California is romanticized for its sparkly Pacific oceanfronts, thickets of palm trees and glass-walled high-rise buildings in the big coastal cities. But the state consists of so much more than its famed southern coast.

If you go north, inland or even offshore, you’ll be treated to dazzlingly unique terrain, insanely diverse ecosystems and eyebrow-raising history lessons — all of which you can experience through the nine (yes, nine!) US national parks in the Golden State.

Each of these parks represents a distinct piece of California’s beautiful, multifaceted puzzle. Here's how to visit them all in a single trip that you’ll talk about — to anyone and everyone who will listen — for the rest of your life.

Breaking down the itinerary

  • Total parks visited: nine
  • The parks: Joshua Tree National Park, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Pinnacles National Park, Yosemite National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National and State Parks, Channel Islands National Park
  • Total trip time: 17 days, starting from Los Angeles
  • Total mileage: 2,003 (may vary depending on your exact route and road closures)
     

Day one: Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park

Leave LA in the morning, and travel 131 miles to Joshua Tree, where you’ll camp.

Day two: Hang out in Joshua Tree 

Spend the day in Joshua Tree National Park; camp here for a second night.

Where to stay

Joshua Tree National Park has several campgrounds. Take your pick, but book far in advance if your trip will take place between October and May — the cooler months are busy in the desert parks. If you want to lodge, check for availability in the nearby towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.

Need-to-know

Desert weather can change suddenly. It’s not uncommon for dampened fires to reignite when nighttime winds fan the embers. Make sure to fully put out your fire, and secure any items that may fly away in strong winds. 

How to get around

Joshua Tree is a relatively small park and easy to navigate. Park Blvd runs through the entirety of the park, with offshoots to get to attractions. You can drive your vehicle to almost all of them, and trailheads too.

What to do while you’re here

Joshua Tree has several hikes ranging from easy to hard, and ample rock-climbing and bouldering opportunities. One fun thing to do in Joshua Tree is drive down Park Blvd to see the flora shift from Joshua Tree groves to thickets of yucca cacti.

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A family shown from behind, watching the sunset at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley
In summer, the NPS recommends keeping hikes in Death Valley to a minimum due to extreme temperatures © Armin Adams / Getty Images

Day 3: Joshua Tree to Death Valley National Park

Leave Joshua Tree in the morning and drive 228 miles to Death Valley, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Day 4: Take in the scenery in Death Valley 

Spend the day in Death Valley National Park; camp or lodge here again.

Where to stay

Death Valley National Park has primitive and full-hookup campgrounds, and lodges ranging from basic to luxurious. All but one of the campgrounds are first-come, first-serve, but you need reservations for a lodge.

Need-to-know

Camping is probably not the best option if you visit Death Valley in the summer months — temperatures can remain high, up to 100ºF (38ºC) throughout the night, and spike as early as 9am. It's not a great idea in the middle of winter either, when temperatures can drop below freezing at night.

How to get around

The best way to get around Death Valley is by car. Highways stretch far and wide throughout the park, along with offshoot roads to get to attractions and trailheads. The National Park Service recommends keeping hiking to a minimum in the summer, due to extreme temperatures.

What to do while you’re here

Walk out to the biggest, sparkliest dunes at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; drive Artists Drive to see mountains in shades of seafoam and mauve; visit Badwater Basin (the lowest place on earth at 282ft below sea level); and check out Ubehebe Crater on the north side of the park.

A man hiking beneath giant Sequoia trees.
Spend some time romping around Giant Forest to understand the sheer size of Sequoia's trees © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Day 5: Death Valley to Sequoia National Park

Leave Death Valley in the morning, and travel 268 miles to Sequoia National Park, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Where to stay

Sequoia offers incredible camping opportunities, with both primitive and developed campgrounds. There is one developed lodge in Sequoia National Park, Wuksachi Lodge, as well as a primitive lodge maintained by an NPS partner.

Need-to-know

The road between Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park can close during the winter due to snow. If you plan to visit during the winter months, check for road closures and adjust your route as needed.

How to get around

Generals Highway traverses the entire park; you’ll drive your vehicle to and from all trailheads and attractions. There are parking areas along the way, though parking can be tough to find in the summer.

