How To Make the Most of California’s National Parks

By: Maxine Sheppard

July 8, 2010

Following on from yesterday’s post introducing us to the beauty of California’s national parks, writer and California expert Mike Gerrard today shares his tips for getting the most out of all the variety on offer.

California’s national parks are far too vast and too varied for anyone to be able to pack them all into even a two-week visit. California is twice the size of Great Britain, and the largest national park, Death Valley, is the size of Northern Ireland. You either have to be selective or accept the fact that you’ll only get a glimpse of what they’ve got to offer. Here are my recommended highlights for a few of the most classic trips…”

Best drive to get there

The Redwood National and State Parks are way up in northern California, not far from the Oregon border, and to get there from San Francisco means a delightful drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. It passes through the Point Reyes National Seashore – 100 square miles of coastal wilderness – and the beautiful town of Mendocino, before reaching some of the oldest and most magnificent trees on Earth.



On the way to the Redwoods...Pacific Coast Highway © Maxine Sheppard

On the way to the Redwoods…Pacific Coast Highway © Maxine Sheppard


No matter how much wildlife and wilderness you’ve seen, nothing prepares you for the sheer size and presence of giant redwoods. As well as the Redwood National Park there are also three State Parks to visit: the Del Norte Coast Redwoods, the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.


Redwood National Park © Maxine Sheppard

Redwood National Park © Maxine Sheppard



Best for wildlife

Although other parks may have bigger creatures like black bear and elk, the Channel Islands National Park off the California coast has many that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. There are 145 species unique to the five islands that make up the park, including the island fence lizard, the deer mouse, the spotted skunk and the Channel Islands fox.


You should also spot whales, especially if you visit in July or August. A visit takes planning, though, so book a boat trip from Ventura (70 miles north of Los Angeles by the coast road) in advance.


Best for scenery

Yosemite isn’t the biggest of the Californian national parks, but it probably has the greatest variety of scenery. You’ll find dramatic glaciers and mountains, waterfalls which include three of the world’s ten longest, trees to rival the redwoods, and granite rocks like El Capitan which presents a vertical face 3,000-feet high. All this is less than a four-hour drive east of San Francisco.



Yosemite National Park © Maxine Sheppard

Yosemite National Park © Maxine Sheppard


Best for jaw-dropping wonder

The very name of Death Valley is enough to make you nervous, and it came from the 1849 gold prospectors who faced its fierce heat as they sought the mother lode. Other place names in Death Valley continue the theme, including Coffin Peak, Dante’s View, Badwater and Furnace Creek.



Death Valley National Park by Fikret Onal on Flickr

Death Valley National Park by Fikret Onal on Flickr


It’s the largest National Park in the USA outside of Alaska, and as such it demands both respect and planning. To do it the easy way and see some of its most impressive features, drive the 81-mile Death Valley Scenic Byway. You can hike and bike too, but stick to the established trails, check the weather, and take plenty of food and especially water with you.

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, Furnace Creek Resort is a bit of a splurge but it’s well worth it as a day touring Death Valley can be hot and tiring. It has fabulous views and facilities include a range of restaurants, horse-riding, hiking, jeep rental, tennis, a swimming pool and the world’s lowest golf course (at 214 feet below sea level). You’ll need to book well in advance.


Best for all-round activities

At almost 800,000 acres, Joshua Tree National Park has plenty of space for all kinds of activities including easy or challenging hikes, mountain biking, horse-riding, rock climbing and jeep tours. There are two different deserts within the park: it’s in the Mojave Desert that you’ll find the emblematic Joshua trees, while the Colorado Desert has oases which are great for birdwatching.



Joshua Tree National Park by Matt Binns on Flickr

Joshua Tree National Park by Matt Binns on Flickr


If you’re visiting the park, consider an overnight stop at the Harmony Motel, which is where U2 stayed while working on their Joshua Tree album. Artists have stayed there too, and original artwork lines the walls of this simple but funky place whose rooms are amazingly cheap. As the Harmony has only seven rooms and one cabin, it’s best to book well in advance if you fancy kicking back by the pool and watching the sun rise or set over the Joshua Tree Mountains.


Best of the rest

We have only looked so far at the main parks. There are other places worth considering, like the Sequoia National Park, where you’ll find the General Sherman Tree – the biggest tree on earth – and the Lassen Volcanic National Park, where you can find all four different types of volcano. And if you didn’t know there were four different types of volcano, it’s about time you paid California’s national parks a visit.



Lassen Volcanic National Park by Vlad and Marina Butsky on Flickr

Lassen Volcanic National Park by Vlad and Marina Butsky on Flickr


Thanks to Flickr photographers Matt Binns, Fikret Onal, Vlad & Marina Butsky and AshuGarg for the amazing header shot of Death Valley. And don’t forget to check out author Mike Gerrard’s guide to the Pacific Coast Highway.

For flights to California visit the destination guide on the Virgin Atlantic site.


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.