park in the Sierra Nevada at number one!
Best Things to Do in Yosemite National Park
- Bridalveil Falls
- Vernal Falls (mist trail)
- Lower Yosemite Falls
- Mariposa Grove
- Hetch Hetchy
- Scenic Drive Hyw 120
- Tunnel View
- Yosemite Valley
- Half Dome
- El Capitan
Where to Stay in Yosemite
Yosemite is one of the busiest national parks in California, and the USA, so I suggest you book accommodation way in advance before you visit Yosemite NP.
Hotels Near Yosemite NP
We stayed at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite which we throughly enjoyed with our kids during our Yosemite family vacation. Tenaya is located just outside the south gate entrance and is about 1 hours drive to the valley. Read our full review here.
See a list of hotels in Yosemite Valley area here.
Hotels inside Yosemite NP
Campgrounds in Yosemite NP
In total there are 13 Yosemite National Park campgrounds and they are popular places to stay in Yosemite.
Seven of them are on a reservation system and the rest are first come first served, usually filling by noon from April to September. Make a reservation here.
RV Camping in Yosemite
There are 10 campgrounds that can accommodate RVs. Learn more here.
- 18 amazing things to do in Yosemite National Park
- Bodie Ghost Town: The Wild West of California (Near Yosemite)
- Mono Lake: The Dead Sea of California
- Highlights of a Northern California tour (San Francisco to Yosemite)
Watch our Yosemite Video
Death Valley National Park
Our trip to visit Death Valley National Park almost didn’t happen due to weather, but we’re so glad it did.
This park ended up being one of our favorite National Parks in California, and one of our top places to visit in California. What we saw exceeded our expectations and totally surprised us!
We didn’t know there were so many incredible things to do in Death Valley National Park, and highly recommend you don’t just drive through the park on your way to other California destinations.
We visited on our drive from Las Vegas to Yosemite and spent two nights and 1.5 days exploring without the hordes of people other national parks attract.
Instead of the flat and dry desert landscape we expected, we saw ripples of white, yellow, mauve, pink, and chocolate sand dunes frozen in time, Panamint Mountain ranges, incredible rock formations, salt flats, golden canyon walls, and brilliant sunsets and sunrises.
The colors and landscapes blew our mind.
Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
- Zabriskie Point (sunrise & sunset)
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats
- Artists Drive
- Golden Canyon Hike
- Dante’s View
- Mesquite Sand Dunes
Where to Stay In Death Valley
I suggest staying in Furnace Creek, especially if you are short on time.
It’s close to the main attractions in Death Valley mentioned above and it’s situated in a somewhat shady and pretty oasis area.
Camping in Death Valley
There are a few campgrounds. Prices are $14-$16 and $36 for rv hookups. All except Furnace Creek are first come first served.
Hotels in Death Valley
Consider the historic, serene, and peaceful Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley. Or the family-friendly and adventure-focused Ranch at Death Valley
For a full list of hotels near Death Valley National Park go here.
Tours of Death Valley
If you can’t drive yourself, consider doing a Death Valley tour from Las Vegas. Below are tour options:
Channel Islands National Park
If you are looking for adventure and unique California places to visit, look no further than Channel Islands, the least visited of the California National Parks and parks in the USA!
It’s the most least visited national park not because it lacks adventure or beauty, but because of its remoteness off the coastline – it’s a 80 minute ferry ride from Ventura Harbor.
If you’re looking for national parks near Los Angeles. it’s only 70 miles north of LA.
The Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands:
- San Miguel
- Santa Rosa
- Santa Cruz
- and Santa Barbara
One of our favorite family travel moments was kayaking around the cliff faces of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park and snorkeling amongst the kelp forest.
These are the adventures we live for and brought back memories of adventures we’d had exploring the coast of Australia.
There’s not much over on the Channel Islands except for you and remote beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, and sea caves to explore on kayaks.
This park makes for a perfect one-day trip, and provides a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle of southern California. And it’s one of the most beautiful places in California we have visited.
Best Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park
- Sea cave kayak adventure at Scorpion Anchorage
- Snorkeling amongst the Kelp Forest
- Picnic on Santa Cruz Island
- Hiking to a viewpoint over Scorpion Anchorage
Where to Stay near Channel Islands
Hotels near Channel Islands NP
We stayed at Crowne Plaza Hotel Ventura Beach which is a approximately a 10 minute drive to Ventura Harbor. See more properties around Ventura via our affiliate partner Booking.com
You can also go camping on Channel Islands NP.
Joshua Tree National Park
Another surprise for us and definitely one of the top national parks in California to visit is Joshua Tree Natiuonal Park.
We spent two days exploring Joshua Tree NP and got to know why this is a special place!
