California has more national parks than any other state, which makes it the perfect road trip destination. A California national parks road trip offers diverse landscapes and would make quite a road trip with (or without) the kiddos. If you are considering to road trip California’s national parks, then check out this map, hiking suggestions, and itinerary guide filled with ideas and potential places to stay.
Mapping A California National Parks Road Trip
If you are thinking of a California national parks road trip, I would recommend the following route shown below as it offers the shortest drive time. It begins at Joshua Tree National Park and ends at the Redwoods in northern CA. If you are flying and then road-tripping, then I would suggest to fly into Los Angeles or San Diego and then out of San Francisco, Sacramento or Oakland.
When to go on a California National Parks Road Trip
While I know that most families would plan a road trip like this in the summer due to school vacation schedules, the heat in Death Valley and Joshua Tree can be quite intense during that time. If summer is the only time, I would plan to do your hikes in the morning and then drive around the park in the afternoon or do something water related to cool off. Ideally, fall or spring are great times to go on a California national parks road trip due to the milder temperatures and road closures in some of the higher elevation parks.
When planning to road trip California’s national parks, consider buying a national parks annual pass ($80) to save money on all of the entrance fees. Most national parks charge $20-35 to enter the park, and since the plan is to visit multiple parks, buying this pass is a no brainer. If you happen to be traveling with a fourth-grader, you can receive the Every Kid in a Park pass which gets your whole family in for free. Check out details on how the 4th grade national parks pass works.
Itinerary Suggestions to Road Trip California’s National Parks
I would fly into Los Angeles or San Diego. If you have never visited those cities and would like to spend a day or two to capture some of the highlights, here is what I’d suggest:
If you don’t have time to hit either city, then head straight towards Joshua Tree National Park, which is only a couple of hours away. On the way, I would highly suggest you stop to get groceries and pick up a cooler to keep water and some sandwich items for easy and quick lunch/snack options. Other useful items to bring or buy before your California national parks road trip are:
Joshua Tree National Park
This park is well known for its’ namesake “Dr. Seuss looking” Joshua trees, which actually are not even trees, they are yucca plants. Joshua Tree National Park has a unique landscape because it is located where the high Mojave desert meets the low Colorado desert. This means that the park has areas that are traditionally desert looking, yet it also has mountains and valleys.
Some of my favorite easy hiking trails in the park are Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Barker Dam. The Jumbo Rocks area is a great place to scramble some of the smaller boulders around Arch Rock. You could also watch the rock climbers (or do it yourself) at Echo Cove. Keys View is a great spot to check out the panoramic views of the valleys and nearby peaks. Finally, a quick walk through the Cholla Cactus Garden allows visitors to see the unique white, prickly plants.
In terms of where to stay, there are a few campgrounds inside Joshua Tree National Park if your family enjoys camping or if you will be bringing an RV. If not, Palm Springs or Palm Desert offers some nicer and budget-friendly accommodations on the western edge of the park. If we had stayed longer, this is where we would’ve stayed. We opted for the town at the northern entrance of the park, Twentynine Palms, due to time restraints and price.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is right on the California/Nevada border and is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the world. There are quite a few highlights to be seen in this land of extremes. Be sure to stop by the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, as that is where the hottest temperature was recorded. The Badwater area is the location of America’s lowest point, – 282 feet below sea level. Taking a drive down Badwater Road lets visitors view the salt flats and puddles that remain from an ancient dried-up lake.
If you plan on visiting early or staying late, Zabriskie Point and Golden Canyon are two locations where you can see various shades of yellow and orange during the sunrise or sunset. The Mesquite Flats area offers families a chance to see some wildlife, like a coyote or a desert fox. Another unique hike is Ubehebe Crater, where you can walk along the rim of a dried-up volcano.
Death Valley National Park offers a variety of lodging options and campgrounds inside the park. Another alternative is to stay at one of the towns on your way to the next stop on your California national parks road trip.
Tip: If you are looking to “beat the heat”, consider having your kids complete the junior ranger programs offered in one of the visitor’s centers indoors. All national parks offer them and they provide a fun and interactive way to learn more about the geology and wildlife in the surrounding area for the whole family.
Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands are one of the most remote national parks in the country. The only way to reach these 5 islands off the coast of Southern California is via a plane or ferry departing from Ventura, Oxnard, or Santa Barbara. The most practical approach is to take a ferry out of Ventura, which is where the park’s visitor’s center is located. Most people take a day trip to the Channel Islands as the only accommodation options are primitive camping spots. On the islands, there are limited restroom facilities, and no electricity or services, so be sure to pack plenty of water, lunch, and snacks.
In terms of what to do on your visit, the fun begins on the ferry as you can usually spot whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and marine birds. There are even specific whale watching tours too. Anacapa and Santa Cruz are the two most popular islands to visit. You can do a couple of hiking trails that will provide spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, but many people opt to go kayaking and snorkeling.
If you are limited on time and on a budget, you may want to skip the Channel Islands. The ferry is not cheap and the water/weather conditions may not be optimal during your visit. While I am aware that a visit to these islands complete the California national parks road trip, they are tough to get to for a reason.
Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are technically two parks; however, they are administered jointly. In Sequoia, you will find the biggest tree in the world, the General Sherman Tree, and a view of the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. Tokopah Falls is a nice, mostly shady, 4-mile hike with granite and forested views that follows the Kaweah River for about half of it. Moro Rock is another great choice for families, as it offers panoramic views of the area, but be warned it is steep.
