Imagine being in the desert beneath a clear night sky. You’re peering up, through binoculars or a small telescope, with an astronomer at your side, helping you find distant nebulas and galaxies. Now fancy yourself on horseback, following a soft forest trail through towering redwoods, then reaching a wild coastal beach, elk grazing and resting in the dunes. Or maybe you’re a scuba diver, and you dream of exploring—with an expert guide—a submerged reef off the California coast. Well, stop dreaming. These are just three of the wide range of guided experiences you can have at many of California’s extraordinary national and state parks.
With Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell making history with their climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, maybe you’re curious about the sport—curious enough to give it a try yourself. Well, you should—especially when you have help from outstanding instructors at Yosemite Mountaineering School. Even if you’ve never done more than scramble up a boulder (or not even that), you’ll get the equipment and learn the basic skills that will get you climbing up Yosemite’s legendary granite. Even kids are welcome (classes are open to ages 12 and up). Taking a rock-climbing class is just one of the ways you can have an unforgettable experience at this World Heritage Site. You can “glamp” in fully outfitted canvas tents while eating hot meals and taking in sunsets at one of five High Sierra camps. Or you can join naturalist-led walk to learn about plants and animals, or hone your photography skills with special classes and programs. For a classic California culinary adventure, make reservations to attend annual chefs’ and vintners’ events, at The Ahwahnee (formerly the Majestic Yosemite), where you’ll learn tips from leading experts in food and wine.
Just getting to Channel Islands National Park is part of the fun—its five islands can only be reached by boat or plane. (Island Packers boat trips, departing from Ventura, are an easy way to go, and staff points out dolphins, whales, and other marine life along the way. See how the local company is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018.)
Once you get there, it’s great to join a guided experience. A popular—and thrilling—way to explore is by kayak. Guided kayak paddles are offered by outfitters such as Santa Barbara Adventure Company, with expert naturalists not only helping you maneuver the ocean in your kayak (all gear is provided; experienced strongly recommended), but also pointing out amazing features, such as hidden coves and caves, and sharing information about seabirds, seals, and other island residents. If you’re a scuba diver or enjoy snorkeling, you’ll have a blast seeing bright orange garibaldis and other marine life swimming among the swaying kelp forests surrounding Santa Cruz Island. For a belt-notch-worthy adventure, dive deeper to explore the submerged rock reefs and pinnacles off more remote Anacapa Island. For kids, join ranger-led tide pool talks or take part in the Junior Ranger program.
Insider’s tip: For a sneak peek at the fun without even boarding a boat, visit Channels Islands National Park’s visitor center, at Ventura Harbor. Special equipment, including underwater cameras and microphone-equipped dive masks, let wet-suited park experts relay back to the visitor center, where you can watch screens to see what they find, and even ask them questions.
This other-worldly desert park, about an hour east of Palm Springs, can get even more unforgettable when you make time for a special guided experience. First, look up—way, way up—once the sun goes down for one of the world’s great natural light shows. Joshua Tree’s clear desert skies make it a premier place for stargazing, especially on moonless nights. Join a ranger-led night sky program to get a guided tour of stars, planets, constellations, and glimmering galaxies; check the schedule at the Oasis Visitor Center or Cottonwood Campground. Another way to broaden your experience: Take a field class. Desert Institute offers a wide range of topics, including desert survival skills, photography, painting, plant identification.
Experienced climbing guides offer lessons for all abilities—from novices to calloused and muscled rock stars—at this land of giant boulders and weathered stone outcroppings. To find a guide stop in at local climbing gear shops, like Nomad Ventures or Joshua Tree Outfitters, in the town of Joshua Tree, on the park’s north side.
For an in-depth exploration of the park without having to cover a lot of ground on foot, and to probably see features you’d never know about with a guide, consider taking a Jeep or Hummer tour with outfitters such as Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours. You will be showered with incredible information about plants, animals, geology, and Native American history—and if you’ve ever wanted to see inside an active earthquake fault zone, this is one of the coolest ways you can do it. The three-hour San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour will take you between the narrow walls of the water-carved slot canyons created by the seismic movement of the earth’s plates, and teach you about the culture and lifestyle of the Cahuilla Indians. Go during the cooler months (November through March) for the most comfortable temps on the open-air ride through the desert.
Gazing up up up at giant trees is only the beginning of what you can do at this dramatic and varied pair of sister parks. Design your own tour with a personal naturalist guide, available through the Sequoia Field Institute, with expert naturalists shedding light on the region’s remarkable ecology. The institute also offers special guided tours of fascinating Crystal Cave, in Sequoia National Park. For a real treat, try spelunking on the special Candlelight Tour, or practice your shimmy and belly-crawl on a Wild Cave Tour.
To get off the grid and get far beyond the parks’ more popular destinations, consider booking a multi-day pack trip; horses or mules carry the gear and guides prepare meals—a pretty awesome way to explore the backcountry and a great choice for families.
Try your hand at catch-and-release fly-fishing in the region’s trout-filled creeks and rivers; local outfitters like Sierra Fly Fisher provide gear and expert instruction for all levels; ask about special family lessons and trips.
While road access through the park is limited in winter due to snow, that same white stuff makes for a whole new way to explore—by snowshoe. Rangers lead guided snowshoe tromps through the Giant Forest and Grant Groves, where giant sequoia trees loom like ancient sentries standing in a snowbound wilderness.
While Death Valley is known for being really big and really hot, it’s also a place of subtle surprises, like the secret tunnel system beneath Scotty’s Castle, a remarkable complex built in the park’s far north corner. Guided tours let you explore the underground maze as well as the “castle.”
Digging into the park’s ancient history is another amazing—and surprisingly popular—experience, with ranger-led paleontology tours exploring normally closed-off areas. The full-day experience includes a 7-mile/11-km hike, but that doesn’t deter folks; the hikes are so popular they are only available by lottery.
Death Valley’s almost 1,000 miles/1,609 kilometers of paved and dirt roads make the park a natural for guided Jeep tours; Pink Jeep Tours (yup, your ride is bright pink) are one popular outfitter. Nighttime, with millions of stars visible in the ultra-dark, ultra-clear skies, make for outstanding stargazing; join ranger-led “new moon” events to learn about constellations and more. Or, take advantage of lunar glow on special full-moon tours of canyons.
Saddle up to see not only old-growth redwoods, but also herds of Roosevelt elk and other wildlife on guided trail rides winding into this amazing parkland. Outfitters offer a variety of rides; consider the epic option that starts along the coast then climbs some 600 feet/182 meters to towering groves. Redwood Adventures also offers guided mountain bike tours—a great way to cover some ground to secret finds; you can also rent a bike for a do-it-yourself ride.
The desert ecosystem can be a subtle one, with what seems to be hard scrabble and cacti in fact being a rich habitat filled with unique plants and animals supremely adapted to the harsh environment. Expert naturalists from the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association help you unlock the desert’s mysteries on guided walks and talks. One favorite: a hike in Borrego Palm Canyon to spot desert bighorn sheep. On full-moon nights, take a Hike to the Moon walk, including telescopes for close-ups of our brilliant celestial neighbor as it rises into the night sky.
A guided tour in an off-road Jeep or Hummer is a great way to explore, and to learn about unique plants and wildlife. California Overland offers a variety of tours, as well as special camping overnights, including stargazing by telescope, setting up and breaking down camp, and gourmet meals.