The essential guide to California's national parks

By Rebecca Powers

From misty valleys thick with trees to desolate, sandy heat-traps, this state's national parks have scenes to awe everybody.

Yosemite is just one of the many stunning national parks in California. Photo / 123RF
Yosemite is just one of the many stunning national parks in California. Photo / 123RF

As the USA's National Park Service celebrates its centenary, we're profiling the wilderness areas it manages.

Today: The national parks of California . . .

Channel Islands National Park

"Fifteen million people lived only 20 miles away, but here, we couldn't have known it."
- Cole and Elizabeth on Switchbackkids.com

Although this park is just off the coast of Southern California, it remains remote. The archipelago, often called the "Galapagos of North America," enjoys solitude because it's reachable only by air or sea. (Mainland visitor centers are in Ventura and Santa Barbara.) Once there, sightseers may explore on foot or with boats and kayaks. And they must bring food and water. There are no concessions. Campground facilities are primitive, fires are not allowed and advance planning is recommended.

Such limitations emphasise and maintain the wild beauty and deep history. The park and marine sanctuary comprise five (of the eight) islands and the surrounding waters. The marine sanctuary spans 2365 square kilometres surrounding the islands.

The sea life there sustained and protected native dwellers, whose ancestry dates back to some of the oldest-documented inhabitants of North America. Chumash and Tongva people built cultures based on the sea, which they navigated in redwood-plank canoes.

The Channel Islands are often called the 'Galapagos of North America'. Photo / 123RF
The Channel Islands are often called the 'Galapagos of North America'. Photo / 123RF

The islands' past also includes sheep-and-cattle ranching. Hikers may see remaining historic ranch buildings as well as forests, ocean vistas and such sea life as common dolphins, migrating Pacific gray whales, California sea lions and northern elephant seals.

Size: 249,561 acres

Founded: National monument (two islands, Anacapa and Santa Barbara), 1938; national park (all five islands and surrounding waters), 1980

Attendance: 324,816 (2015)

Joshua Tree National Park

"I speak for the trees."
- The eponymous main character of 'The Lorax', Dr Seuss's famous children's book, in a quote often used in the park's publications

The tranquility, rocks and sculpturelike trees of this arid landscape have attracted recording artists (perhaps most notably the Eagles and U2), prospectors, Native Americans, Mormon settlers and a determined California socialite.

Joshua Tree National Park includes two deserts. Photo / 123RF
Joshua Tree National Park includes two deserts. Photo / 123RF

Well before Mormons allegedly named the Yucca brevifolia after biblical figure Joshua because its limbs resembled arms outstretched in supplication, Native Americans used the tree's tough leaves for making baskets and sandals, and ate its flower buds and seeds.

Settlers, ranchers and miners saw the territory as ripe for raising cattle and digging for gold. They used the Joshua tree's limbs and trunks for fencing and corrals. Perhaps they should have named it the "giving tree". But among those who wanted to give back was Pasadena socialite Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, who advocated for the area's protection.

Today, this park draws rock climbers, hikers, geologic sightseers and stargazers. Although its land includes two deserts, it is highly accessible via roads (including an 29km tour), campgrounds and thousands of climbing routes.

Near Palm Springs and just 225km east of Los Angeles, some of the darkest night skies in Southern California are found here. Joshua Tree offers many visitors their first clear view of the Milky Way.

Size: 790,635 acres

Founded: National monument, 1936; national park, 1994

Attendance: 2,025,756 (20015)

Death Valley National Park

"It's my favorite place on Earth. I feel at home there, which is bizarre because it's so arid. . . . The beauty is in its starkness."
- T.J. Scott, director of 'Valley of Death'

The hottest, driest place in North America is surprisingly vibrant. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, and within its boundaries are wildflowers, waterfalls, oases, geological color, fish, migrating birds and the human comforts of food, lodging and swimming — even a saloon.

This is the hottest, driest place in North America. Photo / 123RF
This is the hottest, driest place in North America. Photo / 123RF

It remains best known, however, for its extremes, including the highest accurate temperature so far recorded on Earth (56.6 degrees, in 1913). Although its reputation is forbidding, Death Valley is highly accessible by car, mountain bike, on foot or horseback (seasons and weather permitting). This park, which lies primarily in California and partly in Nevada, has more than 1263km of roads.

Here, there are evolutionary sights as well as wildlife and cultural history. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, for example, lived in the region, and the village of Timbisha at Furnace Creek is within the park's boundaries.

