All 9 National Parks in California, Ranked
California has more national parks than any other state, with an impressive nine parks showcasing the West Coast's natural beauty.
Some of these parks are famous around the world. But others are well-kept secrets even some Californians don't know. They have everything from snow peaks to giant trees to deserts and seashores. And each one opens a Narnia-esque door into worlds that barely seem real.
These are all the national parks in California, ranked from amazing to must see before you die.
9. Pinnacles National Park
Year incorporated: 2013
Yearly visitors: 348,857
Nearest airport: Monterey National Airport (MRY)
* All the visitor numbers come from the National Park Service's 2021 data.
The Experience: Pinnacles
Pinnacles National Park is not the largest park in California, but with 42 square miles of land, it makes the most out of every inch.
The iconic rock formations that inspired the park's name provide hiking trails, rock climbing opportunities and caves that intrepid explorers can head into. You will also be able to see wildlife, most notably the majestic California condor.
Because of its proximity to Monterrey, the national park is one of the best places to visit on a Big Sur camping trip.
Fun Fact About Pinnacles
Four hundred species of bees live and thrive in Pinnacles National Park. This impressive fact makes the park the place with the largest concentration of bee species on the entire planet.
8. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Year incorporated: 1916
Yearly visitors: 359,635
Nearest airport: Redding Municipal Airport (RDD)
The Experience: Lassen Volcanic
You don't have to go to Hawaii to enjoy a volcanic landscape. Lassen Volcanic National Park lets you explore the unique ecosystems that form when magma and sulfur fertilize the soil.
Lassen Peak is the center of the park's universe, creating part of it when it came alive in 1914. But there are also several other volcanoes within the territory. Around them, you'll find pristine lakes and forests.
Fun Fact About Lassen Volcanic
There are four types of volcanoes in the world, and you can find all of them at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Go to different peaks to see each type. Lassen Peak is a plug dome, Composite is a brokeoff volcano, Prospect Peak is a shield, and Cinder Cone is, well, a cinder cone.
7. Point Reyes National Seashore
Year incorporated: 1962
Yearly visitors: 2,738,098
Nearest airport: Santa Rosa (STS)
The Experience: Point Reyes
Despite being only an hour away from San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore isn't that well-known to people outside of California. Those in the know would prefer to keep it that way.
Although it's a national lakeshore, Point Reyes is usually included as one of California's nine national parks, since it protects environmental resources while providing water-based activities. The 70,000-acre park has ponds, beaches, lagoons, waterfalls and estuaries.
Outside of the water, there are plenty of trails. The most popular one takes you through the pine forest. And at the right time of year, you can come to Point Reyes and see gray whales in migration.
Fun Fact About Point Reyes
You can thank President John F. Kennedy for establishing this park, which provides habitat for about 45 percent of bird species in North America.
6. Redwood National Park
Year incorporated: 1968
Yearly visitors: 435,879
Nearest airport: Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport (MFR)
The Experience: Redwood
The northernmost national park in California, Redwood is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire area is made up of a national park and a state park that bear the same name.
Redwoods are, of course, the centerpiece of the park, welcoming visitors to gawk at the impossibility of their size, which can reach 370 feet. That's about 120 feet taller than a giant sequoia.
Drive through the Avenue of Giants to pass through one of these trees, then get on your feet and hike through this one-of-a-kind forest.
Fun Fact About Redwood
Redwood National Park's Fern Canyon served as a filming location for "Jurassic Park 2."
The green, quiet canyon definitely feels like it belongs in the Jurassic Era.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Year incorporated: 1994
Yearly visitors: 3,064,400
Nearest airport: Palm Springs International Airport
The Experience: Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park's uniqueness is a gift from its geographical location at the convergence of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, and the San Bernadino Mountains.
The combination of rocky and sandy environments has given way to flora you won't find anywhere else in the world, including the peculiar trees that give the park its name.
Camping is the best way to experience this arid landscape. Be prepared for some of the best sunsets of your life and heavily starred nights.
