Keep Calm and Adventure On- The Traveler's Guide to Exploring the National Parks in Southern California

Did you know that California ties with Alaska for having the most national parks of any state?

That's right. Eight majestic national parks await you, the adventurous traveler, in the Golden State of California.

And if you live in (or are soon visiting) southern California, you're in luck--five national parks are within your reach. With so many to choose from, how do you decide which ones to visit? 

Don't worry--we've done the research for you. In this guide, we'll tell you everything you need to know. From interesting facts and the top sights to practical information about when to go and how to get there, we've got it all.

So grab your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy this guide through the best national parks in southern California. Which one will you visit first? 

1. Death Valley National Park

We're not necessarily saying bigger is better, but let's start with the largest national park in the lower 48: Death Valley.

Fast Facts

Spanning a massive 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park has a lot to brag about.

It holds the record for the lowest elevation on the continent of North America (282 feet below sea level). It's also the driest spot on the continent, too, with an average annual rainfall of fewer than two inches.

This fact, though, will really make your head spin. Death Valley is home to the hottest recorded temperature anywhere on earth. That blazing day came on July 10, 1913, when thermometers spiked to 134 degrees Fahrenheit.

More than a century later, that record still holds.

How did this area get its ominous name? It goes back to 1849 when a group of pioneers in search of gold took a "shortcut" that stranded them in the valley for two months. One survivor reportedly said, "Goodbye, Death Valley" when his party was finally rescued.

But don't worry--today's Death Valley is perfectly safe to explore. This beautiful park contains paved roads, ranger stations, and everything you need to enjoy a safe and memorable visit.

Top Sights

Far from a barren wasteland, you could spend days (even a week) exploring all the sights this national park has to offer. Here are a few of our best recommendations.

Stop in at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to grab a map and get your first introduction to Death Valley. You'll learn about the area's flora and fauna, Native American history, and local geology.

Badwater Road is one of the most popular drives in the park (and perfect if you only have one day to visit). You'll never forget the views over the Devil's Golf Course (made of eroded salt rock) and Artist's Drive (rainbow-colored volcanic formations).

Have a little more time to explore the region? Catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point, hike along the rim of the volcanic Ubehebe Crater, or visit the ghost town of Rhyolite. Keep your eyes open for coyotes, foxes, and bighorn sheep!

Practical Info

As you may have guessed from the name (and the record high), the summer months can be brutal in Death Valley. If you journey there during the summer, make sure you have an air-conditioned vehicle and plenty of water in the car--just in case.

Spring is a wonderful time to visit Death Valley, as temperatures are moderate and wildflowers are in bloom. Temperatures are pleasantly cool in the autumn and even colder in the wintertime, although it rarely gets below freezing at night.

You'll need a car to get to and around Death Valley. Expect a 4-5 hour drive from Los Angeles, 6-7 hours from San Diego, or about 2 hours from Las Vegas.

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Where did this national park get its unusual name? Legend has it that Mormon settlers in the 1800s thought the unusual trees resembled the Bible character Joshua supplicating God.

What do you think? You'll have to visit the park and see the famous Joshua trees for yourself.

Here's what else you need to know.

Fast Facts

Joshua Tree National Park lies at the meeting point of two beautifully different desert systems--the Colorado and the Mojave. 

One side of the park (below 3,000 feet in elevation) is a wide arid basin dotted with gardens of cholla cacti, flowering ocotillo, and fan palms. Higher up, the landscape becomes filled with the spiky Joshua trees the park is named for.

Interestingly, Joshua trees aren't trees at all. They're actually a giant species of yucca! Against a backdrop of bizarre rock piles and giant monoliths, the area appears untouched since the time of the dinosaurs.

Once home to nomadic Native American peoples and 19th-century miners, the park now sits between the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.

Top Sights

Half a day's drive will get you through most of the park's highlights. Long desert vistas spread out before you, dotted with roadside exhibits that explain the region's wildlife, geology, and human history.

Drive over Sheep Pass to Jumbo Rocks, then continue on to the Ocotillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden. Be sure to stop at the Oasis Visitor Center too, which sits beside the beautiful Oasis of Mara. This important oasis once provided water, food, and shade to the tribes that inhabited the region.

On a clear day, don't miss the side trip to Keys Viewpoint, where you can see all the way into neighboring Mexico.

Bonus tip: If you're into mountain biking, this is the national park for you. The park is loaded with backcountry biking routes past old homesteads and abandoned mines. Just be sure to pick up a reliable map and current information before you head out.

Practical Info

While you can visit Joshua Tree National Park all year long, spring and fall are the most comfortable months to visit.

Summers can be blisteringly hot, while temperatures often drop below freezing in the winter. Some of the higher mountains on the Mojave side of the desert may even get snow during the winter months.

Wildflowers bloom during March and April, while many cacti bloom during June.

Expect a drive time of around 3-4 hours from Los Angeles, San Diego, or Las Vegas, as the park is nearly equidistant from each city.

3. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Would you like to stand beside the world's largest tree? Add Sequoia National Park to your itinerary and you'll get to do just that!

