We’re almost to summer road trip season. What better way to get out on the road than by planning an epic road trip to visit all the national park sites in California. Today we’re posting a road trip guide (departing from sunny San Diego) to visit all national parks, monuments, and historic sites across the state.
About California’s National Parks
Before we get started on our quest to visit all the National Park sites in California, here are some basic facts about units around the state:
- There are 28 designated National Park Service units in California.
- California has the most national parks (9) of any state in the United States.
- More than 40 million people visit one of the units each year.
- 2 of the sites are also designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- There are more than 90 threatened or endangered species currently living in California’s national parks.
About the Route
Here’s our disclaimer: We didn’t include timelines on this road trip because everyone expects something a bit different out of a national park. Some people might need a week to experience the best of Joshua Tree, others are happy to drive through in one day. This is just a continuous route to brainstorm from.
We also don’t have any “scientific” information about whether this is the most efficient or affordable route to travel. This was our best plan for how we might visit all the national park sites in California on one road trip. In fact, we’ve taken 3 separate trips to California so far with plans to add at least 2-3 more vacations to finish off our #parkchasing quest.
Finally, to complete this post we grabbed inspiration from fellow #parkchaser Mikah Meyer, who was profiled on our site last year. Mikah traveled to California’s parks while becoming the only person to experience all the national parks in one continuous road trip.
Check out Mikah’s Map here:
Park Chasers’s South to North Route to Visit All the National Park Sites in California
Stop #1: Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego, CA – NPS Website
A monument outside of downtown San Diego commemorating the spot where the first European landed on the West Coast of the United States. Check out why we think Cabrillo is San Diego’s best-kept secret. Spend an afternoon hiking the trails and viewing the gorgeous San Diego skyline before driving north towards the Santa Monica Mountains.
Park Chaser’s Info: Why Cabrillo National Monument is San Diego’s Hidden Gem
Stop #2: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Calabasas, CA – NPS Website
The Santa Monica Mountains are nestled just west of Los Angeles. With more than 500 acres of federally protected parklands, it’s a hiker’s paradise. If you’ve got time for a multi-day visit, consider the Backbone trail, 67 miles of continuous hiking through the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Finished at Santa Monica, it’s time to catch a ferry out to Channel Islands National Park.
#3 Channel Islands National Park
Ventura, CA – NPS Website
From Santa Monica Mountains NRA, travel about 40 miles north up the California coast to the Channel Islands National Park Visitor’s Center in Ventura. From there you can hop a ferry to one of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park. While much of this park is preserves unique marine ecosystems, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping, and kayaking.
When you’re wrapped up at Channel Islands, it’s time to leave the coast and head inland to another unique ecosystem: Joshua Tree National Park.
#4 Joshua Tree National Park
Twentynine Palms, CA – NPS Website
From Channel Islands National Park, travel 195 miles east towards Twentynine Palms, CA. Joshua Tree National Park is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge, creating an arid but diverse environment where the famous Joshua tree thrives. If you have the time and gear, plan to spend the night in one of Joshua Tree’s campgrounds. The night skies here are famously dark for California standards and perfect for stargazing.
#5 Mojave National Preserve
Barstow, CA – NPS Website
Plopped directly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Mojave National Preserve is a 1.6 million acre desert paradise. Nearly 700,000 acres of this wide stretch of Mojave Desert is designated wilderness (no trails, no roads, plenty of solitude). If you happen to time your trip during the months of March, April, or May (and there’s been enough rain), Mojave can have some of the best desert wildflower-viewing in the southwest.
Wrap up in Mojave and then continue your road trip at one of our newest national parks:
#6 Castle Mountains National Monument
Barstow, CA – NPS Website
Castle Mountains National Monument was the 410th unit added to the National Park Service. Designated by President Obama in 2016, it’s just a few miles from the Nevada border and close to Mojave National Preserve. Castle Mountains National Monument is another place to see the magic of desert wildflowers and Joshua Tree forests. There aren’t many amenities here yet, so an opportunity to enjoy some untouched California wilderness.
Park Chaser’s Post: And then there were 410…Welcome Castle Mountains National Monument
#7 Death Valley National Park
Death Valley, CA – NPS Website
Located 183 miles north from Castle Mountains National Monument, Death Valley National Park is your next stop on your desert road trip tour. Death Valley is a land of extremes. Below sea-level and extreme heat attract more than 1.2 million visitors here each year. The NPS has a good list of attractions for Death Valley, but be sure to visit the sand dunes, the view at Dante’s View, and some of the spots where the Star Wars series were filmed.
From the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, continue on 117 miles to the Manzanar National Historic Site.
