California’s Best National Parks

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by Aaron Feigenbaum

Yosemite: California’s most well-known national park and one of the best-known in the nation, Yosemite is a breathtaking land of adventure and excitement. Originally home to the Ahwahneechee tribe and later to Gold Rush miners in the mid-1800’s, President Lincoln set aside this gem of the Sierra Nevada mountains for public use 150 years ago. Teddy Roosevelt gave Yosemite further protection at the insistence of his friend and renowned conservationist John Muir, and Yosemite became the nation’s first national park in 1916. Today Yosemite is visited by almost 4 million people annually and is inhabited by an impressive array of wildlife including deer, bears, owls, and bobcats.

Half Dome at Yosemite National park

Half Dome at Yosemite National park

The main attraction of Yosemite National Park is Yosemite Valley. In the Valley you can view the park’s most impressive natural features such as the jaw-dropping Yosemite Falls as well as cliffs, meadows, and the towering Half Dome which proudly juts out into the sky and features on the reverse of the California state quarter. Avid climbers will get a thrill out of the vertical El Capitan rock face, a daunting climb that is not for the inexperienced. If climbing’s not your thing, there is no shortage of hiking opportunities ranging from a half mile stroll to the 17 mile hike to the top of Half Dome (permit is required). If you’re coming in the winter then skiing and snowboarding are recommended activities. And if you’re the kind that just wants to lay back and soak in the atmosphere, then there’s plenty of shopping opportunities as well as interesting museums to see such as the Yosemite Museum which tells the history and culture of the Ahwahneechee people. Another good pick is the Ahwahnee Hotel, a National Historic Landmark.

Fees to enter the park are $20 per vehicle or you can purchase a $40 one-year pass. If you’re coming in by foot or bike then it’s $10.

Vernal Falls at Yosemite National Park

Vernal Falls at Yosemite National Park

Sequoia and Kings Canyon: 130 miles south of the main entrance to Yosemite lies this highly underrated area of natural beauty. Sequoia may not get as much attention as its northern neighbor, but it still packs quite a few worthwhile attractions that may convince you to give it a whirl.

Perhaps the single most recognizable feature of this park is the General Sherman tree, the world’s oldest and tallest tree at 2,300-2,700 years and 275 feet. Another must-see is the almost 2.5 mile long Crystal Cave where a spider-web door leads you into a magnificent cave system filled with narrow passages and huge stalactites all wrapped in a family-friendly package. (Note that entrance to the cave costs $12 per adult and $6 per child.) If you’re coming in the spring or summer then be sure to check out Crescent Meadow. It’s doesn’t have many flowers, but the open space and soaring trees make it very picturesque and a worthwhile place to visit.

Like Yosemite, the park has a $20 entrance fee per vehicle. Watch out for bears and the occasional mountain lion. Lodging, camping, and back country options are all available.

Redwood National Park: Located on California’s far north coast in the biggest seismic hot spot in the U.S., Redwood N.P. is home to the world’s tallest and biggest tree species. Until the area was made a national park in 1968, almost 90% of the redwoods had been chopped down. Today restoration efforts continue to rehabilitate the redwood population. The park also houses rare animal species such as the bald eagle and northern spotted owl. On the coastal section of the park, you can see numerous tidepools filled with anemones, sea stars and other sea life. The Tall Trees Grove section, accessible by permit only, features the Libbey Tree which was at one time was the world’s tallest tree.

Activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, and fishing. Taking a stroll through the forest in the misty morning fog gives one a sense of awe and mystery. It’s surely one of California’s most beautiful hikes and a must-do for any visitor.

The park also has five different visitor centers, several of which feature exhibits on the park’s redwood trees, wildlife, and conservation efforts.

