National Parks of the West Coast: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

From soaring snow-capped mountains, rugged coastlines and lush, temperate rainforests to starkly beautiful deserts freckled with vibrant flora, North America’s West Coast brims with unspoiled grandeur.  

Home to 13 unforgettable national parks — not to mention a slew of national monuments, national historic sites, national geologic trails, national historic parks and national historic trails — the coastal U.S. is a nature lover’s delight. It’s no wonder the region draws visitors from all corners of the globe.

Whether you’re a family of five or an adrenaline junkie out to perfect your rock-climbing skills, there’s something soul-stirring for you. And if you’re fortunate enough to live on the West Coast? America’s breathtaking backyards are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the West Coast? Already settled in? The mountains are calling — and so much more. 

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting the West Coast’s national parks, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, after all, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.  

Because the parks are so vast, timing is everything. Yellowstone, for example, spans nearly 3,500 square miles. Group viewpoints and hikes by regions within the park; note the distance and time between destinations; and know how to your must-sees in advance. No one wants to end up mid-mountain and crunched for time. Account for the fact that these drives can take longer than expected — mountain, unpaved and meandering roads are that way.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time.  By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips: 

  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 
  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 
  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore some of the national parks on the West Coast and delve into their biggest draws.

  1. Olympic National Park
  2. Mount Rainier National Park
  3. North Cascades National Park
  4. Crater Lake National Park
  5. Channel Islands National Park 
  6. Death Valley National Park
  7. Joshua Tree National Park
  8. Lassen Volcanic National Park
  9. Pinnacles National Park
  10. Redwood National and State Parks
  11. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
  12. Yosemite National Park

National Parks in Washington State

Olympic National Park

The Flora and Fauna 
Discover Olympics’ soaring, glacier-capped peaks, lush, old-growth temperate rainforests and wild, 70-plus-miles of mist-hung coastline. Marvel at 20-story conifers, an impressive array of vascular plants, non-vascular mosses, hornworts and liverworts. Boasting spectacularly varied levels of precipitation and elevation, the experience is yours to craft. 

In the lowlands, spot raccoons, minks and beavers. Keep your eyes peeled for the majestic, indigenous Roosevelt elk, too, and over 300 species of birds, as well as black bears and mountain lions. Meanwhile, bald eagles soar overhead and sea otters, sea lions, gray whales, dolphins and seals frolic offshore. 

The Weather 

Crowded as they are, the summer months are the best time to visit, while winters are cooler, with coastal fog and some snow at higher elevations. You can check for road closures, location-specific weather and the status of different areas of the park here.  

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Decide what kind of experience — or combination of them — you’d like to have — as Olympic boasts exceptionally diverse habitats: 

Coastal 
Lowland 
Temperate rainforest 
Montane 
Subalpine 
Alpine 

Wherever you land, no visit is complete without a trek along the moss-drenched Hoh Rainforest Trail. It starts at the visitor’s center, at the end of the Upper Hoh Road, and travels 12 miles through the electric-green temperate rainforest. Beyond, it ascends to the flower-frocked Glacier Meadows. 

For a change of pace, Hurricane Ridge is the park’s most accessible mountain range. Just 17 miles from Port Angeles, it features a hike to suit all types. 

Set in the northern foothills of the Olympic Mountains, glassy, glacially carved Crescent Lake features several hiking trails, some of which traverse the surrounding mountains, while others intersect the lowland forests and follow creeks. 

Traveling with family? The club moss, fern, and lichen-laden Hall of Moss Trail offers an easy 0.8-mile loop through an ethereal rainforest of imposing maples and Sitka spruces. 

Beach bums should fast track it to Rialto Beach by the Mora Campground and Quillayute River, near La Push. Offering everything from a gentle, half-mile stroll to a heart-pounding, 13-mile trek, there’s something for all activity levels. Be sure to pause and appreciate Hole-in-the-Wall, offshore islands and sea stacks and plan to explore tidepools if the timing is right. 

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Mount Rainier National Park 

Established in 1899, famous naturalist and preservationist John Muir helped later designate the uniquely beautiful, cone-shaped Mount Rainier as a 368-square-mile national park. However, archaeological evidence traces indigenous use of this area back 9,000 years. 

Presiding over Washington state at 14,410 feet, massive, snow-capped Mount Rainier is both an active stratovolcano and the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. A towering icon of the Washington state landscape, icy-tipped Mount Rainier is encircled by subalpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers, usually from mid-July through August, while its lower slopes are densely forested. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Home to marmots, Pacific fishers, black-tailed deer and Stellar’s jays, Mount Rainier is also a safe haven for black bears, bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes. From elk to black-tailed deer and mountain goats, insectivores, and several species of bats, the park’s varied ecosystems attract diverse wildlife. 

Within the park, there are over 890 vascular species and more than 260 non-vascular plant species and fungi, along with more than 100 exotic plant species — look for them near trails, along transportation corridors and in riparian areas. 

That translates to the following plant community zones: 

Forest Zone 
Subalpine Zone 
Alpine Zone 

Significant variations in elevation ensure a variety of habitats and life zones in Mount Rainier National Park. 

The Weather 

Mount Rainier’s weather patterns are strongly influenced by the Pacific Ocean, as well as elevation and latitude. As a result, conditions fluctuate significantly — sometimes suddenly — requiring you to plan for unpredictability. Typically, cool and rainy, summer highs can hover in the 60s and 70s. July and August are the sunniest months of the year, even though rain is possible any day — and especially likely to come during spring, fall and winter. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

For those pushing a stroller or simply seeking an easy(ish) hike, the 1.2-mile Nisqually Vista loop has just a few short, steep climbs, for which you’re rewarded with breathtaking views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier. 

For something more challenging, the 93- mile-long Wonderland Trail — used over a century ago by patrol officers and firefighters — fully encircles Mount Rainier. Meanwhile, the mile-long Myrtle Falls Trail in the Paradise area starts at the essential, but strenuous, Skyline Trail, which cuts through pine forests before ascending the slopes of Mount Rainier. 

Among the best ways to admire the variety of flora is by driving up the road to Sunrise. The highest vehicle-accessible peak in the park, at 6,400 feet, features a 360-degree panorama of the mountains, glaciers and wildflower-stippled meadows. 

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North Cascades National Park 

It wasn’t until October 2, 1968, that Congress protected approximately 700,000 acres of the North Cascades range. Less than three hours from Seattle, North Cascades National Park beckons with an alpine landscape; forested valleys resplendent with cascading waters; and jagged peaks crowned by more than 300 glaciers. Here, four large bodies of water are joined by alpine lakes and hundreds of ponds; a wet and temperate western slope; and a drier, colder eastern slope. 

The Flora and Fauna 

The range’s lowland west side is forested with Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar, while higher elevations harbor mountain hemlock and Pacific silver fir, subalpine fir and Alaska yellow cedar. On the eastern side of the range, low elevations present a variety of fir. At higher elevations, aspen; Ponderosa pine; Whitebark pine; and subalpine larch appear.  Not to be overlooked are the park’s quintessential subalpine meadows — or “mountain parks” — revealing themselves above the tree lines. 

Rainier’s lakes are rich with natives, such as burbot, bull trout and cutthroat trout. By contrast, introduced fish species include rainbow and brook trout, as well as Chinook salmon. Nearly 340 species of wildlife call the park home overall, so keep your eyes trained for black bears, deerand mountain goats as well. Less frequent appearances may be made by grizzlies, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves and bobcats. 

The Weather 

Mid-June through mid-September are the most popular — and pleasant — months to visit, though summer storms are common occurrences and snow can remain on high-elevation trails until July. Come late spring and fall, rains arrive westerly, blowing in from the Pacific. 

Follow park and road conditions here

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Given it’s the only paved road in the park, you should certainly take a scenic drive on North Cascades Highway, pausing at viewpoints to glean gorgeous lakes and mountain passes along the way.  

That said, hiking is the way to truly experience the park’s best features, whether it’s the easy Trail of the Cedars nature walk; Ladder Creek Falls; remote Thornton Lake; or the stunning, family-friendly Thunder Knob Trail with its views of turquoise, glacier-fed Diablo Lake, a reservoir created by Diablo Dam. 

In 1956, Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” took inspiration from Desolation Peak, a challenging-to-reach and harder-to-hike trek, where the summit reveals vistas of Skagit Peak, Ross Lake and Little Jackass Mountain. 

Looking for a taste of everything? The Maple Pass Loop may be for you, with its lovely alpine late, old-growth forests, wildflowers and panoramas of the North Cascades. 

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National Parks in Oregon 

Crater Lake National Park 

Set in the Cascade Mountains in southern Oregon Crater Lake National Park’s stunningly blue, rain and snow-fed lake is the deepest in the United States. The result of a volcanic eruption — witnessed by Native Americans some 7,700 years ago — Crater Lake was born when Mount Mazama collapsed.  

Today, aquatic moss thrives in its waters. And otherworldly fumaroles — tubes, holes, pits, and depressions up to 120 feet thick — have appeared on the surface of dead moss layers, which are several thousand years old. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Rich with wildlife, you may spot an array of golden-mantled ground squirrels, Canada jays, bees and butterflies. In autumn and late spring, black bear sightings are more common since animals are either waking up or about to hibernate. When winter arrives, keep your binoculars at the ready, watching for snowshoe hares, Douglas squirrels and American martens.  

Amphibians flourish in the park’s wetlands, ponds, streams and along the lakeshore. Some reptile species call dry habitats and Wizard Island home, the latter a volcanic cinder cone at Crater Lake’s west end. 

From its forests to its meadows, plant life abounds at Crater Lake — more than 700 species of native plants, in fact. During the short growing season, glean splashy wildflowers on hillsides and along creeks and rivers. Marvel at the ancient, majestic trees that fringe the caldera’s rim. Wet, dry, and somewhere in between, the park’s meadows host grasses, blooms and sedges. There’s even a pumice desert along North Entrance Park Road. 

The Weather 

Often hidden by clouds, Crater Lake is fully visible approximately half of the year. Winters here are long and snowy, with storms from the Pacific pummeling the park with an annual average of 42 feet of snowfall. Short but sunny summers stretch from July through September and are warm and dry. May, June, and October see sunny days that alternate with rainy and snowy conditions. 

Be sure to track park and road conditions before you go. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Offering outstanding views of the park’s volcanic formations, Rim Drive — a 33-mile scenic loop — encircles the caldera and was listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Set high in the Cascade Mountains, it ascends from 6,500 feet to 7,900 feet at Cloudcap, one of four observation points right off the main road. Consider pausing for a short time to walk the Castle Crest Wildflower Trail, which loops around a bowl-shaped meadow below Castle Crest Ridge, .4-mile stroll. 

Short and easy, the mile-long, out-and-back Pinnacles Trail reveals natural chimneys formed by volcanic ash, as well as an impressive collection of volcanic rock spires. 

Step away from the lake to traverse the Annie Creek Canyon Loop Trail, which intersects a picturesque canyon below the crater rim.  

Among the easiest and most scenic walks is the 2.4-mile, out-and-back Discovery Point Trail, which starts at the west end of Rim Village; travels through a Whitebark pine and mountain hemlock forest that encircles Crater Lake; and affords spectacular views of the shockingly blue water and volcano-within-a-volcano Wizard Island.  

Another winner? The 1.6-mile, out-and-back Watchman Peak Trail, features a short, moderate climb to the mountaintop, where a historic fire lookout — still in use by rangers today — offers magnificent views. 

For a more strenuous day hike, set out on the 7.5-mile Discovery Point and Rim Trails to Watchman Peak for unobstructed, close-up views of wow-inducing waters. 

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National Parks in California  

Channel Islands National Park

Set just off Southern California’s mainland and surfacing from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, untouched Channel Islands National Park spans more than 12,000 years of human history. Today, you can walk in the shoes of the native Chumash, stroll the shores where European explorers landed, explore California’s ranching history, and observe the remnants of offshore shipwrecks. 

The park is comprised of five ecologically remarkable islands and the oceanic environment surrounding them: 

  • Anacapa Island features trails to a 1932 lighthouse and clifftop Inspiration Point 
  • Santa Cruz Island is known for its many sea caves, including Painted Cave 
  • Santa Rosa Island hosts a collection of rare Torrey pines 
  • San Miguel Island’s Point Bennett welcomes thousands of sunning and frolicking seals 
  • Santa Barbara Island, the park’s southernmost, attracts nesting seabirds 

The Flora and Fauna 

Boasting great diversity, Channel Islands support a wide range of terrestrial flora, including many rare, relict, endemic, and nonnative species. From coastal dunes, coastal bluffs and coastal sage scrub to chaparral, grasslands, mixed hardwood and island oak woodlands, riparian areas, and pine stands, there’s something fascinating at every turn. 

Enthusiasts should watch for endangered plant species such as endemic, flowering Hoffmann’s rockcress; island barberry, which survives as three tiny populations on Santa Cruz Island; and Trask’s Live-Forever, a succulent that clings to rocky cliffs. 

As for wildlife, the islands and ocean host everything from sharks and bald eagles to deer mice and island foxes. They’re also a sanctuary for a wide range of land, shore, and sea birds. Additionally, notable paleontological remains have been found, including the extinct pygmy mammoth, a dwarf elephant and descendant of the larger Columbian mammoth. 

The Weather 

Despite its location in “sunny” California, there are distinct seasons on the Channel Islands. Summer temperatures average in the low 70°s F. and afternoon winds are common. Calm winds and seas prevail from late summer through October. In addition to being calm — at least unless strong east or Santa Ana winds appear — fall continues to offer warm weather, plus 100-foot water clarity and ocean temperatures that hover around 70° F. During winter, storms surface between sunny, clear days and the bulk of the rain falls between December and March. When spring arrives, so do fierce winds and dense fog. 

Keep abreast of conditions on the National Park Service website. 
 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Find transportation to the park year-round — just know it’s only by park concessionaire boats and planes or by private boat.  

Set off on Santa Cruz’s magical, 7.7-mile Smuggler’s Cove Trail, an out-and-back, inland and coastal beauty with a 1,400-foot elevation gain. Pause for a picnic beneath massive cypress trees.  

Offering a hike-within-a-hike in Santa Cruz, take the 4.9-mile Potato Harbor to Cavern Point trek, appreciating valley views and cliffside panoramas of dramatic coves. Continue 1.4 miles further along the Cavern Point Loop for coastal vistas from a long stretch of bluffs. 

Just one square mile, it takes three hours by boat from the mainland to reach Santa Barbara Island — and then a 131-step climb to set foot on it. The 5.5-mile Santa Barbara Loop Trail — and the wildflowers, Arch Point and Elephant Seal Cove — will make you glad you did. 

Anacapa Island is an unofficial bird sanctuary. See them and a 1932 lighthouse on the East Anacapa Island Trail. Whether it’s where you start or finish, take time to appreciate the barking seals at Pinniped Point. 

Beachy, primitive Santa Rosa Island feels like a tropical paradise with backcountry camping and the marvelous 4.8-mile, out-and-back Lobo Canyon Trail with its Spanish moss and rare vegetation. 

As the westernmost island, windy, foggy conditions on San Miguel can be intense. Provided you’re not faint of heart, take a ranger-led hike on the 13.8-mile Point Bennett Trail, passing sea cliffs, Green Mountain and Caliche Forest with its ancient, fossilized vegetation. 

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Death Valley National Park 

Featuring the hottest, driest and lowest area on the North American continent, Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes east of the Sierra Nevada, straddling the California–Nevada border in the northern Mojave. Situated below sea level, a series of Native American groups inhabited the area as early as 7000 BC, most recently the Timbisha around 1000 AD. Then, in 1849, a group of European Americans got trapped in the valley while seeking a fateful shortcut to California’s gold fields, giving the valley its name. 

An area shaped largely by geology; its oldest, extensively metamorphosed rocks are believed to date back at least 1.7 billion years. Home to a maar volcano — Ubehebe Crater — Death Valley also features shifting sand dunes, mysterious-looking salt flats, colorful badlands and snow-covered peaks, the tallest of them Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The park’s lowest point, Badwater Basin, is 282 feet below sea level. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Despite its drought conditions, the starkly beautiful park harbors 1,000 or more plant species, including ancient bristlecone pines and an array of vibrant spring wildflowers. Standouts include desert marigolds, Eureka Dunes evening primroses, and grape soda lupines, their hue just like their name suggests. Not surprisingly, cacti and succulents are plentiful here as well. Plus, there are a few Joshua trees in the pinyon-juniper woodlands, too. 

Impressively, many wildlife species have adapted to the harsh conditions — you may glimpse desert bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, desert tortoises, jackrabbits and coyotes. Bats and butterflies inhabit the area as well, along with a variety of migrating and nesting birds.  

The Weather 

A hot desert climate, Death Valley’s temperature was once recorded at 134° F — and that’s the highest ambient air temperature ever clocked on the Earth’s surface. Let’s be real though. Typical summer temperatures aren’t that far off: they frequently top 120 °F, dropping only to the 90s F at night. And rainfall? It averages — wait for it — less than two inches per year. Naturally, higher elevations are cooler than those in the valley — albeit slightly. 

Sunny skies are the norm in Death Valley. However, winter storms and summer monsoons have the potential to usher in clouds and rain. Wind is frequent, particularly in spring, and sudden dust storms can appear when cold fronts approach. November through March are the most pleasant months here, when average highs range from 67°F to 82°F. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A two-mile hike through the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is not to be missed — it’s a fascinating counterpoint to Darwin Falls, a lush oasis reached through a dusty canyon. 

The nine-mile Artists Drive journeys through multicolored, eroded hills, which you can stop and soak in from panoramic viewpoints.  

Then there’s the nearly six-mile trek through Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriskie Point. It features some of Death Valley’s most unforgettable scenery — badlands; tall, dry falls; and canyon walls made of red mudstone and colorful mosaic conglomerates. 

For an easier, two-mile, out-and-back hike, the Natural Bridge Canyon Trail is a must. You’ll not only see a natural bridge, but dry falls as well. 

The most ethereal of experiences, though, is a visit to the Badwater Salt Flats in the Badwater Basin. Take the boardwalk to the edge of the salt bed; then, step out onto the hexagon-shaped crystals, taking care to avoid their breakable “borders.” 

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Joshua Tree National Park 

Achieving national park status in 1994, human history in the Joshua Tree region is said to stretch back more than 5,000 years. The park protects more than 838 documented archaeological sites, five cultural landscapes and 160 historic structures. 

Punctuated by rugged rock formations and foreboding desert landscapes, Joshua Tree National Park lies between the cacti-studded Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, creating a vast, otherworldly panorama of huge, rugged rock formations and parched desert landscapes.  

The Flora and Fauna 

A dozen-plus cacti species flourish in Joshua Tree, from the Beavertail prickly pear to the California barrel cactus and silver cholla. California fan palms provide a lush respite at five oases in the park; 154 lichen taxa appear on rocks, soil, bark and wood, from the intertidal zone to the top of mountains; and the scent of hardy creosote bushes is carried by the wind after rare desert rains. 

Not surprisingly, the real spectacle at the park is the eponymous, Dr. Seuss-like Joshua trees, which depend on well-timed rains to survive. The twisty tree — a member of the agave family — sports clusters of white-green flowers on long stalks when spring rains arrive. Beyond populating the park with their quintessential silhouette, Joshua trees are a habitat for birds, lizards, mammals and insects. 

Home to coyotes, California ground squirrels and Mojave pocket gophers, the park also hosts rare desert harvest mice, desert grey shrews and long-tailed weasels — not to mention well over a dozen species of bats, tarantulas, scorpions and 75-plus butterfly species. 

The Weather 

There’s great variation in the elevation at Joshua Tree National Park — it spans from 536 feet at its lowest point to 5,814 feet above sea level at the pinnacle of Quail Mountain. As such, conditions vary greatly and should be closely monitored

Although it’s open year-round, the best times to visit the park are from March to May and October to November, when the average high is about 85° F. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Experience the scope of the land on 106-mile, point-to-point Joshua Tree Scenic Drive. It’s also a jumping point for off-road adventures. Alternatively, a short, 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard down Keys View Road brings you to Keys View Lookout, with its panoramic views of the Coachella Valley. 

Meander through the singular Cholla Cactus Garden, a .2-mile wonderland on the western edge of Pinto Basin. Known for its short, fuzzy, sharp cacti, it’s a sight to behold. 

A one-mile loop out to Barker Dam reveals a rare source of water in the park, while the .4-mile Cap Rock Trail takes you through winding boulder fields and groves of Joshua trees. 

Looking for an excellent, one-mile hike for families? Bathed in golden sunshine and deeply shadowed as the sun starts to set, the Hidden Valley Trail offers a chance to scramble up boulders and explore what’s thought to be an erstwhile cattle rustlers’ hideout. 

Don’t forget to see the most iconic rock formation in the park — Skull Rock, its two depressions resembling eye sockets. A 1.8-mile loop takes you through Mojave mid-elevation mixed scrub, riparian corridors and oak woodlands set among boulders. 

Want to tackle something challenging? Ryan Mountain is one of the only summits in the park and a three-mile trail to the top ascends 1,050 feet. 

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Lassen Volcanic National Park

With a history shaped by Native Americans, fearless explorers and gold rush-era pioneers, Lassen Volcanic National Park is marked by soaring mountains, steaming fumaroles, flower-freckled meadows, and numerous volcanoes.  

Situated at the southern end of the Cascade Range geologic province, the park lies at the crossroads of the Cascade Range to the north, the Great Basin Desert to the east and the Sierra Nevada mountains to the south. 

Featuring many locations on the National Register of Historic Places, intrigue abounds, including at the panoramic Mount Harkness Fire Lookout, Sulphur Creek Archeological District and Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway Historic District. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Renowned for its volcanic geology, Lassen also hosts diverse plant and animal life, thanks to variations in environmental conditions. With an elevation that ranges from 5,000 to 10,457 feet, 300 species of vertebrates are found within three plant life zones:  

  • Mixed conifer with its Jeffrey and sugar pines, manzanitas, gooseberries and irises: 
  • Pine red fir forest, filled with western white pines, mountain hemlocks, lodgepole pines and satin lupines 
  • Harsh subalpine, home to lupine, Indian paintbrush and penstemon 

There are also 110 known lichen species in the park. 

Mammel-wise, you may see black bears, mountain lions and Sierra Nevada red foxes, who live among 216 species of birds, slithering reptiles and fluttering California Tortoiseshell butterflies. 

The Weather 

Winter weather and conditions usually extend from November to May, while summer weather arrives June through October. (Spring and fall are shoulder seasons.) Winter conditions are typically experienced well into June in the park’s higher elevations around Lassen Peak. Cooler fall temperatures make for excellent hiking, though snow showers can occur at higher elevations around October. 

Be sure to keep an eye on conditions and plan accordingly. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints

A total of eight hydrothermal areas contain “hot water” features linked to active volcanoes, while the Subway Cave affords a short-self-guided tour through a lava tube. 

The 1.5-mile Manzanita Lake Loop rings the park’s tranquil lake, offering a chance to spot ducks, geese, muskrats, river otters and beavers. Also a must is the paved, .5-mile Devastated Area Interpretive Trail, a loop that reveals the aftermath of the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak. Keep a watch for gray and pink lava rocks along the way. 

See a 30-foot waterfall plummet into a picturesque canyon on the three-mile Kings Creek Falls Trail, where mule deer and Clark’s nutcrackers may appear. 

Don’t forget to head to kaleidoscopic Bumpass Hell, Lassen’s most recognized hydrothermal area, featuring bubbling mud pots and boiling pools. It’s reached via the three-mile Bumpass Hell Trail, which takes you past wondrous geothermal oddities. 

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Pinnacles National Park

Located east of California’s Salinas Valley in Central California, mountainous Pinnacles National Park is divided into east and west districts, which are linked by more than 30 miles of trails. Offering gorgeous vistas, the rock formations at Pinnacles are popular with technical climbers. The product of an ancient volcanic eruption some 23 million years ago. Spanning 26,000 acres of diverse wildlands, its colossal monoliths, spindly spires, talus caves and sheer-walled canyons reveal millions of years of erosion, faulting and movement of tectonic plates. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Journey past towering rock spires and through chaparral, oak woodlands, rare talus caves and canyon bottoms at this dynamic destination. Watch golden eagles, falcon sand California condors soar overhead. Then, perhaps see sensitive species like the Pinnacles shield-back katydid, big-eared kangaroo rat, California horned lizard, Gabilan slender salamander or Pinnacles riffle beetle on the ground. Listen, too, to the croak of red-legged frogs.  

Despite the dry climate, there is a notable range of plant life in the park. Covered extensively with shrubby chaparral, Pinnacles also contains blue oak woodland; riparian habits on valley bottoms and in moist canyons; vast grasslands; and areas of iconic rock and scree. Time your visit from March through May and you may see spring wildflowers. 

The Weather 

Set several miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Pinnacles features a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild winters with moderate precipitation. It’s common for daytime temperatures in July and August to hover above 100° F. On the other end of the spectrum, subfreezing, overnight winter temperatures do occur. As a result, spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit and hike. 

Be sure to watch for weather, trail and route updates on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

All-but-hidden in plain sight, Pinnacles is two hours from the Bay and three hours from Sacramento. It has two entrances, which are not connected by roads. Note that the park’s western side is more remote than the eastern side. 

For a real workout, the difficult, 5.5-mile Condor Gulch Trail to High Peaks Trail loop is essential. Beginning at the Bear Gulch visitor’s center, it takes you past magnificent rock formations and spikey spires; through a tunnel carved in the rock; and up switchbacks for incredible views of the protected land below. 

Marvel at massive rock formations, talus caves and a tranquil reservoir along the moderate, family-friendly 2.5-mile Moses Spring and Rim Trail loop near the town of Paicines. 

Hike the park’s highs and lows on the challenging High Peaks and Balconies Cave Loop Trail, a 9.5-mile heart-thumper through Pinnacles’ striking terrain. Start at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead (at the east entrance) or Chaparral Trailhead (at the west entrance), passing through a cave, gaining steep elevation and seeing towering rock formations from different vantage points. Be on the lookout for condors and other raptors in the sky. 

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Redwood National and State Parks 

Home to the tallest trees on earth, Redwood National Park also protects oak woodlands, boundless prairies, powerful rivers and 40 miles of rugged Pacific coastline. 

Native Americans made the redwood forests and surrounding ecosystems their home for thousands of years, building shelter and homes from fallen redwoods, speaking a variety of languages, and maintaining distinct identities. Their descendants continue to live both on and off reservations in the redwood region to this day. Yurok and Tolowa ancestral territories exist within Redwood National State Park. The Yurok reservation extends from the mouth of the Klamath River 40 miles upstream and the Tolowa have two rancherias in Del Norte County. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Many visitors come just to see blooms in the redwoods — they are spectacular. Among the picture-perfect sights are expanses of vibrant, delicate-looking California poppies, which blanket grassy areas at elevations up to 7,000 feet from February through September.  

Where land meets sea, beach peas, beach strawberries and sand verbena anchor themselves against salty, persistent winds. Coast redwoods and Douglas fir stand watch over the old-growth forests. And the likes of Oregon grapes, Jeffrey pines and colorful spring lupines accentuate the Bald Hills.  

From populous birds of prey, mysterious tidepool creatures, pinnipeds, cetaceans, Roosevelt elk and banana slugs, diverse wildlife abounds. 

The Weather 

Conditions can quickly change at Redwood, so dressing in layers and having rain gear is essential year-round. Given the rainforest is slippery, wearing sturdy, “sticky” hiking boots is important, too. 

Oceanic influences remain fairly steady along California’s redwood coast. The result is temperatures ranging from the mid-40s F to the low-60s F. Typically, winters are cool and see a lot of precipitation. It is rainiest from October through April, when a high-pressure area atop the North Pacific pushes storms that dump 60-80 inches of rain annually. 

When summer arrives, that high-pressure area moves north and heavy clouds and winter storms subside. At the same time, the California Current pulls warm surface water away from the coast, bringing deeper, colder water near the shore and creating moisture and a narrow band of fog that blankets and moistens the coastal redwoods during dry summers. Inland, conditions are warmer and sunnier this time of year.  

Keep on top of conditions and closures in Redwoods National Park on its website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Unlike other national parks, Redwood National Park exists in partnership with several California state parks: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Together, they total nearly 40,000 acres of old-growth redwood forest. Together, they’re designated as Redwood National and State Parks. The following hikes span those boundaries. 

Bring your rain boots — a trek through verdant Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park takes you through a steep-walled, mini-canyon steeped in its namesake foliage. Follow the mile-long “lollipop” loop with an elevation gain of 150 feet. Or stick to the bed of Home Creek and you’ll see the canyon’s leafy walls in about a quarter mile. 

To revel in the glory of the park’s redwoods, make fast tracks for the .7-mile Stout Grove Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Take in the behemoths’ cathedral-like majesty as you navigate a small floodplain at the confluence of two rivers. 

Another popular hike is the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, a 1.5-mile walk through redwoods as old as 2,000 years. Named in honor of the first lady who dedicated the park, the trail traverses an upland environment in Redwood National Park proper, at 1,200 feet above sea level. 

For a more comprehensive taste of the park, tackle the 3-mile Prairie Creek, Big Tree and Cathedral Trees Loop in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Look for Roosevelt elk as you set out from the Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center. 

Looking for a scenic drive? Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is a fine way to pass the time. It — and the Big Tree Wayside Trail — reveal one of the biggest trees in the area. 

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Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks 

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks span the historic homeland of the Mono (Monache), Yokuts, Tübatulabal, Paiute and Western Shoshone. It was on September 25, 1890, that President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation to protect giant sequoia trees from logging. Naturalist John Muir was on board too, once calling the park a “rival to Yosemite,” given its resemblance to Yosemite Valley. 

It’s here that you’ll find the world’s largest remaining grove of ancient sequoia trees (the world’s largest trees, period), along with plunging valleys, vast canyons, rugged foothills and distinctive, rocky outcrops. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Offering an elevation range from the low foothills to the white-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, a diversity of species call the park home. Dense chaparral shrubs, riverside vegetation and oak woodlands dominate the low foothills, attracting everything from black bears to gray foxes, bobcats, and striped and spotted skunks.  

In the subalpine and alpine meadows, encounter a high country of lakes, open forests, meadows and miles upon miles of granite. In this area, you may spot pikas, marmots and white-tailed jackrabbits; winged wonders like the American pipit and gray-crowned rosy finch; and rarities such as Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep and mountain yellow-legged frogs. 

By contrast, the low to mid-montane elevations reveal incense cedars, firs, pine forests, and a smattering of giant sequoia groves. It’s the perfect environment for mule deer, black bears, mountain lions, chickarees, gray squirrels and a variety of birds. 

The Weather  
 
Varying significantly in temperature from area to area (upwards of 30 degrees, in fact), the weather at Kings Canyon and Sequoia can change on a dime. Be sure to check the weather conditions and outlook for the region you plan to explore. Note, too, that many roads open and close seasonally, so that must be considered. 

The foothills experience mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers, with most of the precipitation occurring from January to mid-May. Low-hanging clouds that drift in from the west are common during winter, obscuring the countryside for days at a time. 

Summer in the Sequoia Grove introduces warm days and cool evenings, with an average of 40”-45″ of precipitation. Much of it comes in the form of winter snow, which is usually present from December through May. Note that Lodgepole swings 10° F -15° F cooler than its counterparts. Cedar Grove temps are cooler than the foothills and hotter than the average seen at middle elevations. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Journey 8.2 miles on the out-and-back Mist Falls Trail to see wow-inducing waterfalls and endless meadows, plus a forested stretch along a sandy path skirting Kings River.  