Visitors should expect multi-colored rocks, ghost towns, petroglyphs, bighorn sheep, a spring-fed waterfall and dunes. Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (86 metres below sea level) is a vast array of salt flats. Another area of stark beauty is the Devil's Golf Course, where rock salt has been eroded into jagged spires.

Its otherworldly landscape has appeared in several films. Among the best known is the first Star Wars movie, in which Death Valley poses as the planet Tatooine.

Size: 3,373,063 acres

Founded: National monument, 1933; national park, 1994

Attendance: 1,154,843 (2015)

Kings Canyon National Park

"As close to heaven as you can possibly get on this Earth."
- Betty White, actress, for the Wilderness Society

Here, 96km from Fresno (California's fifth-largest city), trees tower and canyons plunge. Nearly 150 years ago, naturalist John Muir called this area a "rival to Yosemite". Today, that observation applies to Kings Canyon and Sequoia, the national park next door.

Redwood Creek at Kings Canyon. Photo / 123RF
Redwood Creek at Kings Canyon. Photo / 123RF

Among the highlights here is the 81-metre-tall General Grant tree, the second-largest tree in the world (the largest is in Sequoia, by the way). In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge named it the Nation's Christmas Tree. Three decades later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated it a national shrine (the only living thing to be so named) in memory of the fallen men and women of the armed forces. Redwood Canyon shelters the world's largest remaining grove of giant sequoia trees.

Kings Canyon is a wide glacial valley with hundreds of miles of trails that range from easy to strenuous. The Wilderness Society lists the park's Rae Lakes among its 30 prettiest lakes in wild lands. They note that Rae Lakes is actress Betty White's "soul place".

Hiking opportunities here include paved trails that accommodate wheelchair users and strollers. Lodging and food, as well as ranger-led tours and an in-park shuttle, are available. Other activities in this landscape of dramatically disparate elevations include rock climbing and, in winter, snowshoeing.

Size: 461,901 acres

Founded: 1940

Attendance: 468,106 (2015)

Lassen Volcanic National Park

"This park has everything that a geologist could wish for."
- Scott Burns, geologist at Portland State University, on the website of the Geological Society of the Oregon Country

Devastation is part of the natural beauty here; Lassen Peak erupted in 1915. The volcanic explosion had been the last in the Cascade Range until Mount St Helens erupted in 1980.

Devastation is part of the natural beauty here. Photo / 123RF
Devastation is part of the natural beauty here. Photo / 123RF

Today, Lassen visitors can easily view fumaroles (steam vents) and gurgling, boiling mud pots.

The Devastated Area interpretive trail is a short, easy walk that highlights the effects of the eruptions. Sights include pink and gray lava rocks.

Touring by car also is easy. The park, 80km east of Redding, has vehicle entrances.

The Wilderness Society lists this, probably California's snowiest place, among its 20 prettiest national parks in winter, citing the vistas of snow-topped volcanoes and smoky steam vents, as well as such activities as sledding (with mountain views), snowshoeing to suit a range of experience levels and backcountry skiing. This park gets double billing from the Wilderness Society, which also puts Helen Lake, formed by a crater at Mount Lassen, among its 30 prettiest lakes in wild lands.

Size: 106,589 acres

Founded: National monument, 1907; national park, 1916

Attendance: 468,092 (2015)

Pinnacles National Park

"It served as the backdrop for John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and East of Eden."
- Representative Sam Farr, D-California, in the Congressional Record in 2012

The newest national park (No. 59), located just outside today's epicenter of modern technology, has a landscape created by volcanic eruption 23 million years ago.

Pinnacles is the newest national park. Photo / 123RF
Pinnacles is the newest national park. Photo / 123RF

In his letter of support, documentarian Ken Burns called this area, about 193km south of San Francisco, a "critical record of geological time" that helps visitors "understand the vast tectonic forces that shaped — and still shape — our continent."

Remarkable on their own, the rocky spires and caves also serve as a setting for hiking trails and as a backdrop for nature. Among the notable inhabitants here are the California condors, which have wingspans as wide as 3 metres. Early-morning visitors to the High Peaks area of the park may see condors roosting in the rock formations or in gray pines before they begin soaring on currents of warm air, the Park Service says. Pinnacles also is home to North America's greatest concentration of bees, which may be due to the wide variety of wildflowers that bloom here in March and April.

