From the unique animal species found on isolated Pacific Ocean islands to the mountains reflected in a valley lake, California's national parks provide a diversity of sights for the curious traveler. A visit to the majestic sequoias of the same-named national park or the extreme hot and dry conditions of Death Valley lets you experience nature's grandeur in a manner found nowhere else.
Encompassing five islands off the southwest coast of California, Channel Islands National Park preserves species of plant and animal life, such as the deer mouse and island fox, found only on these land masses. Due to its remote location, Channel Islands is one of the least visited national parks. Explore the visitor centers in Santa Barbara or Ventura, and then buy a ticket from a park concessionaire or private boat to access the islands.
This basin below sea level in eastern California is aptly named, as a number of pioneers perished here in the extreme hot and dry conditions on their way to the coast. The highest recorded temperature is 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Highlights of the 5,219-square-mile Death Valley National Park include Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and Scotty's Castle, a mansion built in the park.
The immense Joshua Tree National Park, nearly 800,000 acres in the Mojave and Colorado deserts of southern California, has two separate desert ecosystems due to the varying elevations in the park. Explore the park to see one of the five fan-palm-filled oases, essential to survival for the plentiful park wildlife. Looming over the deserts are granite monoliths and craggy mountains.
Lassen Vocanic National Park's 106,000 acres near Mineral boast smoking fumaroles, mud pots and hot water streams that give a glimpse of the thermal activity taking place underneath the soil. Be sure to stay on the marked trails, as visitors have been scalded by falling through fragile soil.
Named for the crags and rock spires that remain from an ancient volcanic field, Pinnacles National Park is in the Gabilan Mountains near Paicines. In its 38 square miles, you can explore the two main cave systems, Bear Gulch and Balconies, through a series of trails with stairs and handholds for easier access.
You'll find the largest trees on Earth in the 400,000-acre Sequoia National Park. The General Sherman Tree, the largest of the giant sequoias, is 275 feet tall and has a diameter of 25 feet. The Trees Trail is an easy stroll along a paved path providing an introduction to the ecosystem of the sequoias with interpretive signs.
Widely regarded as the most beautiful of California's national parks, focus your trip here on Yosemite Valley, with its sweeping meadows and granite outcroppings like El Capitain and Half Dome looming in the distance. Snow melt feeds some of the world's largest waterfalls, such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls, as they drop thousands of feet into the valley. You'll also find more sequoias and a diversity of wildlife in the 1,200 square miles of this northeastern California park.
Redwood National Park is famed for its trees, the tallest on the planet. This park in Del Norte and Humboldt counties in northern California also has rushing rivers, oak-filled woodlands, expansive prairies and 40 miles of coastline. The national park and three adjoining state parks comprise 133,000 acres and protect nearly half of the remaining coast redwoods in the world.
- National Park Service: California
- The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West; Fodor's Travel Publications
- Photo Credit Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images