Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List

California is blessed with an abundance of National Parks ~ with nine to be exact!  And they vary wildly, from otherworldly landscapes at Death Valley & Joshua Tree, to the famous rock formations & waterfalls of Yosemite, which is one of the most popular parks in the country.  In this “Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List,” we’ll take a look at photos of each park, learn the best times to visit, & find out what each park is most known for.  I’ll also provide an actual “Bucket List” for you to print out & check off as you & your family adventure through the great state of California…

Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl's Road Trip to Joshua Tree ~ Video Post, Girl Who Travels the World

Joshua Tree is the park I’ve been to the most, as it’s very close to Palm Springs ~ & an easy drive from Los Angeles.

Map of California National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

Yosemite

King's Canyon

Sequoia National Park

Lassen

Channel Islands

Death Valley

Pinnacles National Park

Redwoods National Park

Overview of California National Parks

  • YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK = 3.5 Million Visitors per Year: California’s Most Popular National ParkWhat’s it Known For? Yosemite is famous for massive waterfalls, killer hikes, & pretty meadows ~ but its legendary Half Dome rock is one of the state’s most enduring images.  It’s also the rock Alex Honnold famously climbed….without ropes, in the movie “Free Solo.”  How Many Days to Spend? 2-5 Days. Yosemite is a bit remote, & there’s no sense driving all this way without spending time exploring.  Where to Stay?  The Ahwanee Hotel is a National Park classic & Yosemite MUST ~ just be prepared to book a year in advance. 
  • JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK = 3 Million Visitors per Year: Legendary Trees + U2’s Iconic Album Name!  What’s it Known For?  Joshua trees!  Only found in the southwest U.S. ~ this park has the highest concentration of these striking trees. Combine that with massive boulders & a beautiful desert landscape, & you’ve got an amazing spot to camp, hike, & take amazing photos. How Many Days to Spend? 1-3 Days. As the scenery here can get a bit repetitive, combine a visit here with a pool-hopping getaway to nearby Palm Springs.  Where to Stay?  For glamping try AutoCamp Joshua Tree ~ or for more glam, check out Sparrows Lodge in Palm Springs.
  • DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK = 1.1 Million Visitors per Year: Park with the Scariest Name!  What’s it Known For?  The highest temperature ever recorded on earth was in Death Valley, at a staggering 134 degrees!! But don’t let that scare you off: come here to hike gorgeous sand dunes & camp under a canopy of stars. How Many Days to Spend? At least 2 days; can also be combined with a visit to Joshua Tree, or head north-west to Kings Canyon & Sequoia.  Where to Stay?  There are no luxury hotels here ~ but the Inn at Death Valley is a solid choice….or bring your tent & camp. 
  • SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK = 1.2 Million Visitors per Year: Typically Paired with a Visit to Kings CanyonWhat’s it Known For?  GIANT sequoia trees. Five of the world’s 10 largest trees are in this park. How Many Days to Spend? 2-3 Days; pair with a visit to next-door Kings Canyon.  Where to Stay?  Buckeye Tree Lodge & Cabins is set right off the main highway, making for easy access ~ while Silver City Mountain Resort gives you rustic chic a little further out, among the sequoias. 
  • KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK = 562,000 Visitors per Year: Next-Door to Sequoia National ParkWhat’s it Known For?  John Muir called Kings Canyon one of the only “rivals to Yosemite” ~ & it features much of the same scenery, with far less people. You’ll find deep valleys, trees tall as skyscrapers, massive rock formations, & the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world. How Many Days to Spend Here? 2-3 Days. Where to Stay? Check out John Muir Lodge
  • REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK = 435,000 Visitors per Year: Furthest North California National ParkWhat’s it Known For?  You’ll find some of the tallest, oldest trees in the world here, mainly old-growth coastal redwoods. You can also drive through a tree here…I vividly remember this from my childhood! How Many Days to Spend? 2-3 Days; can also be combined with a road-trip on the Oregon Coast.  Where to Stay?  Lost Whale Inn Oceanfront B&B & Turtle Rocks Oceanfront Inn are both stunning nearby hotels with incredible ocean views. 
  • PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK = 350,000 Visitors per Year: Close to Carmel & Big SurWhat’s it Known For?  Chapparal-covered rock outcroppings created by an ancient volcanic eruption.  How Many Days to Spend? 1-2 Days; can be combined with a visit to nearby Big Sur & Carmel, which (in my opinion) are prettier than Pinnacles.  Where to Stay?  If you want to stay right in the park, try Inn at the Pinnacles ~ a refined B&B serving up free nightly wine. For more luxury, head over to Carmel & stay at the L’Auberge or Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch.
  • LASSEN NATIONAL PARK = 350,000 Visitors per Year: California’s Most Volcanic National ParkWhat’s it Known For?  Meadows sprinkled with wildflowers (in spring & summer), clear mountain lakes, & several volcanoes ~ some of which still have openings thru which hot gases emerge. How Many Days to Spend? 2-3 Days; can be combined with a trip to Lake Tahoe (to the south), or Crater Lake & Bend (to the north).  Where to Stay?  Highlands Ranch Resort has gorgeous mountain views & an upscale, log-cabin feel.
  • CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK = 300,000 Visitors per Year: The Least-Visited California ParkWhat’s it Known For? Any & all things WATER-related: you can scuba-dive, snorkel, spearfish, take epic day hikes, kayak through sea caves, & then camp under the stars. How Many Days to Spend Here? 1-3 Days; this is a long way to come to spend only one night…plan to stay at least two ~ as long as you like camping!  How to Get to the Channel Islands?  Take a ferry from either Ventura or Santa Barbara; Island Packers is the most popular service, & they run year-round. Where to Stay?  There are NO hotels here ~ only campgrounds. Scorpion Anchorage Campground on Santa Cruz Island is one of the largest.

