When it comes time to explore the wonders of America’s national parks, think Northern California first.
SURE, YOU THINK, you don’t care about bureaucratic birthdays. The fact the National Park Service is turning 100 this year doesn’t excite you. But it should. Really. The NPS has preserved 59 of the greatest places on earth for your enjoyment. And five of the absolute best are here in Northern California. Their pleasures range from big trees to volcanoes to California condors. All make ideal getaways for summer or fall.
It’s the flagship park of the entire park system. The views of Half Dome and El Capitan helped establish the very idea of the national park in the American mind.
It is also wildly popular, with 4 million visitors last year. Therefore, Yosemite is a park that requires you to have a strategy. Do stuff early in the morning — a trail mobbed at noon will be blissfully quiet at 8 a.m. In Yosemite Valley, park once, then use the bus shuttle (or your own feet, or bicycle) to get around. And consider a post–Labor Day visit, when the park quiets down. But don’t let crowds deter you: Yosemite is an icon for a reason. nps.gov/yose
DON’T MISS The view-filled Four-Mile Trail from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley. Book a ride on the Hikers Bus ($41) from the valley to Glacier Point and hit the trail to return.
HIDDEN GEM An hour and a half northeast of the valley, Tuolumne Meadows is both lovely and a jumping-off point for hikes into the high country.
WHERE TO STAY A lawsuit brought by the previous park concessionaire has given all in-park lodgings new names. In the valley, the Majestic Yosemite (aka The Ahwahnee) is regal and pricey. The Yosemite Valley Lodge (aka Yosemite Lodge) is motel-like but comfy. Out of the valley, Big Trees Lodge (aka the Wawona) is sweetly historic. All can be booked through travelyosemite.com. Outside the park, Tenaya Lodge, near the south entrance, is luxurious. Near the west entrance, the Evergreen Lodge is a historic resort handsomely redone. Nearby, the Evergreen’s owners have just opened the appealing Rush Creek Lodge.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Two Sierra parks managed as one, Sequoia and Kings Canyon tend to be ignored by Northern Californians focused on Yosemite. Big mistake. Here you’ll find the largest trees in existence and Kings Canyon, which — seriously — rivals Yosemite Valley for grandeur. nps.gov/seki
DON’T MISS The Giant Sequoias at Giant Forest. And 50-mile-long, completely amazing Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
HIDDEN GEM At Sequoia’s south end, Mineral King is an alpine valley reached by following a beautiful, if winding, 25-mile road.
WHERE TO STAY Wuksachi Lodge resembles a tasteful ski lodge. Silver City Mountain Resort has cabins with great access to Mineral King. Sequoia High Sierra Camp offers high-style glamping.
Redwood National and State Parks
Like the coast redwoods it celebrates, this park system (which includes state parks, too) is long and skinny, extending from Humboldt County almost to the Oregon border. It’s uncrowded, too — it got only 429,000 visitors last year — giving you lots of room to gape at the lofty trees. nps.gov/redw
DON’T MISS Off Highway 101 near Orick, the Lady Bird Johnson Trail is a 1.5-mile walk through old-growth coast redwoods.
HIDDEN GEM Not only is Gold Bluffs Beach a stunning stretch of coast, it’s a likely spot to see the once-endangered-now-thriving Roosevelt elk.
WHERE TO STAY No lodging in the park, but the Lost Whale Inn in nearby Trinidad is charming.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
It’s California’s Yellowstone, with mudpots and fumaroles and lakes and (even better than Yellowstone) an active volcano. It’s an especially good park for kids, with different things to do within a relatively compact area. nps.gov/lavo
DON’T MISS Bumpass Hell (a scalded pioneer gave it the name) is the park’s largest hydrothermal area, sulfurous with mudpots and boiling pools viewable on a boardwalk trail.
HIDDEN GEM In the park’s northeast corner, the Mars-like, 700-foot-high Cinder Cone is tough to hike up but vastly satisfying to bounce back down.
WHERE TO STAY Drakesbad Guest Ranch has been saddling up guests for over a century. The Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins are small but stylish.
Pinnacles National Park
Established in 2013, it’s the newest national park, with terrific hiking among those eerily eroded pinnacles, plus possible glimpses of the California condors that hang out here. Choose between the park’s west side, accessed from Soledad, or the more-developed east side, accessed from State Route 25 south of Hollister. nps.gov/pinn
DON’T MISS The 3.5-mile (round trip) Condor Gulch Trail gives views of the park’s most striking rock formations.
HIDDEN GEM Monthly night hikes show off Pinnacles’ bats and other nocturnal creatures.
WHERE TO STAY Hacienda de Leal, in San Juan Bautista, an hour north of Pinnacles’ east entrance, is a nicely appointed boutique hotel.