There aren’t many travel destinations that call for beaches, dense forests, gorgeous mountain views, and deserts, yet on your California road trip, it’s all possible!
Get inspired and plan the perfect road trip by visiting these National and State Parks in California. This quick guide will start off in Southern California, and we will make our way north. Take notes and get ready to have an incredible trip!
Joshua Tree National Park
Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park is where two deserts meet: the Mojave and the Colorado. The park’s arid environment allows for specially adapted plants and rugged mountains and boulders.
There are many activities at Joshua Tree National Park! For example, you can go camping, hiking, bird watching, biking, climbing, or horseback riding. Highlights are Keys View Overlook for expansive mountain views and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Hikes that are beautiful yet less traversed are 49 Palms Oasis trail and Lost Palms Oasis trail. Both hikes provide respite from the harsh sun, but all hiking in this park requires water.
Try this: Because Joshua Tree is close to huge cities like Los Angeles, the park can be crowded on the weekend. Go mid-week or during off-season to avoid crowds.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States. While Death Valley contains 3.4 million acres with about 1,000 miles of road in the park, you can see the major sights within 2-3 hours by car. Start with the lowest point in North America, the Badwater Basin. The basin is 282 ft (86 meters) below sea level and is known for the surreal, vast landscapes of salt flats. Next, check out the Artists Drive, a scenic 9-mile loop with incredible views. Finally, watch the sunset at Zabriskie Point with the best views of the park. If you’ve got extra time, take a half-day visit to Ubehebe Crater where you’ll find a massive 600 ft. crater caused by a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago.
Pro tip: Be prepared for extreme heat. Drink more water than you think is possible (at least 4 liters a day) because dehydration can ruin your trip!
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is the smallest national park in California, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit it on your California road trip! Pinnacles National Park is home to these really cool rock formations made from the remnants of an extinct volcano. Hike to the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a great midway point along the High Peaks Trail. Additionally, explore unique cave formations like the Talus Caves. Talus caves are formed when volcanic action on fault lines split open the rock, dropping boulders into the cracks and leaving large open space beneath. Visit between March and May for a burst of colorful wildflowers. Also, be sure to see the California condors while you’re there because Pinnacles is a release site for captive bred California condors.
Sequoia / Kings Canyon National Parks
Two in one! Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are twin national parks that preserve glacier-carved canyons and awe-inspiring lush forests. The parks contain 34 separate groves of the giant sequoia tree, Earth’s largest living species. For that reason alone, it’s definitely worth a visit along your California road trip. While you’re there, visit the south fork of King’s River to see America’s deepest canyon at a depth of 8,200 ft (2,500 m). Another highlight is going to Moro Rock, which is a staircase carved into the rock that has amazing views of the High Sierras and Central Valley. Most importantly, take in the beauty and mystical force of nature while looking up at the endlessly captivating sequoia trees.
Additional reading: Sustainable Travel Tips
Redwood National Park
If you’re hoping to find yourself amongst redwoods on your California road trip, don’t miss Redwood National Park. If the name doesn’t give it away, this park protects some of the largest original redwoods forests in the world. It’s a total of 58,000 acres! The land is broken up into smaller areas that had already been established as state parks. To list, highlights include Del Norte Coast Redwood State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Tall Trees Grove, Gold Bluffs Beach, Humboldt Lagoons State Park, and Patrick’s Point State Park. Take your time. Don’t rush this part of your trip!
Save the Redwoods League has helped permanently protect more than 150,000 acres in 37 of California State Parks redwood parks.
So you know: There aren’t many restaurants in this area, so be prepared with snacks. Pack a lunch!
Lime Kiln State Park
Camp overnight at a place like Lime Kiln State Park. This sweet spot has breathtaking views of the coast, magical redwoods, short hiking trails, and beach access. One of the hiking trails goes to a waterfall. The other trail follows a river for a mile or so. Then, the third trail leads to old limekilns. It’s a great spot!
Additional reading: Hiking is the future of the travel industry.
Andrew Molera State Park
Andrew Molera State Park is a great park for a day of hiking and beach fun. There are miles of trails wind through meadows, bluffs, beaches and hilltops. It’s one of my favorite long hikes (8+ miles) in Big Sur!
Wilder Ranch State Park
This gem of a spot is just north of Santa Cruz along the coast. What was once a dairy farm from the 1890s is now a state park. You can visit the historic ranch house and barns, yet the real allure is the cliffside trail that shows off the Santa Cruz coastline. If you’re up for it, Wilder Ranch State Park also has over 35 miles of trails leading into the Santa Cruz Mountains. The 3-mile coastal loop is a local’s favorite. All in all, Wilder Ranch is great for a hike, horse ride, or mountain biking!
Support That’s My Park, the nonprofit that helps take care of the Santa Cruz state parks!
Russian Gulch State Park
Make your way further north to Mendocino, and you’ll be enchanted by this amazing park. It’s located on the Sonoma coastline and has everything from forest trails, waterfalls, tide pools, and lakes. Great for camping! The main loop trail in this park features a 36-foot waterfall and a very lovely fern canyon. It’s basically magic.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is well known for a reason. Soaring cliffs, massive waterfalls, canyons, mountains, and valleys all larger than life and absolutely beautiful. Because of this, Yosemite is a must-see on any California road trip. Don’t miss the Half Dome and Mirror Meadow. Also take time to visit Lower Yosemite Falls for an epic 2,425 ft. waterfall (the highest in the U.S.). Rock climbers, head over to El Capitan and take on the challenge of climbing the 3,593 ft., or take some binoculars and watch the climbers in the meadow below. Find a great hiking trail and enjoy the beauty of nature! There’s so much to see at Yosemite National Park.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
When referring to the deforestation of many redwood forests in the early 1900s, the Humboldt Redwoods SP website states, “The founders of Save the Redwoods League thought that was akin to ‘chopping up a grandfather clock for kindling’.” It started with one single grove in 1921, and now the park spans 53,000 acres. If you’re passing through in May or October, join for the most beautiful run of your life during the bi-annual Avenue of the Giants 10K, half marathon, and marathon. The park closes the main roads in the park for the race!
Now you’re ready for an unforgettable, nature-filled California road trip. Before you go, read our sustainable travel tips. Take time to hike the trails and enjoy!