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Ranking the best national park in California can be tricky – of the 423 national parks in the United States, California has the most of any state, with a total of nine. The runner-up, Alaska, has eight. The US’s diverse terrain and environment offers mountains, desserts, oceans, rainforests, volcanoes and more. The West Coast, especially California, has the widest range of natural area, from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada’s and the desert of the Mojave to the beaches of the south and the redwoods of the north.
The Pacific Crest Trail, made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir “Wild,” stretches over 2,600 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. California makes up more than 1,500 of those miles. Of course the federal government wants to preserve these scenic lands. Despite the fact that these lands are protected, the designation of national parks perpetuates a long history of colonization and the erasure of Native American ecology.
The theft and renaming of lands is only one aspect of the continued effects of colonization on Indigenous peoples and communities today. Outdoor recreation and the outdoor industry remain overwhelmingly white dominions. Though environmental degradation disproportionately affects communities of color, these communities are alienated from nature by racism. It’s important that we remember to keep national parks safe spaces for all communities and identities.
If you have to choose between parks to visit, then peruse this list that ranks all nine national parks in California. Don’t be offended if your personal favorite doesn’t rank very high. This list is full of bias, both personal and crowdsourced. All nine parks demand a visit, but not all can claim first place. Beware of bear country, and if you love to backpack then be sure to have a bear canister handy (it’s required in some areas).
9. Pinnacles National Park
As the youngest of the national parks in California, Pinnacles does very well for itself. Established as a national park in 2013, Pinnacles boasts an incredible rock-climbing scene. The caves and rock formations create the perfect playground for explorers (and for the bats that live there). If you love a quiet hike without a stampede of novice hikers, then head out on Old Pinnacle Trail.
8. Kings Canyon National Park
Originally formed in 1890 to protect a vast grove of sequoias, Kings Canyon National Park rests in beautiful bear country. Take a gorgeous drive through the park, or stop for day hikes up to spectacular waterfalls. Grizzly Falls is a must. If you’re a backpacker then get ready for some stellar backcountry hiking.
7. Sequoia National Park
Home to Mt. Whitney and the second oldest park after Yellowstone, Sequoia National Park abuts Kings Canyon, which means it’s also in bear country. Black bears might be adorable, but they need plenty of space to stay that way. Come here to see General Sherman, the biggest tree on earth, which will truly make you feel in awe of nature. Stay to visit the Giant Forest Museum and Crystal Cave.
6. Redwood National Park
We all know the phrase jaw-dropping, but not many of us have genuinely experienced a jaw-dropping sight. This is undoubtedly in the running for the best national park in California. Driving through the Avenue of the Giants with your sunroof agape will send your jaw straight to the floor.
Head up Highway 101 along the coast for some misty ocean views and sharp rock outcropping, then make a beeline for the redwoods. You might need to prepare yourself for such an awesome experience. Try watching an old classic “The Gnome Mobile” as pre-Redwood National Park viewing. If you weren’t already sold, then the movie will put the redwoods on your bucket list for sure. Unfortunately, you won’t see any signing gnomes (or maybe fortunately depending on if you liked the movie).
5. Death Valley National Park
If you aren’t averse to heat or the park’s daunting name, Death Valley National Park has the most to see of all the national parks in California. Geologists may arrive and never leave. Crystals, sand dunes and eroding mountains will captivate them.
4. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park rivals that of Yosemite with its mountains, valleys and volcanic geology, but the ranking had to be ruthless. Hike up Brokeoff Mountain for a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
3. Joshua Tree National Park
Rock climbers will love this park in the Mojave, but everyone will love it not only for the arid beauty but the people it attracts. Van lifers and yogis arrive in the winter with a formidable stash of musical instruments and drugs to enjoy the area. Some stay past the legal limit and play hide and seek with park rangers.
2. Channel Islands National Park
The pricey boat tickets to access Channel Islands National Park might be a deterrent, but if not then hop aboard. These five islands comprise a wealth of ecological beauty, from the rare trees known as Torrey pines to the magnificent Painted Cave. Some refer to them as the Galapagos of North America.
Every season is a perfect season to visit Channel Islands, though summer is the most popular for whale watching, as humpbacks and blue whales migrate north. Kayakers, snorkelers and other underwater activities often take place in the fall when the water reaches a balmy 70 degrees. Southern California doesn’t have weather, after all, only sun and mild warmth.
The most famous of California and one of the most famous of America hardly needs an endorsement. Head here for the glorious Sierra Nevadas, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and more. It won’t be difficult to see why we chose Yosemite as the best national park in California.
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