Exploring California National Parks: Things To Do and Places To Stay

The famously scenic state of California is covered in natural beauty, much of which can be found in its national parks. Aside from its varied landscapes, California is also known for being fairly pricey. It’s easy to forget the state’s sheer size, and it’s common to get caught up in the major cities when planning a trip.

Cue California’s national parks, some of the best budget travel options in the region.

There are nine California National Parks, more than any other state. Each possesses its unique allure. So embrace the great outdoors and prepare to be blown away by endless adventures that are easy on both the eyes and the wallet.

Here are each of the nine California National Parks, with the best places to stay and can’t-miss things to do.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a vast valley known for its abundance of waterfalls, giant sequoias, granite cliffs, and native wildlife. At almost 800,000 acres, Yosemite’s iconic beauty has earned it a reputation as one of the most breathtaking places in the world.

Things To Do in Yosemite

There’s so much to do in Yosemite. Visit famous fixtures like El Capitan and Half Dome. Yosemite Falls is the largest waterfall in the park at 2524 feet tall, and the literal living giants of the park can be found at Mariposa Grove, towering at just under 300 feet. The best part is that hiking to take in these spectacular sights is cheap!

Entry to the park for a whole week is only $35 in high season, and there are shuttle buses all along the valley floor to hop on at no charge. Food can be the priciest part, so it’s a good idea to pack snacks or hit up Degnan’s Deli for cheap and tasty eats.

Where To Stay in Yosemite

There’s an array of Yosemite lodging to choose from, ranging from budget to luxury. For those on a budget, camp at one of the campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Lower Pines is a firm favorite.

Redwood National and State Park

Redwood National and State Park is technically a combination of one national and three state parks. It is home to the tallest (and oldest) trees on earth but also hides a wealth of wild gems, including expansive prairies, wild rivers, and a long stretch of rugged coastline. The redwoods here can grow up to 370 feet high.

Things To Do in Redwood National and State Park

Wandering among the massive trunks of seemingly endless old-growth forest is an awe-inspiring activity that won’t cost a cent! Even entering the national park is free. There are 200 miles of trails, or you can hit the beach or the open road for a scenic drive. There aren’t any restaurants inside the park, so it’s best to pack your own picnic, which will also save plenty of money.

Where To Stay in Redwood National and State Park

The area has four main campgrounds, all offering basic amenities, a lush setting, and an affordable night’s sleep. Remember to book in advance!

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Some of the most majestic scenery in the world can be found at Sequoia and Kings National Park. The largest tree on the planet grows here, known as the General Sherman Tree. Set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the elevation range varies considerably, from 1300 feet to the peak of Mount Whitney at a staggering 14,500 feet.

Things To Do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Driving through Tunnel Log, a fallen sequoia with a carved opening, is an unmissable experience. Or go underground and explore Crystal Cave. The sweeping panoramas of the surrounding mountains here are magical, especially from the top of Moro Rock. For an entire week, entry into the park is $35 per vehicle or $20 for individuals on foot.

Where To Stay in Sequoia and Kings Canyon

You’ll find a wide range of options for lodging in Sequoia. The most popular campground is Lodgepole – located in the heart of the Giant Forest, though Grant Grove Cabins are just as coveted and a great budget pick (if you can snag one).

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park has a particular draw for its otherworldly landscapes. It’s full of smoking fumaroles, lava beds, crystal clear glacier-fed lakes, wildflower meadows, and all four kinds of volcanoes bursting with hydrothermal activity.

Things To Do in Lassen

Hike around Manzanita Lake, take Bumpass Hell Trail, hike Devil’s Kitchen, and explore Sulfur Works for an all-encompassing adventure in Lassen. The park also boasts some of the darkest skies in the state, so stargazing here is a must.

One of the most incredible things about this park, in particular, is that it’s known for its impressive ranger-led programs. Ranger programs are a fantastic way to learn all about the land from experts, and the best part is they are all offered free of charge. It’s $30 to enter Lassen in summer and only $10 in winter. It’s also usually less crowded than other California National Parks.

Where To Stay In Lassen

There’s one lodge, Drakesbad Guest Ranch, and seven campgrounds inside the park. Manzanita Lake Campground also rents cozy tiny cabins if you’re traveling sans tent.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is where two different desert systems come together, the Mojave and Colorado. It’s a sprawling 800,000-acre oasis of surreal plant and animal life, making it a destination unlike any other. Don’t be fooled by trendy influencers posting pics of their vacations here; it can be a great budget-friendly destination too!

