Summer will be here before you know it – the long days of sun-filled warmth and possibility radiating from the soles of your sandals to the tip of your sun hat. The smell of sunscreen, and best of all, the sound of the key in the ignition and a car packed with the essentials for adventure.
It’s time to start planning that summer national park road trip! Goodbye to the same four walls we’ve been staring at for months. Goodbye to urgent deadlines, the growing pile of demands, and the stale routines that we promised ourselves months ago we would kick. Hello to the freedom of the open road and national parks – America’s Best Idea.
Think about it.
California has nine different national parks, count ‘em – NINE national parks. That’s plenty to keep everyone busy for a whole host of summers. And that doesn’t even count 18 national monuments, over 270 state parks, the miles of coastal highway and more.
California’s National Parks span marine environments at Channel Islands to dessert dunes at Death Valley, so you’re sure to find something you love. Channel Islands National Park Tyler Bight anchorage on San Miguel Island. Photo: NPS (left) Death Valley National Park Mesquite sand dunes. Photo: NPS/Kurt Moses (right)
On a California national parks road trip, you can visit everything from one of the hottest dessert environments on earth at Death Valley National Park, to the island national park with world-class marine exploration at Channel Islands National Park. There are volcanic mountains (Lassen Volcanic National Park). Photograph the distinctive trees and rock formations at Joshua Tree National Park. Wander through the cobblestone cliffs at Pinnacles National Park. Stand in awe below the most massive trees in the world in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and visit the tallest trees at Redwoods National Park.
And naturally, you can’t visit California’s National Park system without stopping in the crown jewel of them all, Yosemite National Park, where people travel from around the world to the United States to see the towering granite cliffs and waterfalls.
There is so much to do in California, you won’t be able to get to all of it in one trip unless you have much more time than most. And take our word for it, each of these destinations is so rich and so unique that they are worth slowing down for. Leave time to follow your curiosity. Linger in the places that bring you the most joy. Soon find yourself making plans to return again next year to revisit your favorites, and become inspired by new spaces.
The key to an epic road trip is balancing the time in your vehicle on the road, and the time you spend actually exploring the national parks. Make sure you’re not so focused on your checklist that you miss out on discovering all there is to see in each destination.
The incomparable Yosemite Valley. If you’re going to visit just one National Park this summer, this would have to be it. Photo: Craig Wolf
If you had to pick just one national park to spend time in this summer, it would have to be Yosemite.
The renowned park ranger, Carl Sharsmith was once famously asked what he would do if he only had one day in the park. His answer: he would sit by the Merced River and cry. That’s because he spent a lifetime exploring and discovering every nook and cranny of this magical place as a Yosemite National Park Ranger. So, in case you were wondering if there is enough to do, the answer is yes.
Yosemite has everything from epic spring-time waterfalls to towering granite icons like El Capitan of “Freesolo” movie fame. Don’t forget the ultimate Yosemite cliff, Half Dome. And that is just in Yosemite Valley. Beyond that, the park holds wide-open lakes, serene alpine meadows, giant sequoia groves, and more. Enjoy browsing through the many Yosemite-specific tips and tricks to make the most of your visit.
Nothing says summer like a bit of fun at the Splash and Dash Aqua Park at Lake McSwain. Plan a stop!
In addition, you’re missing out if you don’t stop to explore the wide-open spaces outside the park as well. There are spectacular historic and cultural locations. You could spend 3 days alone following in the footsteps of the famous naturalist John Muir on his first visit to Yosemite.
You can also break up your drive from the Bay Area with a stop at Lake McClure and Lake McSwain. These are beautiful places to camp, fish, and enjoy some of the area’s ‘off-the-beaten-path’ activities. Take a lap at Exchequer Mountain Bike Park – a 700 acre park with views of Lake McClure dedicated exclusively to mountain biking. Cool off at the Splash and Dash Aqua Park.
Yosemite is one of the most popular parks in California. You’ll want to plan ahead for your visit, so make sure you’re signed up for the Yosemite.com newsletter to get the best and most current information as well.
Given its location in the center of the state, Yosemite is also an essential part of any California National Park loop trip. It is the ideal, and most scenic way to cross the Sierra Nevada. If you have 2 weeks or more, and you’re looking for some longer loops, check out these itineraries. Just remember to take your time and linger in the places that are bringing you the most joy.
If you start in San Francisco, you’ll find several outdoor parks nearby worth a visit. Take your time exploring parks like Fort Point with its unique history and vantage point overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Gaze up into the towering tops of the old-growth coastal redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument. Wander Point Reyes National Seashore’s windswept beaches, and keep your eyes open for wildlife like tule elk or elephant seals.
