California may well be famous for its sun-drenched beaches, but we think that when it comes to having a really exciting, memorable holiday, it’s the California’s National Parks you should look to. There are 26 in total, and today we’re going to take a look at three of the very best.
Yosemite National Park
Let’s start with Yosemite National Park, which is around a four-hour drive from the bright lights of San Francisco. In this reserve can expect to stroll with views of some of the most beautiful mountain terrain in the world. It’s this stunning landscape that the park aims to protect, and for which it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1984.
First, a few basic facts. The park was formed by millions of years of glacial activity and spans 1,170 sq miles. Without doubt it is best known for its striking scenery, which includes vast monoliths like El Capitan (3,000 ft high), waterfalls and sequoia coves. While there are plenty of activities you can try in the park, including hiking and rock climbing, arguably the best thing to do if you’ve never been here before is to visit some of its most famous landmarks.
Yosemite Valley should be high on your list, with its gorgeous waterfalls and dramatic cliffs. For the ultimate vista, head over to Tunnel View, which is at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel – from here, you can see El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. We also recommend visiting the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which is around 36 miles south of Yosemite Valley (which should give you some idea of just how vast the park really is). This is the reserve’s largest group of giant sequoias, and standing among them you’ll feel utterly dwarfed by their size.
By the way, if you’re planning a fly-drive holiday to California don’t miss driving along Tioga Pass. Usually open from late May to early October, it spans the entire length of the park and offers incredible alpine scenery.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Over in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range are the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Now, technically these are two reserves rather than one, but as they are twinned and often treated as a single entity, we will look at them as one park. And, as they stand side-by-side, that’s perfectly easy to do when you visit as well.
Both these parks preserve granite peaks and lush forests and, as you can probably guess from their names, the giant sequoias and Kings Canyon are the top things to see. Looking at the latter first, Kings Canyon might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon, but it is actually the deepest in America. Expect to be totally wowed by the views – think sheer granite cliffs rising 1,000 ft sprinkled with spectacular waterfalls.
The sequoias, meanwhile, are best viewed in the aptly-named Giant Forest. The largest tree of them all is dubbed General Sherman, and is approximately 275 ft high. As you stare up at it, it’s worth remembering that this is thought to be the biggest tree in the world by volume.
Other great things to do here including taking a tour of Crystal Cave. A really popular attraction that’s home to some fascinating marble formations, it is open to the public from May to November, but you’ll need tickets to get in and take the tour. It’s worth bearing in mind that because of its popularity these tend to sell out fast, so try to book first thing in the morning. Sometimes you can reserve places the day before, so that’s worth checking when you arrive.
Pinnacles National Park
Our final suggestion is Pinnacles National Park – another aptly-named reserve, having earned its title from the huge spires and monoliths found here. Located just to the east of Salinas Valley, this ancient volcanic field is in the Gabilan Mountains and has some of the most exciting and unusual terrain in California – at least we think so anyway!
Over millions of years, the volcano here eroded as it gradually moved along the San Andreas Fault. Left behind are sheer-walled canyons, spectacular spires and massive monoliths that have to be seen to be believed. Most people come to the park to hike or rock climb, but you can also visit simply to admire the view. As a quick tip, Pinnacles is one of the few national parks that’s well suited to exploring in the cooler months and is generally open throughout autumn and winter.
Since the park is home to more than 30 miles of excellent hiking trails, it’s definitely a must-visit for keen walkers – even if you’re not after anything too challenging. For instance, there are several short routes starting out at the Pinnacles Visitor Centre, such as the 2.3-mile trail to Bear Gulch Day Use Area and the 6.5-mile path along the South Wilderness Trail. The latter is fantastic for wildlife spotting, while it’s worth bearing in mind that spring is the best time to come for seeing wild flowers on any of the trails.