A Visitor's Guide to the National Parks in Southern California
A Visitor's Guide to the National Parks in Southern California
Southern California, home to world-renowned amusement parks and famous beaches. But did you know southern California is also home to five of the most incredible, diverse, and unique National Parks in the country? Next time you visit SoCal, check out one of these astonishing landmarks and take part in a tradition shared by those looking for that elusive, eclectic yet memorable Californian experiences. Below is a snapshot of the national parks in southern California. We wanted to hit on important points of emphasis such as the closest airport(s), the distance from a major city, things to do or see, and the best time of the year to travel to the national parks.
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Channel Islands National Park
This national park is one of the most interesting of all of California’s southern national parks because the only way to get to it is by boat. The park features one of the most diverse collection of animal and plant species in the country. Dubbed as the “Galapagos Islands of North America”, Channel Islands National Park is comprised of five islands which are: San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, and Santa Cruz. Each island you visit is going to give you something different to see and do: hiking, camping, bird watching, sight-seeing, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing are island favorites. Here’s the good news: general admission into the park is free (camping overnight is not though). On the flipside, that extra cash you save on admission is going to be already spent by getting there. Typically, travelers can expect to pay anywhere in between $50 and $75 for a round trip ferry to the park (via plane will run you anywhere from $150 to $175 per person). Be sure to plan early and get reservations on any travel to and from the park. Don’t let this unconventional way of seeing the park stop you from visiting this bastion of diverse nature in southern California.
Best Airport to Fly into Channel Islands National Park: The best airport to fly into if you’re wanting to get to the Channel Islands National Park is Los Angeles (LAX). LAX is by far the best and easiest option for travelers.
Distance from Major City: Channel Islands National Park is a little bit different in the fact that you have to catch a ferry (or plane) to the islands. The most popular place to find transportation to and from the islands is Ventura. Los Angeles is about 60 miles Southeast of Ventura so plan on a little over an hour’s drive.
Cool Things to See: There are so many sights to see and things to do at Channel Islands National Park. Instead of breaking it down by activity, we look at what each island has to offer. Here are some of the best things to check out while visiting Channel Islands:
- Anacapa Island: Many who visit the park claim that if there’s one island to visit, make it Anacapa. Plan accordingly because there are no services on the islands. There are guided hikes and even though they are limited to two miles of trails, Anacapa will give some of the best views of the park. Anacapa is also one of the best places in the park for swimming, diving, kayaking, and wildlife viewing. Birds, seals, sea lions, and plenty of wildflowers make Anacapa a top spot in the Channel Islands.
- Santa Barbara Island: This island is one of the more difficult places to get to because of the limited schedules with transportation; however has plenty to offer if you can get there. This is one of the cliff islands so some of the hikes are a little more moderate in nature. It also makes it quite diverse in landscape. There are no lifeguards on this island, but most water activities are allowed there.
- Santa Cruz Island: Different from Santa Barbara Island, Santa Cruz is the easiest island to get to and provides the most activities for visitors. Since there is so much to do, the NPS has provided regulations and guidelines for the public with Santa Cruz. This island provides world-class water activities and world-class views. There are many open bodies of water, easy beach access, and the kelp beds which give snorkelers an incredible experience. For recreational activities, Santa Cruz Island is by far the best.
- San Miguel Island: Just like Santa Barbara Island, San Miguel Island is a little more difficult to get to. Once there, prepare yourself for wind. In fact, the wind does impact how much you can enjoy activities you would otherwise engage in with the other islands. That doesn’t mean this island doesn’t deserve a visit. The wildlife viewing (after a sizable hike) rewards visitors with some of the largest gatherings of wildlife on all the islands with up to 30,000 animals across multiple species.
- Santa Rosa Island: Similar to San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island can be a windy visit. Don’t let that deter you from visiting though. Some of the best hiking opportunities (from flat routes to rugged mountainous paths) are located here. One of the best beaches in the park, Water Canyon Beach, is easy to access and offers awesome beach walking and surfing.
Best Time of the Year to Visit: Summer and fall provide the best seasons for the park (because of the ideal water temperatures and clarity for diving, kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling). You can visit the park the entire year and each season will give park-goers a different experience with the park when considering the changes in weather, landscape, and wildlife behavior.
