A Look at California's 9 National Parks
A Look at California's 9 National Parks
Beaches, resorts, amusement parks, and the like, California has an eclectic feel from the moment you first visit the golden state. Travelers from all over the world come to California for those experiences and rightly so. Disneyland yields about 20 million visitors a year! It’s what people want. But did you know there’s a back-page to some of California’s most amazing features and adventures? Did you know California is home to the most national parks in the country? The national parks in California may not be visited as much as California’s sought-after amusement parks (about half the amount of people visit the nine national parks here combined compared to just Disneyland), but they over-deliver just as much on value. Each of these parks are uniquely Californian, while at the same time maintain the spirit of the national park system in the US. They’re wild, fun, majestic, adventurous, and all but guarantee a journey you’ve most likely never enjoyed before.
When you have decided which park you want to visit, check out Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar, which can help determine when you can get a great price on your airfare to see these beautiful parks. You can also find hotel and airfare packages using the Southwest Vacations search engine.
How Many US National Parks Are In California?
California has more National Parks than any state in the US. There are nine (9) national parks in the state of California. Each national park provides a unique experience. Below is a small snapshot of what each California national park has to offer travelers.
Yosemite: If you’re into majestic views of waterfalls, unique rock structures, and incredible sunsets, Yosemite has it all. Rock climbing, hiking, camping, and sight-seeing are just a handful of activities you will encounter on a journey to Yosemite.
Joshua Tree: Hiking, biking, star-gazing, bird-watching, bouldering and so much more, Joshua Tree is a mecca for everything outdoors. It’s completely understandable why Joshua Tree is California’s 2nd most visited national park.
Death Valley: This park is California’s most treacherous and alien-like. Sand dunes, endless valleys, and incredibly colored canyons against a California blue sky make this a must-see destination in the California national parks system. Bird-watching, hiking, climbing, and views! It’s no wonder this majestic, other-world is California’s 3rd most visited national park.
Sequoia: As the 4th national park in California to rack in over 1 million annual visitors, Sequoia gives park-goers some of the biggest experiences California and this country has to offer. Hiking, backpacking, camping, and bird-watching are really popular activities, but the chance to check out the world’s largest tree (General Sherman Tree) and the Giant Forest will leave you awe-struck.
“Pair a visit to the El Morro Elfin Forest, near Morro Bay with a visit to Sequoia. You get the beach and small trees with mountains and big trees on the same road trip.”
@SWDigits, Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
Kings Canyon: Home to one of the best 50-mile routes in all of America, Kings Canyon is the perfect park companion to Sequoia. Did you know they are less than 10 miles apart? Yet...Sequoia has about twice the visitors as Kings Canyon. Simply put, a visit to Sequoia would not complete without spending some time on Highway 180 in Kings Canyon. You won’t regret it.
Lassen Volcanic: With mud pots, scenic hikes, bubbling pools, and sulfur smells, it’s no wonder many have dubbed this little gem as California’s mini-version of Yellowstone National Park. If you are looking for another waypoint for your California national parks road trip, Lassen is one to add.
Redwood: Redwood National park provides visitors some of the best experiences and views in the entire country: giant redwood trees, tranquil hiking trails, and jaw-dropping overlooks. One of the major hurdles of visiting Redwood is it is located further from a major city compared to other national parks in California. But don’t let that be a hindrance for not visiting.
Channel Islands: Dubbed as the “Galapagos Islands of North America”, Channel Islands National Park is comprised of five islands: 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.
Pinnacles: Pinnacles is located in the center section of California and is easily accessible from multiple major cities (San Jose and San Francisco). Pinnacles National Park is also one of California’s newest members of the national park family (established in 2013). If you like to hike, then Pinnacles is the place for you with its 30+ miles of tricky, but beautiful hiking trails.
What Are The Most Popular National Parks In California?
The most popular national park in California is by far Yosemite National Park. With more than 4 million visitors in 2018, Yosemite is the 6th most visited national park in the United States. There are four national parks in California that receive over one million annual visitors: Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Sequoia.
Yosemite: 4,009,436 park visitors
Joshua Tree: 2,972,382 park visitors
Death Valley: 1,678,660 park visitors
Sequoia: 1,229,594 park visitors
Kings Canyon: 699,023 park visitors
Lassen Volcanic: 499,435 park visitors
Redwood: 482,536 park visitors
Channel Islands: 366,250 park visitors
Pinnacles: 222,152 park visitors
What Is The Least Visited National Park In California?