#8 Manzanar National Historic Site
Independence, CA – NPS Website
Manzanar National Historic Site is dedicated to telling the story of the thousands of Japanese Americans who were resettled to military-ordered incarceration camps during World War II. Manzanar held 110,000 Japanese citizens and resident immigrants during the war, under difficult conditions. Ranger-led walking tours can be arranged in advance, otherwise, plan a few hours to take the 3.2 miles of
#9 Cesar E. Chavez National Monument
Keene, CA – NPS Website
From Manzanar NHS, you’ll drive 150 miles south towards Bakersfield, CA and Cesar E. Chavez National Monument. The 116-acre site was home to the United Farm Workers organization and the location of Chavez’s gravesite following his death in 1993. The park was established by President Obama in 2012; some of the UFW operations continue on the site today. Spend an hour or so wandering the grounds and enjoying the beautiful gardens.
It’s now time to trade in the California desert for the Sierra foothills and giant trees.
#10 Sequoia National Park
Three Rivers, CA – NPS Website
After leaving Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, drive 125 miles north to the Foothills Visitor Center of Sequoia National Park. From here you’ll enter the land of giants, with visits to some of the more than 40 different groves of Giant Sequoia trees in the park. Be sure to visit The General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world, and spend some time hiking the spectacular granite foothill trails located throughout the park. You’ll also want to get a glimpse of (or climb!) Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in California, and in the lower 48.
So many people visit Sequoia National Park and the next stop on our road trip list at the same time that the NPS shares a website. It’s on to King’s Canyon National Park!
Park Chaser’s Guides:
Great National Park Drives: General’s Highway in Sequoia National Park
Best Parks to See Gigantic Trees
#11 King’s Canyon National Park
Three Rivers, CA – NPS Website
Located 45 miles from the Foothills Visitor Center in Sequoia, you’ll reach the King’s Canyon Visitor Center. Much of the park is designated wilderness area but has some of the best scenic driving in all of the National Park Service. Be sure to capture the stunning views along General’s Highway and the King’s Canyon Scenic Byway.
From King’s Canyon, it’s onward to the most popular national park in California:
#12 Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park, CA — NPS Website
Every year more than 4 million people make their way to Yosemite National Park. It’s one of the most popular national parks, and first protected in 1864 is one of the oldest. You’ll want to dedicate several days to experience Yosemite. Hiking to Yosemite Falls and the stunning views of El Capitan and Half Dome are a right of passage for many #parkchasers. Yet the lesser traveled parts of the park like Hetch Hetchy Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and Mariposa Grove have much to offer.
Park Chaser’s Guides: Hiking Yosemite National Park: The Vernal and Nevada Falls Trails
#13 Devils Postpile National Monument
Mammoth Lakes, CA – NPS Website
One of the most remote units of the National Park Service in California, Devils Postpile National Monument protects a unique geological formation in the High Sierra’s. The park is only open June to September and available by shuttle bus or advanced reservations only. It’s the access to the world-famous Ansel Adams Wilderness area and a popular starting point for many Sierra Mountain backpacking trips.
Be sure to monitor the NPS website for when the snow conditions allow the monument to open for the year. Don’t plan for a large visitor’s center and amenities here either – just a ranger outpost to pick up hiking information on your way to see Devils Postpile.
After your visit, it’s time to leave the mountains and head back down towards the sunny central valley and Pinnacles National Park.
#14 Pinnacles National Park
Paicines, CA – NPS Website
Located about 7 hours from Yosemite National Park and Devils Postpile, Pinnacles National Park returns you to lower elevations and the volcanic aftermath of the San Andreas Fault. Pinnacles National Park is famous for its gorgeous climbing and hiking, as well as one of the four places where the endangered California condor is bred and released in the wild.
#15 Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site
Danville, CA – NPS Website
Located 120 miles north of Pinnacles, Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site is our next destination on the quest to visit all the national park sites in California. The park protects the summer writing home of America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill. Reserve a ranger-led tour of the home and wander the grounds of this historic American writer.
After touring the home it’s back in the car for another 40 miles of driving. This time to head closer to the San Francisco area and another historical site:
#16 Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park
Richmond, CA – NPS Website
Designated in 2000, Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park protects one of the largest collections of World War II memorabilia and stories in all of the National Park Service. Visitors can wander through museums and exhibits that describe what life was like on the ‘home front’ for many women and men during the war. On Fridays, visit with volunteers who were actual factory workers on the ‘home front’ during the war.
From Rosie the Riveter, head 20 miles east to visit a site that commemorates the person who arguably is the reason we have the National Park Service in the first place:
#17 John Muir National Historic Site
Martinez, CA — NPS Website
John Muir National Historic Site protects the historic home of America’s most famous conservationist, John Muir. It was here that Muir raised his family, wrote many influential works persuading the government to protect lands and waters, and where he embarked on many of his famous trips to the Yosemite Valley.
