I've been to every national park in California. Skip crowded Yosemite and check out these hidden gems instead.

I've been to every national park in California. Skip crowded Yosemite and check out these hidden gems instead.
  • Since moving to California in 2016, I've been to every national park in the state.

  • Although Yosemite is California's most popular national park, I've found some great hidden gems.

  • A few of my favorite parks include Channel Islands, Pinnacles, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

California is home to more national parks than any other state in the country, covering over 7 million acres of desert, volcanic peaks, seashore, and mountain ranges. Since moving to the Golden State in 2016, I've seen them all — a few more than once.

Out of the state's nine national parks, Yosemite is the oldest and by far the most popular, attracting nearly 4 million visitors in 2023.

Instead of battling the crowds or turning up before dawn to avoid long lines, I recommend exploring these less crowded but equally stunning California national parks.

Channel Islands National Park is often called "the Galapagos of North America."

Turquoise waters surrounded by mountains, some of which are covered in greenery.
Channel Islands National Park features hundreds of endemic plant and animal species.Ash Czarnota

Located off the coast of Southern California near Los Angeles, Channel Islands National Park is often called "the Galapagos of North America" because of its natural diversity. It includes hundreds of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth, like the adorable island fox.

The Channel Islands consist of five islands: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara.

The only way to access this park is by boarding a boat, which limits the park's daily visitors due to ship capacity. While crossing the channel, look out for pods of dolphins and humpback whales.

If you only have a day to kill, I'd recommend visiting Santa Cruz Island. The largest in the chain of islands, Santa Cruz has a little something for everyone: hiking trails, guided sea-kayaking tours, and a visitor center where you can learn about the park's history.

Pinnacles National Park is California's smallest national park.

An aerial view of greenery-covered mountains on a sunny day.
Pinnacles National Park was established in 2013.Ash Czarnota

Established in 2013, Pinnacles National Park is situated in Central California, east of scenic Big Sur. It's the state's newest and smallest national park, covering an area of about 26,000 acres.

The drive to Pinnacles is almost as beautiful as the park itself, as I love passing through the open countryside dotted with vineyards and lush green hills.

The park's layout is a bit peculiar, featuring two entrances on either side with no road connecting them. I tend to favor the park's east side because it offers better access to hiking trails, picnic areas, and the park's only campground.

I recommend exploring the cavernous Bear Gulch Cave and soaking in the panoramic views and rock formations along the High Peaks Trail.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is full of natural wonders.

A turquoise pool of water in a hydrothermal area surrounded by orange dirt and rocks. There are also tall evergreen trees.
Bumpass Hell is a must-see spot in Lassen Volcanic National Park.Asif Islam/Shutterstock

Located a few hours north of San Francisco, Northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park is best known for its unique hydrothermal areas, lava domes, and volcanic craters.

If you're short on time and visiting in the summer and fall months, Bumpass Hell is a must-see. This 3-mile out-and-back trail leads to the largest hydrothermal area in the park.

On the trail, you'll see steaming hydrothermal pools, bubbling mud pots, and turquoise water, giving you a front-row seat to the powerful natural forces that shape our planet.

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