If you’re into United States national parks, there’s hardly a better place for you to visit than California. This state is home to no fewer than nine national parks. There are also numerous other National Park Service sites, such as national seashores, national monuments and national historical park. In this post, we’ll go on an epic California national parks road trip.
Because California is so large, it’s virtually impossible to take in all nine California national parks in one single road trip. Unless you have about a month’s worth of time, that is. We’ll skip the parks in the northern part of the state—Redwood and Lassen Volcanic National Parks—and the one that’s not accessible by car—Channel Islands National Park off of the Big Sur coast.
This still leaves us with six amazing national parks in California. You should count on at least two full weeks to do this phenomenal California national parks road trip.
California National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
There are two major airports where you can start your road trip to the national parks in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose as we’ll make this a clockwise loop drive. In this post, we’ll start from Los Angeles.
Pick up your rental car at the L.A. airport and head north along the magnificent California coast. This first part of your road trip is the longest section without a national park, but it’s absolutely worth it. Following the gorgeous coastline, you’ll drive the legendary Highway 1 in Big Sur, something you really don’t want to miss when you’re in California. This way, it’s about an eight-hour drive to your first national park (the direct route is significantly shorter, but much less scenic).
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is the youngest national park in California. Up until 2013, this area was known as the Pinnacles National Monument. It’s a place featuring towering rock formations, deep canyons and caves. This is where one of the world’s rarest birds lives, the California condor, the largest bird in North America.
Roads in Pinnacles National Park head into its wild interior from the west and the east, but do not connect. You will be able to get a feel for this brand new park in one day.
Yosemite National Park
The drive to the next destination on your California national parks road trip is about four and a half hours. If you’re flying into San Francisco, this section is where you’d start your road trip.
This is arguably going to be the absolute highlight of the entire trip, a national park so iconic it’s renowned and admired around the world.
Yosemite National Park is the star attraction in the National Park Service system, attracting four million visitors each year. You could easily spend a week there, exploring breathtaking sites like Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley. Don’t miss Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. In order to keep this whole road trip doable, try to set aside about three days for this iconic park.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
After the jaw-dropping landscapes of Yosemite National Park, you’ll drive about four hours south, toward Kings Canyon National Park. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are twin parks, connected by the scenic Generals Highway.
In these two parks, you’ll see some of the world’s tallest trees, known as sequoias or Sierra redwoods. In addition to towering trees, Kings Canyon National Park also features one of the deepest canyons (2,500 meters) in the United States. Sequoia National Park boasts five of the world’s ten tallest trees, some of which you can see on the many hiking trails through the park.
Spend a day or two in this unique region before heading further south to yet another remarkable park.
Death Valley National Park
The drive from Sequoia National Park to Death Valley National Park takes more than half a day. This is a park of absolute extremes. It’s the largest national park in the United States outside of Alaska and both the driest and the hottest place in the U.S. Another extreme is the elevation of the park. Its lowest spot lies 86 meters below sea level while its highest summit towers 3,368 meters over the desert landscape.
It’s pretty obvious why Death Valley National Park belongs on any California national parks road trip. It’s one of those places unique in the world that you simply must see once in your life. You can visit this park in one long day, spending the night as well to enjoy a spectacular night sky filled with twinkling stars.
Joshua Tree National Park
From Death Valley National Park, it’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive to Joshua Tree National Park, the last park on this California national parks road trip. Named after the remarkable trees that dot its valleys and hills, Joshua Tree National Park is characterized by boulders, ruins of gold mines, arid plains and uninviting mountain ranges.
This is a gorgeous place, especially breathtaking around sunrise and sunset. During the night, it’s equally as amazing as innumerable stars light up the sky.
From Joshua Tree National Park, it’s a short drive back to the Los Angeles airport where you can drop off your local rental car.