California is home to nine of our country’s national parks, more than there are in any other state. Add in all the national monuments, seashores, and historic parks, and you’ll soon realize that this is one impressive state. It could, in fact, take a lifetime to explore all that the national parks of the Golden State have to offer.
California residents and visitors alike flock to the best-known national parks like Yosemite and Sequoia, and understandably so -- both are spectacular options. But for the opportunity to explore nature in far less crowded conditions, consider one of these lesser-known parks.
1. Channel Islands National Park
Located off the Central Coast of California, Channel Islands National Park comprises five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. Since access to the park is only possible by boat, and space on the boats is limited, these islands offer visitors a unique opportunity to explore a peaceful natural setting.
Surrounding the islands is a National Marine Sanctuary offering a wealth of sea life, including harbor seals, dolphins, whales, sea stars, and much more. Birds abound on the islands; the park houses several important nesting spots for land birds, shorebirds, and seabirds. The combination of protected land and sea available to explore makes this park unique in the United States.
Each of the five islands offers scenic hiking trails ranging in both length and difficulty. On the most-visited islands, these trails are marked and well maintained. However, more primitive trails are to be found on the islands farther from the mainland.
A highlight of any hike is seeing the island fox, a formerly endangered animal found only in the Channel Islands. These small creatures are about the size of house cats and are very comfortable with humans. In fact, they have become so comfortable with people that they regularly steal picnic lunches. Rangers recommend using the secure food boxes attached to every table to prevent theft. Other animals that can be seen along the trails include skunks, mice, lizards, and snakes.
While you’re at the park, be sure to spend some time in the water to experience the marine life. Kayaking, snorkeling, and diving are all optimal ways to do this. Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers organized tours that include all the necessary gear. Santa Cruz Island is well known as a kayaking destination, since it is home to the world’s largest concentration of sea caves.
The Channel Islands can be accessed via Oxnard Harbor or Ventura Harbor. Both are located north of Los Angeles. The nearest airports to the area are Camarillo and Los Angeles International. A spot on the ferry to the islands can be reserved online through Island Packers Cruises. If you plan on visiting on a weekend or holiday, be sure to reserve your spot several weeks in advance. Round-trip transportation on the ferry costs $59 to $102 per person, depending on the island destination.
Please note that there are no concession stands on the islands. Visitors must bring food and water with them, and all trash must be carried back to the mainland.
Channel Islands National Park experiences temperate weather all year long, and therefore can be enjoyed during any month of the year. Visitor numbers increase over the summer, but because transportation to the islands is limited, the crowds are always manageable.
2. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Visitors to California may be surprised to learn that they can explore volcanoes, but that’s exactly what they can do at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Located in northeastern California, this park is well known for its volcanic geology. The park’s eponymous volcano, Lassen Peak, last erupted in 1914, and the eruption continued for three years. Today the park is home to many thermal features, including fumaroles, splattering mud pots, boiling springs, and steaming ground.
Beyond the impressive volcanic features, Lassen also offers a variety of plant and animal life. In fact, more than 700 species of flowering plants and 300 types of vertebrates call this park home.
With its 150 miles of trails, Lassen is a hiker’s dream. In addition to admiring plant and animal life, hikers can witness hydrothermal features that can’t be accessed by car. Trails range in distance from 1 to 11 miles, and there are options for people of all fitness levels. Ranger-led interpretive walks are available as well.
The Pacific Crest Trail -- a long-distance hiking trail beginning at the U.S.-Mexico border and ending at the U.S.-Canadian border -- runs through Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Backpacking allows visitors to go beyond the most popular sites and camp overnight in remote areas of the park. Permits are free of charge and can be obtained through the park’s website.
There are numerous lakes throughout the park, and both boating and fishing are popular with visitors. The best-known boating lakes include Manzanita Lake, Butte Lake, Juniper Lake, and Summit Lake. Non-motorized boat rentals are available at Manzanita. Many people like to fish for brown and rainbow trout, but it’s important to note that only catch-and-release is permitted.
During the winter, snowshoeing is a unique way to experience Lassen. The park website lists eight snowshoe trails of various difficulty levels. Snowshoes can be rented outside the park in Redding, California, or Chico, California.
The park can be accessed by car via California State Route 44 or California State Route 36. The closest airports are located in Sacramento, Redding, and Reno, Nevada.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is open year-round, but due to snowfall, parts of the park may be restricted during the winter. In some areas, snow can remain on the ground until June, so it’s wise to check the weather conditions prior to visiting -- or be prepared to select alternative activities. Summer is the ideal time to visit if you wish to hike or backpack in this area.
Admission to Lassen costs $10 per vehicle during the winter (December 1 to April 15) and $30 per vehicle during the rest of the year. An annual pass costs $55.
3. Pinnacles National Park
About 23 million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted and ultimately created the unique landscape that today we call Pinnacles National Park, located in Central California. This is in fact the newest park in California, so it is well below the radar of most domestic and international visitors. Approximately 220,000 people visit this park each year; that's just a fraction of those who travel to better-known parks like Yosemite and Sequoia.
From its dramatic rock formations to its fields of spring wildflowers, Pinnacles offers stunning scenery. There is abundant wildlife as well, including 160 documented species of birds. The rocky peaks of the park are the perfect nesting grounds for birds, and as a result, the park is a birder’s paradise. Pinnacles provides a list of optimal birding sites on its website.
In addition to the usual national park activities like hiking and camping, Pinnacles offers the opportunity to explore caves created by ancient volcanic activity. Bear Gulch Cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats and is open to visitors most of the year. (Occasionally the National Park Service closes this cave if the bats are in need of protection.) Balconies Cave is also open to visitors.
For hikers, 15 trails are located in the park, ranging in length from 1 to 9 miles. Some hikes are relatively flat through the grasslands, while others provide a more challenging route through rock formations and caves.
For the most adventurous visitors, Pinnacles offers rock climbing that ranges from easy topropes to multipitch climbs along Machete Ridge. If you’re new to climbing -- or new to climbing in this park -- consider an organized day trip led by local experts.
Pinnacles National Park is divided into two parts: east and west. It’s important to note that there is no road within the park that connects these two halves. Therefore, you should have an idea of what you want to do during your time in the park -- and know where you’ll need to enter.
Pinnacles can be visited any time of year, but temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in July and August, limiting some activities.
To get to the park, drive along Highway 101 or California State Route 25. The closest airports are Monterey Regional and San Jose International. Admission to the park costs $30 per vehicle.
For all of these parks, a stop at the visitor center is a great way to start your visit. Park rangers and volunteers can provide guidance on roads, trails, and activities. Many visitor centers offer exhibits about plant and animal life as well as maps and informational literature.