National park fans know President Teddy Roosevelt had a passion for preserving public land. He earned the nickname “conservationist president,” but National park fans may not know he was also the first president to publicly ride in a car, and someone who said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
As I took a road trip through California with my family, I kept thinking how all those presidential statements influenced what we were doing: enjoying nature, driving from point to point, and knowing we were halfway there. That’s because California has nine national parks — more than any other state — and we didn’t have time to hit all in one itinerary. So we picked five parks that promised a world of variety within one state’s borders.
Here’s what happened, logging more than a thousand miles in a rental car driven between a flight to San Francisco (SFO) and a flight out of Los Angeles (LAX):
Stop 1: Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is an appropriate start because it’s one of two places President Lincoln set aside for public land. (The other is Mariposa Grove, which you will see at the next stop!) Decades later, California preservationist John Muir wanted more Yosemite land protection, so he invited Teddy Roosevelt to camp there. Roosevelt later said, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
Today, Yosemite is perfect for adventurers pushing their limits and sightseers content to tour in their vehicles. We got our bearings on day one with a short hike to El Capitan’s base, then driving through Yosemite Valley and towards Tunnel View and Glacier Point to see views photographer Ansel Adams made famous. We caught a stunning sunset after hiking up the 2.2-mile round-trip Sentinel Dome trail. It gets steep as you scurry up rocks at the end and is not accessible to wheelchairs, though many other trails are.
Day two brought a longer hike to Vernal Fall waterfall. This requires navigating 600 steps. If you prefer not to walk down the same way, pick up the John Muir trail to return to the valley floor.
Pro Tip: Lodging and camping in Yosemite books quickly. We couldn’t get a room in the park and instead booked two nights in a Tenaya Lodge Explorer Cabin. This meant an extra 90-minute drive in and out of the park each day, yet we appreciated a pool, laundry, and restaurants. Also, groceries are available in Yosemite at a few general stores, but they get crowded. Consider stocking up well before entering the park.
Stop 2: Sequoia National Park
Driving from Yosemite to Sequoia National Park gives the feeling something big is in store and it turns out to be really big: General Sherman, the world’s largest tree.
General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. A park sign says looking towards the top is like a mouse looking up at a six-foot-tall human. Be prepared to wait in line with fellow tourists seeking the perfect tree picture. Part of the crowd size is due to General Sherman’s accessibility. You can see it from a paved trail connected to a shuttle bus stop and parking for vehicles with accessible parking placards or take a longer walk from a lot available to all visitors.
Another photo opportunity comes thanks to a sequoia’s downfall. Tunnel Log fell in 1937 when it was popular to attract tourists by advertising a chance to drive through the toppled tree. Today, parks focus more on natural environments, but Tunnel Log remains a relic of novelty attractions to delight drivers.
Pro tip: Sequoia National Park boasts hundreds of miles of trails, plus opportunities to see the park from different angles. From below: Crystal Cave is available for tours. Tickets can sell out months in advance. From above: try Moro Rock, where a 350-step climb rewards you with a remarkable view.
There are lodges and cabins in the park. We stayed at an Airbnb 45 minutes away in Exeter. This helped us start two days with big breakfasts at the Exeter Whistle Stop diner and the Wildflower Café, and wrap up days enjoying ice cream at the Frosty King. We also enjoyed meals closer to the park in nearby Three Rivers. The Ol Buckaroo came highly recommended in Airbnb’s guest journal, and Sierra Subs and Salads was a welcome find to grab sandwiches and salads for mid-day refueling.
Pro Tip: There are no gas stations within the park borders, so come with a full tank or fill up at the small stations on the park edges.
Stop 3: Kings Canyon National Park
We knew Kings Canyon and Sequoia were close when planning this road trip; we did not realize some parts are adjacent until studying the park map. They are so close the National Park Service awards just one junior ranger badge encompassing the two parks to young or young-at-heart explorers.
True confession: This realization changed our plans. We shoved two regular days of exploring into one marathon-long day so we would not cover the same crowded, curvy roads twice. We then relaxed at our Airbnb the second day.
With a redo, I would spend one day driving from Kings Canyon Visitor Center to Roads End, then spend a second day beginning at the same visitor center and heading through Sequoia National Park. Another option is cutting one day off this segment and substituting something else like a day exploring Los Angeles.
Sequoia National Forest splits Kings Canyon, and the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway provides multiple overlooks. Many trails are in the backcountry, though you can get a taste of the park if you simply visit the General Grant Tree. It’s second in size only to General Sherman, and worth a quick walk on a short, paved-loop trail. Kings Canyon has half the visitors of its neighbor, with more crowd-free places. So, when a bear crossed the road in front of our vehicle, we had plenty of time to stop and enjoy watching it without worrying about holding up traffic!
Stop Four: Channel Islands National Park
Once we got our feet wet, rhetorically speaking, with three parks, we headed to a park where water surrounds everything. Channel Islands National Park encompasses five California Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. You can learn about the so-called Galapagos of North America at the Visitor Center in Ventura, but you need to leave land to get a real Channel Islands feel. Island Packers Cruises are boat voyages by the park’s official vendor. Island Packers leaves from Ventura and Oxnard harbors, and rates vary depending on island destination. Most of the Channel Islands’ 400,00 annual visitors visit this way, so make reservations early. There are hiking opportunities, and you can make reservations to kayak and explore sea caves, mingle with sea otters, and appreciate islands towering above the Pacific Ocean. All islands have permitted camping; you will need to carry all supplies.
Pro Tip: Look for 2,000 plant and animal species, including the island fox, found no place on earth except these islands.
We opted to sail around two islands on a chartered sailboat where the captain and bosun explained history, geography and seafaring to us while we watched pods of hundreds of dolphins. Food prepared on the boat tasted even better watching the ocean change by the hour, and two nights of anchorages provided an opportunity to relax before hitting the road again.
Joshua Tree National Park
The National Park Service says remember four letters at Joshua Tree National Park: BYOW, as in Bring Your Own Water. Drinkable water doesn’t exist in most of the park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, so you need to bring lots of water. Another simple park guide is to hike only if you are taller than your shadow in the hot, midday sun.
One way to follow this advice is to start your day in the dark. Cholla Cactus Garden is a remarkable place to watch the sunrise. We drove from there to popular sites like Skull Rock, Split Rock, and Arch Rock. Seeing them in early morning hours helped avoid heat and crowds and each was a relatively short walk from parking areas.
We left the park midday to grab a meal at Crossroads Cafe and cool off at our Airbnb home just minutes from the Joshua Tree entrance. It was so close we could easily return to the park later to enjoy Keys View, where Mexico’s in sight on a clear day, and watch the sunset through the park’s namesake trees.
With more time, I would have loved to have watched climbers explore the San Andreas Fault and hike around Cottonwood Spring. Yet one day in the park provided enough variety to feel disconnected from everyday life. The next day, an early 141-mile drive to LAX wrapped up the journey, with great memories and the reminder that more national parks await. Lassen Volcanic, Death Valley, Pinnacles, and Redwood National Parks promise more adventure, the next time vacation calls for an epic California road trip.
National Parks are ranked among the top places to visit by travelers from around the United States: