If you’re a family that loves the outdoors, a California national park road trip would be the ultimate west coast family vacation.
There are 63 National Parks in total across the United States (including overseas territories), and California hosts the highest number of National Parks compared to any other state in the US, coming in at nine official national parks. Each park is a great experience worth stopping on your road trip.
If hitting all 63 National Parks is on your traveling bucket list, this road trip around the Golden State is a great way to cross nine off that list. California is a big state (the largest in the lower 48 contiguous states of the US), so a road trip traveling across the whole state may seem a bit daunting, but no need to worry!
We’ve mapped out the perfect route to visit all nine California national parks in a way that makes the most sense. We estimate between travel time and the time taken to enjoy each destination, you will need at least 2.5 to 3 weeks to complete this epic California road trip.
- California’s National Parks at a Glance
- Ideal California National Park Road Trip Route
- San Francisco to Pinnacles National Park
- Pinnacles National Park to Channel Islands National Park
- Channel Islands National Park to Joshua Tree National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park to Death Valley National Park
- Death Valley National Park to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park to Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite National Park to Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park to Redwood National Park
- More Tips For Road Tripping California
California’s National Parks at a Glance
|National Park||Entry Fee||Accommodations in the Park|
|Pinnacles||$30 per vehicle||Tent Cabins and Camping|
|Channel Islands||Free||Camping Only|
|Joshua Tree||$30 per vehicle||Camping Only|
|Death Valley||$30 per vehicle||Lodges and Camping|
|Sequoia and Kings Canyon||$35 per vehicle||Wilderness Lodging & Camping|
|Yosemite||$35 per vehicle||Lodges, Cabins, and Camping|
|Lassen Volcanic||$30 per vehicle||Lodge, Camping Cabins, Camping|
|Redwood||Free||Cabins and Camping|
- It makes a lot of sense before undertaking this road trip to get yourself an America the Beautiful Annual Pass – or see if your family might be eligible for the Every Kid Outdoors (a.k.a 4th Grader Pass)
- There are numerous possibilities for visiting California’s state parks on this road trip too, which come with day parking fees; consider investing in an annual pass for California’s state parks – it could pay itself off fast!
Ideal California National Park Road Trip Route
On this California Itinerary, San Francisco will be our starting point. We will be traveling in an anti-clockwise direction, hitting the west coast national parks first – but you can, of course, choose a different starting point or take this road trip in the reverse direction.
- Before you set off, you may also like to spend a few days exploring San Francisco and the Bay Area with these 15 Fun Things to Do in San Francisco
San Francisco to Pinnacles National Park
- Distance: 128 miles
- Travel Time: 2 hours and 20 mins
Our first National Park stop is Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles was established as a national park in 2013 and got its name from the towering rock structures throughout the park. Pinnacles is the smallest National Park in California, but despite its size, it has plenty to offer.
How Long Should I Stay at Pinnacles National Park?
Being so small (relative to other California giants!), you don’t need a lot of time to make the most of visiting Pinnacles National Park. With it being just a short drive from San Francisco, you can make it there in plenty of time to enjoy the park for the day and rest for the night before heading to your next destination.
Where to Stay at Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles only has one campground, accessible only from the east entrance to the park. It is available for reservations all year round. The campground offers space for campers, RVs, and standard vehicles and a limited number of permanent tent cabins. Each campsite will have a picnic table and a fire ring to ensure there are accommodations to fit all of your needs.
Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park
One of the most popular activities at Pinnacles is rock climbing. If you have never been rock climbing before there are a number of routes available on the west side of the park.
Pro tip: The rock climbing routes at the Pinnacles are pretty advanced so if you do not have experience it is recommended that you book with a tour guide to ensure you remain safe during your trek.
There are a number of hiking trails ranging from simple to advanced making it a great spot for people of all ages and capabilities.
Hiking trails include the Bear Gulch Cave via the East Entrance (1.5 miles, 275 feet in elevation), the Balconies Cave Trail via the West Entrance (2.4 miles, 200 feet in elevation), and the High Peaks Trail which can be accessed via both the east and west entrances (4.3-6.5 miles, 1,259-1,800 feet in elevation).
There are more than 200 bird species that reside within Pinnacles National Park including turkey vultures, golden eagles, and the park’s signature bird, the California Condor.
The Pinnacles National Park is home to fascinating talus caves. These caves are divided into two main areas: the Bear Gulch Caves situated in the East District and the Balconies Caves located near the Chaparral Picnic Area in the West District.
