California, a land of unparalleled natural diversity, is home to some of the most majestic and varied National Parks in the United States. From the towering granite cliffs of Yosemite to the surreal desert landscapes of Joshua Tree, each park offers a unique glimpse into the natural wonders of the Golden State.
In this blog, we’ll be looking at California national parks ranked best to worst. While all of Cali’s parks are great, if you only have time to visit one or two, you need to know which ones to prioritize.
Whether you’re drawn to the ancient sequoias standing sentinel in the Sierra Nevada or the stark, ethereal beauty of Death Valley’s desert expanse, California’s National Parks provide endless opportunities for exploration and awe.
Let’s dive in!
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California National Parks Ranking System
Okay, so how does one rank California parks? Or any of the US national parks? In ranking California’s National Parks, the score out of 50 was based on a multifaceted evaluation of each park’s attributes.
The critical criteria included scenic beauty, assessing the visual appeal, and the unique nature of the park’s landscapes. Accessibility was considered, examining how easily visitors can reach and explore the park’s features.
Visitor experience, influenced by crowd management, available amenities, and overall visitor satisfaction, was crucial in determining a park’s score. It’s important to note that I don’t dislike any of the parks.
I’m stating my opinions and providing the details you need to decide which park is for you!
Don’t forget your America the Beautiful Pass!
#1 Yosemite National Park
- Score: 48/50
- Best Quality: Iconic landscapes like El Capitan and Half Dome, along with a range of outdoor activities.
- Worst Quality: Can become very crowded, especially in the Yosemite Valley during peak seasons.
Yosemite National Park, renowned for its breathtaking beauty, holds a place of honor among California’s National Parks.
It’s really no wonder why Yosemite’s best views makes the top of the list.
Famous for its towering granite cliffs, including the iconic El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite offers some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world. The park is also home to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America, which cascades down into the lush Yosemite Valley.
With its meandering rivers and expansive meadows, this valley is a visitor hub. The park provides easy access to various trails and scenic viewpoints.
Yosemite’s appeal extends beyond its famous landmarks.
The park encompasses over 1,100 square miles of wilderness, offering a range of outdoor activities from hiking and rock climbing to winter sports.
#2 Sequoia National Park
- Score: 46/50
- Best Quality: Home to giant sequoias and diverse landscapes.
- Worst Quality: Limited accessibility in some areas, especially in winter.
Sequoia National Park, nestled in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is a realm where nature’s grandeur is displayed at an awe-inspiring scale.
This park is world-renowned for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman Tree, one of the largest trees on Earth by volume. These ancient, towering sequoias create a forest landscape of majestic proportions, offering visitors a truly humbling experience.
Beyond its giant trees, Sequoia National Park features a diverse array of landscapes, from rugged foothills to deep canyons and high peaks, including Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
The park’s varied terrain provides ample opportunities for hiking, backpacking, and exploring its wilderness areas.
The combination of its colossal trees, stunning mountain scenery, and relatively fewer crowds compared to Yosemite, makes Sequoia National Park a unique and serene destination for those looking to connect with nature and witness some of the most impressive natural wonders in California.
#3 Kings Canyon National Park
- Score: 44/50
- Best Quality: Deep canyons and less crowded backcountry experiences.
- Worst Quality: Fewer visitor amenities and services compared to more popular parks.
Kings Canyon is a super underrated California national park.
Kings Canyon National Park, adjacent to Sequoia National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, is a lesser-known but equally stunning natural sanctuary.
The park is renowned for its namesake, Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America, characterized by rugged cliffs, serene meadows, and the meandering Kings River.
This dramatic landscape offers a sense of solitude and untouched wilderness that can be harder to find in more frequented parks.
In addition to its spectacular canyon, the park is home to diverse environments, from dense sequoia forests, including the General Grant Tree, one of the world’s most giant living trees, to high alpine peaks and wildflower-covered meadows.
Kings Canyon National Park’s vast backcountry provides a haven for hikers, backpackers, and nature enthusiasts seeking a more secluded experience.
#4 Redwood National and State Parks
- Score: 43/50
- Best Quality: Towering redwoods and diverse ecosystems.
- Worst Quality: Remote location, making it less accessible for some visitors.
Redwood National and State Parks in California, a collection of parks in the northern part of the state, are celebrated for their awe-inspiring coastal redwoods, some of the tallest trees in the world.
I’ve been here twice and love it every time.
However, the park itself can feel a bit “one note,” meaning that all the trails and attractions will start to look the same at some point.