Walk out to see hydrothermal features at Devil’s Kitchen in Lassen National Park. Photo: NPS
Start your trip with a visit to the world-famous, Yosemite National Park. Breathe in the sweet pine-scented air and dangle your toes in playful mountain rivers. With the diverse natural landscapes in the region, you could easily spend 3-4 days (or a lifetime) exploring the trails, rock climbs, and sights. Don’t forget to get a taste of history and some ‘spirited’ refreshment in Mariposa on your way back to San Francisco.
From Yosemite, you’re ready to head north to Lassen National Park. Lassen is the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the park is filled with fascinating mud pots, fumeroles and hot springs.
At this point, you’ll be close enough to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, we would forgive you the detour, or you could stick to California-based sights and visit two National Monuments on the way to Redwoods National Park. Lava Bed National Monument’s volcanic landscape includes more than 800 caves, Native American rock art sites, as well as historic battlefields. Tule Lake National Monument provides a sobering reminder of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Explore caves and amazing scenery at Lava Beds National Monument. Photo: NPS
Having visited the most massive trees in the world in one of the giant sequoia groves in Yosemite, it’s time to visit the tallest trees on Earth at Redwoods National Park before making a leisurely trip down the Pacific Coast Highway back to San Francisco.
Starting again in San Francisco, take your time driving to Yosemite National Park. This gives you more time to enjoy gold country along the way. Try your luck panning for gold or sail through the trees on a zip-line. There is plenty to do here for a week or more if you have the time. Yosemite is the kind of destination that people return to year after year because there is so much to see and do.
From there head south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Take your time to pause and contemplate the most massive trees in the world, like the General Sherman. Each grove has it’s own unique character. Discover how these compare with the Tuolumne, Merced and Mariposa sequoia groves in Yosemite National Park. Don’t forget to also stop to wonder at the striking cave formations at Crystal Cave or watch sunset at Moro Rock.
Wander through Joshua Tree National Park’s iconic scenery and namesake trees. Photo: NPS/Larry McAfee
Once you’ve filled your mind with the ancient giants, head south to Joshua Tree National Park and marvel at the photogenic trees and scramble the natural rock formations. Many diverse hikes and view points await your exploration.
From Joshua Tree National Park, drop south to explore San Diego and learn about 16th century exploration and go tide pooling at Cabrillo National Monument.
Follow the Southern California Coast to Ventura and Channel Islands National Park. Hopefully you’ve made a reservation to visit the national park for the day, or spend the night on the island. Just getting to the islands is a scenic journey on its own, and filled with opportunities for wildlife viewing.
More coastal exploration awaits you on the way to Pinnacles National Park to relish the quiet hiking there before returning to your starting point.
Start this loop the same way you started the Coastal loop from San Francisco, through Mariposa County into Yosemite National Park.
High mountain peaks and meadows filled with late spring flowers greet visitors to Yosemite National Park’s high country.
This time, instead of turning South, drive across the Sierra through Yosemite’s gorgeous high country. Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows provide scenic stops and spectacular hiking options that are worth at least a day or two if you can manage it.
Emerge from Yosemite at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve to see the delicate calcium-carbonate towers and abundant bird-life.
From here, the drive down Highway 395 parallels the scenic serrated edge of the Sierra Nevada. If you manage to get a highly-prized permit to hike Mount Whitney, you can go from the highest point in the contiguous US to the lowest point in Death Valley National Park.
From Death Valley, continue South to visit the unique trees and rock formations at Joshua Tree National Park. Then continue west to Ventura Harbor and Channel Island National Park.
Catch sunrise at Death Valley National Park at Zabriskie Point. Photo: NPS/Kurt Moses
This time, instead of following the coast, head inland past César Chávez National Monument toward the giant sequoia groves of Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.
From there, drive west to visit Pinnacles National Park before finishing your loop.
If you have a lot of time, love the open road and can’t bear to choose between these amazing options, by all means, visit them all. Simply combine the northern road trip with the southern mountain loop. You’ll be in for an epic California National Park road trip itinerary that hits all the bases.
Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass provide gorgeous mountain scenery on the way to California’s east side. Start in Yosemite Mariposa County and hit some of these amazing stops along the way.
Interesting and scenic trails continue beyond the Yosemite National Park border. If you’re looking for quiet trails and the path less traveled, be sure to explore some of these hiking trails just outside Yosemite.
Discover some golden opportunities for camping just outside Yosemite National Park in Yosemite Mariposa County. Options that range from quiet lake-side settings to spacious national forest sites are sure to make you one happy camper.