When to go: Pinnacles National Park is open year-round and being in the state of California, the weather is suitable for travel year-round. Keep in mind, even in California temperatures can get pretty chilly when the sun goes down so be sure to pack layers and blankets for warmth.
Pinnacles National Park to Channel Islands National Park
- Distance: 234 miles
- Travel Time: 4 hours
At the Channel Islands National Park you get the best of both worlds with it being both a national park with an island feel. The Channel Islands are made up of five islands out in the beautiful North Pacific Ocean which must be accessed by ferry. The islands include Anacapa, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz.
How Long Should I Stay at Channel Islands National Park?
Because there are five separate islands to visit, we recommend taking 2-3 days to fully enjoy the whole area. You can travel from island to island with a number of fun outdoor activities at each destination.
Where to Stay at Channel Islands National Park
Campgrounds are available on all five channel islands; to use these campsites, you must make an advanced reservation and secure overnight transportation service to ensure you have all the supplies and items necessary for your overnight stay.
It is possible to only take a day trip to the islands and stay in the nearest large city, Santa Barbara.
Things to Do at Channel Islands National Park
For most, simply traveling out to the island is enough of an experience without any added activities, but if you are one that likes to stay busy and have plenty to do during your stay, the islands offer many outdoor and water-recreational activities.
Some popular activities include whale and dolphin watching, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking.
When to go: The Island Packers offer transportation to all five islands. There is year-round transportation available to Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands while Santa Rosa and San Miguel Island trips are available from April through early November, and Santa Barbara Island trips are available from the Spring through Fall seasons.
All islands are available year-round via private transportation services if you choose.
Channel Islands National Park to Joshua Tree National Park
- Distance: 199 miles
- Travel Time: 3 hours, 45 minutes
Leaving the Channel Islands completes the western coast leg of our road trip, and we are moving into the Southern California national parks by heading to Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree is located in Southern California and is the meeting point of two well-known deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. The park gets its name from a type of yucca that grows in the desert, known as Joshua Trees.
Bonus Tip: On the way to Joshua Tree, you can make a stop at Mount San Jacinto State Park to add another beautiful park to your road trip.
How Long Should I Stay in Joshua Tree National Park?
While you can see the main points of Joshua Tree in just one day, we recommend spending at least two days to provide enough time to take your time and see everything the park offers.
Where to Stay at Joshua Tree National Park
There are 500 campsites across 8 campgrounds located on Joshua Tree National Park grounds, so as you can imagine, there are plenty of options to choose from.
While there are so many campsite options available, the park sees about 2.8 million visitors per year, so it is highly recommended that you make a reservation prior to visiting, particularly if you will be visiting during a peak or holiday season.
If you have a camper or RV, the best campgrounds include the Cottonwood Campground, Ryan Campground, and the Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree offers 300 miles of hiking trails varying from short 15-20 minute walks up to 6-hour trails. Some of the most popular trails include Barker Dam (1.1 miles, 1 hour), Discovery Trail (0.7 mil, 30-45 minutes), Skull Rock (1.7 miles, 1-2 hours), Split Rock Loop (2.5 miles, 1.5-2.5 hours), and the Lost Horse Loop (6.5 miles, 3-4 hours).
Other popular activities in Joshua Tree include Ranger-led programs, biking, and horseback riding.
When to go: Joshua Tree is open and available for visitors all year round, and the San Diego weather offers a great experience during any season. Some campgrounds close during particular times, be sure to check reservation availability before going.
Joshua Tree National Park to Death Valley National Park
- Distance: 228 miles
- Travel Time: 4 hours
As you enter Death Valley National Park we are getting into the first of the Sierra Nevada Mountain national parks. Death Valley is the largest national park not just in the state of California but also in the continental U.S.
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, filled with huge sand dunes and colorful sandstone canyons, making it quite a sight to see.
How Long Should I Stay in Death Valley National Park?
We have found that the sweet spot for a time at Death Valley seems to be around 2-3 days, depending on how quickly you move through the trails and activities offered in the area.
Where to Stay at Death Valley National Park
If you’re looking for lodging within the park, the Furnace Creek area has several options to choose from. One of them is the historic Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, which offers comfortable amenities and is conveniently located near key attractions. Another popular choice is Stovepipe Wells Village, where you can enjoy a rustic desert experience with a hotel, restaurant, and campground.
Outside the park, the town of Beatty, Nevada, provides convenient access and a range of accommodations, including hotels and motels suitable for families.
Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is over three million acres giving plenty of room for a variety of fun activities and experiences to enjoy. Some of the most popular activities include:
- Sightseeing – A lot of sightseeing points can be accessed via car, some of the most popular including the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the lowest point in North America, the Badwater Basin.
- Hiking – Death Valley is a hiker’s dream. There are a number of incredible trails to enjoy ranging from easy to advanced. Hiking is best during the months of November through March as the temperatures can become quite extreme through the Spring and Summer months.
- Backcountry Driving – If you prefer to skip hiking and stay in your vehicle, there are hundreds of miles of backcountry roads to enjoy. Spending the day driving around is a great way to take in the sights around you.
- Self-guided Star Wars Driving Tour – If you’re a fan of Star Wars, visiting some of the sites where some of the famous Star Wars movies were filmed will be sure to fulfill your dream. Some of the Star Wars filming locations include Dantes View, the Golden Canyon, and the Twenty-mule Team Canyon.
When to go:In the spring and summer, the weather can be quite harsh. Thus, it might be more preferable to plan a visit during the fall or winter months.
Death Valley National Park to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
- Distance: 104 miles
- Travel Time: 2 hours
The Sequoia National Forest gets its name from the world’s largest trees, Sequoias, and the park has the largest number of sequoia groves in the world. The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two adjoining National Parks that offer some of the most incredible sights in the U.S.
How Long Should I Stay in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks?
We have found that because this stop is technically two parks it is best to spend around 3-4 days in order to cover everything that both parks have to offer. You can choose to split your time between two days at each park, or if you find that you prefer one park over the other, you can spend more time there and just hit the highlights of the other park.
Where to Stay in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
The Sequoia & Kings Canyon area offers a number of lodging accommodations to its guests, including camping sites, log cabins, motels, as well as hotels.
Things to Do in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Both parks offer beautiful sights to see, and there are plenty of great outdoor activities to enjoy, including horseback rides, cave tours, hiking, and more. Some popular park highlights include:
- The Giant Sequoia National Monument (The world’s largest tree encompassing 328,315 acres)
- Mount Whitney (The highest peak in the Lower 48, standing at 14,494 feet)
- General Sherman Tree (The largest tree in the world by volume, standing at 275 feet tall and a 36-foot diameter).
- Crystal Cave
When to go: The parks are open 24/7 all year round, but you will find the best weather and conditions during the months of June through September.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park to Yosemite National Park
- Distance: 111 miles
- Travel Time: 2.5 hours
Yosemite National Park is probably the most well-known national park in California, and it is the most visited park as well, typically coming in at more than 4 million visitors per year and is the first stop to kick off our road to the northern California National parks. During your time at Yosemite, you will see a number of beautiful sights of nature.
How Long Should I Stay at Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite Park is huge; for a size comparison, it is about the size of Rhode Island, so as I’m sure you can imagine, ideally, you will need a good amount of time to see the park. We recommend spending 3-4 days at Yosemite.
Where to Stay at Yosemite National Park
There are a variety of lodging options at Yosemite National Park, ranging from tent campsites to traditional cabins, as well as full hotel accommodations. Popular choices include The Ahwahnee, a luxury hotel, the White Wolf Lodge, the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, and the High Sierra Camps.
Things to Do in Yosemite National Park
You will find plenty of activities throughout the park, including hiking trails, rock climbing, and water-based activities. Yosemite has so many highlights to see that it is hard to narrow it down to just a few choices, but the following are some of the most popular can’t-miss experiences:
- Yosemite Falls – Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America, coming in at 2,425 feet. You can access the lower falls with a simple walk through the trail, while a more difficult trail will lead you to the upper fall’s crest. Bonus tip: Make sure you bring your rain gear if you want to avoid getting soaked!
- Half Dome – The half dome is one of the most awe-inspiring sights to see at Yosemite. There is a hiking trail that will lead you to the top of Half Dome, but it is extremely important to note that this hike is NOT easy, and you should not attempt it if you have not trained for such a vigorous trek. Permits are required in order to participate.
- Glacier Point – Glacier Point is a can’t-miss stop at Yosemite as it is the opportunity to see many of the sights within Yosemite from just one point, including Yosemite Valley, the High Sierra Crest, the Merced River Canyon, and the Half Dome.
When to go: Yosemite is a great visit all year round, with beautiful weather during the spring and summer months and a breathtaking snow-capped wonderland during the winter months. Camping is limited, though, in the winter and some trails are closed.
Yosemite National Park to Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Distance: 321 miles
- Travel Time: 5 hours, 40 minutes
The Lassen Peak volcano erupted in 1914 and continued for three years while it has now become dormant, allowing visitors of Lassen Volcanic National Park to explore what still stands today, as well as many other beautiful sights.
How Long Should I Stay at Lassen Volcanic National Park?
