The National Parks of California
Yosemite National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Cabrillo National Monument
Sequoia National Park
Muir Woods National Monument
Channel Islands National Park
Death Valley National Park
Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Point Reyes National Seashore
Pinnacles National Park
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Devils Postpile National Monument
Manzanar National Historic Site
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Mojave National Preserve
Mojave National Preserve
The National Parks of California
Introduction. Many of California’s twenty three national park sites are widely known both in the United States and internationally. Yosemite, Redwood, Sequoia, and Golden Gate all come to mind for their jaw- dropping vistas and unique natural phenomena. Other parks too are not as well known but are no less scenic or interesting. The state has large swaths of preserved deserts in Mohave National Preserve, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree National Parks. Historic areas are also preserved and interpreted such as San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park along San Francisco’s waterfront and Manzanar National Historic Site at the foot of the Sierras. Santa Monica Mountains and Golden Gate National Recreation Areas preserve open space and historical areas within a stones throw of major metropolitan areas. The mountains also have their gems and much of the Sierras are within national park boundaries that preserve polished granite canyons, waterfalls, huge trees, alpine meadows, high peaks, and volcanoes. The coast of California also has some stretches that protect unique ecosystems and the marine fauna namely Channel Islands National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. There’s no lack of diversity in these parks and a visit to any of them is a good way to appreciate the wildly varied landscapes and history of the Golden State.
Cabrillo National Monument. This small park serves the duel purpose of preserving and interpreting the landing of Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese, who sailed under the Spanish flag and preserving the headlands of Point Loma. The tide pools are especially interesting and access is by a beautiful road that drops down almost 400 feet across a sage-covered hillside. The top of the headlands preserve the historic lighthouse, now inactive, and the visitor center and museum which overlook San Diego Bay with unbelievable vistas of the city.
Channel Islands National Park. Channel Islands is a beautiful and isolated national park that preserves a number of islands that have largely remained untouched and unspoiled by development and civilization. Access to the islands is by private chartered boat so there is no public ferry access. IF you can afford it, you can also charter a boat plane or skipper your own vessel to the islands. Most chartered boats leave from Ventura or Port Hueneme. The most visited, East Anacapa Island, it is closest to the mainland and has great views to the west of the other islands in the park. The islands are home to large marine fauna, kelp beds, nesting birds, and rare mammals. The Torrey Pine grows on tiny Santa BarbaraIsland, one of only two places in the world. Hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and sea kayaking are popular.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Within a stone’s throw of Los Angeles, this recreation area provides outdoor opportunities to the Angelinos while preserving a number of homesteads, ranches, and old movie sets. It was in these mountains where many movie and television productions were shot, and one can visit the set of MASH in this park. Paramount Park is still used as a TV set but it is open to visitors when filming is not scheduled. This set was used most recently for Doctor Quinn Medicine Women. Hiking and biking trails are plentiful and a swath of coast from Malibu to Oxnard runs the length of this park. Much of the area is administered by the state parks which form enclaves. The rugged volcanic Boney Mountains provide good hiking opportunities.
Mojave National Preserve.Mojave National Preserve is a huge chunk of land adjacent to Nevada that was mostly BLM before it became a national park service property. It was established in 1994 and includes 1.6 million acres of stark desert scenery. Within this expanses are volcanic craters, inselbergs and mountain peaks, such as the 8000’ Clark Peak, Joshua trees forests, salt pans, prehistoric Indian petroglyphs as well as abandoned mining towns, the 600' high Kelso Sand Dunes, and limestone caverns. Temperatures in the summer will soar and make sure your car is running on a full tank of gasoline. Located adjacent to I-15 the preserve is easy to get to but distances between destinations can be long. Stop in at the former Kelso Train Depot (c. 1923), a beautiful Spanish revival building re-purposed today as the Preserve's visitor center. Just outside the park boundaries and 75 miles from Barstow on BLM land is the Amboy Crater, a perfectly shaped cinder cone which rises 250 feet above the desert flats. Unofficially the town of Zzyzx is the last word in the English language. The town, located between Baker and Barstow off I-15 exit #239 is reached by a five mile trunk road, some of it dirt. The town has worn a couple of hats: from desert movie studio to spa until it finally became a desert research station. It was formerly known as Soda Springs and Camp Soda.
Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree became a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Covering almost 800,000 acres the park is mostly known for two things: the Joshua trees that populate its grounds and the granite rock that is famous the world over for climbing. But that’s not all that the park has to offer and the many palm oasis in the park’s boundaries are also well worth the hikes. These oases harbor the giant Washingtonia palms, the only palm native to California. Some of the oasis are reached by long hikes, but a few are just off the roadside. There are also cholla cactus gardens and valley range topography that is characteristic of this part of the country. Avoid the summer because of the heat and springtime is good for wildflower viewing. One and a quarter million people visited the park in 2006. In 2005 632,000 people visited the preserve.
Death Valley National Park. The ominous name of this park comes from a group of pioneers who died of heat exposure while trying to cross its parched, blistered expanse at the height of the summer. Death Valley records some pretty austere geographical and climate extremes. The hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States occurred here at just under 140 degree Fahrenheit and the lower point in the Western Hemisphere is located in the park at Badwater at sun-baked salt plan that is 282 feet below sea level – the remains of a prehistoric sea bed. In abrupt contrast to this nadir is the park’s high point, Telescope Peak, 11,049’, which looks out over Badwater making this trough close to 11,500 feet deep. Death Valley became a national monument in 1933 and a national park in 1994. It receives about 750,000 visitors yearly – most in the cooler non-summer months but its location is the most isolated of California’s national parks. Covering almost 5300 square miles Death Valley is a diverse landscape and despite its hostile reputation it also includes Bristlecone pine forests at its higher elevations.
Pinnacles National Park. Located 40 mikes inland from the coast and about 80 miles south of the Bay Area is an area with volcanic spires that area the remnants of an extinct, eroded volcano. PinnaclesNational monument was established in 1908 to protect this unique geologic feature and the transition forest that is a mix of chaparral and woodlands. The park is home to various fauna which include mountain lion, bobcat, wild pigs, and the California Condor. Hiking is the best way to see the park which logged 159,000 visitors in 2004. It is also popular with rock climbers.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Golden Gate National recreation Area is a large park that is cut and pasted around the Bay Area especially in San Francisco and north of it, in MarinCounty. It also includes AlcatrazIsland and it’s infamous prison as well as Fort Point National Historic Site and San Francisco’s Presidio. In essence it is a great combination of history and natural interpretive sights that are all worthwhile. Since the park is so scattered its hard to see it all in a day. Established in 1972 the park is really on the great urban parks of the world and it saw 13.6 million visitors in 2005. The Golden GateBridge also connects the northern and southern portions of the park and is therefore its most famous attraction.
John Muir Home National Historic Site. This small site of 345 acres in Martinez preserves the home and homestead of the late conservationist and naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) who championed the cause of preserving Yosemite as a national park and preserving the great American wilderness. The Victorian home in itself is beautiful, built in 1889. Muir and his wife occupied the home in 1890 and he lived here until his death.
Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Located in Richmond this disparate park has a number of sites scattered along the waterfront that describe and interpret the efforts of working women during World War II and their contribution towards the war efforts in the factory. The Red Oak Victory Ship is also part of this park but check the hours by calling ahead. Most interesting is the huge Ford Motor Plant that built tanks during the war, but has now been converted to house local businesses. It will also soon host the new visitor center. Pick up or download a map to get a full sense of what the park encompasses and its best to take a car as many locations are physically separated.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Just after Fisherman’s Wharf and next to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory is located this historical park which has a great museum and visitor center detailing the city’s maritime heritage. Outside, moored along the wharfs are the park’s main draw – various period ships that were preserved which include a mix from tug boats, to passenger vessels, and merchant cargo sailing ships. There is an entrance fee to board the ships.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. This is a memorial to the tragic munitions explosion that occurred during World War II and killed 320 sailors and civilians and injuring almost 400 more. The majority of deaths were enlisted African-American sailors. It was the largest home front wartime disaster in the United States during World War II. It also caused many African American enlisted sailors to refuse to load more munitions because the safety was not improved after the event. They were charged with mutiny and court-martialed. The memorial was dedicated in 1994. Since the memorial is located on an active military base reservations must be made up to two weeks in advance.
