California has a wealth of stunning landscape in her national parks and monuments. Throughout the state, you’ll find fantastic natural wonders to inspire and explore around the many scenic landscapes. Following are the some of the favorite and inspiring places to visit the best national parks in California from top bloggers around the world. See if you’ve seen many of these or have more to place on your bucket list of places to see around this gorgeous state.
Visiting the national parks and monuments in California
Pinnacles National Park
Cabrillo National Monument
Visiting Cabrillo National Monument is a voyage of discovery. This is where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the West Coast. Kids will love exploring low tide in the Point Loma Tide Pools, and you might see grey whales making their migration along the California Coast. Best of all, you’ll discover immense natural beauty and sweeping ocean views.
During the winter and spring, you’ll have a chance to see the whale migration, tide pools, and wildflower blooms. During the summer, you’ll find clear blue skies and endless views. Be sure to bring your camera to capture photo-ops at the Historic Point Loma Lighthouse, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Statue and enjoy the vistas of San Diego Harbor, Ocean Beach, and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. More views can be found hiking along the short Bayside Trail that takes you from the bluffs to the mouth of the San Diego Harbor.
Cabrillo National Monument is just minutes away from downtown San Diego but miles away from ordinary. On the drive out to Cabrillo, be sure to pause at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetary and remember the brave souls who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep America free. You’ll be crossing the Point Loma Naval Base, home to America’s 3rd Fleet, filled with young men and women who are prepared to answer the call of duty. Cabrillo National Monument is a testimony to all things that make America Great.
Jenn and Ed with Coleman Concierge
Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument is near San Francisco, California, right next to Mount Tamalpais State Park. Muir Woods is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is covered with huge ancient redwoods and has beautiful hiking trails. This park is a year-round beauty and lovely to visit anytime. But finding a parking spot here is next to impossible unless you arrive super early around 7 AM in the weekends. Or you could take the shuttle from the city. If you bring your car after 9 am, be prepared to park miles up the road and walk to the park area. Parking and shuttle bus need to be reserved in advance.
The Dipsea trail and Ben Johnson trail go up into the hills that overlook the ocean and have amazing photo opportunities. On the ground level itself, there is Cathedral Grove, a spectacular stop to take photos. The main park area has a wooden walkway the entire loop so that parents with young children can even take strollers to explore the woods with their kids. Entrance is free for kids below 16 years of age. Be prepared as there is no cell service or WIFI in these woods. Download all your reservation documentation if any ahead of time.
Check out Priyadarshini’s blog is Glorious Sunrise
Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park, located in Sierra Nevada region of California, exists in the shadow of its two famous neighbors – Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. But it is time for justice to be served. Kings Canyon is a very beautiful park. At the heart of it is a valley carved by a glacier through which South Fork Kings River flows. The walls of the canyon are about a mile high. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway road runs from the rim of the canyon to the river level. There are many scenic pullouts along the road to stop and enjoy the view. Once you are at the bottom of the valley you are a greeted by the rumbling mountain river and 3 major waterfalls, the highest one of which is 100 ft tall. Each waterfall is located very close to the Scenic Byway so even people with limited mobility can reach them. There are many hiking trails in the Park suited for various levels of ability. The Park is best visited late spring when the waterfalls are at their peak. Please, note that the Scenic Byway is generally closed from end of October to May due to wintery conditions.
Tatiana with Family Road Trip Guru
Lassen National Park
If you’re looking to explore California’s natural wonders without enduring the crowds, Lasson Volcanic National Park is the place for you. Lassen sees only one-tenth the number of visitors that stream into Yosemite each year, but the experience is no less impressive!
As its name suggests, the park is an active volcanic zone, so you can hike through hydrothermal features like fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and hot springs. You’ll also find crystal-clear mountain lakes, meadows teeming with wildflowers, and snow-capped volcanoes. The park was originally the home of the Atsugwei, Yana, Yahi, and Maidu Native American tribes and Lassen Peak is still their sacred land.
The park is open (at least partially) year-round, with activities for visitors in every season. You’ll find snow much of the year at Lassen, so visitors can go sledding and skiing or join a ranger-led snowshoe program. Summer is the best time for hiking and backpacking.
With over 150 miles of trails, outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to occupy them here. Popular day hikes include Bumpass Hell Trail (a boardwalk weaving through the largest hydrothermal area in the park) and Lassen Peak (which rewards hikers with breathtaking vistas). A scenic drive or bicycle ride along the 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway also offers stunning views right by the road.
Emily of Two Dusty Travelers
The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the largest spinning tramway in the world, is one of the main gateways to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, and is easily reached from downtown Palm Springs.
Established in 2000, the monument was created to preserve this naturally significant area, and covers 272,000 acres of desert, rock, canyons, forest and mountains. In addition to its diverse range of geography, the elevation here is one of extremes, rising from just above sea level to more than 10,000 feet.