King’s Canyon has some great options as well. Many people enjoy a drive through a fallen giant sequoia at Tunnel Log and a hike through the park’s giant sequoias on Congress Trail or Grant’s Grove. In Zumwalt Meadows, kids will enjoy some rock scrambling, walking across a suspension bridge, and a picturesque meadow framed by towering canyon walls. The 1.5-mile hike also has access to portions of the Kings River and is a great spot for a picnic.
There are a variety of rustic lodges and campgrounds available inside both parks depending on your preference for accommodation. You could also stay just outside the parks at one of the many Airbnb vacation rentals or hotels. If you’re a first time user, sign up to get $35 off your first Airbnb booking.
Yosemite National Park
No California national parks road trip is complete without a visit to this iconic park. Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite is well known for its towering granite cliffs, waterfalls, and picturesque areas. Although it is the most congested area of the park, Yosemite Valley is where you want to explore first. This is where the world’s largest granite monolith, El Capitan is located, along with the Tunnel View Outlook and many of Yosemite’s most famous waterfalls: Vernal Falls, Bridalveil Falls, and Yosemite Falls.
Many of the trails in Yosemite Valley are gentle flat trails that lead directly to top attractions, which are perfect for families. On Southside Drive, you’ll find a couple of short trails leading to Bridalveil Fall and the Sentinel Bridge, which is known for its’ views of Half Dome. Glacier Point is another stunning overlook area, Other popular hikes include Tuolumne Meadows and Mariposa Grove, where visitors can walk through the massive sequoia forest. You will often find families along the banks of the Merced River cooling off or on a variety of trails nearby like Mirror Lake or Mist Trail.
A fair warning, this is the most visited national park in California, so be prepared for crowds. Campground and lodging inside the park sell out months in advance, so you may want to either reserve early or stay in El Portal.
Pinnacles National Park
The newest of all the California national parks is Pinnacles, which was designated a national park in 2013. Pinnacles gets its name from the huge domed spires that were created out of the volcanic activity. This park is one of the least visited in California, which can be great if you don’t enjoy the crowds.
The park is divided into an eastern and western section and there is no road connecting the two sections of the park. In the eastern section, two of the most popular hikes for families are the Moses Spring Trail and Bear Gulch Cave Trail. On the western side, the Balconies Cave loop is a 2.4 mile trail that is another option for families to explore some talus caves. Rock climbing is also very popular on this side of the park, as there are a few routes for beginners and advanced climbers alike.
There are no lodges inside of Pinnacles National Park, except for one campground. Some popular towns to stay include in Soledad, Paicines, and Hollister.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is quite unique because it’s geography reflects both the volcanic Cascades and the evergreen Sierra Nevadas. It is also one of the least visited parks in the state due to its remote location.
One of the most popular trails, Bumpass Hell, takes you through Lassen’s largest hydrothermal area and provides some up-close views of the boiling mud pots and superheated turquoise pools. The Sulphur Works area is another prime spot to take a boardwalk hike through some volcanic gas vents known as fumaroles (a smaller version of the geysers at Yellowstone).
The other side of Lassen Volcanic National Park is completely different. It contains waterfall hikes and Manzanita Lake, a popular lake for families to enjoy kayaking, swimming, and camping. This area of the park provides visitors with views of Lassen Peak and lush forest hikes that connects to a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
There are a couple of lodging options and even cabins available inside of Lassen Volcanic; however, many people opt to stay in the city of Redding, which is about an hour away.
Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park is actually a huge series of connected state parks and their surrounding areas. Prairie Creek, Jedediah Smith, and Del Norte State Parks are run in coordination with NPS and contain a large concentration of the famed, gigantic redwood trees.
The most popular hike in the area is Fern Canyon, which was actually a filming location for Jurrasic Park 2 and Jurrasic World. Walking through this densely forested canyon will make you feel like you have stepped back in time. Cathedral Trail Loop and Boy Scout Tree Trail are two other very popular options.
Tall Trees Grove is a great family hike, as that is where the tallest of the redwoods reside. To get here requires a free permit that can be obtained at the Kuchel Visitor Center. Since the parks are located along the Pacific Coast, there are also great spots for kayaking, mountain biking, river fishing, and horseback riding. There are several tour companies that take visitors on half-day or full day excursions.
Final Thoughts on a California National Parks Road Trip
This California national parks road trip will easily take 2 weeks, if not longer. California has so many things to do and places to see that you will have to prioritize what other sights you would like to visit in addition to the national parks. As I mentioned previously, the best way to do this route is to start from the south and moving your way up north.
You could definitely do it in reverse order or even make it a round trip and take the Pacific Coast Highway back to the original airport. This route would also be a cheaper alternative if you have the time because it would be a round trip flight and you wouldn’t have to return your car at a different location (which eliminates the one-way fee). Additionally, the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the country and is a must-do at some point.
I hope that this idea to road trip California’s national parks gave you some inspiration for a future trip. There is so much beauty throughout the state of California. Hopefully, you and your family can adventure to these national parks in the near future.
If you’re interested in reading about other national parks we’ve visited, check out this list:
- Acadia National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- 10 Best National Parks Vacations
- Grand Teton to Yellowstone
- Mammoth Cave
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- National Park Road Trip Itineraries
- Cross Country National Parks Road Trip
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