Top 12 California National Parks for Minimal Crowds

Echelberger Group


California's national parks offer a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, featuring pleasant weather and breathtaking scenery. While popular destinations like Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree may require navigating through crowds and obtaining permits, the state boasts a plethora of lesser-known public lands that showcase its diverse natural beauty without the same level of congestion.
With a total of 9 national parks—the highest in the nation—and a grand total of 33 public lands managed by the National Park Service in California, including state parks, national monuments, and historic trails, the state provides an array of options beyond the iconic locations. Explore beyond the usual suspects and discover twelve hidden gems that include rugged coastlines, biodiversity hotspots, geological wonders, volcanic landscapes, and serene alpine environments—all of which are often overlooked.
It's important to note that the pervasive threat of wildfires, intensified by climate change, looms year-round in the western United States, including California. Prior to embarking on your adventure, make sure to check for any fire-related closures by contacting the parks directly or consulting their websites.
Here, we present the must-visit public lands and national parks in California to diversify and enrich your travel bucket list.

Lassen National Park

Despite the significant damage caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire, which consumed more than 70,000 acres, Lassen Volcanic National Park has largely recovered and is open for visitors. Fortunately, the iconic Lassen Peak and areas west of the park's main road were unaffected. Visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of Lassen Peak along the 1.7-mile Manzanita Lake Loop or embark on a 5-mile round-trip hike to the summit, reaching an elevation of 10,457 feet. This trek offers the opportunity to explore the expansive crater along the way. Additionally, don't miss the unique sights at Bumpass Hell, which features boiling springs, mud pots, and steaming fumaroles, providing a glimpse into the dynamic geological activity beneath the earth's surface.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

This vast grassland area is renowned for its striking exhibitions of wildflowers that adorn its undulating terrain after ample rainfall in the winter months. However, there are numerous other compelling reasons to explore this tranquil enclave nestled in the heart of the Central Valley. Its diverse landscape, shaped by seismic activity along the San Andreas Fault, offers an array of attractions. This biodiverse haven hosts a plethora of wildlife, including tule elk and pronghorn antelope. While a quality pair of binoculars can enhance your wildlife viewing experience, you can still appreciate the expansive white alkali flats of the expansive Soda Lake without them, dominating much of the park's northern expanse.

Emerald Bay State Park

Nestled along the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe, this charming enclave, carved by glaciers, may be small in size but boasts vast panoramas of azure waters and majestic peaks. From the parking area, delight in a picturesque scene featuring the quaint Fannette Island, then embark on a scenic one-mile descent to reach the lakeside Vikingsholm, a historic Scandinavian-style castle dating back almost a century, offering guided tours from Memorial Day weekend to late September for a fee. For enthusiasts of snorkeling or scuba diving, explore the underwater wonders of the Maritime Heritage Trail, complete with informative markers and a collection of submerged vessels. After your aquatic adventure, indulge in swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, or navigating your preferred watercraft to the park's boat-in campground, where you can rest under the canopy of fragrant pine trees.

Giant Sequoia National Monument

Numerous individuals exploring the western Sierra Nevada often prioritize a visit to the popular Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, to steer clear of the congestion that often accompanies such visits, consider exploring an alternative arboreal haven split across two segments of the Sequoia National Forest. This sanctuary boasts nearly thirty groves of the iconic sequoia trees, renowned for their remarkable size and stature. For a humbling experience amidst nature's grandeur, embark on the 1.3-mile paved Trail of 100 Giants in the Long Meadow Grove.

Channel Islands National Park

Only reachable by boat or plane, this series of islands situated along the southern California coastline forms one of the lesser-explored national parks in California, and indeed, in the entire nation. Its remote location renders the cluster a hub of biodiversity, hosting unique species such as the diminutive (and undeniably adorable) island fox. Allocate at least one night for camping on the main island, Santa Cruz, where you can divide your time between traversing its rugged terrain and paddling through its caves on a sea kayak adventure.

Mojave National Preserve

The Mojave Desert spans across 1.6 million acres, nestled between the Great Basin and Sonoran Deserts, just an hour's drive from Las Vegas. Its diverse landscape features rugged peaks, calcified lava flows, and volcanic cinder cones, alongside vast stretches of soft sand, with Kelso Dunes offering some of the finest examples. A hike of approximately two miles, though perhaps more accurately described as a challenging trek, leads to the pinnacle of Kelso Dunes. Here, visitors can experience or provoke a unique natural phenomenon—an elusive booming sound, particularly audible when sand cascades down the slopes in a large group descent. For those seeking a more grounded adventure, the Rings Loop provides a solid option. This 1.5-mile trail meanders past ancient petroglyphs before ascending a steep rock face aided by metal handholds.

Sand to Snow National Monument

The title speaks volumes about this exceptionally diverse natural wonder, extending from the arid Sonoran Desert to the majestic San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest summit in southern California. Embarking from the visitor center at Whitewater Canyon Preserve, a scenic 10-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail leads to a vantage point offering breathtaking vistas of this striking contrast. Don't miss out on exploring Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, located just east of the monument, renowned for its verdant wetlands—a rare sight in the desert—frequented by numerous migrating bird species.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

While Redwoods National Park often steals the spotlight, its neighboring park to the north offers an equally enchanting experience with numerous groves of coast redwoods, the tallest trees on the planet. Marvel at these towering giants from the convenience of your vehicle along the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, or venture closer through a network of short trails branching out from the visitor center, many of which cater to individuals using mobility devices. While exploring the vicinity, take a stroll along the 1.3-mile Elk Prairie loop for a chance to observe majestic Roosevelt elk roaming the picturesque meadows. Afterwards, take a step back in time by embarking on a 0.7-mile walk through Fern Canyon, a lush gorge nestled in the hills that served as a backdrop in the film Jurassic Park.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Less than a two-hour drive northeast from San Diego lies California's largest state park, sprawling across more than 500,000 acres of prime Colorado Desert terrain adorned with sandy canyons, palm oases, and rugged peaks. Explore a selection of the park's roughly one thousand plant species in the captivating garden at the visitor center, which bursts into vibrant blooms in early spring. While there, don't forget to inquire about directions to The Slot, a meandering 1.5-mile roundtrip trail suitable for all ages, offering an easy yet exhilarating hike. Make sure to pack your camping gear and download a stargazing app beforehand—this International Dark Sky Park promises an unparalleled celestial experience.

Pinnacles National Park

Despite its recent recognition as a national park by President Obama in 2013, California's latest addition to its protected areas remains relatively undiscovered. The distinctive rock formations, shaped by ancient volcanic activity and erosion, provide vital sanctuary for the endangered California condors. These majestic birds, boasting an impressive wingspan of nearly 10 feet, find refuge amidst these landscapes. Experience the awe-inspiring beauty of condor country by embarking on an 8.4-mile loop, which includes an exhilarating scramble through Balconies Cave and a traverse of the park's breathtaking High Peaks section.

Point Reyes National Seashore

One of the standout characteristics of this state is its extensive coastline, spanning 3,427 miles. This particular stretch, unlike the more developed beaches of Southern California, boasts rugged beauty. Here, the main highlights are the rocky bluffs, ideal for whale watching during the winter migration, the picturesque Tomales Point peninsula where tule elk roam, and the secluded beaches beneath Chimney Rock, favored by lounging elephant seals. Make sure to take advantage of low tide to explore the vibrant marine life thriving in shoreline pools.

Devils Postpile National Monument

This petite section of the Ansel Adams Wilderness may seem insignificant at first glance, but within its confines lies a remarkable geological wonder – a towering formation of basalt columns created through the cooling and fracturing of lava over 80,000 years ago. Observing it from both its foundation and its summit, resembling a meticulously arranged tiled floor, is an awe-inspiring experience. Following this, embark on a five-mile roundtrip journey to revel in the mist of Rainbow Falls. For those with a thirst for adventure, backpackers can obtain permits to venture even further along the Nüümü Poyo (John Muir Trail), which traverses this remarkable monument.

Previously published on Conde Nast Traveler.


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