A Guide to National Parks in California

Home to nine national parks in total, California offers visitors a wide range of outdoor and educational experiences.
Written by Andrew Biro
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
Updated on Apr 11, 2022
From towering redwoods and ancient sequoias to magnificent glaciers and scorching deserts,
national parks encompass an awe-inspiring range of ecosystems, geologic features, histories, and cultures.
Home to the beautiful Yosemite, the unforgiving Death Valley, the resilient Joshua Tree, and the historic Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front, California is a crucial stop on your tour of the United State’s National Parks—but with so many options, where do you even begin?
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Yosemite National Park

Location: Mariposa County, California
Hours of operation: Open year-round, 24 hours a day (including holidays)
Admission price: $35.00 entrance fee for non-commercial vehicles, good for 7 days / $30.00 entrance fee per motorcycle, good for 7 days / $20.00 entrance fee per person for those on foot, bicycle, horse, or non-commercial bus with more than 15 passenger seats 

What makes Yosemite National Park special

Nestled between the high Sierra Nevadas,
Yosemite National Park
encompasses 1,200 miles of beautiful waterfalls, sprawling meadows, ancient glaciers, and towering forests of giant sequoias. Established in 1890, Yosemite is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on earth and draws in close to 3 million visitors a year.

What to do at Yosemite National Park

  • Hiking: Hiking is widely regarded as one of the best ways to experience Yosemite, showcasing the park’s natural beauty and offering the chance to observe the local plant and wildlife
  • Fishing: As long as you have a valid California
    fishing license
    , the waters of Yosemite are yours to fish—guidelines and regulations for the park and specific rivers are available
  • Wander the Mariposa Grove: With both easy and strenuous trails, the Mariposa Grove is one of Yosemite’s two ancient sequoia groves—the Big Trees Loop Trail is short and wheelchair accessible, and it offers information regarding the life and ecology of giant sequoias
  • Visit Glacier Point: Offering views of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, and the Half Dome,
    Glacier Point
    is a truly awe-inspiring overlook

When to visit Yosemite National Park

While temperatures rarely ever venture above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the summer, the best times to visit Yosemite are in May and September, when most of the park is still accessible and it’s not too crowded. Expect daytime temperatures to fall between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit and nights to dip into the 40s.
Pro Tip: If you visit Yosemite between November and May, be prepared for snow—most of the park is blanketed in it during this time of year, and 95% of the park’s annual precipitation falls during these months.

Death Valley National Park

Location: Death Valley, California
Hours of operation: Open year-round, 24 hours a day (including holidays)
Admission price: $30.00 entrance fee per vehicle, good for 7 days / $25.00 entrance fee per motorcycle, good for 7 days / $15.00 entrance fee for an individual on foot or bike, good for 7 days

What makes Death Valley National Park special

As the hottest, driest, and lowest national park,
Death Valley
is a land known for extremes, receiving less than two inches of rain a year and located 282 feet below sea level. Despite this, Death Valley is not all scorched, blistered earth—desert landscapes give way to yawning canyons, sprawling woodlands, all the way up to the highest boreal peaks, making for a stunning display of biodiversity.

What to do at Death Valley National Park

  • Attend the Dark Sky Festival: Every spring, Death Valley National Park hosts the
    Dark Sky Festival
    , an event that celebrates space and allows visitors to stargaze without being subjected to light pollution
  • Backcountry camping: For those wanting to experience Death Valley at its most rigorous and rugged,
    backcountry camping
    is the way to go—just be sure to brush up on the park’s guidelines and practice backcountry ethics
  • Birdwatching: Home to several distinct ecosystems, Death Valley has a spectacular range of bird species observable year-round, with the best times to
    being the spring and fall migrations
  • Biking and mountain biking: with close to 800 miles of road suitable for
    —and a couple hundred more for mountain biking—Death Valley National Park has biking opportunities available for all skill levels

When to visit Death Valley National Park

If you want to beat the California heat, visit Death Valley National Park during the winter months, early spring, or late autumn. December and January see the lowest temperatures, with daytime averages hovering around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, while February, March, and November average between 75 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. 
Pro Tip: Precipitation is minimal to nonexistent year-round in Death Valley, so there’s no need to worry about visiting during the rainy season—you should, however, make sure to drink a lot of water.

Joshua Tree National Park

Location: Twentynine Palms, California
Hours of operation: Open year-round, 24 hours a day (including holidays)
Admission price: $30.00 entrance fee per vehicle, good for 7 days / $25.00 entrance fee per motorcycle, good for 7 days / $15.00 entrance fee for an individual on foot or bike, good for 7 days 

What makes Joshua Tree National Park special

As the place where two distinct deserts—the Colorado and Mojave—collide,
Joshua Tree National Park
is home to breathtaking rock formations, an amazing variety of plant and animal species, and is an excellent place to view the night sky without urban light pollution.

