8 Must-See California Parks and Destinations

California Parks to Visit - Doug Dolde

Look around the Redwood state and you’ll find some of the most amazing parks in the country.


California is the 3rd largest state in nation; home to surf and sun, mountains and valleys, cities and wilderness. From pure fun to educational stops there are a variety of options available for hungry explorers. We’ve talked to the experts and found some of the best travel destinations in the state. Here are the 8 California parks and destinations you need to visit.


1. Death Valley National Park


Death Valley is a can’t-miss park that should be on your vacation list. The 3.3 million-acre national park, which is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, has wonderful year-round activities the entire family can enjoy. “The word ‘cool’ certainly has different connotations, and here in our desert oasis, it means dry and comfortable, fun and quirky,” said Rich Jones, general manager of Furnace Creek Resort at Death Valley. There are also some amazing fun and educational activities offered within the park. Stargaze in the valley with the largest International Dark Sky Park in the country, great for all ages.


The Golden Canyon is a favorite stopping spot for visitors who enjoy hiking. Take a drive and see the famous Moving Rocks; the legendary and mysterious area where large boulders move across an ancient, dry lakebed seemingly on their own. Play a game on the Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest golf course at 214 feet below sea level.


2. Channel Islands National Park


California’s Channel Islands National Park has earned the name “The Galapagos of North America” from many inspired visitors. The park includes five of the eight California Channel Islands in their full ocean environment. Protection and education are the primary goals of the park, and out of the estimated 2,000 plant and animal species of this unique habitat area, at least 145 are found absolutely nowhere else in the entire world!


Few people ever see the Channel Islands due in part to its remote location- accessible only by boat or small plane. Jaime Shaw, Communications Associate with Visit Santa Barbara, says that low visitation numbers have helped keep this park relatively untouched. “The low visitation helps keep the feeling that one has stepped back in time when they visit, and is a remarkable contrast to the big city life found in Southern California. Those lucky enough to experience the Channel Islands can make it a day trip or camp overnight. There are an array of activities to choose from including year-round whale watching, diving, snorkeling, hiking and kayaking in Painted Cave – one of the world’s largest and deepest sea caves.”


Susan Smith, President and CEO of the Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that the Channel Islands mix the beauty and adventure of the Galapagos with tame attractions for people of all ages. “There are few places today where the beauty and resilience of nature can be experienced as fully as it can be at the Channel Islands National Park. For those who prefer a tamer experience, cruises around the Islands bring visitors nearly face-to-face with whales, dolphins, sea lions as well as dozens of varieties of birds and fish from the comfort of the ship.  For active outdoor-lovers, the hiking, camping and kayaking opportunities that the Park offers are unparalleled.” 


3. San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary


Irvine has several claims to fame but one of its best is that it boasts the most open space in all of Orange County. Within its 16,000 acres, the San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary makes up close to 300 acres of restored coastal freshwater wetlands.


There are a total of twelve miles of trails that allow visitors to explore and immerse themselves in nature as they walk, jog, hike, bike, and explore the park. The area also is home to a living laboratory for students, teachers, and the public to learn more about the plants and animals of the area, the balance of the ecosystem, and best conservation practices.



Wendy Haase of Destination Irvine says, “The area, deemed by scientists as one of the world’s biodiversity ‘hot spots,’ features hundreds of different species of plants and animals.” Visitors can see eagles, badgers, and even mountain lions, and see some of the majestic Tecate cypress trees, as well as many rare and endangered species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians.”


4. Oceano Dunes – Pismo Beach, California


Pismo Beach has been blessed with an abundance of wildlife. “The Butterfly Trees of Pismo Beach” are a beloved attraction at the beach. From late October through February, thousands of colorful Monarch butterflies cluster in the limbs of Eucalyptus and Monterey Pines in the groves. It is a beautiful site to see.


According to Kaci Knighton, California travel expert and Social Media Director for Pismo Beach, the area is “recognized by scientists, conservationists, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California.”


