As people consider summer vacation planning, national parks and road trips are always a good option for anyone looking to immerse themselves more into nature than city life. When planning which parks in North America to visit, however, avoid the lure of the most well known ones (like Yosemite National Park (where you can glimpse black bears), North Cascades National Park and the Grand Canyon) and keep your footprint light while opting for the less crowded ones. Here are the five least-visited national parks in California to consider if you want to explore the golden state at your own pace. Check the United States National Park Service website for hours and details while planning.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Bubbling mud pots and lava rocks abound at Lassen Volcanic National Park. In fact, every rock there originates from volcanoes. A diverse park, it features four volcano types, hydrothermal areas and over 150 miles of hiking trails. Located north of Tahoe National Forest, it is just under an hour east of Redding and the 5 freeway.
The main park road offers scenic views and access to most trails. Lake Helen often has snow and ice well into summer and the picnic area east of the lake is a great spot to see Lassen Peak. Bumpass Hell trail (three miles roundtrip) is a good way to see the hydrothermal (hot water) area with boiling pools.
Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands National Park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) and their ocean environment, preserving and protecting a wealth of natural and cultural resources over 346 square miles. Although located just off the coast Between Santa Barbara and Ventura, the islands are relatively isolated and only accessible by boat. There is no transportation available on the islands, so be prepared to walk, boat or kayak around.
Although there are no services available, camping is allowed year round. Each island is unique and opportunities to snorkel, dive, hike, kayak and view marine mammals abound. On Santa Cruz island, for example, you can spend the day searching for the elusive Santa Cruz Island Fox. If your timing is limited, you can take a half or full day tour.
Redwood National and State Parks
Largely known for having some of the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National Park is, surprisingly, one of the least visited national parks in California. Beyond the towering redwoods, the parks also protect vast prairies, woodlands and nearly 40 miles of rugged coastline.
Located near Northern California’s Crescent City, you can opt for a scenic drive through ancient forests or stunning coastlines. Otherwise, visitors can camp at a variety of campgrounds and take ranger-led tours, kayak, visit tidepools or simply hike for hours.
South of Redwood National and State Parks outside San Francisco is the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County. Not exactly a national park, the 558-acre monument preserves one of the last remaining ancient redwood forests in the Bay Area. For fans of redwoods, some of these are nearly 1,000 years old and reach heights of more than 250 feet!
Kings Canyon National Park
Side by side with Sequoia in the Sierra Nevadas, Kings Canyon National Park is the land of giants and canyons. Five unique areas (Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest & Lodgepole, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove) each have their own climate, features and highlights.
Multiple campgrounds offer a different experience and there are several lodges throughout the park to satisfy non-campers. Everything from horseback riding, to rock climbing and fishing are usually available, as well as a visit to Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.
Pinnacles National Park
For something truly unique, visit Pinnacles National Park. Roughly 23 million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed and formed what has now become Pinnacles National Park. