Explore the State’s Lesser-Known National Parks

California has nine national parks, more than any other state in the Union. Beyond Yosemite, how many can you name – or have you visited? While there’s a reason Yosemite is famous worldwide for its granite monoliths and breathtaking scenery, its notoriety also can mean massive crowds, especially in the popular summer months and at the best-known locations. Nearly 4.4 million people visit this Sierra jewel each year.
This summer, if you’re looking to get off the beaten path and away from the throng, check out one of our state’s lesser-known national parks, which still promise plenty of nature, adventure and family fun. If you have a child in the fourth grade, you can get a free family national parks pass, good through Aug. 31, at everykidinpark.gov. Make sure to check out the parks’ Junior Ranger programs which keep kids interested as they complete tasks while exploring each park.
Here are the highlights of some of our favorites:
Redwood National Park
With its majestic old-growth coast redwoods and miles of dramatic coastline, Redwood National Park offers visitors a unique experience that cannot be found anywhere in the world.
Home of the world’s tallest trees, this park system is in a state/federal partnership which includes Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Prairie Creek Redwoods. The area is located along the Pacific Coast in northwest California, about 40 miles north of Eureka.
These remarkable redwood giants give you a sense of what much of California was like before it became populated. Some of them are as old as 2,000 years and are more than 370 feet in height – five stories taller than the Statue of Liberty. 
The redwood trees are set amongst sword ferns, berry bushes, spruce, hemlock, creeks and rivers near the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This makes it great for hiking, camping, fishing, boating and wildlife watching.
We stayed at Prairie Creek the last time my family visited the Redwood National Park. It has two campgrounds – Elk Prairie and Gold Bluff Beach. We camped at Elk Prairie and it was amazing. The kids loved running through the forests and climbing on the fallen trees and the campground rangers had campfire programs every night where we learned about redwood trees, the history of the area and more. One of my favorite parts of this area is Fern Canyon. It’s a place everyone should visit at least once. The canyon walls are covered with lush ferns and other plant life and a slow-moving creek runs through the canyon. It may look familiar since it was a filming location for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World as well as other movies. It’s an easy hike that’s great for little ones but you might want to bring some waterproof hiking shoes. To get there, drive two miles north of Orick on Highway 101 to Davison Road and turn left. In the winter months, it may be closed depending on the conditions.
During your travels you might spot wild Roosevelt elk. You can usually find them in meadows eating grass as crowds of onlookers take photos. Make sure you keep your distance. Getting too close to the elk is not only hazardous, but against state law. Another must see is “Big Tree” located near the Elk Prairie Campground. It’s one of the largest coastal redwoods.
Drive farther north and you will find Del Norte Coast Redwoods, which is just south of Crescent City. If you really want to explore this area, the Damnation Creek Trail takes your through beautiful groves of redwoods to rocky tidepools and crashing waves. Mill Creek Campground is a perfect base camp if you plan to stay.
Nine miles east of Crescent City on Highway 199 is Jedediah Smith Redwoods. In addition to its beautiful redwoods, it’s located next to the Smith River which is great for swimming, boating and fishing. The park has 20 miles of hiking trails both easy and strenuous. There are also trails for biking and horseback riding. If you plan to stay, there’s a campground with 87 family campsites.
To camp during the summer months, plan to make reservations far in advance.
For families who would like to visit Redwood National Park without the camping experience, there is plenty of lodging available in Crescent City including a Best Western and Quality Inn.
For more information, you can visit the Redwood National Park headquarters at 1111 Second St., Crescent City. 707-464-6101. nps.gov/redw/index.htm.
Information about each park and camping reservations are available on these websites: Prairie Creek, Del Norte and Jedediah Smith.
Teresa Mills-Faraudo
Lassen Volcanic National Park
This is the place to go if you want to avoid the crowds and have a more peaceful wilderness experience. Lassen gets about 536,000 visitors a year, a fraction of Yosemite’s total.
This park has eight hydrothermal areas illustrating that it is still an active volcanic site and has the potential for eruptions.
Sulphur Works is the easiest place to view the bubbling mud pots and take in the strong scent that smells like rotten eggs. Take pictures of the rising steam and maybe ask a question or two of a ranger. The site is located just one mile from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and is visible from the road. If your family is up for a hike, head to the Warner Valley area to take the 4.2-mile-roundtrip trek to Devil’s Kitchen. This moderate walk leads to several striking steam vents where you can hear the boiling below. But remember to stay on the established trail – what looks solid could be a thin crust covering boiling water that will scald you if you fall in.
If you love waterfalls, you won’t want to miss the Mill Creek Falls. It’s the highest waterfall in the park with a 75-foot drop. You get there by taking the Mill Creek Falls Trail (3.8-mile round trip) which starts just off the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center parking lot. The trail crosses an open hillside, moves over creeks and through a red-fir forest, giving plenty of opportunity to enjoy wildflowers if you visit in July.
Manzanita Lake is a perfect spot for camping, whether in tent, RV or in one of its cute cabins with a covered front porch. It’s especially convenient for families because it comes with showers, laundry and a store that sells the necessities as well as soft-serve ice cream cones. Even your littlest ones can walk the 1.5-mile trail around the lake and stop with you in the shade to watch for ducks and geese. You can all enjoy the spectacular views of Lassen Peak and Chaos Crags. Kayaks are also available to rent. In addition, there are kid-friendly evening ranger programs at the amphitheater.