Visitors can take a guided tour through the home and learn more about how John Muir more than anyone else helped lay the foundation for what is now our National Park Service.
Park Chaser’s Guides: 13 Things You Should Know about John Muir
#18 Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
Martinez, CA — NPS Website
On July 17, 1944, 320 American sailors and civilians were killed instantly when ammunition and bombs exploded at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine. The National Memorial commemorates what would later be the largest loss of life on home soil during World War II. The site is located on an active military base and only
From Port Chicago Naval Magazine NMEM, it’s time to head into the heart of San Francisco and it’s nearby national park units.
#19 San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
San Francisco, CA – NPS Website
Located near the famous Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park offers the best of the Bay area’s shipping history. Restored vessels, a large and diverse maritime museum, and some of the best places to watch the sunset down near the wharf. There’s a ton to see and do here, so plan for at least a half-day of touring the area.
#20 Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco, CA – NPS Website
Golden Gate NRA is one of the most popular units in all of the National Park Service. The park protects more than 80,000 acres of UNESCO biospheres and significant historical sites. These include museums commemorating the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the famous Alcatraz Island, and the Point Bonita Lighthouse. The park also protects some of the most endangered species of plants, insects, and wildlife in the world.
Park Chaser’s Guides:
5 Things We Wish We Knew Before Visiting Alcatraz Island
Point Reyes in Pictures
#21 Fort Point National Historic Site
San Francisco, CA — NPS Website
The final destination in downtown San Francisco is Fort Point National Historic Site. Located at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, the site commemorates the location of the historic military outpost that defended San Francisco Bay until World War II. Self-guided tours are open all day, however, if you have time, consider joining a ranger-led guided tour or a lantern-lit tour.
After visiting Fort Point, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north 12 miles to the next stop on the road trip: Muir Woods National Monument.
#22 Muir Woods National Monument
Mill Valley, CA — NPS Website
Just minutes from downtown San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument has become one of the Bay area’s biggest natural attractions. Visitors have been coming here since the park was established in 1908 to hike among the old-growth coastal redwoods, some of the tallest trees in the world. Spend a half-day wandering through the groves, just be sure to arrive early as parking has become a major issue at this park.
Park Chaser’s Guide: Hiking Among Giants: Cathedral Grove
#23 Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes Station, CA — NPS Website
The next stop on the quest to visit all the national park sites in California is Point Reyes National Seashore. Located about a 1-hour drive from Muir Woods, Point Reyes and the Point Reyes lighthouse are favorites among California hikers and wildlife watchers. The park is home to more than 1500 different species of animals and plants, including a colony of elephant seals and migrating grey whales.
Park Chaser’s Guides: Point Reyes in Pictures
#24 Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mineral, CA – NPS Website
The next stop on the road trip heads 250 miles northeast to Lassen Volcanic National Park. As the name describes, Lassen Volcanic is all about what lies below ground. The park’s 106,000 acres are home to numerous steaming vents, boiling mud pots, and Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world.
You’ll need a few days here to travel along the Highway and to hike to some of the unique formations around the park. Once finished up, our next destination is just 65 miles west of the park:
#25 Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Whiskeytown, CA — NPS Website
Located in the heart of California gold rush territory, the 70 miles of trails traversing Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and the Shasta-Trinity Mountains are a great way to experience the best of northern California. The park was built around a large reservoir which offers fishing, beaches, and waterfalls.
Note: The 2018 Carr Fire devastated much of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The NPS website continues to post updates on rehabilitation efforts for the trails and attractions.
#26 Redwood National and State Parks
Crescent City, CA — NPS Website
From Whiskeytown, the road trip route heads west back towards the California coast and the final national park on the tour. Redwood National and State Parks are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its profound animal and plant life. You’ll want to plan several days here to hike through the groves of coastal redwoods (including the tallest tree in the world
Park Chaser’s Guides:
The Jedediah Smith Campground
Hiking the Redwoods: The Coastal Trail to Enderts Beach
Hiking the Redwoods: The Fern Canyon Trail
3 Places to See Wildlife in Redwood National Park
#27 Tule Lake National Monument
Tulelake, CA — NPS Website
The Tule Lake Segregation Center was the largest prisoner of war camp and detention facility during the Japenese Internment in World War II. Visitors to this site take a ranger-guided tour through the buildings to learn about the area and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Japenese American citizens and resident immigrants during the war.
After your visit, it’s just a short 36 mile drive south to the final stop on the road trip!
#28 Lava Beds National Monument
Tulelake, CA — NPS Website
The final stop on our road trip to visit all the national park sites in California is Lava Beds National Monument. It’s fitting since some of the rock formations here are more than 500 million years old. Visitor’s to Lava Beds can travel below ground through lava tubes and more than 700 caves formed by the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano.
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