Southern California

Explore 7 California National Parks on a Monumental Road Trip

From the sand dunes of Death Valley to the granite peaks of Yosemite, discover the wonders of California's national parks

California is more than beaches, Hollywood, and the San Francisco Bay, but it took my first solo road trip to the state’s interior to understand the wonder of California’s diverse landscapes. Driving from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park, I crossed through the park’s gates for the first time, and its mountain waterfalls and lush meadows left me in awe. From here I detoured to glimpse Mono Lake, California’s salty Dead Sea, and found a natural wonder that far outweighed the glitz and glam of Santa Monica Boulevard.

This year, let the open road call your name and see the real California on an old-fashioned road trip. From the towering redwoods of the north to the rugged deserts of the south, follow this guide to explore seven California national parks. You can visit them in just one epic trip or, if the agenda doesn’t allow it, choose your favorite park and plan your next weekend getaway.

But, before, here is the map of our suggested accommodations:

Stop 1: See the Tallest Trees on Earth at Redwood National Park

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In Northern CaliforniaRedwood National Park protects nearly half of the world’s old-growth redwoods—with the tallest soaring to heights of more than 370 feet—as well as prairies, oak woodlands, rugged coastline, and rivers. To see the giant trees up close, first grab a permit from the visitor’s center to take the eight-mile hike to Tall Trees Grove. Here you’ll find some of the park’s largest trees along Redwood Creek, with more solitude thanks to the work it takes to reach them.

And while the redwood trees are the park’s standout attraction, don’t miss the easy hike to Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Covered in lush ferns and moss, this rare vertical-walled river canyon wowed director Steven Spielberg so much that he chose the location as a filming site for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.

At day’s end, drive the scenic 31-mile Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park toward the hotel. Paralleling Highway 101, it features multiple stops at famous trees. To really enjoy this drive and the park, plan for a two-day visit. It’s open year-round, but always check road conditions before visiting in the winter season.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Eureka

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Where to Stay Near Redwood National Park

Explore historic downtown Eureka and cruise the Redwood Coast at the centrally located Best Western Plus Humboldt Bay Inn. Easily accessible via US-101, the route to reach Redwood National Park and the Avenue of the Giants, the hotel is just 30 miles away from both.

Relax at the hotel’s new oasis-style swimming pool and spa, play water basketball, grill on a barbecue, shoot a round of pool, or chill by the outdoor fireplace. Inside, expect bright, remodeled rooms with 42-inch LCD TVs and fireplaces, along with modern executive suites with steam showers, in-room minibars, and spacious soaking tubs. Start each day with a free continental breakfast.

Best Western Plus Humboldt Bay Inn

Eureka
8.1 Very good (1427 reviews)

Stop 2: Explore Yosemite National Park and Climb the World`s Tallest Granite Monolith

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Yosemite is known for its roaring waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, verdant valleys, and mighty granite monoliths and is one of the most visited American national parks. It was the first natural place in America protected for its beauty and recreation. While the term “national park” was not yet coined in 1864, Yosemite’s land became a precedent for all future parks. Despite its popularity, 95 percent of Yosemite is wilderness, so it’s easy to escape the crowds if you go beyond the most famous sights.

But some destinations are famous for a reason, and the striking Yosemite Valley is a must see on any first visit. This seven-mile-wide canyon is home to the mighty granite playgrounds of Half Dome and El Capitan and teeming with wildlife. As the world’s tallest granite monolith, El Capitan is an impressive sight to behold and one epic rock climbing destination. But if you’re not ready for expert-level climbing, get a permit to summit Half Dome instead on its hanging cables trail. You’ll pass Vernal and Nevada waterfalls and Sequoia trees on the trek in, completing the well-trod John Muir Trail and Mist Trails along the way—meaning you’re checking off three hikes in one.

While you can’t always catch the park’s famed “Firefall” phenomenon, seeing the world’s fifth tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, is alone worth the journey. (Note that waterfall flows peak in spring and early summer months and can slow to a trickle by late summer.) Beyond the valley and falls, stare up at 3,000-year-old giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove.