The best way to experience the dramatic rise is on the Tramway, which ascends 2.5 miles up the vertical side of the Chino Canyon, and in the warmer months, it’s a good way to escape the heat. For photo ops, the view of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley at the top of the Tramway is hard to beat.
Located 100 miles from LA, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a mecca for hikers. A popular hike for the experienced is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Hike to Mt San Jacinto, though be prepared as it can take six to seven hours.
While the tramway offers the easiest access in, and the ride is one of the most popular things to do in Palm Springs, there is also a paved road, the Palms to Pines Scenic Highway, which will take you to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains Visitor Center, and where there are numerous chances to explore the natural surroundings.
Carol with Wandering Carol
Alcatraz National Historic Landmark
Alcatraz is the long dreaded maximum security prison that you must visit. Why? You wonder… there are so many reasons we won’t be able to mention all of them here, so mention your reasons in the comments below. Here are a few to start –
You’ll see gorgeous views of the San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge.
You can have a first hand experience of what life was like on this beautiful island. Would the residents have enjoyed the views? Or would it have been extra torture?
Learn the history of San Francisco, imprisonment, solitary confinement, life in a cell, live outside the cell and dramatic escape stories from the island.
In order to visit the Alcatraz’s, you have to make a reservation months in advance. The only way to get to the island is by the ferry by the national park service. The tours fill up fast.
On the island, they have a combination of human guided and recorded tour. Both of them are fabulous. The recordings are made by actual guards and prisoners of Alcatraz. You can sense the human feelings in their voices.
San Francisco and Alcatraz, can get very windy and cold. Be sure to take layers, scarves and gloves so you can step out of the prison walls to enjoy the views from the top.
We took a late afternoon tour in early June. It was freezing cold and windy but we did step out for pictures with the skyline. Evening tours have the added advantage of dramatic sunset, a view worth the wait.
As an insider tip, while you’re in the area, check out the free street arts in the city like tiled mosaic stairs of San Francisco.
It will be a trip to San Francisco and Alcatraz will be one you can never forget.
Jyoti with Story at Every Corner
Point Reyes National Seashore
Preserved as a national park north of San Francisco, the Point Reyes National Seashore was designated a national park to protect this natural environment from development from this 180 square foot park. Gorgeous landscapes, Headlands and sea cliffs, forested valleys and trails and impressive vista points to discover, this national park is truly a gem and just a short visit north from San Francisco. A pefect place to visit and view wildlife and marine life in the parks wilderness, this is a fantastic park to explore all the way to the tips either at the lighthouse or the jagged rocks with stunning coastal views. There are many wonderful trails to explore in the park or even nice drives to take around the park to the many highlights worth visiting. Check out my post on exploring Point Reyes National Seashore here for more images and inspiration to visiting this wonderful national park.
Noel with Travel Photo Discovery
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
Located in the Eastern Sierra mountain range, adjacent to Yosemite National Park, is Devil’s Postpile National Monument. This area is named for a rare columnar basalt rock formation. From the Visitors Center there are two short hikes to the Devil’s Postpile–one to the top and one to the bottom. Most people can tackle both in under an hour and appreciate this geologically unusual monument from multiple vantage points.
Another popular site within this park is the picturesque 101-foot Rainbow Falls. A 2.5 mile hiking trail begins at the Visitors Center and leads to the falls which is a lovely spot for a picnic lunch. There are a total of just 8 miles of trails in Devil’s Postpile National Monument, but longer trails connecting to other wilderness areas are available for those looking for a greater challenge.
To minimize car traffic and subsequent environmental impact in the area of this monument, taking a shuttle bus is required. The shuttle offers drop-off and pick-up at the Village at Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center. Tickets are required and cost $8 for adults and $4 for children.
The Devil’s Postpile Monument is not opened year-round due to large amounts of snow in the winter. Opening dates will vary, so be sure to visit the National Park Service website to help plan a visit. While there is a small Visitors Center and Ranger Station, it does not sell food or water. Visitor’s should bring with them everything needed for the day.
Wendy with Empty Nesters Hit the Road
Channel Islands National Park
One of the most underrated U.S. National Parks in California is Channel Islands, National Park. The park consists of 5 islands and is located 160 miles off the coast of southern California. The only way to access Channel Islands National Park is by boat or ferry, which takes about an hour. Channel Islands National Park does not have any lodging, except camping, so being on time to your ferry is crucial.
If you are the adventurous type, I highly recommend hiking, sea kayaking, and/or snorkeling. One of the best trails on the island is a hike to potato harbor on Santa Cruz Island. The views are incredible. The park has sea kayaking tours available to give visitors a tour of the magnificent sea caves of the islands. The company also has snorkeling gear available to rent.