What to do while you’re here

You’ll never be able to do everything in Sequoia National Park in just a day or two, but you can get a good idea of what the park has to offer. Spend some time romping around Giant Forest to understand the sheer size of Sequoia's trees; hike to Little Baldy for a relatively quick trek with a fantastic payoff; and see the huge General Sherman Tree (the world’s largest tree by volume).

Snowy peaks, glittering lakes and greenery mark Kings Canyon National Park
You’ll get around mainly by vehicle in Kings Canyon National Park © Stevedunleavy.com / Getty Images

Day 6: Sequoia to Kings Canyon National Park

Spend the day in Sequoia; move on to Kings Canyon National Park (48 miles) in the evening, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Day 7: Spend time in Kings Canyon

Spend the day in Kings Canyon National Park, then drive 112 miles to Yosemite National Park, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Where to stay

Like Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Park has both camping and lodging options. Make reservations in advance and check to ensure your vehicle isn’t too large for the campground you book.

Need-to-know

It seems like Sequoia and Kings Canyon are one and the same, but the parks do have defined borders — they are connected by Generals Highway, but closures can occur. Check the driving guidelines from the NPS to make sure your route and vehicle are appropriate. Depending on your vehicle and the season, you may have to exit Sequoia and drive around the park to get to Kings Canyon.

How to get around

You’ll get around mainly by vehicle in Kings Canyon National Park, hopping out to travel on foot for hikes and attractions.

What to do while you’re here

See General Grant, the second-largest tree in the world; walk up 172 steps to Buck Rock’s dizzying 8205-foot lookout; and enjoy the view at Kings Canyon Overlook off Generals Highway.

Tourists walk to Glacier Point with a background view of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park
With limited time, see El Capitan and Half Dome from the valley floor © Frederic J. Brown / Getty Images

Day 8: Explore Yosemite National Park

Spend the day in Yosemite; camp or lodge here.

Where to stay

For quieter camping, camp on the east side of Yosemite near or in Tuolumne Meadows. If you want to lodge, you can choose one of the many options within the park.

Need-to-know

Two main roads in Yosemite, Tioga Road (Hwy 120) and Glacier Point Road, close in the winter due to snow. They usually reopen in May or June — plan your trip accordingly. If you want to see wildlife, spend more time in the Tuolumne Meadows area, rather than the valley.

How to get around

Yosemite is well-developed, with many roads, paved walking trails, boardwalks and unpaved trails. There is also a shuttle system in the valley area. If you visit during the summer, be prepared for congested traffic and trouble with parking. Getting around by bike or foot is typically easier during the summer months.

What to do while you’re here

Yosemite has so many attractions that it can be tough to choose which ones to see. With limited time, see El Capitan and Half Dome from the valley floor, hike Tuolumne Meadows Trail to Soda Springs, or raft down the Merced River (summer or spring). For an expansive view of the famous granite structures, drive to Tunnel View on Wawona Road.

A hiker walks a rocky trail to Lassen Peak in the Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Hiking is a popular way to see the attractions at Lassen Volcanic National Park © Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

Day 9: Yosemite to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Leave Yosemite by early afternoon and travel 301 miles to Lassen, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Day 10: Stay overnight in Lassen

Spend the day in Lassen Volcanic National Park; camp or lodge here.

Where to stay

There is only one lodge in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Drakesbad Guest Ranch, but there are many campgrounds. Most campgrounds require advance reservations, and some are first-come, first-served.

Need-to-know

Park Highway (Hwy 89) closes past the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center during the winter months. The visitor center itself can also close during winter storms. While in the park, stay on established trails and boardwalks. Hydrothermal areas can be disguised and dangerous, and visitors who travel off-trail can suffer severe burns.

How to get around

Lassen Volcanic National Park has several roads running through the park, but they can all close due to snowfall. The NPS highly encourages checking road conditions before you visit, or simply visiting after roads are cleared in April.

What to do while you’re here

Lassen Volcanic National Park is quintessential northern California: It shows off with glistening mountain lakes, snowy peaks, and lush meadows. But the park’s real claim to fame are the boiling hydrothermal areas and volcanoes. Backpacking, hiking, biking and auto-touring are popular activities for seeing the attractions.