What to do at Joshua Tree National Park

  • Hiking and backpacking: With over 25
    hiking trails
    ranging from easy to challenging, Joshua Tree National Park offers plenty of opportunities for short day hikes and longer, multi-day backpacking trips
  • Climbing and slacklining: There are over 8000
    routes to choose from, so Joshua Tree is incredibly popular amongst climbers of all skill levels—just be sure to be respectful of wildlife and cultural artifacts while you’re out on the rocks
  • Stargazing: Recognized as an
    International Dark Sky Park
    , Joshua Tree offers some of the darkest night skies in all of California, allowing visitors to observe the stars—and even the Milky Way—in all their glory, far removed from urban light pollution
  • Visit Keys View: A wheelchair accessible activity, the
    Keys View
    lookout point allows visitors a glimpse at the Salton Sea, Santa Rosa Mountains, San Gorgonio Mountain, and even—on clear days—Mexico’s Signal Mountain

When to visit Joshua Tree National Park

Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is recommended during spring and late autumn, with March and November having the most agreeable daytime temperatures, averaging around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless you’re prepared for high heat, avoid visiting the park from June through September—daytime averages hover at or above 100 Fahrenheit.

Redwood National and State Parks

Location: Crescent City, California
Hours of operation: Open year-round, 24 hours a day (including holidays)
Admission price: $0.00 entrance fee / $12.00 day-use & vehicle fee for Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon / $8.00 day-use & vehicle fee for Jedediah Smith Campground

What makes Redwood National and State Parks special

Home to the tallest trees on earth, the
Redwood National and State Parks
divide almost 132,000 acres of old-growth redwood forests into three park districts: Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Steeped in a rich history spanning thousands of years, the Redwood National and State Parks showcase California’s natural beauty while also paying homage to the cultures who lived—and still live—in the region. 

What to do at Redwood National and State Parks

  • Attend a dance demonstration: Throughout the year, members of the Tolowa and Yurok Nations perform
    traditional dance demonstrations
    —in July specifically, the Tolowa perform a yearly renewal dance that the public can attend
  • Kayaking: During the summer, the Redwood National and State Parks offer ranger-led
    kayak tours
    of the Smith River, one of the largest free-flowing rivers in California
  • Tidepooling: Visit Damnation Creek, Endert’s Beach, or False Klamath Grove to explore and observe Redwood’s largest
    , home to a richly diverse aquatic invertebrate ecosystem—just make sure to consult a tide table before going
  • Visit Boyes Prairie Orchard: Located in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the Boyes Prairie Orchard is home to fifteen fruit trees planted over 100 years ago by the original owner, Andrew Harris 

When to visit Redwood National and State Parks

Due to the region’s considerably cooler temperatures than the rest of the state, there’s never a bad time to visit Redwood, but the summer months offer the mildest temperatures. August and September usually experience daytime averages of 65 degrees Fahrenheit, while the rest of the year ranges between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 
Pro Tip: Regardless of when you visit Redwood, make sure to bring an umbrella and raincoat because California’s redwood coast sees considerable rainfall year-round, with October through April averaging 60 - 80 inches of rain across the region. 

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front

Location: Richmond, California
Hours of operation: Open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday - Sunday (except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day)
Admission price: $0.00

What makes the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front special

From 1939 to 1945, as the Second World War raged across Europe and millions of young men were shipped overseas, millions more women, children, and minority groups supported—or were made victims of—the war effort back home. 
Established in 2000, the
Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front
seeks to preserve and protect the history and stories of civilian women whose actions made sustaining the war until victory possible.

What to do at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front

  • Walk the Rosie the Riveter Memorial: Designed to mimic the layout of a ship, the Rosie the Riveter Memorial is the first memorial to honor women’s labor during WWII—two gardens, photographs, quotes, and panels detail the stories of these important women
  • Check out the Visitor Center: Offering a plethora of educational and interactive exhibits, along with several films, the Visitor Center is the place to go to learn about California’s WWII history
  • Visit the Red Oak Victory Ship: Located close by to the Home Front, the
    SS Red Oak Victory
    is the last surviving ship built in Kaiser Shipyards, preserving the legacy of those men and women whose work supported the war effort

When to visit the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front

As is typical for the California Bay area, the weather in
, CA is fairly mild year-round, and temperatures usually stay within the range of 45 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want to avoid the rainy season, visit the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front from May to October, when daytime averages hover between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

How to plan a visit to California’s national parks

Before visiting California’s national parks, make sure you and your vehicle are prepared for the trip by following these steps:
  • If you plan to visit multiple national parks, or plan to visit more than once, consider purchasing an
    America the Beautiful annual pass
  • Check that your vehicle meets all park clearance requirements
  • Make sure your vehicle’s maintenance is up-to-date
  • Update your vehicle’s insurance policy
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