There are four national parks in California that have less than 500,000 annual visitors: Lassen Volcanic (499,000), Redwood (482,000), Channel Islands (366,000), and Pinnacles (222,000). These are the least visited parks, but an even more important question is, “Why are they the least visited?” Sometimes we assume the national park is a better experience based on attendance. Yellowstone and Yosemite garner large crowds of visitors from all over the world. But do the large crowds necessarily mean a better national park experience? This logic couldn’t be further from reality. Convenience and location are major contributing factors for attendance in national parks. California national parks are no exception to this rule.
Two of the least visited national parks in California are Redwood (482,000 annual visitors) and the Channel Islands (366,000 annual visitors). This isn’t because these two parks have less to offer travelers. The major reason for a less-than-average number of visitors deals with where the parks are located. For example, visitors cannot travel by car to Channel Islands National Park; either a ferry by boat or a private flight can get you there. Some would view this as an inconvenience. In regards to the Redwoods, the park is the most northern national park and about 300 miles from either San Francisco or Sacramento. Redwood is also part of a state park system, which can also muddy the waters with access and extra fees. This added travel distance and potential itinerary confusion can be a deterrent for some. But what these national parks (Lassen and Pinnacles included) lack in terms of location and convenience are easily made up in the incredible adventures you’re likely to enjoy if you take the time to plan and fully absorb what each park has to offer.
What Is The Oldest National Park In California?
There are three national parks in California that have hit the century mark: Sequoia, Yosemite, and Lassen Volcanic are all more than 100 years old. Even though they were both established as national parks in the same year, Sequoia National Park gained recognition one week before Yosemite making it the oldest. For all the national parks in the United States, Sequoia and Yosemite are the 2nd and 3rd oldest right after Yellowstone which was set apart as a national park in 1872. Below are the dates each national park in California was established.
Yosemite: Established on October 1, 1890
Joshua Tree: Established on October 31, 1994
Death Valley: Established on October 31, 1994
Sequoia: Established on September 25, 1890
Kings Canyon: Established on March 4, 1940
Lassen Volcanic: Established on August 9, 1916
Redwood: Established on October 2, 1968
Channel Islands: Established on March 5, 1980
Pinnacles: Established on January 10, 2013
What Airport Should I Use To Fly To California’s National Parks
The airports listed below are recommended as the best airports to fly to and from each national park. California is home to the most national parks in the country. This state is also home to a lot of airports (about 20+). Keep in mind, there are a couple of national parks where there are smaller, more obscure airports which will save you a little time on travel distance; however, the airports listed below have much better arrival records and airfare is significantly lower with these larger, more established airports.
Yosemite: The two best airports to fly into for a Yosemite National Park visit are Oakland (OAK) and San Francisco (SFO).
Joshua Tree: 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 alternative airport options and only put you about 2-3 hours away.
Death Valley: The best airport to fly into for 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.
Sequoia: The best airport to fly into Sequoia 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.
Kings Canyon: The best airport to fly into Kings Canyon National Park is San Jose (SJC). Depending on the traffic, it’s about a three to four-hour drive from that airport.
Lassen Volcanic: The best airport to fly into for a visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park is Sacramento (SMF). This will put you a three hours drive from that airport to the park entrance.
Redwood: The closest international airports to fly into for Redwood National Park are San Francisco (SFO) and Sacramento (SMF). There are some smaller airports that are a little bit closer, but when you consider arrival records plus avoiding connecting flights (and potential layovers), your best bet is to choose SMF or SFO airports. You’ll also get significantly better airfare by using one of these larger international airports.
Channel Islands: The best airport to fly into if you’re wanting to get to the Channel Islands National Park is Los Angeles (LAX).
Pinnacles: The best airport to fly into for Pinnacles National Park is San Jose (SJC), which will put you about an hour and a half from the park’s east entrance. You can also fly into San Francisco (SFO) which is about a two-hour drive from to the park.
We have a complete summary of every national park in southern and northern California breaking it down into which airport to use, distance from major cities, cool things to see, and the best times throughout the year to visit each park.
Which National Park is on your dream travel list? (We can’t pick just one and neither should you.) Tell us in the comments!
Looking for more advice and inspiration for your next trip? Visit our Discussion Forum to talk to other travelers like you—our Travel section is packed with great answers and ideas.
You must be a registered user to add a comment. If you've already registered, sign in. Otherwise, register and sign in.