National Parks in California

Giant sequoia trees, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California, USA
Giant sequoia trees, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California. PhotoAlto/Jerome Gorin / Getty Images

The national parks in California are some of the most scenic places in the country and possess a wide range of geological resources, such as recent and truly ancient volcanic landscapes, and both arid desert and redwood forest landscapes.

National Park Service Parks in California
National Park Service Parks in California.  National Park Service 

California has a total of 28 national parks, historic sites and trails, national monuments, and nature preserves. More than 40 million people visit the different locations every year, according to the National Park Service. This article highlights the most relevant national parks in the state, as well as their most important historical, geological, and natural treasures.

In 2018, several wildfires that hit California's residential communities also impacted the parks. Be sure to check in advance to make sure that the resources you want to see are available.

Channel Islands National Park

Adventure Traveller Breathtaking Islands Channel Islands National Park Los Angeles
Anacapa Island is one of the five islands which form the Channel Islands National Park, near Los Angeles, California. benedek / Getty Images

West of Los Angeles and set off the California coast, this national park includes five islands in the Channel Islands chain (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) and the surrounding one mile of ocean.

Each island has distinct features, including scenic views, kelp forests, tide pools, sea caves, and rare vegetation like Torrey Pines and coreopsis. The islands are home to endangered species such as the California brown pelican. In addition, whales, seals, and sea lions can often be seen.

The Channels were some of the earliest sites occupied in North America. More than 13,000 years of archaeology and paleontology are on display in the park's visitor centers. 

Death Valley National Park

USA, California, Inyo County, Death Valley National Park, Zabriskie Point trail at sunset
Death Valley National Park, Zabriskie Point trail at sunset. ThierryHennet / Getty Images

Death Valley is a below-sea-level basin near the California border, west of Las Vegas, Nevada. The Death Valley landscape includes towering peaks covered with snow, vast fields of transient wildflowers, colorful badlands, rugged canyons, and sprawling sand dunes.

This region is famous for holding national records for drought and summer heat temperatures. In these harsh conditions, over 400 species of native wildlife and one thousand plant species (from bristlecone pine to spring wildflowers) thrive.

Death Valley was the original home of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, and there is cultural history for African American 49ers, Chinese and Basque immigrant workers, and Japanese internees, as well as the famous Death Valley Scotty and his castle.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua tree National Park
Chiara Salvadori / Getty Images

The Joshua Tree National Park is the crossroads of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and Colorado. It is located near Twentynine Palms, west of Palm Springs. The park includes 800,000 acres in a wide array of landforms, including Joshua tree forests, desert scapes, cottonwood and fan palm oases, Lost Horse Mine, Indian Cove, and the Wonderland of Rocks.  

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA
Landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park, California.

Stass Gricko / Getty Images

Lassen Volcano is located within its namesake national park. The volcano is a high-threat active giant near Mineral, California, in the Sierra Mountains east of Redding. An eruption at Lassen in the early 20th century led to the establishment of the first USGS volcano observatory.

The park is home to the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, and visitors can see several active and dangerous hydrothermal areas such as hot springs, sulfur works with boiling mud pots, and steam vents. 

Pinnacles National Park

The Bear Gulch Reservoir in Pinnacles National Park
The Bear Gulch Reservoir in Pinnacles National Park. Cheri Alguire / Getty Images

Pinnacles is an extinct volcano park located in far southern California, east of Monterrey. The volcanoes here were last active 23 million years ago. The volcanic field is 30 miles wide and crosses the San Andreas fault, and the surrounding landscape features grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms.

There are three caves that are occasionally open to the public: Bear, Gulch, and Balconies. Pinnacles boasts 400 different bird species including prairie and peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the California condor. Pinnacles' caves shelter Townsend big-eared bats and red-legged frogs. 

Redwood National and State Parks

Empty Road Amidst Trees In Redwood National And State Parks
James Ronan / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Redwood National and State Parks are located on a coastal stretch of northern California, just south of the Oregon border. The parks contain 130,000 acres of redwood forest, of which 39,000 is old-growth. The average age of the old-growth trees is between 500-700 years, and the oldest is 2.000 years of age. This national park contains 45 percent of the remaining protected old growth redwoods in the state.

In addition to trees, the park features a variety of environments—creeks, beaches, and high bluff overlooks—where Roosevelt elk, tidepools, and a resident population of gray whales can be seen.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Couple of hikers between sequoia trunks
Hikers between sequoia trunks. Itziar Aio / Getty Images

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, west of Las Vegas and near the town of Three Rivers.

Six separate groves of sequoia trees grow here, many of old growth, including the largest living sequoia, the General Sherman Tree. The park also includes the Crystal Cave and Marble Canyon properties, as well as a large range of environments. Elevations range from 1,370 feet above mean sea level to 14,494.

Yosemite National Park

Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake at Yosemite National Park California. Michael H Spivak / Getty Images

Yosemite was one of the first national parks in the United States, established when the legislation to protect it passed in 1864. The park's 1,200 square miles are strewn with waterfalls, meadows, cliffs, and unusual rock formations. Three sequoia groves and three mountain meadows invite camping and hiking, and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center contains a living history component where dressed docents describe the recent past.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California
View of Ocean and Cactus from Cabrillo National Monument. David H. Carriere / Getty Images

Cabrillo National Monument is located on Point Loma peninsula, a natural protective barrier at the entrance to San Diego Bay. The monument is named after Spanish conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who was the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States in 1542.