Eugene O’Neil National Historic Site. Commemorates the life of Eugene O’Neil, the only American playwright to have won the Nobel prize. O’Neil’s wrote many plays while living at this home in Danville, including The Iceman Cometh. This small park requires reservations and has limited hours of operation.
Muir Woods National Monument. Muir Woods preserves a grove a coastal redwoods which grow only along the Pacific coast of California and southern Oregon. Muir Woods is part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, located about 12 miles north of San Francisco. It predates the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has been a national monument since 1908. At only 560 acres Muir Woods gets a huge number of visitors for a park its size: in 2005 775,000 people visited the park. The tallest trees in the park are about 260 feet and the oldest is 1200 years.
Fort Point National Historic Site. Fort Point is also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area predating it by two years. It was established in 1970 although the history of the fort goes back to its foundation by the Spanish in 1794. Originally known as Castillo de San Joaquin, the fort was a simple abode structure. By 1835 the fort was abandoned but during the Mexican-American War it was refortified by Kit Carson and Charles Fremont in 1846. Only a few years after with the Gold Rush in full force the U.S. Army recommended rebuilding the fort for strategic purposes. Along with FortMason, and AlcatrazIsland it was on of three coastal defenses in the Bay Area. Completed in 1861other additions were added later in the nineteenth century. Today the fort is located directly under the Golden GateBridge and is probably the most outstanding example of military architecture for its time on the West Coast.
Manzanar National Historic Site. Up in the high desert at the foot of the Sierra’s east front twelve miles north of Lone Pine is this unique national historic site dedicated to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. About 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were forced into concentration camps across the U.S. West during World War II. The official government explanation at the time was to protect them from harm by U.S. citizens anti-Japanese sentiment but the real reason was punitive and a fear that they would spy for Japan. Entrance to this park is free with a self-guided driving tour.
Devils Postpile National Monument. Just south of Yosemite National Park is Devils Postpile National Monument an outcropping of volcanic columnar joints. At just under 800 acres this small monument near Mammoth Mountain also has a beautiful waterfall fall, Rainbow Falls, which pours over a volcanic rock ledge into a pool. The monument was established in 1911 and received 115,000 visitors in 2004. Hiking is the best way to get a round and well marked and beaten paths lead the way. Shuttle service is mandatory between Minaret Summit and the monument between 7 am and 7 pm daily and the cost is $7 per adult (August 2013).
Sequoia National Park which shares a common border with Kings Canyon National Park from a huge block of national park lands in the southern Sierra Nevada. Known for its namesake Giant Sequoias which grove only in the western Sierra foothills, the park is home to spectacular canyons and granite mountains as well as a number of hot springs. It is home to the General Sherman Tree the world’s largest living thing at 275 feet tall and having a 103’ circumference. The two parks have everything from limestone caves, to giant sequoia groves, deep granite canyons, alpine meadows, and the highest point in the United States outside of Alaska, Mount Whitney (14,498’) on the park’s eastern boundary. Sequoia National Park is one of the oldest national parks in the country founded in 1890 it is California’s oldest national park and encompasses 404,000 acres.