While you can have a fulfilling experience with just one full day at Lassen Volcanic, if you have the extra day to spare, we recommend spending the full two days to really get the most out of your visit.
Where to Stay at Lassen Volcanic National Park
There are a variety of accommodations within the park to fit whatever style you are looking for. If you would like to stick with traditional camping, there are seven campgrounds on the property, camping cabins at Manzanita Lake, and hotel-style lodging at Drakesbad Guest Ranch.
Things to Do at Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen offers plenty of fun outdoor activities and some of the most beautiful sights your family will surely love. Some popular things to do include:
- Manzanita Lake – This lake is absolutely beautiful and provides plenty of fun water activities to enjoy, including swimming, kayaking, and a 1.6-mile hiking trail that circle around the lake.
- Lassen Peak – One of the coolest experiences that you won’t want to miss out on is hiking up to Lassen Peak. The hike is not described as easy, but it isn’t particularly challenging either; it is suitable for your older kids. When you reach the peak, you will see the Lassen Peak crater and how the rock has evolved over time.
- Bumpass Hell – If you choose to visit Bumpass Hell, you will take a three-mile round-trip trail that will lead you to the geothermal site that features 16 acres of boiling springs, mud pots, steam vents, and fumaroles, one of the absolute unique highlights of visiting Lassen and the Ring of Fire.
When to go: Lassen Volcanic National Park gets an extreme amount of snow during the winter months, making it a challenging visit, the best time to visit is during the months of July through October while the mountainous through-road is open.
Lassen Volcanic National Park to Redwood National Park
- Distance: 214 miles
- Travel Time: 4 hours
Finally, we round out our tour of California National Parks with Redwood National Park and some of the most utterly beautiful scenic driving in northern California. The forest is home to nearly half of the world’s old-growth redwood trees. Simply walking through the forest and seeing the redwoods standing so tall is an experience you don’t want to miss out on.
How Long Should I Stay at Redwood National Park?
The Redwood National Park is one that you can easily experience within just one day, provided that you have the full day to immerse yourself in its nature. However, if you have additional time to spare, don’t hesitate to stay for an extra day or two!
Where to Stay at the Redwood National Park
There is not much lodging available at Redwood National Park, so if you choose to stay within the park, be sure that you make reservations and check availability before you go.
The park offers eight campground cabins split between the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
If you prefer hotel or motor inn accommodation, Crescent City on the border with Oregon or Eureka make your closest small city stopping points.
Things to Do in Redwood National Park
The best part (in our opinion) about visiting Redwood National Park is that your time there is spent just truly immersing yourself in the nature surrounding you. Some can’t-miss sites include:
- Driving the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway – This drive is a 10-mile adventure that takes you right through the heart of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. As you drive, you get the chance to enjoy the beautiful nature around you, including the wildlife that lives within the forest.
- Fern Canyon – If you are up for a long hike, you can embark on the James Irvine Trail, a 9-mile round-trip hiking trail that will take you to Fern Canyon. As you walk through the forest, you can admire that you are walking through the very filming location used in many of the scenes in the hit film Jurassic Park 2. This is a very cool experience for a movie buff or fan of the Jurassic Park franchise.
- Trees of Mystery – The Redwood National Park is one of the few parks that actually have a ride within its grounds. The Trees of Mystery attraction will take you through a .08-mile trail where you will see beautiful sculptures, and you will get the chance to ride in the SkyTrail gondola ride in order to see the beautiful views from 130 feet above the ground.
When to go: The best time to visit is between the months of April through September, as these months provide the most life and color within the trees and greenery throughout the forest. Additionally, the weather is the most cooperative and enjoyable during these months. As you head into late fall-winter, the weather tends to become cooler and more rainy, making it difficult to navigate through hiking trails.
Bonus Tip: As you circle back around to San Francisco, there are several State Parks in the San Francisco area that you can add to your itinerary if you have time. These parks include Sonoma Coast State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
More Tips For Road Tripping California
As we mentioned at the outset, you need at least 2.5 to 3 weeks to do this California National Parks Road Trip justice. If you have less time and would like to tackle smaller parts of the state and some shorter scenic drives in California, then we suggest you read next:
- San Francisco to the Redwoods – via Highway 1, Sonoma, and the Valley of the Giants
- San Francisco to Yosemite
- You can extend this journey with a road trip between Yosemite to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Alternatively, take in the majesty of Yosemite and Death Valley on one fascinating family road trip
- From San Diego, try this Joshua Tree road trip itinerary, which is ideal for a long weekend
© Family Road Trip