Cabrillo has one of the best-protected and easily accessible rocky intertidal areas in southern California, a unique ecosystem lying between high and low tides. A lighthouse built in 1854 still stands, and Pacific gray whales are known to pass by in the winter.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devil's Postpile - Mammoth
The volcanic basalt formation which gives Devils Postpile its name. S. Greg Panosian / Getty Images

The Devils Postpile is a park located in the Sierra Nevada, south of Yosemite. The park is named for a lava flow formation of columnar basalt, which looks like a palisade fence for a military fort, just one of the Postpile's many unique geological features. The 800-acre park is located along the San Joaquin River, and its extensive hiking trails include a trip to the aptly-named Rainbow Falls. 

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate from the north side of the bridge
View of the Golden Gate from the north coast of San Francisco. Natalia Perez Wahlberg / Getty Images

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, located across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, includes 19 distinct ecosystems. The park includes the Golden Gate Biosphere, home to endangered butterflies, birds, and plants. Historical sites in Golden Gates' boundaries include Black Point, home of the 19th century antislavery advocate Jessie Benton Fremont, and Fort Point, a fort built to defend San Francisco Bay in the Civil War.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz
Geoff Livingston / Getty Images

Alcatraz Island, (Isla de Los Alcatraces or "Island of the Pelicans" ) is a rocky island in San Francisco Bay and part of the Golden Gate Park Recreation Area.

Claimed first by Spain in 1775, Alcatraz was used as a military fortress with a lighthouse starting in the Civil War (1850–1934). Between 1834 and 1963, Alcatraz was a post-Prohibition, post-Depression federal penitentiary "super prison," for kidnappers, racketeers, and individuals guilty of predatory crimes.

Lava Beds National Monument

Mossy Lava Tube Cave, Lava Beds National Monument
Mossy Lava Tube Cave, Lava Beds National Monument. Bartfett / Getty Images

Lava Beds National Monument is set in the Modoc National forest, just south of California's border with Oregon and south of Klamath Falls. It features Tule Lake and an eerie landscape of lava beds, which hold numerous examples of Native American rock art. There are 22 lava tube caves, most open to the public, which harbor hibernating colonies of Townsend's Big-eared bats.

Of historical value, Lava Beds includes battlefield sites of the Modoc War, 1872–1873, when a small band of Modocs was besieged by the US Army.

Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve, California, United States of America, North America
Mojave National Preserve, California, United States of America, North America. Alan Copson / robertharding / Getty Images

The Mojave National Preserve is located on the southeastern edge of California, near Barstow, southwest of Las Vegas. With 1.6 million acres, the preserve boasts a nearly endless variety of desert environments, from sand dunes to volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and abundant seasonal wildflowers. Historic sites in the park are abandoned mines, military outposts, and homesteads. Wildlife includes bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbits, coyotes, and bats.

Point Reyes National Seashore

The Point Reyes Lighthouse
The Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870, was retired from service in 1975 when the U.S. Coast Guard installed an automated light. Weili Li / Getty Images

The Point Reyes National Seashore is located on the Point Reyes peninsula, north of San Francisco. It is home to over 1,500 species of plants and animals, and an annual Fungus Fair exploring the mushrooms native to the region. A colony of elephant seals live on the long oceanic coast, which features rocky headlands and beaches. During salmon spawning season, coho and steelhead trout are abundant in the area.

Before the Europeans arrived, the peninsula was inhabited by coastal hunter-fisher Miwok people, and a replica village called Kule Loklo has been built for visitors. 

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Beautiful California country landscape with cotton-like clouds in public park of Paramount Ranch
California country landscape in Paramount Ranch, a public park, with bare oak tree, mountains, and blue sky with cotton-like altocumulus clouds. Ed-Ni-Photo / Getty Images

Movie history and 500 miles of trails come together at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, located north of Malibu. The Paramount Ranch, a film production site since 1927, includes the Western Town motion picture set, which has been used in countless movies by Paramount and other studios.

The recreation area also includes the Satwiwa Native American Indian Cultural Center, dedicated to portraying the lives of the area's original residents. Mountain lions and urban coyotes are abundant in the region.

The Santa Monica Mountains were hit hard by the 2018 Woolsey fire. A total of 88 percent of the park area was burned, including most of Western Town at Paramount Ranch, as well as the 1927 Peter Strauss Ranch house, the Rocky Oaks ranger residence and museum building, and most of the UCLA La Kretz Field Station.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Girl and her dog stand on top of a waterfall in Whiskeytown, Northern California
Waterfall in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Photography by Adri / Getty Images

At the northern end of the San Fernando Valley is the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Its namesake lake is a crystal clear body of water surrounded by tall mountain peaks, four major waterfalls, and numerous historic buildings that date back to the California Gold Rush. 

In July 2018, the Carr Wildfire burned 39,000 acres out of the parks total 42,000. The park is being rebuilt, but check the status before you schedule a visit.