California is home to nine national parks (if you count Sequoia and Kings Canyon separately), offering both locals as well as visitors everything from high mountains to hot, flat deserts. There are ancient forests with trees not found anywhere else on Earth, and sweeping stretches of oceanfront beach.
Yet it’s not easy to see all of the National Park Service’s treasures on a single visit to the third largest state in the union. Yosemite’s iconic granite Half Dome is more than three hours from Sacramento, and the world’s tallest trees, in Redwood National Park, are closer to Oregon than they are to most of California.
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But no matter where you are in the Golden State, there’s probably a national park within reach. We’ve picked three of our favorite (and perhaps most underrated) natural treasures—ranging from the North to the South and even a clutch of small islands off the state’s southern coast.
Channel Islands National Park
Set aside by Congress in 1980, this is one of the country’s newest and least-visited national parks—partially because it’s challenging to visit: You need to take a boat or a plane to get there. Visitor centers are located in Ventura and Santa Barbara, but when you get to any of the five islands within the park (Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbara Island) you should be prepared to do some serious walking and hiking. The lack of transportation services on the islands helps preserve their amazing biological diversity (there are more than 2,000 plant and animal species here). Even more impressive is the fact that 145 of those plant and animal species are unique to California’s Channel Islands. For one of the best views in the country, take the 1.5-mile trek to Inspiration Point on Anacapa.
Joshua Tree National Park
Travelers are attracted to this wild desert region 140-miles west of Los Angeles because of the amazing boulderscapes, where it often seems there’s nothing but prominent boulders and twisted Joshua trees for as far as the eye can see. But this vast, 800,000-acre park is actually at the confluence of two desert ecosystems—the Mojave and the Colorado—and it’s a great place to go hiking, rock climbing, and even sleep at one of the park’s nine campgrounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this cinematic landscape (you might recognize it from the U2 album cover), is also home to hip towns with names like Wonder Valley and Twentynine Palms, where an arts scene is blooming.
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Lassen Volcanic National Park
At the center of this lesser-known national park is a dormant dome, which last raged in 1915. Check out the hydrothermal areas of the park, where you can get a unique first-hand look at the steam and volcanic gas vents known as fumaroles, as well as boiling pools, ground that has steam rising from it – and even mud pots. Lassen Volcanic National Park is also the only place you’ll find the rare Lassen Smelowskia, a pinkish-white flower, and it’s spectacularly crowd-free. There are eight campgrounds at Lassen, including two campgrounds flanking Summit Lake, and remote sites at Juniper Lake, Warner Valley, and Butte Lake. Even the more popular spots are quiet in comparison to other national park campgrounds, meaning you can take a short walk from the main road and feel worlds away from the next traveler.