Summer Travels: Exploring the National Parks of California

summer travels exploring ca national parks


Few states have as varied a national park portfolio as California. From the weathered, granite cliffs of Yosemite to the towering, thousand-year-old trees of Redwood, the Golden State is filled with many exploration opportunities for nature-lovers.


With over 8 million acres of national park land — the second-largest national park land by acres in the U.S., only behind Alaska — and 35 million visitors per year, California maintains a total of eight national parks for visitors to enjoy. Naturally, these parks swarm with visitors in the summer months. They’re a signature of the great American road trip and often serve as the final miles of cross-country endeavors. California’s parks serve not only as a respite for those who crave fresh air, but also for those fascinated by geology, history, forestry, and plain old natural beauty. Let’s take a look at some of the state’s top national parks and some of their most tourist-worthy landmarks.


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sunrise yosemite valley park


Yosemite is indeed one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., catering to some 5 million visitors each year. And with nearly 80,000 acres to explore, there’s something for everyone at Yosemite. According to Leroy Radanovich, the author of “Yosemite National Park and Vicinity,” for as long as there have been settlers in the region, there has been appreciation and exploration of Yosemite. You know Yosemite for its unspoiled valley vistas, complete with breathtaking glaciers, meadows, cliffs and waterfalls. Here are some of the best ways to spend your time in this naturalist haven.

  • Wild, Wonderful Waterfalls — One of the most mesmerizing draws of this national park is its bounty of towering waterfalls. The 2,425-foot high Yosemite Falls reaches its peak flow in May, but you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the falls in action between the months of November and July. For something a bit different, visit the 500-foot Horsetail Falls, the tallest fully airborne waterfall in Yosemite. For a few weeks in the winter, Horsetail Falls appears to glow a luminescent orange.

  • A Multitude of Monuments — If calendar-worthy vistas are what you’re after, then bookmark some of the most popular Yosemite landmarks, including Ansel Adams’ favorite, Cooks Meadow, and the truly amazing Tunnel View. This overlook offers panoramic views of the most exquisite Yosemite landmarks, including Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley.

  • Meeting — Getting to know some of the legendary locals of the region will help connect you to some less-popular Yosemite sites. For example, you might consider seeking out some of the landmarks immortalized by photographer Charles Leander Weed or George Fiske, or taking a detour to see the nearby cabin once inhabited by Mark Twain.


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boulders joshua tree national park


A stark contrast from the lush lands of Yosemite, Joshua Tree sits smack-dab in the center of the Southern California desert. It features two distinct ecosystems, the dry high desert of the Mojave and the lower, sub-tropical climate of the Colorado desert.  It’s named after the Yucca breviifolia, a tree from the agave family known for taking many distinct forms, which is often described as looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.


According to author Joseph W. Zarki, the Joshua Tree region and its people tolerated never-ending struggles at the hands of this harsh desert landscape. Beginning around 1860, non-natives used the land for ranching and mining before it was acquired by the United States government in 1936 to create the Joshua Tree National Monument. Its enduring natural beauty has solidified its place as one of the most loved natural enclaves in Southern California.

  • Dusty, Earthy Landscapes — First-time Joshua Tree visitors should consider taking a day to explore the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, one of the most iconic paths in the park. The one-mile loop trail meanders through Joshua Tree’s recognizably barren landscape, but it offers plenty of up-close and personal views of the region’s signature trees. For a view from above, check out Keys View, a 5,000-foot-high vista that overlooks the Coachella Valley.

  • Strange Rock Formations — What makes Joshua Tree unique is that although some parts are quintessential harsh desert, others are mountainous and serene. Bare rocks, typically broken up into free-standing boulders, dot the otherwise dusty landscape. One of the most popular and interesting rock formations in Joshua Tree is Skull Rock, a formation that juts out into the landscape in the shape of a human skull.

  • Explore Art Inspired by the Desert — They say necessity is the mother of invention, and in the case of this region, necessity may be the mother of creativity. Here, you’ll find artistic interpretations of barren land in the form of the Curves and Zigzags illusion wall and the Outdoor Desert Art Museum, complete with 10 acres of desert-inspired sculptures in the middle of the Mojave. For those seeking abandoned and historic sites, Lost Horse Mine — responsible for producing thousands of ounces of gold and silver — makes for a fascinating point of interest.

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zabriski point death valley national park


As the largest national park outside Alaska, Death Valley National Park encompasses some three million acres within Southeast California, adjacent to (and partially within) the state of Nevada. Much like its southern sibling Joshua Tree, Death Valley offers a diverse desert landscape, complete with salt-flats, badlands, valleys, mountains and sand dunes.


If your idea of a good, old-fashioned national park visit includes dramatic peaks and iconic natural monuments, then Death Valley should be a must-visit on your national parks list this summer. One word of warning, though: Death Valley is, quite literally, a California hotspot — it’s not unusual for temps to reach well into the triple digits in the summer. Before you explore the area, make sure you are prepared for the challenging conditions of this unique park.