Other sights include views of the San Andreas Fault, which may be seen from some of the 51km of trails.

Size: 26,686 acres

Founded: National monument, 1908; national park 2013

Attendance: 206,533 (2015)

Redwood National Park

"They are not like any trees we know. . . . They are ambassadors from another time."
- John Steinbeck in 'Travels with Charley: In Search of America'

Like factors known to contribute to human longevity, there are ingredients that contribute to the life span of redwoods. Fog and tannin are two elements. Here, a six-hour drive north of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast, a quarter of the moisture that sustains the giant redwoods and other plants comes in the form of fog. Winter (October to April) also brings 150 to 200cm of precipitation.

Hiking and camping are popular in Redwoods National Park. Photo / 123RF
Hiking and camping are popular in Redwoods National Park. Photo / 123RF

Tannin in redwood bark makes it resistant to insects. The official status (one national park and three state parks are combined, here) also helps by sheltering the trees from human threats.

One way to experience this area is via bicycle. Although most national parks prohibit backcountry biking, Redwood offers some opportunity on rehabilitated logging roads. Hiking and camping also are popular. More than 322km of trails weave through prairies, old-growth redwood forests and beaches.

Size: 138,999 acres

Founded: 1968

Attendance: 527,143 (2015)

Sequoia National Park

"The big tree is nature's forest masterpiece and, so far as I know, the greatest of living things."
- John Muir, naturalist, in 'Our National Parks'

This second-oldest national park (after Yellowstone) was the first dedicated to protecting a living organism, the giant sequoia. Here stands the largest (by volume) tree on Earth: The General Sherman tree. It stands at 84 metres, weighs nearly 1.9 million kilos and is estimated to be between 2300 and 2700 years old.

The General Sherman tree is the largest tree on earth. Photo / 123RF
The General Sherman tree is the largest tree on earth. Photo / 123RF

Sequoia is connected to neighbouring Kings Canyon by the Generals Highway. Together, they are estimated to possess a third of all naturally occurring giant sequoias.

Although visitors here spend much of their time looking up, one of the park highlights is below ground. The Crystal Cave is a cavern of marble polished by subterranean streams. A tour with a cave naturalist will showcase rare minerals and dramatic formations. Summer visitors may appreciate the cave's constant temperature of 48 degrees.

Hiking is a popular activity in the park and the Mineral King area offers several days hikes that offer panoramic views of the southern Sierras.

Size: 404,062 acres

Founded: 1890

Attendance: 1,097,464 (2015)

Yosemite National Park

"None can escape its charms. . . . You will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree."
- John Muir, naturalist, in 'John of the Mountains'

Yosemite evokes an immediate mental image of Ansel Adams's famed black-and-white photographs — his Moon and Half Dome, among many others. It's also the focus of much modern-day fascination — think last year's first free climb of El Capitan's difficult Dawn Wall and popular culture (cartoon character Yosemite Sam and the setting of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, for example).

Yosemite is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo / 123RF
Yosemite is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo / 123RF

That said, man and this Sierra Nevada landscape have been linked for 3000 years. There is a deep history of indigenous people here.

Today, this glacier-carved parkland less than three hours from Sacramento is a tourism magnet for recreation, photography, sightseeing, geology and culture.

Many visitors head to the picturesque Yosemite Valley, but that section makes up only one per cent of the park. This protected land is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and a BirdLife International Important Bird Area. More than 60 Yosemite properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They include the Wawona Covered Bridge, the Yosemite Valley Chapel, the Tioga Pass Entrance, the Ahwahnee Hotel (now Majestic Yosemite Hotel) and the Rangers' Club.

Buildings here reflect the Park Service's rustic architecture style, which is said to have been born in Yosemite. The Rangers' Club, which still houses seasonal crew, is one example.

The club building, which opened in 1920, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The style, influenced by architecture of the era, was designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding natural setting.

Size: 761,348 acres

Founded: Grant protection, 1864; national park, 1890

Attendance: 4,150,217 (2015)

Read more:

The essential guide to Alaska's national parks
The essential guide to the National Park of American Samoa
The essential guide to Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park
The essential guide to Colorado's national parks
The essential guide to Florida's national parks
The essential guide to Hawaii's national parks
The essential guide to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park
The essential guide to Utah's national parks
The essential guide to Virginia's Shenandoah National Park

- Washington Post

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