Being able to spend even one day at this national park is incredible. Having views with no crowds and miles away from civilization is surreal. This truly is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of California to relax with family and friends.
Check out Michelle post on visiting the Channel Islands
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is a stunning and unspoilt wilderness location in the heart of California. With jaw dropping mountain scenery and a collection of some of the largest Giant Sequoia trees in the world, it truly is a spectacular destination. The park has many hiking trails, some of which you can get up close to these giant trees. The Giant Forest area has many of these short and simple hikes such as the General Sherman Tree Trail or the Big Trees Trail.
For hikes that offer more open mountain scenery, the 0.3 mile Moro Rock trail is a climb up a granite dome that sits on the edge of a ridge, overlooking the valleys below. Views across the Great Western Divide are breath taking. A longer, and equally rewarding hike is the Tokopah Falls Trail. It may only be 1.7 miles one way, but offers some fantastic scenery culminating in the cascading Tokopah Falls, which at 1200 feet is the tallest waterfall in the park.
The park can be accessed by car via Fresno or Visalia.
Here’s a link to my blog post about the park.
Check out Dylan’s post on being surrounded by Giants
Yosemite National Park
Of all the national parks and monuments in California, Yosemite National Park is my absolute favorite. The first time I visited this park was back in 1999 when I first moved to California. At the time, I had never heard of Yosemite and had no idea what to expect. As I’m sure you can imagine, I was blown away. Over the years, I’ve been back several times and picked up a lot of insight along the way.
While summer brings the biggest crowds to Yosemite, I think the best time to visit is actually right in the middle of spring. If you plan your visit for March or April, you’ll be rewarded with both lighter crowds and lower costs for accommodations. You’ll also find it much easier to obtain campsite reservations.
Yosemite is best known for its stunning landscapes, with massive rock formations and waterfalls all around you. These waterfalls are especially astonishing in the spring, as the fresh snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas makes its way down to the Merced River. You can see the waterfalls from all over the park, but especially from Yosemite Valley, along the Mist Trail up to Half Dome, and at Glacier Point.
If you want some truly epic photos during your visit, stop at Tunnel View on your way into the park. During the spring, there’s only one way into Yosemite valley, so you can’t miss it. If the parking lot is full, drive past it just a bit, there is additional parking along the road. The short hike back up to the overlook is worth it, trust me. Another popular spot with a great view of Yosemite valley is at Glacier Point. This area looks right over the top of Half Dome and it’s absolutely incredible. You can ever see a few of the waterfalls from here as well.
If you’re into hiking, you need to get yourself onto the Mist Trail. This is the trail that takes you all the way up to Half Dome if you were lucky enough to score a permit. Even without the permit, this is one of the most intense and rewarding hikes you’ll ever do. The trail will take you right alongside both Vernal Falls and, if you keep going, Nevada Falls. The hike to Vernal Falls is 3 miles round trip while the hike to Nevada Falls is 7 miles round trip. It should be noted, the hike to Nevada Falls requires a decent level of fitness as the incline is steep and you will be climbing up via steps built into the rock. This hike is estimated to take between 4 to 5 hours if you head all the way to Nevada Falls. If you turn around at Vernal Falls, the hike takes closer to 2 to 3 hours. No matter which route you choose to take, you’ll have an incredible time making your way up the falls. This hike is tough, but it also one of the most beautiful hikes you’ll ever do.
My final piece of advice for anyone planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, bring your good camera. This park will take your breath away, and I promise you’ll want to come back.
Eden with Rock a Little Travel
The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite
Little known fact to visiting Yosemite, the Ahwahanee hotel is also an impressive national landmark of its own merit. Built by the National park service and still used as a stately luxury resort in the park, the Ahwahanee Hotel was declared a national historic monument in 1987 and operated by the Curry Company which runs most of the other hotels and concessions in the park.. The Ahwahanee was renamed the Grand Majestic recently in 2016 due to a legal dispute but is still fondly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel. Check out my visit to the Grand Majestic hotel and dining at their grand dining room for more images and inspiration to visiting this national monument.
Noel with Travel Photo Discovery
Death Valley National Park
One of the most unique and stunning landscapes in the California Sierra eastern basin lies Death Valley which is barren, striking and so different from the rest of the state. Located in the lowest elevation of the United States, Death Valley has been the attraction that always hits that highest temperatures in the state but an early spring time visit is quite pleasant. You can visit the famous attractions that include the gorgeous Mesquite Flat sand dunes, photogenic Zabriske Point, The Golden Canyon, Bad water Basin, the Natural Bridge and so many other wonderful places of interest with beautiful vistas. Check out my post on visiting Death Valley National park here for more images and inspiration to visiting this amazing park in California.
Noel with Travel Photo Discovery
Sequoia National Park
We visited Sequoia National Park, the second-oldest national park in the United States, several times as we call the San Francisco Bay Area home.
