Ask a local the best things about California, and somewhere at the top of the list would be the sheer beauty of the place. See for yourself with this dream list of incredible national parks, with smart tips and insider ideas on what to do at favorites like Yosemite and Death Valley, and some of the park system's secret (and newest) gems.
Even if you’re a pro basketball player, you can’t help feeling downright puny in this stunning preserve, where soaring redwoods line up like living skyscrapers. Start your trip at the excellent Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, 1.6 kilometres south of Orick. Of the five visitor centers in Redwood National and State Parks, this one is the largest, with numerous exhibits and a video on redwood ecology, a great bookstore, and access to a sandy beach. Next, do a little driving. Start 5 miles/8 kilometres north of the small hamlet of Klamath at the Klamath River Overlook, where the freshwater river meets the Pacific Ocean at a huge estuary. Perched 650 feet/198 metres above the sea, this overlook point is a prime spot for watching migrating gray whales (best time is December to April). Be sure to walk the short and easy path to the lower overlook for dramatic views of crashing surf. Then head south to cruise the Coastal Drive (great for mountain biking too). This 9-mile/13-km-long road follows the coastline, passing a radar station that was camouflaged to look like a farmhouse and barn during World War II.
Stop at the picnic area at High Bluff Overlook, then scan the sea for whales, sea lions, brown pelicans, and, in spring and summer, thousands of seabirds nesting on offshore rocks. If you want to put some miles on your hiking boots, the Klamath area features a lovely coastal walk, the Yurok Loop, which visits pristine Hidden Beach (1 mile/2 kilometres round-trip). Or, for an easy stroll beneath towering redwoods, walk the 1-mile/2-km Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop.
Jutting dramatically out into the blue Pacific, the over 70,000-acre/28,732-hectare Point Reyes National Seashore almost seems to break away from the Northern California coast. The coastal preserve, some 30 miles/48 kilometres north of San Francisco, protects more than 1,500 animal and plant species and 80 miles/130 kilometres of shoreline. Here, breakers pound remote beaches, wisps of fog wash over coastal hills, and tule elk roam in wild meadows.
The park’s main visitor centre at Bear Valley is a great place to start exploring—and kids love its interactive displays. Get updates on whale watching (typically January to mid-April), wildflower displays (best in early- to late-spring) and trail conditions. For wildlife watching, head to Tomales Point to see the tule elk, especially during the fall rutting season. Then move on to 200-acre/81-hectare Abbotts Lagoon to view rich bird life (more than 45 percent of North America’s bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes). For beach walks, try dog-friendly Kehoe Beach, 11-mile/18-km-long Great Beach, or intimate McClures Beach. For a worth-it workout, take the 308 steps down (and yes, up on the back) to the 1870s-era Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Insider tip: Want to sleep in the wilderness? Make a reservation to pitch a tent at one of four backcountry camps, two of them along the 17-mile/27-km Coast Trail; campsites at Wildcat Beach, within earshot of breakers, are particularly unforgettable.