7 Under-the-Radar National Parks to Explore in California

When it comes to California’s National Parks, Yosemite and the Sequoia (which are admittedly incredible) get all the recognition. Luckily, for those seeking an adventure at a hidden gem national park in California, there are a plethora of lesser frequented destinations with seemingly endless adventures to choose from.

Here are seven under the radar national recreation areas in California to beat the crowds and enjoy a more “down to earth” experience.

[Editor’s Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, be sure to maintain a safe six foot distance from others outside your household and wear a mask at all times when outside of your home. It’s also a really smart idea to call ahead and make sure that the below listed destinations are open when you’d like to visit, due to enhanced safety measures currently in California to protect residents and visitors from infection.]

Channel Islands National Park – Ventura, CA

The Channel Islands are a collection of eight islands off the coast of Southern California, the most notable being “Catalina Island,” — but only five of them are officially designated as “National Park” land. These five islands include Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel. They’re each rich in natural beauty, and sheltered from the chaos of human life on the mainland. Over thousands of years, this isolation has created a one-of-a-kind habitat for animals to thrive. On the Channel Islands, you’ll encounter plants and archeological resources that can be found nowhere else on Earth.

Getting to the national park is a scenic experience in itself. Visitors can travel by boat, by plane or by helicopter. Most boat trips depart from Ventura Harbor, which is the home to the national park’s visitors center and operates via the Island Packers company. The majority of these boats travel to the two closest islands, Santa Cruz and Anacapa (and Catalina).

Overnight accommodations on the Channel Islands are available, but are not for the faint of heart — each island has a campground: the biggest two are Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz and Water Canyon Camp on Santa Rosa Island. Here, you’ll find yourself connecting with the elements both literally and figuratively.

Each island offers a variety of scenic hikes with incredible views and opportunities to see wildlife and birds. Another top way to explore is via kayak, and if you’re feeling especially brave, you can even book a scuba trip.

We hiked the Smugglers Cove Trail from where the boat dropped us off at the pier at Scorpion Anchorage. It was April, and the flowers were in full bloom. This trek clocked in at 7.7 miles and had just under 1,400 feet of elevation gain — and the views were incredible.

Pinnacles National Park – Paicines, CA

Pinnacles National Park is one of the newest national parks, having just been officially incorporated in 2013. The rock formations of Pinnacles National Park divide the park into East and West Districts which are connected by trails but not by road — make sure to research which section of the park you’d like to visit before embarking on your adventure.

This park is a unique location — east of central California’s Salinas Valley, where you’ll find the impressive remains of an ancient volcano that have since made way for massive monoliths, spires, sheer-walled canyons and talus passages that are a result of millions of years of erosion and tectonic plate movement. 

More than 30 miles of trails access geological formations, spectacular vistas and wildlife. The Pinnacles’ rock formations are also a popular destination to challenge technical climbers.

We embarked on the the “High Peaks Condor Gulch Loop” trail, which offered full, panoramic views of the park and all its scenic glory.

Point Reyes National Seashore – Point Reyes, CA

Located on the Point Reyes peninsula — which is a geographically separated area on a different tectonic plate from the coastal areas surrounding it — the Point Reyes National Seashore was inhabited originally by the Coast Miwok Native Americans.

When maritime trade began to boom in the San Francisco Bay area, a lighthouse and lifesaving station were constructed on the cliffside which is open to visitors, today.

According to the park conservancy website, the reason the area was designated a National Seashore as opposed to a National Park is due to its mix of commercial and recreational uses—historic ranching and oyster farming, southern half of Point Reyes National Seashore is a 71,028-acre designated wilderness area with more than 70 miles of trails and several hike-in campgrounds.

Visitors can check out the gorgeous sandy beach, embark on a hike, or explore the otherworldly cypress trees that you’ve most likely seen in that famous picture of the Point Reyes cypress tree tunnel. We trekked to Alamere Falls via the Coast Trail from Palomarin Trailhead which was a 12.2 journey, and worth every moment.

Joshua Tree National Park – Southern California

Joshua Tree National Park feels like another planet. This Southern Californian park is known for its enormous, majestic rock formations and scenic desert landscape. It’s named after the region’s bristled Joshua trees (which are protected, which means keep your hands off!). The park straddles the line between the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert.

At Joshua Tree, the hippy vibes are palpable, and I love it. If you’re feeling like camping, there’s plenty of BLM land nearby if you’re not able to snag one of the competitively coveted camping sites within the park’s boundaries — otherwise, there are quite a few alternatives for accommodations including vacation rentals in the region, but be sure to be mindful of the locals who enjoy the peace and quiet of the desert and call this land their home. It’s an especially fantastic destination for rock climbing.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area – San Francisco, CA

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers everything from sandy beaches, redwood forests, seaside recreation sites, lighthouses, shipwrecks, former prisons, historic military stations — and of course, unparalleled views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

At nearly 81,000 acres, this recreation area is the nation’s largest national park unit in an urban setting. The features within this protected area encompass 37 distinct park sites, including the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument, to Fort Point National Historic Site — and even to Alcatraz Island. There’s more than 130 miles of trails, and 1,200 historic structures. We hiked the Coastal Trail, Miwok Trail, and Bonita Lighthouse Loop which is a 8.5 mile heavily trafficked loop trail that showcases scenery of the bay and the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Visitors can experience nearly anything their heart desires in the outdoor recreation realm — from hiking to biking to whale watching to fishing to bonfires, and even overnight camping. In Marin County, visit the Point Bonita Lighthouse, the NIKE Missile Site, the Marine Mammal Center, Bay Area Discovery Museum, Fort Baker, Tennessee Valley, and Fort Cronkhite. In San Francisco County (South of Golden Gate Bridge) visit beaches and coastline trails across the city of San Francisco, with famous destinations like Alcatraz Island, Fort Point National Historic Site and Sutro Baths.

Death Valley National Park – Death Valley, CA

Death Valley National Park straddles the border between eastern California and Nevada. It’s the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park as well as the largest U.S. National Park outside Alaska at 3,422,024 acres. It’s known for the landmarks of Titus Canyon with a ghost town and colorful rocks, and Badwater Basin’s salt flats — which is also North America’s lowest point. Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth. In the summer months (May-September) temperatures average over 100°F (38°C), and often exceed 120°F (49°C).

Here, you can explore the otherworldly rolling sand dunes, winding canyons, low valley floors crusted with barren salt flats, as well as the rugged mountains that tower as high as 11,000 feet.

It’s a dark sky park which means it’s the perfect destination for stargazing. Depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for, just make sure you visit during a time when the weather is milder. Temperatures get both extremely hot in the summer and pretty chilly in the winter. If you’re craving a more luxurious experience, spend a night at the homely and welcoming Death Valley Inn, or book a campsite for a more “down to earth” adventure.

Lassen Volcanic National Park – Mineral, CA

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the only destinations in the world where all four types of volcanoes can be found — from shield, to composite, to cinder cone, and plug dome.

The park is located in the northeast corner of California and is a park and is covered with an ever-changing geothermal landscape. Here, visitors can explore the steaming fumaroles, meadows of wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes (from a safe distance — make sure to stay on the designated trails and walkways).

The park is at “medium high elevation,” which means that it generally has cool winters and warm summers below its elevations of 7,500 feet. Above that elevation level, the climate can be harsh and cold — even in the summer months.

It’s a gorgeous and most definitely lesser known California park to explore for an adventure any time of year.

Have another idea for an incredible, and underrated national park in California? Send it over to “hellomollyannobrien@gmail.com!”

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