Kaci says this is one beach you won’t want to miss out on. “Oceano Dunes is the only beach in California that you can drive your car on. The dunes offer onsite beach camping, ATV riding, surfing, fishing, and more!”


5. Harford Pier – Avila Beach, California


If you’re looking for a unique destination to add to your travel plans for the next family vacation in sunny California, then you need to consider a trip to Harford Pier in Avila Beach. California travel expert Kaci Knighton says this pier has a long and storied history.



“The Harford Pier was developed in 1873 by John Harford to handle shipping commerce prior to train service arriving in San Luis Obispo. Smugglers also used the pier for transporting liquor under the cover of darkness. The Harford Pier is now home to recreational and commercial fishing, as well as two restaurants and a seafood market, and is one of the last piers that the public can still drive a car on.” Enjoy good food, great sites, and plenty of fun activities the entire family can enjoy. There are kid areas, a pet-friendly part of the beach, and wonderful amenities in the state park area of the Avila Beach area.


6. South Lake Tahoe


Looking for a hiking adventure? Look no further than South Lake Tahoe. This beautiful area in Northern California is home to several stunning parks. D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks offer breathtaking views of the Lake and the surrounding area, including Fannette Island. The park is home to campgrounds, trails, swimming, fishing, and more.


Carol Chaplin, Executive Director of Lake Tahoe Visitor’s Authority, says there’s a lot to discover at the Parks’ beach. “D.L. Bliss State Park has a wonderful beach on Rubicon Bay which is also a trailhead for the Rubicon Point Trail that continues to Vikingsholm Castle, the most popular attraction on the west end of Emerald Bay. The castle is considered the finest example of Scandinavian architecture in the United States and is open for guided tours during the summer months.”


Alternatively, try the Van Sickle bi-state Park or Angora Lake Climb. The Van Sickle bi-state Park “straddles the California-Nevada border near the casino corridor,” and includes biking and running areas that connect to the Tahoe Rim Trail. The Angora Lake Climb features 8 miles of paved and dirt trail that offers a view of the Fallen Leaf Lake, Lake Tahoe, and Mt. Tallac. Carol recommends to put in some time for R&R at the end of the route. “At trail’s end, cyclists can sip lemonade at Angora Lakes Resort or cool off with a dip in the lake.


7. Joshua Tree


When most people think of deserts they picture dry, inhospitable oceans of sand – these people most likely haven’t been to Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree is home to some jaw-dropping desert scenery, with vast forests and towering granite formations to boot.



Joshua Tree is also highly recommend by travel aficionado James Kaiser (www.jameskaiser.com). “The park straddles the boundary between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, making it a fantastic place to check out amazing plants and animals from both ecosystems. Wildflower blooms in the spring are particularly dramatic. Joshua Tree‘s surreal landscape also features some of the best desert hiking in California. There are trails that head to the top of mountains with sweeping views, and trails that head into rocky canyons that shelter hidden palm oases. Experienced hikers can plan an overnight backpack, camping out under an ocean of stars while coyote calls pierce the warm desert night. 


8. Yosemite National Park


Last but not least is perhaps California’s most famous park – Yosemite. Nestled in a beautiful valley, Yosemite National Park features towering mountain faces of granite, the power and majesty of glaciers, the persistence of life, the tranquility of untouched tracts of land, and the wonder of the High Sierra. First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is famous the world over for its waterfalls, wildlife, plant life, and breath-taking scenery, but in the 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, giant sequoias (the largest living things on Earth), a vast wilderness area, and much more!


Top notch hotel and accommodations provider Booking.com has some great hotel options for your stay in the park.


  • “The hidden gem, Red Tail Ranch, is a bed and breakfast Inn on a private 50-acre farm-style ranch. Staying is an intimate, quaint experience”




Have you ever visited any of these national parks? We want to hear your story!


We pride ourselves on offering some of the best prices you can find on California land. Check out our property listings to see what’s available now.



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Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons | Doug Dolde

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