Take an epic road trip through five California national parks
Fans of national parks know that President Teddy Roosevelt was passionate about preserving public lands. He has earned the nickname “conservative president,” but fans of the national park can not I know he was also the first president to get in a car publicly, and someone who said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there. ”
As I took a road trip through California with my family, I kept thinking about how all of those presidential statements influenced what we were doing: enjoying nature, driving point to point. other and know that we were halfway there. That’s because California has nine national parks – more than any other state – and we didn’t have time to cover them all in one route. So we chose five parks that promised a world of variety within state borders.
Here’s what happened, traveling over a thousand miles in a rental car driven between a flight to San Francisco (SFO) and a flight from Los Angeles (LAX):
Stop 1: Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is a good start as it is one of the two places President Lincoln has set aside for public lands. (The other is Mariposa Grove, which you’ll see at the next stop!) Decades later, California curator John Muir wanted more protection for the Yosemite lands, so he invited Teddy Roosevelt to camp there. Roosevelt later said, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, much larger and more beautiful than any man-made. ”
Today, Yosemite is perfect for adventurers who push their limits and tourists who just tour their vehicles. We got our bearings on day one with a short hike to El Capitan base, then through Yosemite Valley and towards Tunnel View and Glacier Point to see views made famous by photographer Ansel Adams. We caught a gorgeous sunset after hiking the 2.2 mile out and back Sentinel Dome trail. It gets steep as you rush over the rocks at the end and is not wheelchair accessible, although many other trails are.
Day two brought a longer hike to Vernal Fall waterfall. This requires going through 600 steps. If you’d rather not descend the same way, take the John Muir Trail back to the valley floor.
Pro tip: Accommodation and camping in Yosemite can be booked quickly. We were unable to secure a room in the park and instead booked two nights in a Tenaya Lodge Explorer cabin. It meant an extra 90 minute drive to get in and out of the park each day, but we enjoyed a pool, laundromat, and restaurants. Additionally, groceries are available in Yosemite at a few general stores, but they are crowded. Remember to stock up on supplies before entering the park.
Stop 2: Sequoia National Park
Driving from Yosemite to Sequoia National Park feels like something great is in store and it turns out to be really tall: General Sherman, the tallest tree in the world.
General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. A park sign says looking up is like a mouse looking at a six-foot-tall human. Be prepared to line up with other tourists looking for the perfect tree photo. Part of the crowd size is due to the accessibility of General Sherman. You can see it from a paved trail connected to a shuttle stop and vehicle parking lot with accessible parking signs or take a longer walk from land accessible to all visitors.
Another photo opportunity comes with the fall of a redwood tree. Tunnel Log fell in 1937 when it was popular to attract tourists by announcing a chance to cross the overturned tree. Today’s parks focus more on natural environments, but Tunnel Log remains a holdover of novelty attractions to delight drivers.
Pro tip: Sequoia National Park offers hundreds of miles of trails, as well as opportunities to see the park from different angles. From below: Crystal Cave is available for tours. Tickets can sell out months in advance. From above: try Moro Rock, where a climb of 350 steps rewards you with a remarkable view.
There are lodges and cabins in the park. We stayed in an Airbnb 45 minutes away in Exeter. It helped us start two days with big breakfasts at the Exeter Whistle Stop restaurant and the Wildflower Café, and end our days with ice cream at the Frosty King. We also enjoyed meals closer to the park near Three Rivers. The Ol Buckaroo came highly recommended in Airbnb’s guest diary, and Sierra Subs and Salads was a welcome find for sandwiches and salads for mid-day refueling.
Pro tip: There are no gas stations within the park boundaries, so come with a full tank or fill up at the small stations located on the edge of the park.
Stop 3: Kings Canyon National Park
We knew Kings Canyon and Sequoia were close when planning this road trip; we didn’t realize that some parts were adjacent until we studied the park map. They are so close that the National Park Service awards a single junior ranger badge encompassing both parks to explorers young or young at heart.
True Confession: This awareness changed our plans. We pushed two regular days of exploration into one marathon so that we didn’t cover the same winding and crowded roads twice. We then relaxed in our Airbnb on the second day.
With a redo, I would spend a day driving from the Kings Canyon Visitor Center to Roads End and then spend a second day starting at the same Visitor Center and driving through Sequoia National Park. Another option is to cut a day off that segment and substitute something else like a day exploring Los Angeles.
The Sequoia National Forest separates Kings Canyon and the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway offers several vantage points. There are many trails in the backcountry, although you can get a taste of the park if you just visit the General Grant Tree. It is second in size after General Sherman and worth a quick walk on a short paved loop trail. Kings Canyon has half of its neighbor’s visitors, with more places without crowds. So when a bear crossed the road in front of our vehicle, we had plenty of time to stop and enjoy watching it without worrying about blocking traffic!
Fourth stage: Channel Islands National Park
With our feet wet, rhetorically speaking, with three parks, we headed to a park where water surrounds everything. The Channel Islands National Park encompasses five Channel Islands in California: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. You can learn about the so-called Galapagos of North America at the Ventura Visitor Center, but you have to leave land to experience a true feel of the Channel Islands. Island Packers Cruises are boat trips made by the official park supplier. Island Packers depart from the ports of Ventura and Oxnard, and rates vary depending on the destination of the island. Most of the 400,000 annual visitors to the Channel Islands travel this way, so book early. There are hiking opportunities, and you can make reservations for kayaking and exploring sea caves, mingling with sea otters, and enjoying the islands overlooking the Pacific Ocean. All the islands have authorized camping; you will need to carry all the supplies.
Pro tip: Look for 2,000 species of plants and animals, including the island fox, have found no place on earth except these islands.
We chose to cruise around two islands on a chartered sailboat where the captain and boatswain explained the history, geography and navigation to us while we observed groups of hundreds of dolphins. The food prepared on the boat was even better watching the ocean change hour to hour, and two nights at anchor was a chance to relax before getting back on the road.
Joshua Tree National Park
The National Park Service says to remember four letters to Joshua Tree National Park: BYOW, as in Bring your own water. Drinking water does not exist in most of the parks where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, so you need to bring plenty of water. Another simple guide to the park is to only hike if you’re taller than your shade in the hot midday sun.
One way to follow this advice is to start your day in the dark. Cholla Cactus Garden is a remarkable place to watch the sunrise. From there we drove to popular sites like Skull Rock, Split Rock, and Arch Rock. Seeing them early in the morning helped to avoid the heat and crowds and each was a short walk to the parking lots.
We left the park at noon to have a meal at the Crossroads Cafe and cool off at our Airbnb house just minutes from the entrance to Joshua Tree. It was so close that we could easily return to the park later to enjoy Keys View, where Mexico is in view on a clear day, and watch the sunset through the park’s namesake trees.
With more time, I would have loved to watch the climbers explore the San Andreas Fault and hike around Cottonwood Spring. Still, a day in the park provided enough variety to feel disconnected from everyday life. The next day, a 141 mile drive to LAX wrapped up the trip, with fond memories and the reminder that other national parks await. Lassen Volcanic, Death Valley, Pinnacles, and Redwood National Parks promise more adventure, the next time the vacation calls for an epic California road trip.
National parks are ranked among the best places to visit by travelers from all over the United States: