An epic California national parks road trip guide

Photo of author

| Published:

Embark on an epic California national parks road trip that stitches together the Golden State’s historic monuments and natural beauty. From the misty forests of the north to the sun-baked deserts in the south, this journey promises an unforgettable adventure.

Redwood forest, california, california, california, californi.
A path through ancient redwoods in Northern California. Photo credit: YayImages.

Millions of people are captivated each year by California’s national parks’ rich history and diverse natural beauty. From the state’s protected wilderness to the haunting allure of Alcatraz Island and beyond, there are nearly 40 National Park Service sites to explore. This guide will help you chart your course through California’s national treasures from north to south.

Tule Lake National Monument

Reflect on the poignant history of Japanese American internment during WWII at Tule Lake National Monument. Surrounded by stark volcanic landscapes and ancient Native American rock art, this site offers reflective and educational experiences related to America’s complex past.

Subscription Form

Save this article and we'll send it to your inbox. Plus we'll send you more great article links every week.

Lava Beds National Monument

Near the California-Oregon border, Lava Beds National Monument is a spelunker’s paradise with North America’s largest collection of lava tubes. From the icy depths of Skull Cave to the accessible Valentine Cave and biologically rich Sunshine Cave, it offers a unique underground adventure. Above ground, explore Native American rock art and historic battlefields.

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks, a 5-hour drive north of San Francisco, offer a free escape into the world of the tallest trees on Earth. Highlights include the Avenue of Giants, a scenic drive leading to ancient redwoods, hiking trails, unique drive-thru trees and dark sand beaches.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, near Redding in Northern California, is a haven for nature lovers and adventure seekers. Dive into Whiskeytown Lake for swimming or kayaking, hike over 70 miles of trails and marvel at the 220-foot Whiskeytown Falls.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Explore the unique landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park, home to the world’s largest plug dome volcano. Experience hydrothermal sites with bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and hot springs.

A lighthouse sits on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean in a California national park.
Historic lighthouse on a rocky outcrop along Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo credit: YayImages.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Just a short drive from San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore offers a tranquil coastal retreat. With its breathtaking seascapes, misty trails and rustic accommodations, Samuel P. Taylor State Park is an essential stop for those seeking the unique charm of California’s coastline.

Muir Woods National Monument

A stone’s throw from San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument offers an accessible escape to ancient coastal redwoods towering skywards. Ideal for early morning tranquility or for sci-fi fans imagining Endor’s lush landscapes, it’s a serene introduction to California’s towering redwoods.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

In the heart of San Francisco lies the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a diverse urban park that stretches beyond the famous bridge. Offering stunning waterfront views and miles of trails, it’s a great stop on any California road trip.

Fort Point National Historic Site

Tucked under San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point National Historic Site offers a glimpse into Civil War-era history paired with unmatched views of the bridge. A blend of historical significance and scenic beauty, it’s a must-visit for those looking to combine cultural exploration with iconic photo ops, making it a unique stop on a California National Parks road trip.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Set sail into history at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, located at the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf. This park is a treasure trove of nautical heritage, featuring a collection of historic vessels and a maritime museum that chronicles the city’s seafaring saga.

Alcatraz island, san francisco, california.
Alcatraz Island from the San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Sage Scott.

Alcatraz Island

A must-visit on your California National Parks road trip, Alcatraz Island reveals the intriguing history of the infamous federal prison in San Francisco Bay. Accessible via an official ferry, the experience includes a compelling audio tour detailing life on the island for inmates and guards. The tour lasts about 3 hours, sharing tales of legendary inmates and dramatic escapes, all while providing stunning views.

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park

In Richmond, the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park honors the American civilians — particularly women — who supported the war effort during World War II. This park ensures the stories of resilience and contribution on the home front are celebrated and preserved.

