California has the most National Parks of any state with nine. This 11 day road trip is going to be a whirlwind tour of the parks we have visited. Hopefully by the end of 2020, we’ll have hit all of the California parks but until then, we hope that this road trip plan will get you scheming about your own way to see the state’s diverse natural resources.
Day 1: Arrive in LA and drive the 2.5 hours to Joshua Tree National Park. A small town just on the north side of the park is named after the park (or vice versa) and has many AirBnB options. After you get settled at your AirBnB and pick up some groceries, head into the park and explore. We recommend several mini-hikes including Barker Dam and the Wonderland Wash.
Day 2: Spend the day doing a long hike in Joshua Tree. You might drive down to do the Lost Palms Oasis, which will also take you right by the Cholla Cactus garden.
Day 3: Take a sunrise hike in Joshua Tree, maybe at Lucky Boy Vista. Then head out to Death Valley National Park, about a 4 hours drive. Check out sunset from Dante’s View. There are several lodging options inside of the park, including camping if you’re up for it. Death Valley is so remote that we recommend staying inside the park.
Day 4: Explore the Badwater Basin at sunrise. On your way out of the park, check out the sand dunes if the heat is not yet too oppressive. Head west and then north to get up to Sequoia & Kings Canyon. This drive will take awhile! There just aren’t roads that connect the eastern to western side of the Sierras. The drive from Death Valley to Visalia (outside of Sequoia) will take about 4 hours. Spend the night in Visalia or Three Rivers, which is just a touch closer to the park but which will have fewer resources.
Day 5: Explore the southern part of the park and drive through the park north to Fresno. Stop at Moro Rock and Beatle Rock for short hikes and views. You’ll pass the parking for the General Sherman tree and can explore around there. If you’re up for more hiking, try Little Baldy or the Muir Grove (out of the Dorst Creek campground). You can continue north through the parks to explore General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon. After the longest day you can muster in the park, spend the night in a hotel between here and Yosemite, possibly in Fresno.
Day 6: Wake up as early as you possibly can to enjoy your time in Yosemite. You’ll want to stop as you enter the park at tunnel view to enjoy your first dramatic view of the valley. Turn up onto Glacier Point road to do some hiking up there. We did the short hike out to Sentinel Dome and the views were amazing. We also drove out to Glacier Point. If you can arrange or take a shuttle, you could hike down into the valley from the rim. Spend the night in the valley, either at the lodge or a campsite (plan far in advance for either option!)
Day 7: Explore the valley and whatever else you want in the area. If you’ve planned ahead and are prepared, you can hike the famous Half Dome. This requires either getting lucky on the day of your hike or entering a lottery for passes. Each lottery entry can serve up to 6 hikers so if you are hiking in a group, every member of your party should enter to increase your chances. This hike is epic and challenging. Be sure to get some good distance and elevation gain training in before you attempt it. It will also take all day, so your travel plans might need to be adjusted if you decide to do this hike. Spend the night in Yosemite Valley again.
Day 8: One last sunrise hike in Yosemite and then you’ve got a 6 hour drive up to Lassen Volcanic. The popular campsite here is at Manzanita Lake, which was lovely when we visited. But you might enjoy other quieter campgrounds if possible. When we visited Lassen, almost all the trails were still covered in snow and we didn’t get a chance to do much hiking. Lassen Peak would be an excellent adventure for your road trip, especially if you missed out on Half Dome due to not getting passes. Spend the night in the park or in nearby Redding.
Day 9: It’s a 4 hour drive up to Redwoods National and State Parks (from Lassen Volcanic). There are many hotel options near the park or you can try your hand at camping or backcountry camping. Hike the Tall Trees trail in the southern region. This trail requires a code to access, which you’ll need to secure from a Ranger station. If you have time, we really enjoyed the drive out on Bald Hills Road.
Day 10: Spend the day exploring the large Redwoods trees and coastal regions. We missed the Boy Scout Tree trail but I have it on good recommendation from a tree-hugger grad student of mine that you should not miss it. The Coastal Trail also looks like a great place to explore.
Day 11: Take one last hike through the large tree groves and head toward your airport of choice. Redding and Sacramento are probably your best bets for return flights home. If you head to Sacramento, it’s a 6 hour drive, putting your total driving time for the trip at 32 hours.
1) Adding Death Valley to this trip is part of what makes the driving time so long. It’s just really out of the way. But when else are you going to get to the park? It’s amazingly stunning and it’s not the easiest place to access. Unless you know you’ll be back out to California for another Parks trip, the extra driving time is probably worth it.
2) Planning the timing of this trip is tricky. By the time the snow has melted in Sequoia, Yosemite, and Lassen, the heat will be unbearable in Joshua Tree and Death Valley. Plan the trip for when you need it. Unless you’re in the dead of winter, you can probably access enough of most parks to enjoy them. If it’s later in the summer, you might spend less time in Joshua Tree/Death Valley (or drop Death Valley) and if you’re traveling in the spring, you might drop Lassen to spend more time in Death Valley.
3) There are two other parks in California—Channel Islands (off the coast near LA) and Pinnacles (south of San Francisco). If you have more time, you might figure out how to add visits to these parks into your itinerary.
4) Have fun!