You’ll need at least two days to accomplish this itinerary, but if you can add another day, head east to the far less visited Tuolomne Meadows on Tioga Road. It’s one of the highest elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada and is surrounded by dome peaks—but devoid of crowds.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Yosemite National Park

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Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park

Just two miles from Yosemite’s South Gate in Fish Camp, find the elegant Four Diamond  Tenaya Lodge. With 302 luxe rooms set in the High Sierra mountains, Tenaya’s a place to rest and relax with family or friends after a day of outdoor exploration. Choose from renovated suites, cottage rooms, and new cabin accommodations with included perks like souvenir water bottles and s’mores kits.

Fun is included with dive-in movies, family-friendly pools, spa and steam rooms, game room, fitness classes, and plenty of dining options. Or adventure in place on free guided nature walks in the surrounding mountains.

Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite

Fish Camp
8.4 Very good (3303 reviews)

Stops 3 and 4: Discover Beautiful Peaks at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

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Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are the lands of giants: huge alpine peaks, massive trees, and deep canyons dominate the landscapes. The Central California parks are adjacent to one another, and while you can hit the highlights in a day, it’s better to take two.

The General Sherman Tree is Sequoia’s main claim to fame. Why? It’s the largest (by volume) currently living single-stem tree on Earth and more than 2,000 years old. Pictures don’t do it justice, you must simply see this still-growing tree for yourself.

View other Giant Sequoias on the Big Trees Loop through a giant meadow, or take a stone stairway to heaven on the climb up Moro Rock. The half mile roundtrip hike is a little unnerving if you’re afraid of heights—but the views are worth it. Pass some of the world’s most giant sequoias on a 50-mile drive along Generals Highway from Sequoia National Park to Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.

Once in Kings Canyon, Zumwalt Meadow shines with an easy boardwalk trail showcasing granite cliffs, brilliant green plants, and a flowing river. And because you’ll never tire of seeing giant trees, take a 0.3-mile stroll to the General Grant Tree—the second largest tree in the world. Find the best views of the park on a curvy road leading to Panoramic Point.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Sequoia National Park

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Where to Stay Inside Sequoia National Park

When a rustic campsite won’t do, choose Sequoia’s signature in-park hotel: Wuksachi Village & Lodge. Surrounded by Sierra peaks and towering trees, you can roll out of bed and start exploring at this 7,200-foot high basecamp. Open year-round, it’s home to a full-service restaurant, cocktail lounge, and 102 guest rooms.

Each room represents the natural world around it with wood and rock decor, plus modern touches like flatscreen TVs and mini-fridges. Wireless internet access is available only in the main lodge so bring a book to read instead of scrolling on Instagram.

Wuksachi Village & Lodge

Sequoia National Park
8.0 Very good (2330 reviews)

Stop 5: Watch the Sunset at Death Valley National Park

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The name says it all: Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in America. And while its record-breaking summer heat makes it one of the hottest places on Earth, you’ll find comfortable temperatures in cooler months.

Starting at Furnace Creek Visitor Center, you can see many Death Valley highlights in a few hours. Start with Badwater Basin—the lowest elevation in North America at -282 feet below sea level. This salt flat appears endless, but a quarter-mile hike leads to Death Valley’s well-known polygon salt formations. Just don’t think of attempting the walk during summer’s scorching temperatures.

From here, see eroded minty green and mauve desert hills on a one-way, nine-mile drive along Artists Drive. Then cruise over to the salt-eroded Devils Golf Course, where you’d never actually want to go golfing. The area is unique due to the pings and pops you may hear when listening carefully—all caused by salt crystals bursting as they expand and contract in the desert heat.

If you have more time, see the sparkling Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes—the area’s largest. End your day in Death Valley watching the sunset over Zabriskie Point, the park’s most famous viewpoint, and a connector to popular hiking trails. (Always bring plenty of water for hiking due to changing temperatures and oppressive heat.)

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Death Valley

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Where to Stay Near to Death Valley

First opened in 1927, The Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley is a AAA-rated four-diamond resort long popular with Old Hollywood elites. Some $100 million in upgrades has returned it to this bygone era while infusing modern touches and tech throughout.

Open year-round, the hotel’s best feature is its relaxing spring-fed pool, date palm gardens, and natural springs. Watch a desert sunset with a cocktail in hand on the outdoor patio, or see the vibrant Milky Way from the Stargazers Deck.

