CRAGGY COASTLINES, TOWERING TREES, AND DRAMATIC DESERTS
California’s landscapes are so varied that it almost seems impossible to encounter them all in the same state. This is perfectly encapsulated on a national parks road trip through California: you’ll see old-growth redwoods, sweeping deserts, volcanic hills, giant granite mountains, and so much more.
Redwood National Park
What better way to start your road trip through California’s national parks than with the tallest trees on Earth? Added bonus: Redwood National Park also encompasses miles of craggily beautiful coastline. Enderts Beach Road is one such short scenic drive that affords whale watching opportunities (!), or, for one of the best views of the great trees themselves, take Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, an alternative to the 101 that cuts straight through an old-growth redwood forest.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
A change of pace for the next stop on your California national parks road trip: clear lakes, tall trees, wide meadows, and surreal hydrothermal regions hallmark Lassen Volcanic National Park. There are several volcanoes in the park, and hot water still shapes the terrain. With names like Bumpass Hell and Devils Kitchen, you can see why it’s important to stick to the hiking trails in the hydrothermal areas — and if you do, you’ll be rewarded with views of strikingly multi-colored earth and steam swirling from cracks in the ground.
Yosemite National Park
The granddaddy of them all, you can’t drive through California’s national parks without a stop in Yosemite. Encompassing almost 1,200 square miles, prepare to be overwhelmed by the wealth of arresting sights, from the park’s famous waterfalls to ancient giant sequoias to deep valleys and sprawling wilderness. Of course, the park’s popularity means it will be busy, especially in the summer, so plan ahead to get there early or late (and/or plan to be patient). Check out the fan favorite Yosemite Valley, but venture farther afield, too, to get the most out of the park. Hetch Hetchy Valley provides a peaceful respite, while meadows and wetlands are home to an array of wildlife, and offer wide open space from which to ogle the park’s spectacular granite displays.
Death Valley National Park
With easily the most ominous name on your California national parks itinerary, Death Valley’s title belies its beauty. Sand dunes abound; head to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to see three types of dunes and marvel at the otherworldly sand structures. Catch a sunrise or sunset at Zabriskie Point to see the sky turn electric shades of pink and blue, then drive along Artist’s Drive — during golden hour, ideally — to be transported by the multi-colored hills. But be careful while exploring this one: summer temperatures are rising over 120 degrees (!!!), so don’t make any plans to hike after 10 a.m., and bring (way, way) more water than you think you need.
Joshua Tree National Park
The last stop on your road trip can also get pretty toasty, but we promise it’s worth it. At night, Joshua Tree’s namesake plants rise from the ground in dizzying displays of branches splayed against a sky so full of stars it doesn’t seem real. The daytime’s not half bad, either (though this is when those temperatures may overwhelm you). Again, bring plenty of water, then set out to explore. Backcountry roads afford sweeping desert views and encounters with abandoned mines. There are plenty of hikes if you plan ahead to avoid peak heat — or, just set up camp and take a walk, stopping to climb on the many rock formations throughout the park.