Visitors to Redwood National and State Parks can enjoy scenic drives, such as the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, winding through the heart of the redwoods. You can also explore numerous hiking trails that range from easy walks to challenging backcountry treks.
The parks are also a haven for wildlife, including Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer, and various bird species.
There are plenty of things to do in Redwood National Park!
#5 Channel Islands National Park
- Score: 42/50
- Best Quality: Unique island landscapes and rich marine life.
- Worst Quality: Accessibility issues due to being offshore and requiring a boat or plane to visit.
Channel Islands National Park, located off the coast of Southern California, is a remarkable natural sanctuary consisting of five rugged islands. These can be difficult to get to, causing the beloved Channels to rank lower on the list.
This park is often called “The Galapagos of North America” due to its unique array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
The islands’ isolation has preserved a landscape relatively untouched by human development, offering a glimpse into California’s ecological past.
The park’s diverse environments range from rugged cliffs and sea caves to sandy beaches and hidden coves, creating a haven for a wide variety of marine life, including seals, sea lions, and numerous seabird species.
The islands are a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering exceptional hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and wildlife spotting opportunities.
#6 Death Valley National Park
- Score: 41/50
- Best Quality: Unique and extreme landscapes with diverse geology.
- Worst Quality: Extreme weather conditions, making it less hospitable, especially in summer.
Death Valley National Park, located in Eastern California, is a land of extremes and stark beauty, offering a vastly different experience from the state’s other national parks.
As the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States, it presents unique geological features, from salt flats and sand dunes to badlands and canyons.
The park’s most famous sites include Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, offering surreal and photogenic vistas.
Despite its bleak reputation, Death Valley is home to a surprising array of wildlife adapted to its harsh environment, and its springtime wildflower blooms can transform the valley into a carpet of color.
The park’s ranking is influenced by its extreme environment, which can be challenging for visitors, especially during the scorching summer months.
#7 Joshua Tree National Park
- Score: 40/50
- Best Quality: Unique Joshua Trees and rock formations, popular for climbing and stargazing.
- Worst Quality: Harsh desert environment, which might not appeal to everyone.
Joshua Tree National Park, situated in Southern California, is renowned for its unique landscape, characterized by the striking Joshua Trees and rugged rock formations.
The park encompasses two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and the Colorado, each offering unique flora and fauna.
The park is famous for rock climbers, hikers, and photographers.
The clear desert skies also make it a favored spot for stargazing.
Despite its beauty and array of recreational opportunities, Joshua Tree ranks lower than other California national parks due to its relatively harsh desert environment, which can be less appealing to those seeking lush landscapes or more diverse outdoor activities.
#8 Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Score: 39/50
- Best Quality: Unique volcanic landscapes and geothermal features.
- Worst Quality: Less known and more remote, leading to fewer visitors and amenities.
Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California is a unique natural wonder, showcasing various volcanic features, including steaming fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes.
The park is home to Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world and the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range.
Visitors to the park can explore hydrothermal areas, such as Bumpass Hell, with its boiling springs and bubbling mud pots, offering a glimpse into the Earth’s volcanic power.
Despite its remarkable geological features and scenic beauty, Lassen Volcanic National Park ranks lower compared to other California national parks mainly due to its lesser-known status and more remote location, which can make it less accessible to visitors.
Additionally, the park’s harsh winter conditions, with heavy snowfall limiting access to many areas, might affect its popularity.
#9 Pinnacles National Park
- Score: 38/50
- Best Quality: Distinctive rock formations and excellent bird watching, including California condors.
- Worst Quality: Smaller size and lesser-known status, with fewer major natural attractions compared to larger parks.
Pinnacles National Park, located in central California, is one of the lesser-known national parks but is a hidden treasure with unique geological formations and diverse wildlife. The park is named for its distinctive rock formations and remnants of an ancient volcanic field.
These towering spires and crags create a dramatic landscape popular among rock climbers and hikers. Pinnacles is also home to the California condor, a critically endangered bird species, and offers excellent opportunities for bird watching.
Despite its natural beauty and the recreational activities it offers, Pinnacles National Park ranks lower among California’s national parks.
This is partly due to its smaller size and relative obscurity compared to more famous parks like Yosemite and Sequoia. Additionally, its location, away from major urban centers, and limited amenities within the park contribute to its lower profile.
How To Choose The Park For Your
When choosing which California national park you’ll visit, you should think about what kind of activities you enjoy.
For instance, if scenic drives are more your jam, Redwoods might be the place. Want to take some amazing pictures and go on epic hikes? Yosemite could be calling your name.
Either way, you can’t go wrong!