In the 1930s, desert lover and community activist Minerva Hoyt recognized the human threats of the nearby ecosystem and persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Joshua Tree a National Monument in 1936.
It was renamed the Joshua Tree National Park in 1994 and now protects 792,510 acres where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts converge.
What is a Joshua Tree you ask?
Well, one of the interesting Joshua Tree facts is that it is not actually a tree, but a species of yucca! They grow over 40 feet tall at the leisurely rate of an inch a year – typical of a desert plant – and from February through April it blooms clusters of cream-colored flowers.
But this park is not just about the Joshua Trees. There are also junipers, scrub oaks, Mojave yuccas and prickly pear cactus.
There are also incredible rock formations, scenic drives, leisurley or adventurous hikes, picturesque dams, mountain ranges and incredible sunsets and sunrises.
Joshua Tree NP is situated in San Bernardino County and one of the national parks in Southern California to visit.
It’s within 2.5 hrs drive from San Diego (making it the easiest of national parks near San Diego to visit), or 2 hrs drive from Los Angeles.
Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
- Hidden Valley Trail
- Barker Dam
- Ryan Mountain Trail
- Pinto Basin Drive
- Cholla Cactus Garden
- Skull Rock
- Keys View
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
Camping in Joshua Tree NP
There are nine Joshua Tree campgrounds inside the park, plus a handful of campgrounds near Joshua Tree.
Only Black Rock, Indian Cove, Sheep Pass and Cottonwood Group campgrounds accept reservations from September through May. The rest are first come first served.
Learn all about Joshua Tree National Park camping here.
Hotels near Joshua Tree NP
29 Palms Inn offers an eclectic mix of guest accommodations looking out to the mountains of Joshua Tree NP.
Campbell House is a Philadelphia-style Colonial house situated in Twentynine Palm.
For a full list of hotels in Joshua Tree town go here.
Redwoods National & State Parks
I’ve always wanted to walk among the giant redwood forests in Northern California (the largest tree by height), and a visit to northern part of the state was high on our California road trip itinerary.
We had our first taste of witnessing these incredible tress up close when we visited Muir Woods during our 7 day visit to San Francisco, and were excited to see more.
Planning a visit to the redwoods and the national parks in Northern California is a little consfusing as Redwoods National Park actually consists of 4 parks, with three of them being State Parks:
- Redwood National Park
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Combining all the parks, there are some incredible hiking opportunities and scenic drives.
One of sevearal highlights was hugging a Redwood tree, but not any tree, a 346 foot giant Redwood tree at Humboldt State Park. As well as a gorgeous drive though old forests, small farms, and a few small towns.
Cheatham Grove is a true hidden gem of Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park (one of the best California State Parks) and you might recognize it from as backdrop from the scooter chase scene in the Star Wars movie, Return of The Jedi.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the 3rd largest of the California state parks and home to the world’s largest remaining contiguous old-growth forest of coastal redwoods.
And it’s here you can drive the 32 mile Avenue of the Giants, making this one of the best places to visit in California to see redwoods by car.
Don’t miss adding these national parks in Northern California to your list of California National Parks to visit.
Best Things to Do in the Redwoods NP
- Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park (hike Cheatham Grove)
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park (drive Avenue of the Giants, Founders Grove Trail, Big Tree Grove)
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (drive Howland Hill Road)
- Redwoods National Park (Lady Bird Johnson Grove)
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (Fern Canyon Trail)
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park (Coastal Trail)
- Hwy 199
Where to Stay
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park Campground
- Humboldt State Fair Grounds – RV hookups or boondocking options. Close to Ferndale.
- Redwood Coast Cabins and RV Resort. In Eureka.
The town of Ferndale has 7 properties on offer from charming cotteges to historic inns.
Arcata has 38 properties on offer including well known hotel chains.
Redwoods National Park/Prairie Creek areas
Trinidad has 30+ properties on offer via our affiliate partner Booking.com
Jedidiah Smith State Park area
Crescent City is the closest town and has 20+ properties on offer including some familiar chain brands.
How Many National Parks are in California?
We visited five out of the total of nine California National Parks, diving deep into them all and not just rushingb through them to tick off our California bucket list.
Here are the four other National Parks in California we are yet to visit:
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
- Pinnacles National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Point Reyes National Seashore
Planning a Trip to California
Hotels in California
Booking.com has thousands of hotels in California to choose from at every price point from hotels to apartments to motels and inns.. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
Flights to California
Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees). Find your cheapest flight then go direct to that airlines website!
Rental Cars in California
RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
RV Rentals in California
If you want to rent an RV for your road trip in california, check RVShare for unique RV or campervans to explore California.