With four million visitors annually, Yosemite is California’s most popular national park. But there are five more national parks spread across the Golden State, any or all of which can be a great addition to your Yosemite vacation. Go peak bagging in the Cascade Range, explore deep coastal redwood forests or across vast deserts, then dive into the beauty of protected off-shore islands. Each of these adventures is within a day’s drive of the Yosemite Valley.
Death Valley National Park
In the dry rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Death Valley is a land of extremes. From the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at Badwater (282 feet below sea level), to the top of Telescope Peak (elevation 11,043 feet), this park enfolds an incredible variety of volcanic and wind- and water-eroded landscapes.
Here you can slide down giant sand dunes, walk through kaleidoscopic badlands, explore slot canyons and old mining camps, and find hidden waterfalls and fields of wildflowers in spring. The park is a 300-mile drive from the Yosemite Valley east over Tioga Pass, then south via the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, and east through the Panamint Mountains down to Furnace Creek, the park’s main visitor center. Note that the road over Tioga Pass is usually only open from early June through mid-October.
When it’s closed, you can reach still Death Valley by driving around the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada, although that doubles your total trip distance. Visit www.nps.gov/deva for more information about the park.
Joshua Tree National Park
Made internationally famous by the rock band U2, whose worked on their 1988 album The Joshua Tree here, this desert national park is a rock climber’s paradise. There are thousands of established climbing routes here, and outfitters in the gateway town of Joshua Tree can help you get roped up and teach you the skills you’ll need.
Even if you’re not a climber, there’s a wonderland of things to see and do here, from hiking to hidden native California fan palm oases and cactus gardens to touring historical pioneer sites.
The main access to the park is northeast of Palm Springs, which is over 400 miles south of Yosemite Valley. A more beautiful, yet little-traveled way to get to Joshua Tree is to first drive down to Death Valley, then through the Mojave National Preserve, which boasts the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world, and briefly cross old Route 66, aka America’s “Mother Road.”
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Where the Sierra Nevada mountains end in Northern California, there the Pacific Northwest’s volcanic Cascade Range begins. A 375-mile drive northwest of the Yosemite Valley, this largely untrammeled national park is ringed by conifer forests. But inside you’ll find an ancient lavascape of hot springs, roiling mud pots, hissing fumaroles, cinder cones and craters, and alpine lakes.
Hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, mountain climbing, and canoeing and kayaking are favorite outdoor activities here. The main park road is usually snowbound from November through April, although it remains open to adventurous backcountry skiers during that time. In winter, you can also go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding. Visit www.nps.gov/lavo for more information about this park in all seasons.
Redwoods National and State Parks
Even if you’ve already visited the giant sequoia groves of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, you’ll still be awed by California’s coast redwoods. In fact, they’re the tallest trees on earth. Their only native habitat is the northern Pacific Coast of California, where many old-growth forests are now preserved by Redwoods National and State Parks.
The parks are also a haven for wildlife such as shaggy Roosevelt elk, wild salmon, and coastal seals and sea lions. The parks encompass forests, wind-whipped beaches, ferny canyons, and scenic drives galore. From Yosemite Valley, it’s a 200-mile drive west to the San Francisco Bay Area, then another 300 more miles north along Highway 101 to Redwoods National Park. Visit www.nps.gov/rewd for more information about the national park, and www.parks.ca.gov for details about all of the state parks.
Channel Islands National Park
Perhaps the most overlooked of California’s national parks, the Channel Islands have been called “America’s Galapagos.” Given their isolation from the mainland, this collection of five offshore jewels — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands — have evolved a rich diversity of wildlife, including elephant seals, sea lions, seals, and seabirds. In fact, these islands possess more native endangered species than any other national park in the country.
Sea kayakers, scuba divers, and hikers can visit the islands year-round by taking day or overnight boat excursions. In spring, wildflowers bloom and the islands look their greenest. Passenger boat services depart from mainland harbors at Ventura and Oxnard, a 65-mile drive northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Visit www.nps.gov/chis for more details about this park, including camping reservations, which are required, and concessionaire boat services and tours.