A couple of tourists walking under a fallen redwood in Redwood National Park.
Redwood National Park has some of the tallest known trees in the world © Yaya Ernst / Shutterstock

Day 11: Lassen to Redwood National Park

Leave Lassen Volcanic National Park by mid-morning; travel 177 miles to Redwood National Park, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Day 12: Mess around in the Redwoods

Spend the day in Redwood National Park; camp or lodge here again.

Where to stay

Redwood National Park — technically known as Redwood National and State Parks — has eight basic campground cabins but very limited lodging. If you want a real roof over your head, consider staying outside of the park in nearby communities.

Need-to-know

The campground cabins tend to book up several months in advance, so if you're keen to stay in them, be sure to plan well ahead of your trip. 

How to get around

The park is mostly oriented around US Highway 101, the corridor that runs north and south along most of California. Many other roads, including designated scenic drives, run throughout the park. 

What to do while you’re here

Marvel at some of the tallest known trees in the world, obviously! Aside from craning your neck to attempt to see the tops of coastal redwoods, biking, hiking, horseback riding and kayaking the Smith River (summer only) are popular activities.

A trail winds between red bushes as a sunset starts to light up the rocks at Pinnacles National Park
The east and west sides of Pinnacles are only connected by hiking trails © Amanda Capritto / Lonely Planet

Day 13: Redwoods to Pinnacles National Park

Leave the Redwoods by early morning and travel 437 miles to Pinnacles National Park, where you’ll camp or lodge.

Day 14: Escape the crowds at Pinnacles

Spend the day in Pinnacles; camp or lodge here again.

Where to stay

There is only one campground at Pinnacles National Park, and it’s on the east side of the park. The east and west sides of Pinnacles are not connected by road — only by hiking trails. If you plan to camp, make sure you enter on the east side through Hollister, California. You can lodge in Soledad, California, if you plan to enter on the west side.

Need-to-know

On this trip, you only have time to enjoy one side of the park. Plan accordingly. Both the east and west side offer great hiking trails and California condor viewing, though the cave attractions differ. 

How to get around

Highway 146 takes you into the west side, while highway 25 takes you into the east side. Both highways weave through the park for a few miles, and then it’s mainly foot traffic from there.

What to do while you’re here

Pinnacles is one of the smaller national parks in California and has very limited facilities. Its lack of development makes for quiet hiking and uninterrupted wildlife-viewing. Make sure you shimmy through Bear Gulch Cave (east side) or Balconies Cave (west side), and look into the sky to see some condors (the largest land birds in North America!).

A dolphin and a sea lion swim in front of a stone archway reaching out into the water at Channel Islands National Park
Reservation are required for Island Packers tours to Channel Islands National Park © Daniel Friend / Getty Images

Day 15: Pinnacles to Ventura

Leave Pinnacles National Park and travel 233 miles to Ventura, California.

Day 16: Ventura to Channel Islands National Park

Make a reservation for an Island Packers tour to Channel Islands National Park. Head back to Los Angeles after the day tour, or stay in Ventura for another night.

Where to stay

Ditch your car or camper van for a night (it'll be safe in Ventura Harbor, or you can pay to park in a nearby garage) and take a park concessionaire boat to the island. Pitch a tent in one of the park's lush campgrounds or venture into the backcountry — but watch for ticks, and seal your food in rodent-proof containers. You can also opt to return to the mainland on the same day and lodge in the beachside town of Ventura.

Need-to-know

There are no remedies for poor planning at Channel Islands National Park, so make sure you bring enough food, water, clothing and other supplies. You must reserve your Island Packers tour in advance — it’s likely that you’ll have to plan your entire trip around this day, because tours are limited and fill up fast.

How to get around

You'll need fresh legs for a visit to the Channel Islands, as there's no transportation service on the islands. Everything must be accessed by foot or kayak, unless you have a private boat.

What to do while you’re here

Island Packers boats most commonly go to Santa Cruz Island, the largest island in California at over 96 sq miles. On Santa Cruz, you can go hiking, bird-watching, snorkeling, kayaking and whale-watching. You can also peruse old Chumash Native American residences and ranching quarters from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Day 17 (optional): Return to LA

Travel back to Los Angeles (68 miles).

You might also like: 
15 unforgettable experiences in US national parks  
Why you should drive California's scenic Highway 395
The best free things to do in the US national parks  

This article was first published February 2020 and updated March 2022

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