Channel Islands, Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

Channel Islands is the LEAST visited National Park in California…but the beauty is: you’ll have many spots to yourself here.

Good Camera

Guidebook

9-Person Tent

Printable Bucket List

Save the image below to your computer & then print out!

Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

 

Photos of Yosemite National Park

Channel Islands, Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

The most iconic image in Yosemite is this massive rock wall: Half Dome.

Channel Islands, Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

Deer in front of Half Dome.

Channel Islands, Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

Incredible waterfalls & tons of hiking trails draw millions to Yosemite every year.

Channel Islands, Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

Make sure you’re outside at sunset….

When to Visit Yosemite National Park: Summer is the most popular time to visit, & hotel reservations need to be made WELL ahead in July & August. But the best time to visit is during the shoulder seasons of May & September, when temperatures are cooler & better for hiking, & hotel prices are cheaper. Late May/early June is the best time to view Yosemite’s waterfalls, which are surging with just-melted snow.  For the cheapest prices, visit during winter….as long as your car can handle snow.

Photos of Joshua Tree National Park

Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl's Road Trip to Joshua Tree, Girl Who Travels the World

Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park!

Joshua Tree, Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List, Girl Who Travels the World

Iconic Joshua trees.

Girl's Road Trip to Joshua Tree, Girl Who Travels the World

On some of the “jumbo rocks,” at the appropriately-named Jumbo Rocks Campground, inside the park.

Photos of Joshua Tree National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Visiting Joshua Tree at sunset is a MUST.

Photos of Death Valley National Park

What are the Best California National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Towering sand dunes at Death Valley National Park.

What are the Best California National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Hikingthe dunes is just one thing to do here…

What are the Best California National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Camping under a massive blanket of stars is another…

When to Visit Joshua Tree & Death Valley National Parks: Summer is the LEAST popular time to visit either of these parks, as temps are often well over 100 degrees. If you’re visiting during summer, use extreme caution & bring a TON of water. That said, late October thru May is the best time to visit Joshua Tree & Death Valley National Parks. And if you’ll be hiking, wintertime is really the best ~ especially in Joshua Tree.

Photos of Sequoia & King’s Canyon

What are the Best California National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Towering trees at Sequoia National Park.

What are the Best California National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Sunset at Sequoia.

Photos of Kings Canyon National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Kings Canyon has the largest grove of Sequoia trees in the world.

Photos of Kings Canyon National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Viewpoint at Kings Canyon.

When to Visit Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks: Similar to Yosemite ~ June thru August is the most popular time to visit, when the weather is warmest & outdoor camping is most comfortable. However, the best time to visit may actually be in fall, from mid-September thru October. Then, you’ll find warm days & pleasantly cool nights, with less people. Portions of these parks are closed from late November thru mid-April due to snow, but you can still cross-country ski & snowshoe then.

Photos of Redwood National Park

Photos of Redwood National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

The trees at Redwood National Park may be the most spectacular of all….

Photos of Redwood National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Driving right through a redwood is popular with kids AND adults…

When to Visit Redwood National Park: Because this park is so far north & on the coast, it’s never particularly warm here ~ bring a good jacket! Average temperatures range from the 40’s to 70’s.  The best time to visit Redwood National Park is from early spring thru summer, when the forest is at its most lush & green, & all trails & roads are typically open. Spring is less busy than summer, making it the ideal time to visit.

Photos of Pinnacles & Lassen National Parks

Pinnacles National Park, What are California's National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Though Pinnacles is beautiful, I personally find it the least memorable of all California’s National Parks…

Pinnacles National Park, What are California's National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

UNLESS you time your visit during a super bloom or spring’s wildflower season! Then, Pinnacles is spectacular. Photo by Visit California.

When to Visit Pinnacles National Park: Pinnacles is better-visited during cooler fall & winter months, due to hot summertime temps. Especially if you want to hike: visit in November thru mid-June. You’ll be able to hike & enjoy wildflower displays ~ particularly during spring.

Pinnacles National Park, What are California's National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Lassen is another park that you don’t hear much about: but visiting during spring gives you incredible hiking views like this one…

Pinnacles National Park, What are California's National Parks? Girl Who Travels the World

Lassen is best-known for its volcanic formations, which includes fumaroles: openings in the volcano that still emit hot, sulfuric gases.

When to Visit Lassen National Park: Because Lassen is closed to car traffic from December thru May due to snow, you can only visit Lassen National Park from June thru October. But the best & safest months, when you’re least likely to encounter snow, are August & September. This helps explain why this is one of California’s least-visited National Parks!

Photos of Channel Islands National Park

Photos of Channel Islands National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Lighthouse on Anacapa Island.

Photos of Channel Islands National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Secret coves to explore by kayak or snorkeling…

Photos of Channel Islands National Park, Girl Who Travels the World

Summer is the most popular time to explore the Channel Islands, but ferries run year-round from Ventura & Santa Barbara. Photo by Channel Islands Adventure Company.

When to Visit Channel Islands National Park: June thru August is the busiest time in the Channel Islands, & it’s also when you’ll find warm weather & the most ferries running. But the best time to visit may actually be in the fall, particularly September & October ~ when the weather & water are at their warmest, with calm winds & seas. Winter brings rough seas & unpredictability, while spring has the strongest winds….sprinkled in with amazing bluebird days & wildflowers on the hillsides.

Ultimate California National Parks Bucket List

This post is meant to serve as a good overview for all the parks; I’ll dig more into each of them specifically in coming months!  In the meantime, check out this video of some Joshua Tree adventures….

xoxo Noelia

Read Next: 20 Photos to Inspire Your Joshua Tree Trip