John Muir National Historic Site

In Martinez, the John Muir National Historic Site honors the man known as the Father of the National Parks. Visitors can explore Muir’s Victorian mansion, stroll through the orchards he planted and pay their respects at his gravesite. Interactive exhibits detail his conservation efforts, making this site a tribute to Muir’s enduring legacy in advocating for wilderness preservation.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial

Located in Concord, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial commemorates the tragic explosion of July 17, 1944, which remains the largest domestic loss of life during World War II. This site honors the 320 servicemen killed — many of whom were African American — and educates visitors on the event’s significant impact on the desegregation of the U.S. Navy.

Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

In Danville, the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, or Tao House, celebrates America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Visitors can explore his home through guided tours, wander the inspiring gardens and engage in programs that honor his legacy.

Yosemite National Park

A crown jewel of the American wilderness, Yosemite National Park captivates with its soaring granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls and ancient sequoias. Iconic landmarks like El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls underscore its grandeur. Whether seeking adventure through its vast trails, capturing the beauty from Tunnel View or enjoying sunset at Glacier Point, Yosemite offers experiences for every visitor. 

“The NPS site for Yosemite is essential. Not only do you need to check this site for the opening and closing of roads throughout the park — namely Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass — but you’ll need to hop on during Yosemite’s peak season and grab a reservation as well before heading out.”

— Nina Ragusa, California is for Adventure

Pinnacles National Park 

Just a few hours from California’s urban centers, Pinnacles National Park is a sanctuary of dramatic landscapes and home to the endangered California condor. Offering trails from moderate to strenuous, it’s a haven for hikers and nature lovers with unique cave explorations and prime wildlife viewing.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Home to the world’s largest trees, including the General Sherman Tree, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks provide a majestic escape into nature. Adventure seekers can enjoy hikes to Tokopah Falls, explore Crystal Cave and marvel at panoramic views from Moro Rock.

César E. Chávez National Monument

Don’t miss the César E. Chávez National Monument on your California national parks road trip. It’s a meaningful tribute to the civil rights advocate widely recognized as the most important Latino leader in the United States during the 20th century.

Manzanar National Historic Site 

Situated between the majestic beauty of sequoias and the extremes of Death Valley, the Manzanar National Historic Site memorializes the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It invites reflection on civil liberties through its preserved camp remnants.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the U.S.  Marvel at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the salt flats of Badwater Basin — the lowest point in North America — and the colorful mineral deposits at Artist’s Palette. Panoramic views await at Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View, and the park’s Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status offers unrivaled stargazing opportunities.

Mojave National Preserve

The Mojave National Preserve is a desert oasis between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It features singing sand dunes, ancient volcanic cinder cones and springtime wildflower explosions.

Castle Mountains National Monument

The secluded Castle Mountains National Monument is a hidden gem tucked between Mojave National Preserve and Nevada. Designated in 2016, this 21,000-acre area boasts grasslands, Joshua tree forests and a rich history of Native American culture and gold mining.

Joshua tree in joshua tree national park.
A Joshua tree at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Photo credit: Sage Scott.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is a climber’s haven with over 8,000 routes and a variety of experiences. Daytime adventurers can enjoy hikes among unique formations like Skull Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden, and at night, the entire park transforms into a stargazer’s paradise.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a tranquil haven near Los Angeles. It offers a rich mix of activities, from challenging hikes to leisurely wildlife viewing.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park includes five remarkable islands off Southern California’s coast. Accessible via ferry from Ventura Harbor, this vehicle-free sanctuary lets you embrace the tranquility of camping or backcountry exploration, but come prepared — pack food securely and stay tick-aware.

Cabrillo National Monument

Conclude your California national parks road trip with a visit to Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. This site is a tribute to the age of exploration and Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s 1542 landing, melding historical education with natural wonders like tide pooling and panoramic ocean views.

Wrapping up your California National Parks road trip

As you journey through the vast landscapes and delve into the rich history of the Golden State, you’ll enjoy unparalleled experiences. From the majestic redwoods reaching skyward to the arid expanses of desert, these National Park Service sites showcase America’s natural splendor and historical depth while beckoning visitors to return.

Sage Scott was bitten by the travel bug as a preschooler when her family moved abroad for the first time. Now settled in America’s Heartland, Sage is a travel writer, world wanderer and photographer whose favorite color is golden hour.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.