California National Parks

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California has some of the most iconic national parks like Yosemite as well as some much less well known ones. Its parks range from temperate forests of towering redwood trees to barren desert landscapes to a prison. They include the lowest and hottest spot in the United States and snow capped volcanoes. Its historic parks remember poets, Spanish explorers and Japanese internees.

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9 National Parks

Channel Islands National Park

You can’t visit the Channel Islands National Park without getting on a boat or a small plane because this national park is comprised of 5 rugged islands off the coast of California near Santa Barbara and Ventura. The islands have plants and animals not found elsewhere in the world including 4 different sub-species each of the island fox and the island deer mouse.

Death Valley National Park - California National Parks

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is the lowest and hottest spot in the United States. Temperatures in the summer reached a record 134º Fahrenheit (56.7º C) in 1913. It can be a very barren but stunning landscape but then in the Spring it can burst into color with a bloom or even a super bloom of wildflowers. Death Valley is the largest of the U.S. National Parks in the lower 48 states.

Joshua Tree National Park - California National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located in the high desert east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. It is a rugged park with brush, cactus and the icon Joshua Trees.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

These two parks in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Fresno are managed as one. Here you can find sequoia redwood trees including the 2,300+ year old General Grant tree which is the largest living tree in the world.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen is a large volcano in the Cascade Range in northern California. Lassen Volcanic National Park is filled with boiling lakes, mud pots, cinder cones, and that one big volcano.

Pinnacles National Park - California National Parks

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is the newest of California’s National Parks and the one closest to my home town of Salinas. Hiking and rock climbing are why people visit the park, especially for the popular hike through caves formed by falling boulders.

Redwood National Park

While Sequoia National Park has the largest living tree in the world, Redwood National Park in Northern California has the tallest. The Hyperion tree is 379.7 feet tall. Redwood National Park straddles highway 101 on the way between San Francisco and the Oregon coast.

Yosemite National Park - California National Parks

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park as some of the most stunning scenery of any park in the United States. On a busy summer day though, it can seem like the valley floor is being loved to death. The area outside of the valley floor is less crowded so don’t miss the Mariposa Grove and Tuolumne Meadows.

6 National Monuments

Cabrillo National Monument

The Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the first spot where a European stepped foot on what is now U.S. soil in the year 1542. The European in question was the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

Castle Mountains National Monument

Castle Mountains is another one of California’s desert parks set in the Mojave Desert. It has Joshua Trees, grasslands and some of the best-preserved segments of a wagon road that linked Arizona and California. It was made a National Monument in 2016.

César E. Chávez National Monument

This national monument near Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley remembers farm labor organizer César E. Chávez.

Devils Postpile National Monument - California National Parks

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument is east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains so few visitors ever get to its columnar basalt rock formations.

Lava Beds National Monument

This is another of California’s volcanic themed parks. Lava Beds National Monument is north of Lassen Volcanic National Park on the Oregon border.

Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument is one of the closest groves of redwood trees to San Francisco and it is overrun with bus loads of tourists. The trees are spectacular but for a better experience go to one of the California State parks south of San Francisco like Big Basin or Henry Cowell Redwoods.

WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument – Tule Lake Unit

This is a multi-state national park. The most famous part of this park is the Arizona War Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The California branch of this park is the Tule Lake Unit which includes one of the largest of the Japanese internment camps from WWII.

2 National Historic Parks

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park - California National Parks

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park

This park is build on the site of some of the Kaiser shipyards from WWI where thousands of workers were producing ships needed to win WWII. This area produced Liberty and Victory ships (freighters). The park includes one of only 2 surviving Victory Ships, the Red Oak.

San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park - California National Parks

San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park

This park is on the northern shore of San Francisco right by Ghirardelli Square and the cable car turnaround. It has a number of historic vessels from sailing ships to a WWII submarine.

4 National Historic Sites

Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O’Neill lived in Danville east of San Francisco Bay in this hillside home where he wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Fort Point National Historic Site

For Point now sits right under the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built as a Civil War era fort to defend the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.

John Muir National Historic Site

John Muir’s home in Martinez in the San Francisco Bay Area remembers this “Father of the National Parks”. John Muir was America’s most famous naturalist and conservationist.

Manzanar National Historic Site - California National Parks

Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar in the Owen’s Valley is the second of the two national park sites in California that remembers the internment of Japanese Americans.

1 National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore - California National Parks

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is a lovely spot isolated spot for a hike that is not far just up the coast from San Francisco.

2 National Recreation Areas

Golden Gate National Recreation Area - California National Parks

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a large  and sprawling park comprised of a number of non-contiguous units in and around San Francisco including: Alcatraz, Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Ocean Beach, The Cliff House and the Presidio.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is in the hills above Malibu in Southern California. Despite being so close to Los Angeles it offers 500 miles of hiking trails.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is in Northern California near Mount Shasta. This large park surrounds the Whiskeytown reservoir and includes four waterfalls.

3 National Historic Trail

California National Historic Trail

This multi-state site includes states from Missouri to California and marks the route of the covered wagons.

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

This trail follows the route of the de Anza party as they made their way to settle the San Francisco Bay Area.

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

This trail was the Spanish trail between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California.

Pony Express National Historic Trail

This is another multi-state trail from Missouri to California on the route used by the short lived pony express riders could deliver the mail in 10 days.

1 National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve

This is a huge (1.6-million-acre park) desert park preserving a habitat for animals like bighorn sheep, jackrabbits and coyotes.

1 National Memorial

Port Chicago Naval Magazine

In WWII, Port Chicago Naval Magazine in the San Francisco East Bay was the site of a tremendous explosion on July 17, 1944. This park remembers the 320 people who died when two ships being loaded with ammunition for the Pacific theatre exploded.

Conclusion

California has some great national parks that are worth adding to your itinerary. What’s your favorite?

 

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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