Kings Canyon National Park adjoins Sequoia National Park in the south. It too has groves of the giant tree in its General Grant exclave which was preserved as a small national park before the main mountain section was established in 1940. Less visited than its sister park to the south. Kings Canyon is more of a wilderness park for the back country enthusiast. The highlights of the park are the mountains and canyon of which it has the highest in the United States. The South Fork of the Kings River has an 8,350 foot wall if measured to the tip of Spanish Mountain. Containing 462,000 acres Kings Canyon logged 552,000 visitors in 2006 compared to the 954,000 the Sequoia National Park received in the same 2006. The fact that Kings Canyon National Park has only about 5 miles of paved road outside of the General Grant exclave explains why it has half of the visitors.
Yosemite National Park. Yosemite needs no special explanation. Undoubtedly it is California’s most famous park and along with Yellowstone and Grand Canyon the bets known park in the country. Sheer granite walls that line Yosemite Valley are home to country’s highest and most dazzling waterfalls. The park spans lowlands in the west to high granite peaks with lingering glaciers in the east. Lush alpine meadows can be found above 8000 feet. Its close proximity to the Bay Area make it very heavily visited all year round and it logged more than 3.7 million people in 2009. Most of the visitors don’t go beyond the Yosemite Valley so there is some consolation for those who want to visit the park for solitude move to higher ground. Half Dome and El Capitan are no doubt the park’s most famous mountains. Known for their 4000 foot faces they attract world class rock climbers while tourists admire their jaw-dropping vertical scale. In the east the peaks of the high Sierra top 13,000 feet which lure the backpacker. The park’s 761,000 acres is home to an incredible amount of biodiversity which includes the Merced, Tuolumne, and Mariposa groves of Giant Sequoia in the western lowlands. Of there three, the Mariposa grove is the most accessible. Yosemite is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Point Reyes National Seashore. The West Coast’s only national seashore should trick one into believing that there is no coast worthy of the designation. There is plenty of beautiful coast along California and the west coast but this stretch preserves a spit of land that juts out into the Pacific north of San Francisco. There is a long sandy stretch of beach and the seashore preserves and protects Northern Elephant Seal habitat. It is also a poplar recreation area, biking and hiking especially, as it is only 30 miles north of the Bay Area. The Point Reyes Lighthouse is especially scenic huddled tenaciously to a rock cliff that just out of the water.
Lassen Volcanic National Park. MountLassen came to life in 1917 as the 10,500 foot volcano, the most southerly in the Cascade, blew its top. The bizarre and eerie landscape that resulted in the aftermath as well as the still brooding mountain is the park’s raison d’etre. If not for Mount Shasta, easily visible to the north, Lassen would dominate its surroundings as it rises in isolation. The park saw about 377,000 visitors in 2008, so if you don’t like crowds, this is not a bad place. Boiling pots and fumaroles, still very active, are part of the roadside attractions.
Redwoods National Park. This area was set aside in 1968 as a national park to preserve the world’s tallest living things, the Coastal Redwood, from destruction by the chain saw. Located along the northern California coast RedwoodsNational Park along with a number of state parks contain these magnificent trees which grow as far south as central California. The world’s tallest, however, are found here and reaches 379 feet. Be prepared to hiking in this cathedral-like setting as some of the tallest and oldest groves require walks on well-beaten paths.
Lava Beds National Monument. This blistered landscape of cooled volcanic rock is one of the state’s most isolated national parks. Established in 1925 this 45,000 acre park saw only 107,000 people in 2005. It has the largest concentration of lava tube caves in the United States and historically it is famous for the Modoc Wars where the Indian chief, Captain Jack, fought a guerrilla war against the U.S. Army in 1872-73.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. This recreation area has a variety of things to do which include boating on the reservoir, hiking the many trails, waterfalls, and exploring and tin-cup towns long abandoned by miners and lumberjacks. The waterfalls are spectacular and the best know are Boulder Creek Falls (138’), Brandy Creek Falls, and Whiskeytown Falls (220’). The park was established in 1962 and because of the water receives high volumes of visitors, especially in the summer.