California has more national parks than any other state, including Alaska. There is a whopping nine national parks in California — each protects and preserves a vastly different landscape. From towering redwoods and stunning glacier-sculpted valleys to stark desert terrain and otherworldly trees, here are four of California’s not-to-be-missed national parks.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is California’s most visited national park and for good reason. This glacier-carved wonderland is home to some of the most recognizable rock formations in the world, the highest waterfall in North America, and some of the largest trees found anywhere. One of the best things about Yosemite is you don’t have to be a world-class mountaineer or hike for hours to catch a glimpse of the park’s most amazing views.
If you only have one day, head straight to Yosemite Valley and do the short hike to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, where during peak runoff you’ll get doused by the mist of this powerful falls. Then hike the Mirror Lake Trail where you can view Half Dome reflected in the clear waters of the lake. If you have more time, don’t miss a stroll through the wildflower-filled meadows in Tuolumne Meadows or the dramatic hike on the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall.
Death Valley National Park
With a name like Death Valley, it sounds like a park you’d want to avoid, but that is quite the contrary. Besides being the hottest, driest, and lowest of all the U.S. national parks, it’s actually a fascinating desert landscape of badlands, salt flats, and colorful canyons totally worth exploring.
If you only have one day, head straight to the Badwater Basin so you can say you visited the lowest spot in North America at -282 feet below sea level. Then visit Zabriskie Point, the most famous viewpoint in the park, and then hike through Golden Canyon or the Artists Palette for a quick view of the park’s colorful canyons.
Joshua Tree National Park
Named after those oddly twisted Dr. Suess-looking trees found throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is a wild desert landscape characterized by strange rock formations. These trees were named by Mormon settlers who thought the tree’s unique shape reminded them of the prophet Joshua guiding them westward.
At first glance, the park may appear barren, but if you take the time to explore it, you’ll find an incredible wonderland of desert plants, plentiful wildlife, and bizarre rock formations. The park is best explored on foot and there’s a huge variety of trails to explore from short interpretative trails to strenuous forrays into palm-lined oases.
Redwood National and State Parks
California’s giant redwoods are the largest trees on Earth and it’s impossible to explain how it feels to stand among them. Heavy logging in the early 1900s threatened the redwood tree’s entire existence so the Redwood National and State Parks were created to protect what remains of these enormous beasts.
Several scenic drives, such as the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway and the Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith State Park, cut through the dazzling groves of old-growth redwoods along the coast. To get up close to the redwoods, hike through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, one of the most glorious mature redwood groves in the park.