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California National Parks
There are more national parks in California than any other state, and a handful easily rank amongst some of the best in the world. Almost all of California’s natural wonders can be found within its parks’ borders, including the world’s tallest trees and the largest waterfall in the USA. The diversity of these parks is remarkable, ranging from the stark, arid deserts of Death Valley to the mighty green forests of Sequoia. With the glacier-sculpted granite mountains of Yosemite headlining the list, California ticks all the boxes for the ultimate wilderness adventure.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is the crème-de-la-crème of California’s National Parks, defined by the raw natural beauty that reigns here. Shrouded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the extensive park features gorgeous meadows, cascading waterfalls, giant sequoias, deep valleys, and huge granite summits carved by glaciers millions of years ago. The centrepiece of the park, Yosemite Valley, houses many of Yosemite’s top natural features, including the mighty rock formations of El Capitan and Half Dome. As well as jaw-dropping natural beauty, Yosemite offers a range of exciting activities for visitors to enjoy. These include rafting, hiking, horse-riding and, for the adventurous, big-wall rock climbing. Claiming one of the world’s most stunning natural landscapes, Yosemite is certainly one of California’s top all-round wilderness destinations.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Sharing a border and an entrance fee, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are located just south-east of Yosemite. A whopping 865,000 acres strong, the two contiguous parks are made up almost entirely of raw wilderness. Sequoia National Park in particular is famous for its towering giant sequoias, which can reach dizzying heights of 90m. It boasts the world’s largest tree called the General Sherman, an enormous sequoia located in the heart of the park’s Giant Forest. You can spend a day here hiking to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in America south of Alaska. Starting off in the east, it is possible to reach the mountain in a day or two. Sequoia’s neighbour, Kings Canyon, accommodates cliffs, meadows, waterfalls and twisting rivers. The area is named after the valley of the Kings River, a major river in California whose headwaters originate in Kings Canyon. Splendid in the summer, the winter months cover the land in a blanket of snow, transforming Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park into a glorious winter wonderland.
Joshua Tree National Park
Famous for the Joshua tree, a distinctive yucca variety that grows freely within its borders, Joshua Tree National Park is a real desert wonder. The park encompasses two separate desert ecosystems, Mojave and Colorado, at varying levels of elevation. Both sides combine to make up 800 acres of parkland, with miles of flat valleys, mountains, sand dunes and granite monoliths dotted throughout. The Mojave Desert is home to the park’s namesake (Joshua trees), stunning rock formations and a slightly cooler climate, whilst the Colorado Desert is carpeted in unique natural gardens of bush and cacti. Usually dry and desolate, the park comes to life in the spring, when wildflowers embroider the sand and the plants bloom vibrant flowers. In the early mornings and late evenings the park’s wildlife reveals itself, so watch out for lizards, rattlesnakes, roadrunners and coyote amongst others. There are a few handfuls of hiking trails within the park and excellent guided tours, handy for visiting the more remote corners of the land. As well as this the park is a firm favourite with rock-climbers, with over 4,500 routes to enjoy.
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is a stunning seaside oasis that showcases the best of land and ocean. The park is made up of five of the eight Channel Islands (San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara). Combined they are home to over 2,000 species of plants and animals, 145 of which cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. Amongst these are some of the world’s most fascinating animal species, including mighty predators (bald eagles and sharks) alongside dolphins, porpoises, whales and sea stars. The best place to see the marine life at its finest is at San Miguel Island, whose waters are frequented by killer whales and blue whales. During your visit you can enjoy trekking, sea-cave kayaking or diving. You can also camp here and sleep under the stars in total harmony with nature. The park can only be reached by ferry or private boat, which usually departs from Ventura. Once you set foot on the island there are no food shops or lodgings, so plan ahead and come prepared!
Measuring 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is an enormous expanse of desert wilderness spread across California and Nevada. Despite being one of the hottest and driest corners of the Earth, Death Valley also has one of the world’s most incredible landscapes. It is a striking example of nature’s work, with a dazzling collection of geological features present. These include sweeping sand dunes, giant boulders, canyons and a valley of over 200m. It would take a lifetime to explore the entirety of the park, but some famous spots include Dante’s View (at 1,668m it offers one of the best views in the region), Devil’s Golf Course (a large field of salt crystals formed over many years), and Zabriskie Point, an iconic viewpoint overlooking the weathered Badlands. As well as mountain biking, hiking and four-wheeling, the crystal clear desert air makes stargazing a real treat. Many animals make their home in this barren wilderness, including the desert bighorn sheep, pupfish and over 350 bird species. Due to the extreme climate, it is best to visit in the spring, avoiding the scorching heat.