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
You could argue if Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks should be included in a list featuring southern California national parks. Although San Francisco is one of the main hubs where people visit from, the quickest way to get here is via San Jose. These two national parks are close enough in proximity where travelers can get an incredible taste of the best national parks in southern California in just two parks. Home to the giant sequoia trees, travelers will want to make sure they soak in all there is to do here. Depending on what your interests and how much time you have, you’ll want to plan about two-to-three days between the two parks.
Best Airport to Fly into Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks: The best airport to fly into for a visit to Kings Canyon National Park is San Jose (SJC). Depending on the traffic, it’s about a three- to four-hour drive from that airport. There are some smaller airports (FAT and BFL) that are a little bit closer, but when you consider arrival records plus avoiding connecting flights, your best bet is to choose the SJC airport.
Distance from Major City: Kings Canyon National Park is about 200 miles from San Jose.
Cool Things to See: Day hiking, back-packing, majestic drives, and viewpoints...these two parks have a lot to offer. Here are some of the best things to check out:
- Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Kings Canyon): Also known as Highway 180, this 50+ mile route will take you to some of the best canyons in the country. Even though this route is packed with curves and cautions, it provides many opportunities for amazing stops for views, selfies, and photos.
- General Sherman Tree (Sequoia): In terms of sheer volume, this tree is touted as the world’s largest standing almost 300 feet tall and about 40 feet in diameter.
- Giant Forest (Sequoia): There is literally no way to describe this giant grove without seeing it for yourself. It’s inspiring, motivating, humbling and also home to 8,000+ sequoias (the most in all of California). You’ll want to begin your adventure at the Giant Forest Museum which will give you more information and history.
Best Time of the Year to Visit: Avoid weekends. The best time to visit the Kings Canyon and Sequoia parks are late spring and early fall.
Death Valley National Park
Tucked in between southern California and the Nevada border sits one of the largest national parks in the country: Death Valley. Since this is one of the hottest and driest places in the country, it’s no wonder where it got its name. Don’t let the lack of water and hot temps fool you though, Death Valley is home to some of the most picturesque landscapes of all the national parks in southern California. Sand dunes, endless valleys, deep colorful canyons against a blue sky, and rugged mountains make Death Valley a must-see stop on a southern California National Parks tour.
Best Airport to Fly Into Death Valley National Park: The best airport to fly into for a visit to Death Valley National Park is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (about 130 miles distance). The best airport in southern California for a visit to Death Valley is Los Angeles (LAX), which would put you around 260 miles from the park.
Distance from Major City: The closest major city in southern California to Death Valley is Los Angeles.
Cool Things to See: With day hiking, back-packing, and geological mysteries to check out, Death Valley gives park-goers one of the most unique national park experiences in southern California. Here are some of the best things to check out at Death Valley:
- Golden Canyon: Narrow canyons and deep, crisp golden hills create one of the most unique hiking adventures in the park. You can hit up hikes anywhere from five minutes to three hours, and simple strolls to strenuous elevations. Fun fact: did you know Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was filmed at this location?
- Badwater Basin: Experiencing Badwater Basin is like a visit to another world. Not only does it feel like this vast expanse stretches forever, but the setting (lowest elevation spot in North America at nearly -300 feet below sea level) and salt flat landscapes also give park-goers views they won’t get anywhere else in the world. One of the added benefits (if you don’t like to hike and walk in the warm temps) is the ability to see most of the landscape from the parking lot.
- Artists Palette (Artist’s Drive): This feature of Death Valley can give you some of the most vibrant and intriguing views of the park ... and all from the comfort of your vehicle. It’s one of the reasons Artist’s Palette is popular, you can see a lot of the views from the parking lot. Some have dubbed the scenic nine-mile drive "an experience in geological rainbows" as eroded passes and colorful desert hills provide some fantastic scenery.
- Zabriskie Point: By far the most famous viewpoint in Death Valley, this overlook offers views of Furnace creek and has connecting trails that lead to Gower Gulch, Red Cathedral and Golden Canyon (all popular hiking destinations). To see one of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets in the country, take your camera.
Best Time of the Year to Visit: You’re not going to have to worry about a lot of crowds like you would with other national parks in California. But you do have to worry about temperatures in Death Valley because the extreme temps can be blistering. The best time of the year to visit is from mid-October to mid-May.