Lassen Volcanic National Park can be entered from Highway 36 and is about an hour east of Redding. The address to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center is 21820 Lassen National Park Highway, Mineral. 530-595-4480. nps.gov/lavo/index.htm.
Lisa Renner
Pinnacles National Park
The craggy peaks of the Pinnacles National Monument, 30 miles east Salinas, rise above the lettuce fields and green pastures that still dominate Steinbeck country. Visiting this rocky landscape can feel like stepping away from the Bay Area into the far-corners of the world, where underground caves can be explored and prehistoric-looking birds dominate the landscape. Erupting volcanoes 23 million years ago created this landscape that can be explored by hiking, climbing and spelunking.
Spring is an ideal time to visit the Pinnacles, when wildflowers poke out of the trail.
Visitors can hike up the towering taluses and monoliths on the 7.5-mile High Peaks Trail, scale boulders, climb the Machete Ridge and spelunk through twisting caves.
Notorious outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez reportedly hid out in the caves of the park in the 1870s after committing numerous robberies in the area. Now they are home to colonies of bats.
One of the main draws of the park is catching a glimpse of a California condor. With its 10-foot wingspan, the condor is the largest flying bird in North America. Condors faced extinction in the 1980s, but have been the focus of an aggressive recovery effort.
In 2003, the Ventana Wilderness Society began reintroducing California condors in the park, part of their historic natural habitat that ranged from British Columbia to Baja, Mexico. Each Pinnacles condor is outfitted with a visual ID tag and at least one radio transmitter, and some are also given a GPS transmitter. For information on the tags, visit condorspotter.com.
There are two entrances to the Pinnacles and there is no road that connects them, so choose ahead of time what you want to see at the park. The east side is accessible from the Bay Area through the town of Hollister via Highway 146.The west side is accessible via the town of Soledad via Highway 146.
The Bear Gulch Nature Center, Park Headquarters and the Pinnacles Campground, along with the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir are located on the East side. Pinnacles Campground is accessed only from the east side of the park. The campground offers tent and group camping, along with RV sites. 831-389-4538. nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/camp.htm.
– Amy Ettinger
Joshua Tree National Park
While not as popular as Yosemite, this desert outpost still attracts close to 3 million annual visitors, as it can be reached as a long day trip from Los Angeles and is only about an hour from Palm Springs.
The park, where the high Mojave and low Colorado deserts meet, covers nearly 800,000 acres and spans elevations from around 500 to nearly 6,000 feet. It became a national park in 1994 after having been a national monument.
In addition to its namesake trees, a type of yucca that evokes comparisons to Dr. Seuss drawings, the park is home to a cactus garden, boulders and rocks for climbing and clambering over, and abandoned mines and homesteads.
The park has few facilities and little cell service, so bring plenty of water, any food you’ll need and plan a route in advance if your party is in more than one car. Summer temperatures can top 100 degrees, so most people visit between October and May. Wildflowers typically bloom in late February or early March.
The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a good spot for hiking with kids, with an easy 1-mile loop through rocks formations that beg to be climbed, and good views of more serious rock climbers. Nearby, the Barker Dam Loop, a 1.1-mile loop that leads to a seasonal lake, is also popular with families.
Skull Rock, along the main road and accessible from the Jumbo Rocks campground, is a popular rock formation. There’s also a 1.7-mile nature trail across from the campground entrance.
To learn more about the homesteaders who lived and worked in this inhospitable environment, consider taking a guided, 90-minute ranger tour of Keys Ranch to see the former ranch and school houses, store and workshop where the Keys family lived for 60 years. You can also see mine ruins along the Lost Horse Mine Trail and Wall Street Mill Trail.
Keys View, a 20-minute drive off the main Park Boulevard, provides a bird’s eye view of the Coachella Valley and is a great spot for sunsets.
The Cholla Cactus Garden, near the center of the park, is farther afield but worth a visit if you have time or are planning to drive between the north and south exits.
There are three entrances and visitor centers, the main Joshua Tree Visitor Center near the town of Joshua Tree, where you can pick up your park pass to speed entry at the West gate; the Oasis Visitor Center in 29 Palms near the north entrance, which often has shorter lines at popular times; and the Cottonwood Visitor Center to the south.
Last fall, the park service began piloting a free shuttle service, which will continue into the spring, with a loop throughout the northern section of the park. Riders on the Road Runner Shuttle do not have to pay park entrance fees and can park near the Twentynine Palms Transit Center or Oasis Visitor Center.
The only lodging available in the park is at campsites for tents or RVs, some of which take reservations and some of which are first-come, first-served. You can easily make a day trip from Palm Springs, or consider staying in one of the colorful lodging options nearby, including the Pioneertown Motel, a former Western movie set (pioneertown-motel.com) or the Hicksville Trailer Palace & Artist Retreat, with a collection of eclectic trailers and a pool (hicksville.com).
For more information, visit nps.gov/jotr.
Janine DeFao


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