7 Best State and National Parks Near Los Angeles — From the Desert to Beautiful Islands

Experience the beauty of nature that's waiting within a few hours of Tinseltown.

Tourist at Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park
Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Los Angeles is perhaps best known for its well-established silver-screen pedigree — movie studios, red carpet premieres, and the chance to see celebrities IRL. Don't forget about the buzzy restaurants, designer shopping, and luxury hotels like the opulent Mediterranean Revival–style Beverly Hills Hotel and swanky, new Pendry West Hollywood.

Beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the City of Angels has a lot going for it in the way of natural beauty. You'll find wide, sandy beaches and rugged mountains without leaving the urban sprawl. Even driving just a few hours (yes, that's factoring in the notorious gridlock traffic) opens up a world of jaw-dropping scenery at the many state and national parks near Los Angeles. All of the spots on our list can be done as a day trip, so no need to haul overnight camping gear. However, you can totally hit up the campgrounds. Alternatively, there are also some awesome glamping sites in California.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Trees near Boulder Outcrops, in Joshua Tree National Park
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The surreal landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, which sits at the intersection of the Mojave and the Colorado deserts, rivals anywhere else in the world. No doubt you've seen photos of its twisted namesake trees, cacti, and massive boulders on Instagram. This 800,000-acre expanse promises some of the best and most exhilarating climbing in the country. Hikers come from far and wide to tackle Mastodon Peak — and soak in the eye-popping panoramas. On the flip side, many make the pilgrimage to Joshua Tree National Park in search of its healing energy and quietude. It's also a stargazing destination with dark skies. Sometimes, it's hard to wrap your head around how all this could possibly exist just a few hours outside of Los Angeles.

Death Valley National Park

Devil's Racetrack at Death Valley National Park,
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Does four hours in the car each way count as a doable day trip? Well, that depends how badly you want to see the wild, rugged, otherworldly scenery. Straddling the California-Nevada border, Death Valley National Park has salt flats, sand dunes, colorful rocks, towering peaks, and volcanic craters. Of course, Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and sandboarding the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are major highlights. The lesser-trammeled areas give more intrepid parkgoers the chance to be virtually alone in the desert wilderness. Oh, and if all that's not enough, Death Valley National Park is also home to an International Dark Sky Park — just another reason to consider pitching a tent at one of the campgrounds and spending the night.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands Arch
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Often referred to as the "Galapagos of North America," Channel Islands National Park puts the beauty and ecological diversity of Southern California on display at every turn. Encompassing five islands, it's an unrivaled destination for wildlife viewing, birding, whale watching (December through April), learning about endemic plants, admiring pygmy mammoth fossils, and leisurely strolling on white-sand beaches. In terms of more active pursuits, hiking and the opportunity to kayak through sea caves draw visitors from all over. Snorkeling, diving, and swimming are especially big during the summer months. What's really wonderful about Channel Islands National Park is that it's accessible (a doable drive and boat or small plane ride from Los Angles), but feels untouched without touristy shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Topanga State Park

Solstice Canyon at Topanga State Park
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Tucked in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga State Park is located entirely within the Los Angeles city limits. For reference, it's about an hour from Downtown Los Angeles — a relatively short time in the car for a massively majestic payoff. This 14,000-acre wilderness area covers dramatic cliffs, canyons, grasslands, interesting rock formations, and unique geological features, from fault lines to volcanic intrusions, and offers a wealth of recreational opportunities. Hiking is the biggest pull, with sweeping views of the city skyline and Pacific Ocean as the reward. Many people head to Topanga State Park for excellent mountain biking and horseback riding, too. There are 36 miles of scenic trails, including the ever-popular Parker Mesa Overlook Trail, Los Leones Trail, and East Topanga Fire Road.

Mount San Jacinto State Park

Scenic San Jacinto State Park
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Palm Springs is one of the best weekend getaways from Los Angeles. Even if you just have a day, it's worth a trip to Mount San Jacinto State Park, a high-altitude wilderness area with subalpine forests, meadows, hiking trails, and panoramic vistas. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway leads from Chino Canyon up to the Mountain Station, where many people begin their adventure, and then continues onto the peak of Mount San Jacinto. Traveling with the kiddos or just prefer to soak in the scenery in a more leisurely way? Consider doing a guided nature walk. If a few hours doesn't feel like enough time, overnight camping at the two drive-in campgrounds near the town of Idyllwild is an option, provided you obtain the proper permit.

Leo Carrillo State Park

Sunset at the rocky intertidal zone beach at Leo Carrillo State Beach
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Situated along the coast of Malibu and part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Leo Carrillo State Park speaks to the soul of SoCal with a landscape that centers around the shoreline and ocean. That's only fitting, given that this natural area was named after Leo Carrillo, an actor, preservationist, and conservationist who served on the California Beach and Parks commission for 18 years. Leo Carrillo State Park boasts 1.5 miles of sandy beaches, with naturally occurring curiosities like tidal pools and coastal caves, as well as reefs teeming with marine life. All this makes it a superb spot for swimming and beachcombing. Adventurers visit for surfing, windsurfing, surf fishing, and backcountry hiking.

Malibu Creek State Park

Wild flowers with mountains background, at Malibu Creek State Park
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Here's further proof that you don't have to travel far outside Los Angeles for some pretty spectacular natural scenery. Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, 8,215-acre Malibu Creek State Park was formerly owned by 20th Century Fox Studios and used to be a frequent filming location for movies and television before being designated as a state park in 1974. Hiking trails range from the beginner-friendly Century Lake Trail to the more strenuous Backbone Trail Loop. Mountain biking and rock climbing are also popular activities. Twitchers can take advantage of top-notch bird-watching, with the chance to peep dozens of different types of birds, among them egrets, herons, terns, and hummingbirds. Need to cool off after a long day of exploring? Take a dip in the famous rock pool swimming hole.

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