The large park is famous for its giant sequoia trees, which are indeed gigantic and a must-see! Photographers will love the deep red of the bark and dark green of the leaves, and of course, the sizes that dwarf every one around. But Sequoia National Park also offers a trove of hiking opportunities. The Grant Grove, the Giant Forest, and the Cedar Grove have short, easy day hikes accessible to everyone like 3.4 miles Tokopah Falls hike. For beautiful, strenuous hikes, check the 13-mile 4,000-feet summit trail to Lookout Peak for superb views of the backcountry, or the 5-mile 1,200-feet elevation gain Cedar Grove Overlook for views of Kings Canyon.
Our favorite hike is the moderately-strenuous 14-mile Lakes Trail passing by three stunning lakes. The elevation gain from the trailhead at 7,280 feet is 2,490 feet to Heather Lake. The hike provides fantastic views of the Marble Fork in the Kaweah Canyon, going through dense forest, by granite slabs, and rocky ridges up to 11,204-feet Alta Peak.
The best time to visit is from June through August when the weather is warmer. This period tends to be also the busiest, so May and September are great alternatives to travel to Sequoia National Park. The temperatures are still lovely but without the crowd.
Patricia with Ze Wandering Frogs
Manzanar National Historic Monument
Located in along the desolate valley on I395, the Manzanar National Historic Monument shows the American version of an internment camp of Japanese Americans in this barren area of the Eastern Sierras. This impressive place has a wonderful museum along with many of the camp’s original buildings, landscaping and other monuments that you can drive through with signage to explain what you are seeing and the day to day experiences of the detainees living in these terrible shelters. If you are doing a road trip through the Eastern Sierra’s, definitely make a stop to this historic monument that documents the terrible ways the American government interned Japanese Americans during World War II in the fight against Japan. Check out my post here on visiting Manzanar here for more images and details to visiting this monument.
Noel with Travel Photo Discovery
Mojave National Preserve
Mojave National Preserve in Southern California is an often-overlooked desert adventure that, though remote, is worth the trek. Nestled between Death Valley and Joshua Tree, Mojave is the largest area of protected land in the US. While much of it is only accessible with a 4×4 vehicle, there are still a few beautiful and unique things to see there that you can get to with a standard vehicle. My favorites are the lava tubes, Kelso Dunes, which rival the orange sand dunes of Namibia, and the Amboy Crater hike. The tubes are incredible midday when the light shines through them, creating beams. The dunes are great at sunrise, sunset, and for an overnight camping adventure, and the crater is a great afternoon hike, provided it’s winter – it gets incredibly hot! Many are also surprised to learn that Mojave has a bigger Joshua Tree forest than Joshua Tree National Park, as well. If you go, be prepared with a full tank of gas, at least 4 gallons of water in case you break down, and a sense of adventure – this is a true off the grid experience!
Kristin with Be My Travel Muse
Joshua Tree National Park
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is an extremely rewarding experience. Otherworldly landscapes, incredibly diverse fauna, and an array of native wildlife to spot make visiting far from dull. And even though the park spans over two distinct deserts, it’s still possible to fit a complete visit into a day trip – even when visiting Joshua Tree with kids.
There are plenty of amazing short trails to do within the park – I’d highly recommend the Hidden Valley Nature Trail for chipmunk spotting and plenty of Joshua Tree sightings; the Barker Dam Nature Trail for the birdlife that congregates around the dam; and the Skull Rock Nature Trail which also takes you past the majestic Jumbo Rocks. All three of these walks can easily be done in a day, with time to spare. Make sure to also drive up to Keys View for the best views over the Coachella Valley and Mount San Jacinto, and stop by at the Cholla Cactus Garden to be surrounded by the odd-looking teddy bear cactus’!
Spring and Autumn are ideal for visiting Joshua Tree, as winter and summer can see extreme temperatures. Even so, it’s best to be well prepared at any time of the year with layers, sun protection and plenty of water.
Nadine with Le Long Weekend
Balboa Park in San Diego
The central historic district of San Diego contains a large park and zoo called Balboa park and the architectural gems saved from demolition have been inscribed a national historic site. Representing the beautiful buildings from the Spanish Colonial era, the park has converted the preserved historic buildings into a variety of popular museums celebrating art, history, science and even off the wall collections like trains and the human condition. Surrounding these splendid structures are colorful gardens, a botanical garden and a world famous zoo that is a must to visit! You can spend days just exploring this area, the museums, parks and even the zoo to keep you entertained while visiting Balboa Park. There are a few nice restaurants also located in the park and just outside for those that want a quick bite or a nice meal to enjoy with your visit. Check out more highlights to visiting Balboa Park here for more images and inspiration to visiting the area.
Noel at Travel Photo Discovery
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