Things To Do in Joshua Tree

Extreme weather has created fascinating formations over the centuries. As a result, it’s a popular pick for hikers and climbers of all skill levels, as well as souls seeking some scenic peace. Skull Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, Keys View, and Hidden Valley Trail are some main highlights to check out here. To enter for a week, it’s either $30 per car or $15 per individual.

There are plenty of picnic areas within the park if you want to pack snacks. There are also plenty of cute eateries in nearby towns. Try Dillon’s Burgers and Beers, Morongo Valley Cafe, or Joshua Tree Saloon for affordable fares.

Where To Stay in Joshua Tree

When choosing where to stay in Joshua Tree, some of the best budget options are Joshua Tree Ranch House and Bungalow in the Boulders, a quirky cabin sleeping up to four. Alternatively, stay at one of the nine campgrounds inside the national park.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Set just north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is a hidden gem of the California coast. The idyllic landscape offers sandy stretches of shore, forested ridges, beautiful bluffs, and sparkling seas crashing against rocky cliffs. It’s a picturesque 71,028-acre preserve made for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers.

Things To Do in Point Reyes

Begin at the Bear Valley Visitor Center to plan the perfect itinerary and learn about the area’s ecology. Next, head to Point Reyes Lighthouse and go for a stunning drive down Sir Francis Drake Blvd to see the Cypress Tree Tunnel. The Tule Elk Preserve is a beautiful wildlife refuge along the Tomales Point Trail, and Laguna Coast Trail offers epic vistas, as does Elephant Seal Overlook. Point Reyes Station is the perfect little town for a bite. Round off your visit with a hike from Limantour to Sculptured Beach.

Where To Stay in Point Reyes

There are five hike-in and boat-in campgrounds here. Coast Campground is generally the top choice, but there are plenty more accessible accommodation options just outside West Marin Park.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park encompasses an archipelago off the southern California coast. Five uninhabited islands and the surrounding sea have been protected for many years due to their wealth of distinct natural features. San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara are all home to unique beauty.

Things To Do in Channel Islands National Park

This park is ideal for marine lovers, as it is known for its pristine beaches, offbeat boat rides, and incredible scuba diving. Each island has a designated campground and many hiking opportunities. Keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife native only to the area’s diverse ecosystems and for whales that may be swimming by!

To visit, take one of the Island Packers ferries leaving from the Channel Islands or Ventura Harbors, which range between $63 and $168 per adult. A general admission fee is included in your ferry ticket, so additional costs will only accumulate from food or lodging on the mainland and any equipment you may want to rent for water activities.

Death Valley National Park

Of all the California National Parks, Death Valley is one of the most unique. It’s a below-sea-level depression marked by barren plains and rocky ridges. Despite its name, there’s an abundance of flora and fauna to be found here.

The iconic terrain features colorful rocks, canyons, and miles of spectacular dunes carved out by extreme weather conditions. Ancient footpaths, ghost towns, and petroglyphs hint at its intricate past. It’s one of the largest parks of its kind in North America.

Things To Do in Death Valley

Death Valley’s most legendary landmarks are near Furnace Creek, including Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flat, Badwater Basin, Deadman Pass, Hells Gate, and Golden Canyon.

Where To Stay In Death Valley

There are nine main campgrounds within the park, some of which are entirely free. In addition, there are a few affordable options outside the park for more full-service accommodation.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles, a lesser-known preserve, is one of America’s newest national parks. Formed by erupting volcanoes 23 million years ago, enchanting formations include monoliths, spires, cliffs, canyons, and the very rare talus caves. It’s split into west and east districts without a road connecting them.

Things To Do in Pinnacles

Birdwatchers flock to spot peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the iconic California condor. It’s also smaller, so hitting up all the highlights is especially easy. There are 30 miles of trails, and hiking Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peaks is a definite highlight. Bear Gulch Cave, Balconies Cave, and Wind Cave are some of the best caves to explore. The entrance fee for a week is $15 per walk-in or $30 per vehicle.

Where To Stay in Pinnacles

In the park’s eastern district, you’ll find a campground (with a pool!), visitor center, and general store, so it’s easy to access everything you need without breaking the bank.

California National Parks: Final Thoughts

While California is one of the most expensive states to live in and visit, not all activities in California are budget-busters. Getting outside and seeing our country’s natural wonders is one of the best frugal things to do anywhere in the U.S., and exploring California National Parks is no exception.

Grab an America the Beautiful National Park Pass and see all the California National Parks plus more than 2,000 other federal recreation sites across the country.

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