For a luxe, private retreat, book one of 22 new casitas built around the gardens. Each is walking distance from the pool and includes the use of a golf cart to get around the property. The hotel is minutes from the park and two hours from Las Vegas.

Hotel The Inn at Death Valley

Death Valley
8.3 Very good (532 reviews)

Stop 6: Meet two Deserts at Joshua Tree National Park

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The park’s namesake Joshua Trees draw visitors year-round to this protected desert landscape the size of Rhode Island. The park is the meeting place of two deserts, the Mojave and Colorado, which differ in elevation and ecosystems. The Mojave is higher and colder while the Colorado is lower and covered in harsh cactus landscapes. Desert bighorn sheep, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, and coyotes survive in these daunting landscapes formed by wind and rain over millions of years.

And while it appears barren and harsh, spring brings colorful blooming cactus flowers to the desert floor. Walk among them in the Cholla Cactus Garden, but keep your distance as being stuck by the barbs is painful. Find the unique gnarled Joshua Trees on Hidden Valley Trail, near Hidden Valley Campground, and along numerous back roads through the park. The trees appear most magical when backed by a setting sun or underneath a clear sky filled with stars.

Just outside the park, make your last stop of this trip Pioneertown. Though it’s no ghost town, this old live-in movie set is worth preserving. Feel as if you’ve stepped into an old Hollywood Western movie with mock gunfights on Mane Street (yes, mane like horse’s mane) and dine in old saloons and storefronts.

New shops are improving the town, but Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is the real draw. Catch leading acts such as Paul McCartney and Vampire Weekend on its intimate stage—or refuel with a tasty bison burger.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Joshua Tree

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Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree National Park

You can’t beat the convenience of Best Western Joshua Tree. It’s located just five miles from the Joshua Tree National Park and near Old West Pioneertown and Big Morongo Canyon.

Choose standard king best rooms or spacious suites with full kitchens, living rooms, and whirlpools. Expect modern HD flatscreen TVs and high-speed WiFi internet access. Soak in the seasonal outdoor pool and hot tub or maintain your muscle town in the fitness center. Dogs are welcome in select rooms.

Best Western Garden Hotel at Joshua Tree National Park

Twentynine Palms
8.0 Very good (1600 reviews)

Stop 7: Observe Volcano-Formed Rock Formations at Pinnacles National Park

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Claiming the title of California’s newest national park, Pinnacles protects a mountainous region in Central California with distinct volcano-formed rock formations. Many come torch climb the spires or hike to overlooking views of the reservoir and volcanic structures. Explore underground on the Bear Gulch or Balconies Cave Trails, or soar to new heights on the ascending High Peaks Trail along a rocky ridge. Bring kids and beginner hikers on the Moses Spring Trail, which loops past rock formations, talus caves, and blooming meadows.

Summertime temperatures often soar above 100 degrees, making cooler months the best (and most popular) time to visit. Spring is beautiful thanks to blooming waterfalls, but the mountain climbs and cave hikes are also excellent in fall and winter months.

Hotels & Vacation Rentals - Carmel Valley

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Where to Stay Near​ Pinnacles National Park

With European elegance and old-world charm, Bernardus Lodge is not your typical road trip hotel. Located 30 miles from the park in the Carmel Valley wine country with 73 guest rooms, suites, and villas reimagined for modern travelers. Indulge in new upgrades: a relaxing two-person soaking tub, plush bathrobes, fireplace, and a king-sized featherbed.

Unwind in the outdoor heated pool and hot tub, relax poolside in a cabana, sip a cocktail or smoothie at the pool bar, or opt for a soothing massage at the spa. Get active in the 24/7 fitness center, play a match in the tennis courts, or join in on a complimentary hike or yoga class.

When dinner calls, enjoy farm-to-table fare with dishes by Chef Cal Stamenov made with fruit, vegetables, and herbs grown on the lodge’s 28-acre estate. (Don’t skip the housemade wine and honey.) Nearby, explore 20 Carmel Valley tasting rooms, or borrow a Mercedes-Benz convertible from Bernardus and drive to Pinnacles National Park.

Bernardus Lodge & Spa

Top rated
Carmel Valley
9.3 Excellent (505 reviews)