Adventurers would be remiss to skip the 41.4-mile Rae Lakes Loop backpacking trail through Kings and Sequoia National Parks. It sports a 7,000-foot elevation gain; chance to climb up Glenn Pass; and stretches along the storied John Muir Trail. 

See the world’s largest living trees — specifically the staggering General Grant Tree — along the .5-mile General Grant Loop Trail. Then, for a change of pace, hit the Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls Trail, a 4.1-mile, out-and-back trek with unforgettable Sierra scenery, including towering granite walls, expanses of alpine meadows and a showpiece waterfall that tumbles over granite monoliths into a rock pool below. 

Want spectacular views of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park? The steep, .4-mile Moro Rock Trail to the top of a huge granite dome may be for you. 

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Yosemite National Park 

Situated in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and stretching 747,956 acres (1,169 square miles), Yosemite National Park’s greatest icons are its giant, ancient sequoia trees. Then there’s Tunnel View, a vista that reveals Bridalveil Fall, plus the staggering granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. From its deep valleys to its thundering waterfalls, vast wilderness and glorious meadows, there is untouched beauty at every turn.  

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1984 and one of our nation’s first national parks, Yosemite has a rich human history — one that involves conflict, adventure, hardship and preservation. It was here that — in 1918 — Clare Marie Hodges became the first female park ranger enlisted by the National Park Service. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Sporting imposing granite cliffs, massive sequoias, roaring waterfalls, crystalline streams, giant sequoia groves and incredible biological diversity, Yosemite has two National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Tuolumne and Merced, which begin in the park and flow west to the Central Valley.  

Delivering an elevation gradient from 1,800 to over 13,000 feet, Yosemite hosts a wide array of climate and plant zones, from oak woodlands to chaparral scrublands, lower montane, upper montane, subalpine and alpine habitats. In the lower-lying foothill-woodland zone, witness the likes of manzanitas, chamises, ceanothus and blue oaks. Yosemite’s giant sequoia groves — found in the lower montane forest — demand visits to Mariposa, Merced, and Tuolumne.  

Starting around 6,000 feet, the upper montane forest features vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines and western junipers. Come 8,000 feet, white pines, mountain hemlocks and lodgepole pines thrive in the subalpine forest, while the alpine zone is marked by rocky slopes, limited vegetation and — when weather allows — vibrant mountain monkeyflowers. 

It’s no surprise Yosemite’s wildlife is as diverse as its flora, its mammal species include black bears, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep and mountain lions. They’re joined by 262 documented bird species, plenty of fish and an impressive array of reptiles, including more than a dozen types of snakes. 

The Weather 

Given Yosemite’s wide elevation range, weather varies considerably. The park receives nearly all of its precipitation between October and May — over 75% of it between November and March alone. Notably, Yosemite is blanketed in snow from around November through May.  

Here is a full range of average temperatures to help with planning a trip to Yosemite. Seasonal road closures are the norm, so be sure to watch the park’s website for details on that and trail conditions, too. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Drive Tioga Road (Highway 120) from Crane’s Point to soaring Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet in the sky. Pause at Olmstead Point for a .5-mile stroll for vistas of Half Dome. Next, head to subalpine Tuolumne Meadows. Sitting at 8,600 feet, it’s one of the Sierra Nevada’s largest high-elevation meadows. 

During your stay, do make the drive to Glacier Point. Its overlook, at 7,214 feet, promises commanding views of Yosemite Valley, the high Sierra and distinct Half Dome. 

If Mariposa Grove is too crowded, Nelder Grove’s sequoias are an impressive, outside-the-park alternative that doesn’t disappoint. 

Build in some time to reflect at snowmelt Tenaya Lake, its beautiful 2.5-mile loop trail taking you around glassy waters. 

On the Vernal and Falls Trails via the Mist Trail, a challenging hike to two waterfalls awaits. Want to appreciate the magnitude of Yosemite Falls? Hit the 7.6-mile Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, which offers awe-inspiring views of North America’s largest falls from above. An easier, though different, experience is the easy, 1.2-mile Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. Soak up the mist, which sprays from the falls 2,425 feet above. 

Not for the faint of heart, but incredibly rewarding, is the challenging Half Dome hike via the John Muir Trail. Ascending 4,800 feet above Yosemite Valley, it promises larger-than-life vistas. This is a long and incredibly steep hike at the beginning and end. However, this is among the most dangerous and difficult Yosemite hikes. It’s also the stuff of bucket lists. Keep in mind that you can’t climb Half Dome unless the cables are up, which typically means from late May or early June through Columbus Day weekend. 

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