Fun Fact About Joshua Tree
You'll feel as if Joshua Tree National Park is endless during your visit. However, only about 15 percent of the park is actually serviced by trails.
The other 85 percent is a rugged wilderness that only very experienced hikers dare explore.
4. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Year incorporated: 1890
Yearly visitors: 1,059,548
Nearest airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT)
The Experience: Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Redwoods may be taller than giant sequoias, but these legendary trees are actually the largest single being organism by volume on the entire planet. To give you an idea of just how massive they are, consider that in the late 19th century, dance parties were held on top of their stumps.
Thankfully, the endemic species is now protected, and the only way to see a specimen is to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. General Sherman is the park's largest sequoia and its main attraction, but any trail will bring you through landscapes that will leave you in complete awe.
Fun Fact About Sequoia and Kings Canyon
When Westerners first learned about the existence of giant sequoias, they began exploiting them for different purposes.
One unexpected one was to use them as attractions in traveling circuses. People would stand in line and pay 50 cents to see the fabled giant tree — though many still believed it was a hoax, given how impossibly large it was.
The absurd destruction of a natural wonder caused such outrage that Sequoia National Park was the first protected land of its kind in the United States.
3. Channel Islands National Park
Year incorporated: 1980
Yearly visitors: 319,252
Nearest airport: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
The Experience: Channel Islands
Right off the coast of Los Angeles is one of the country's least-visited national parks: Channel Islands. Consisting of five main islands, the park is perfect for those wanting to disconnect from modernity and go back to nature.
Belonging to the Chumash people, the public part of the land doesn't have any service and barely any facilities, except spaces for camping. You'll need to take in everything you need and take out every waste you make.
But people don't mind the lack of convenience for a chance to visit sea caves and gorgeous views that won't have a line of picture-happy hikers hoping to get the best shot.
Fun Fact About Channel Islands
In 1959, human remains dating back to 13,000 B.C. were discovered in Santa Rosa, one of the Channel Islands.
These are the oldest human remains to be discovered yet in North America.
2. Death Valley National Park
Year incorporated: 1994
Yearly visitors: 1,146,551
Nearest airport: McCarran International Airport (LAS)
The Experience: Death Valley
Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth, though that doesn't deter millions of people from visiting its arid landscape. Only two hours away from fabulous Las Vegas, the valley feels like it might as well be on another planet. The desert is quiet in a soothing way, with the whisper of the sand filling the air.
But don't make the mistake of thinking Death Valley is monotonous. On the contrary, as the largest national park in the continental U.S., it has a variety of landscapes, including sandstone canyons, salt flats, dunes and peaks.
Fun Fact About Death Valley
One of the most curious natural phenomena in the world happens in Death Valley, where rocks are famous for moving and leaving a trail behind.
The mystery wasn't solved until 2014 when scientists discovered that thin layers of water on the ground would freeze on winter nights, and the strong wind would move the rocks. Once morning came, the layer of ice would disappear, making it seem like the rocks were moving on their own.
Even with an explanation, this is still an incredible wonder people travel to see for themselves.
1. Yosemite National Park
Year incorporated: 1890
Yearly visitors: 3,287,595
Nearest airport: Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH)
The Experience: Yosemite
One of the most popular national parks in the U.S., Yosemite certainly lives up to the expectations.
The vast protected land boasts natural landmarks like the iconic Half Dome and El Capital granite cliffs, which people trip over themselves to climb. There is also Horsetail Fall, a plunging waterfall with a drop of 2,130 feet that is famous for turning into a "firefall" — from February to November, when the setting sun hits at the right angle, it looks like the waterfall is on fire.
You can also see giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove, experience wildflowers in Tuolumne Meadows, and visit the famed Yosemite Falls.
Given its undeniable allure, Yosemite comes out as the top national park to visit in California.
Fun Fact About Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is so large, that it is almost as big as Rhode Island.
The total area of the park is 1,169 square miles, while Rhode Island is 1,214 square miles. That's a difference of a mere 45 square miles.