Lassen Volcanic National Park: For something a bit more off the beaten path, this oddball park located in the Shasta Cascades of Northeastern California is a great choice. The most noteworthy attraction here is Lassen Peak, the biggest plug dome volcano in the world; it’s made all the more enchanting by the surrounding pristine lakes, meadows, and glaciers. For a walk on the wild side, visit Mt. Tehama and the nearby geothermal area called by the odd, yet fitting name of Bumpass Hell. This otherworldly, multicolored landscape was formed over many eons and features hot springs, fumaroles (gas vents) and mud pots (an acidic version of a hot spring). Essentially, you can think of it as the Yellowstone of California. It can be reached via a 3-mile trail from the parking lot. Finally, you can make a 4-mile round trip down to the bottom of the volcanic cinder cone of Mt. Tehama located in the Butte Lake area of the park.

Bumpass Hell at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bumpass Hell. Photos: Wikimedia

Channel Islands: Most people associate California’s Channel Islands with Catalina and the beautiful little port town of Avalon. However, there are also seven other islands in the chain, five of which are part of the Channel Islands National Park system.

Once home to the Chumash people (many Chumash archaeological sites still remain throughout the islands), the Channel Islands boast an incredible diversity of plant and wildlife ranging from whales, bald eagles, sharks and seals, with some species entirely native to the Islands. One of the most spectacular islands to visit is Anacapa, a narrow island which features a 2-mile hiking trail complete with stunning flower fields set against the backdrop of pounding waves, the sounds of sea and avian life, a quaint lighthouse, and a fantastic view of the mainland. The best way to get there is from Ventura or Santa Barbara via companies such as Island Packers or Santa Barbara Adventure Co. The latter company also offers a kayak tour of Santa Cruz Island’s incredible sea caves including one of the world’s largest: Painted Cave. In addition, Santa Cruz has tidepools, cliffs, unique species that can be found no where else in the world, and a rich Chumash history stretching back over 10,000 years.

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island

Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and the rest of the islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park are each a unique experience that highlights the diversity of life and the beauty of nature in a way that not many other places on Earth can do. These islands are sitting right in L.A.’s backyard just waiting for you to explore them so if you have the money and time then why not take an unforgettable adventure into one of the world’s most breathtaking natural wonders?

The beach at Santa Cruze Island

The beach at Santa Cruze Island

Death Valley: No discussion of California’s national parks would be complete without a mention of the infamous Death Valley. Located in southeastern California near the Nevada border and often serving as NASA’s analogue for the surface of Mars, this inferno of a park boasts the world record for the hottest temperature ever of 134 degrees recorded in July 1913 at Furnace Creek. Another record set in Death Valley is that of lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin (so-called because of the undrinkable salt water that flows from the local spring). Death Valley may seem like a boring, barren wilderness to most but to the trained eye there is a lot of beauty and variety to be found.

Take Zabriskie Point, for instance, where you get a view of the battered, yet hauntingly beautiful rock formations. Or take the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a Star Wars filming location, where you’ll think you’ve traveled to the Sahara. The hike through the twists and turns of Mosaic Canyon is, by itself, proof enough of Death Valley’s unusual beauty. Also consider taking a trip to Racetrack Playa to see the bizarre “sailing stones” which somehow move a few times a year. Geologists are still struggling to understand this phenomenon. If you’re in top physical condition and can stand the heat as well as the drastic elevation changes, a trip to the top of Telescope Peak, Death Valley’s highest point, is an incredibly rewarding experience that offers you an amazing view of the parched wilderness.

If you want a little civilization in Death Valley then the best place to go is Furnace Creek. The Visitor Center and Museum can give you some background on the history and culture of the area as well as help you decide where you want to go next. Museum-lovers should also check out Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style villa that tells a uniquely Western tale of fraud and shattered dreams. Tour guides in the castle dress in 1930’s period garb and can guide you through the underground section which contains the powerhouse and thousands of tiles for a never-completed swimming pool.

Death Valley might not sound like the most desirable place to visit, but if you’re willing to give it a chance, you’ll find it has a certain charm and sense of excitement about it that other parks don’t. If you decide to go, doing so in the summer is not for the feint of heart, especially in August, as that’s when the park reaches peak temperatures. No matter when you decide to go, be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and fill up on gas as gas stations are few and far between.

(Sources: Wikitravel, National Park Service)