  • Breathtaking Badlands — Badlands are classified as barren, eroded plateaus with very little vegetation. Despite their harshness, American nature-lovers have a lasting fascination with the Badlands. In Death Valley, you’ll find some of the best examples of erosional landscape, especially at Zabriskie Point. Like any good parkland in the home of Hollywood, Zabriskie Point isn’t just an overlook — it’s also the name of a 1970s film that took place in this Death Valley tourist spot.

  • Dramatic Highs and Lows  While there is definitely plenty of opportunity for hiking, camping and birding here, Death Valley is truly a sightseer’s paradise with dramatic highs and lows. If you’ve only got a little bit of time, we’d recommend checking out Dante’s View, a 1,669-mile high crest overlooking the valley, before dropping low at Badwater Basin, which sits at 282 feet below sea level. The basin is particularly fascinating after heavy rainfall, when a temporary lake occasionally forms.

  • Heading off the Beaten Path —  If you’re in search of unique, kitsch and downright bizarre, then you’re going to love the attractioDeath Valley. As a popular stop along Route 66, Death Valley is home to many interesting museums, public art exhibits and ghost towns galore. You simply can’t miss the crumbled, abandoned and dilapidated old mining towns of the region, including Panamint City and Ballarat.  


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high sierra kings canyon park


Up the coast a bit lies Sequoia and Kings Canyon, where biodiversity, history, and enormity seem to permeate every acre. These two parklands include portions of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains and the San Joaquin Valley, with ample mountainous scopes and thick forests alike. What draws so many travelers to these sites is a fascination with all things enormous. Within the park boundaries is Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in California, and, of course, some of the largest and oldest trees in the United States. History and magnitude abound here; Sequoia is the second-oldest national park in the country, at almost 130 years old.

  • Big, Breathtaking Sequoia Trees — If you only have one day to visit this earthy enclave, make sure that you pay tribute to General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. This towering sequoia is the largest known living single stem tree on the planet and measures 275 feet high, 102 feet around and 36 feet in diameter. It’s over 2,000 years old! But General Sherman isn’t the only tree worth a visit in this national park region; be sure to get to know the world of giant sequoias at the nearby Giant Forest Museum.

  • Honoring the Father of the National Parks — Although naturalist John Muir, often dubbed “the Father of the National Parks,” is officially honored with the nearby, 211-mile long John Muir Trail — a trail which stretches through the Sierra Nevada mountain range—he can be credited for helping to preserve these national parks as well as their beloved sequoia trees. To pay tribute to Muir, make sure to visit the 12,000-foot-high Muir Pass within Kings Canyon National Park.

  • Heading off the Beaten Path — For a little bit of human history, be sure to explore the home of Hale Tharp, the first European settler in the area. Tharp’s Log is a hollowed-out sequoia log that was used as shelter by early pioneers, and it is still open to the public today. Occasionally, Tharp hosted John Muir in the cabin, so this is another great way to remember Muir’s work. Entomologists and the curious at large might try to catch a glimpse of the park’s bioluminescent millipedes, which appear to glow in the dark.


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fisheye view man pointing redwood tree


Trees, trees and more trees! That’s what the Northern California national parkland is all about. Similar to the sequoia — and equally as impressive in terms of size — the redwood tree is actually its own kind of giant tree, though the two are very closely related. While Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world, Redwood National Park is no stranger to towering giants — it’s got its own fair share of living skyscrapers. It also includes some of the most breathtaking coastal California landscapes around — perfect for the traveler looking for an all-natural experience.

  • Tall, Tall Trees —For a glimpse of some of the world’s tallest trees, you’ve got to visit Redwood. The most famous one in this national park is arguably the “Big Tree,” a 1,500-year-old redwood that sits along the Newton Drury Scenic Parkway. And then, of course, there are the iconic tree tunnels— redwoods that you can actually drive through — including the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree in Myers Flat.  

  • Coastal Splendor Redwood National Park is comprised of several natural, protected landscapes in the state of California, including Del Norte Coast featuring eight miles of wild, Pacific coast. If you haven’t taken the time to soak up this aspect of the Golden State, make it a priority! This gorgeous Northern California coastline features rock formations that appear to jut right out of the sea, plus an old-growth forest of coastal redwoods.

  • Heading off the Beaten Path — Thanks to a history rich with arts and quirky counterculture, this portion of California offers many fun roadside attractions and interesting sights. One such example is the Trail of Mysterious Trees that showcases many of the park’s most unusual tree formations. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention the enchanting Fern Canyon — a narrow canyon featuring 30-foot-high fern walls — that sits within the park’s boundaries.


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No matter whether you’re heading west to soak up some unspoiled views, fresh air, and fascinating biodiversity, or if you’re in the market for the kitschy and unique, you’ll find something that strikes your fancy in these beloved California national parks. Happy hiking!