Joshua Tree National Park
With almost 800,000 acres of desert and where two major deserts collide (Mojave and Colorado), Joshua Tree is home to one of southern California’s most intriguing national parks. Its close proximity to Los Angeles (and Ontario) make it one of the top national park stops in all of California. A variety of plants and wildlife as well as a variety of things to do make Joshua Tree a fun vacation spot. The combination of scenery and funky rock formations promises to give you an experience you’ve never seen before at a national park. Hiking, bouldering, rock climbing, star gazing or just being out in nature, you’re bound to build memories of this incredibly unique place.
Best Airport to Fly into Joshua Tree National Park: The best airport to fly into for a visit to Joshua Tree National Park is Ontario International (ONT), which will put you about an hour and a half from the park entrance. Los Angeles (LAX) and Long Beach (LGB) are also really good airport options and only put you about two to three hours away.
Distance From Major City: Joshua Tree is a little over 90 miles from Ontario, and a little over 130 miles from Los Angeles. If coming from Los Angeles, plan on about a three-hour drive right down I-10.
Cool Things to See: With day camping, hiking, back-packing, bird-watching, star-gazing and climbing to check out, Joshua Tree gives travelers an intriguing and different national park experience in southern California. Here are some of the best things to check out at Joshua Tree:
- Hiking: Make sure you do a little research before you embark on one of the various hikes Joshua Tree has to offer. This is home to a lot of hikes that range from really easy to really hard, and really short to really long. One of the best hikes is the Scenic Hidden Valley Trail. It’s short and easy (one mile loop) and gives trail-goers a great sample of what this national park has to offer (rock formations to boulder and cacti to admonish). With more than 300 miles of trails in the Joshua Tree National Park hiking system, hikers will experience a myriad of trail adventures unlike any other in the southern California National Parks system.
- Bird Watching: Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best southern California parks for those who love birding. Make sure you have binoculars (7-10 power range), a spotting scope, and a field guide. Depending on the season, you can see upwards of around 50+ bird species in the park. Some of the more popular birds you can expect to see include: several warbler species, cedar waxwings, hermit thrush, sparrows and juncos, and various birds of prey ( such as hawks, harriers, and osprey). This park is home to a lot of birds (both residents and migratory). Best places to bird watch: Barker Dam (even though it’s dry), Oasis of Mara, Cottonwood Spring, Lost Palms Oasis, the Fan Palm Oasis, and Lost Horse Valley. They are all great places to see some of Joshua Tree’s dynamic bird residents.
- Cholla Cactus Garden: This popular stop in Joshua Tree is for good reason. The Cholla Cactus Garden is home to a copious amount of cacti and yes...they are adorned with very sharp and painful cactus needles. If visiting between March and May you will be able to see the teddybear cholla patch in bloom. A word of caution: although these cacti are plentiful and incredible to look at, be careful traversing through the garden on the short nature trail (0.25 miles round trip and flat). With the short trail, this makes Cholla a family-friendly hike, but just make sure to stay on the trail.
- Biking/Four-Wheeling: Joshua Tree is home to miles and miles of fantastic backroads, which makes it a challenging yet fun and rewarding experience for bikers and four-wheelers. Although bikes and four-wheel drives are welcomed (off-road and all-terrain vehicles are not), the park is adamant that these recreationists stay on established roads. Some popular spots include Black Eagle Mine Road, Old Dale Road, Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Roads, and Queen Valley Roads. Here is a helpful topo map of the area. Always check with a park guide before embarking in unfamiliar territory and always have plenty of water.
Best Time of the Year to Visit: The absolute best time to visit this national park is in the spring (March and April). Desert wildflowers are in bloom, cacti are in bloom, and temperatures haven’t hit that peak blistering heat that makes any outdoor activity unbearable. Fall in the park is also enjoyable because the crowds aren’t as numerous which provides park-goers plenty of access to campsites (and the temps are so relaxing).
A Southern California National Park Visit Offers a Little Bit of Everything
The national parks system in southern California is vastly different than northern California. Each one offers something unique, while at the same time promising to enlighten your visit to southern California with unforgettable memories. From crystal clear ocean views in the Channel Islands Park to the unworldly-like deserts of Death Valley, these national parks are home to inspiring views and exhilarating activities for anyone looking for a fun family trip with kids, a romantic getaway, or the traveler just looking for the next national park to check off the bucket list.
Have you visited any of these amazing National Parks? Tell us in the comments what travelers “must-see” when they visit.
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