General Sherman (as the tree is called) is a sight to behold. Consider a few fascinating stats about this mighty giant:

  • 275 feet high, making it the largest tree on earth
  • Base diameter of 36 feet
  • Estimated age of 2,000-2,500 years old
  • A single branch has a diameter of over 7 feet

What else can you expect to see at this epic national park? Read on to find out!

Fast Facts

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are technically two different parks, but they operate together and require only one entrance fee.

As the name suggests, Sequoia National Park is full of sequoia trees (also called giant redwoods). These natural skyscrapers are the oldest living things on earth, with some estimated to be over 3,000 years old.

These trees are so massive that some have tunnels carved into them you can walk (or even drive your car) through!

Aside from sequoia trees, the parks also offer miles of gorgeous hiking trails, hidden waterfalls, and majestic mountain peaks. Feel like spelunking? Sign up for a tour of the area's extensive cave network and journey through crystal caverns or marble caves.

Top Sights

General Sherman is clearly the highlight of any visit to this national park, but it's far from the only sight.

Take an easy hike down the Congress Trail or the (aptly named) Big Trees Trail to get up close and personal with nature's giants. Inside Kings Canyon National Park, don't miss the 90-acre collection of trees known as Grant Grove.

If you get tired of looking at redwoods (you won't), head to the giant granite dome called Moro Rock. The 300-foot climb to the summit offers spectacular views of the Great Western Divide. It's also a rare chance to get above the tops of the trees!

Practical Info

Summertime offers the warmest, clearest weather in this region, but be prepared to share the parks with hoards of other visitors.

For mild temperatures and fewer people, visit in the shoulder season during the spring or autumn months. Sections of the parks close during winter, all this is a prime location for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

To reach Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, plan a 3-4 hour drive from Los Angeles and a 6-7 hour drive from either San Diego or Las Vegas.

4. Channel Islands National Park

When you've had your fill of mountains and desert vistas, it's time to head to the coast to explore "the Galapagos of North America."

The Channel Islands are some of the best-kept secrets on the west coast (and the world of national parks). One glimpse of these Pacific jewels and you'll wonder why everyone hasn't visited yet!

Fast Facts

Five of the eight Channel Islands make up this marine national park located off the coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

More than 2,000 species of plant and animal wildlife call these islands home. 150 of them can only be found here, making it the perfect place to spot some truly unique creatures. 

The islands are mostly untouched by human development, meaning there's no hotels, no restaurants, and (gasp!) no WiFi. It is possible to camp in some locations with advanced planning, but most people visit the park via a boat from the mainland.

Top Sights

Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island is a "must do" when you visit the Channel Islands.  This dramatic overlook offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and is especially spectacular at sunset.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in California and home to one of the world's largest sea caves. It's the perfect place for some sea kayaking, spear fishing, or scuba diving.

Hiking, bird watching, and whale watching are other popular activities. In the summer, humpback and blue whales pass by the area on their annual migration routes. Autumn is the best time of year for diving or kayaking.

Practical Info

You can reach the Channel Islands via boat or private plane from Los Angeles or Santa Barbara. 

Keep in mind that the islands are undeveloped and uninhabited, so bring any necessary supplies and equipment with you. Bicycles are not allowed on any of the islands.

For more specific information on getting to and around the islands, check out the National Park Service page on the Channel Islands.

5. Pinnacles National Park

Further north towards central California, you'll find one of the newest national parks: Pinnacles.

A National Monument until 2013, the Park Service recently took this spectacular area under its wing. Marked by striking volcanic rock formations and miles of hiking trails, this is the ultimate park for outdoor adventure lovers.

Fast Facts

Pinnacles National Park offers a unique mix of volcanic rock, desert vistas, and enormous oak forests. In the summertime, the wildflowers here are among the prettiest anywhere in California.

It's especially popular with hikers and rock climbers and is the ideal place for sleeping out under the stars.

Top Sights

Most visitors tackle the easy 1.5-mile Bear Gulch hike, which ends at the impressive Bear Gulch Cave (flashlight required) and Reservoir.

If you enjoy spelunking, you'll also enjoy the Talus Caves. This one-of-a-kind cave experience features sheer fractured volcanic rocks and enormous fallen boulders.

Practical Info

The spring, autumn, and winter months are the ideal time to visit Pinnacles National Park. It is possible to visit during the summer, too, but be prepared for scorching hot temperatures.

Driving from Los Angeles will take roughly 5 hours, while you'll need 7-8 hours to get there from San Diego or Las Vegas.

National Parks in Southern California: Now You Know

The national parks in southern California aren't just beautiful--they're epic.

Where else in the country can you drive your car through a giant tree or stand almost 300 feet below sea level? From desert valleys to snowcapped mountains and enormous whales to tiny cacti, national parks in California have it all.  

Whichever park(s) you add to your itinerary, one thing is for certain. Your memories of southern California national parks are sure to last a lifetime!

Can't get enough of all things California? Check out our blog for more fascinating posts about your favorite state.

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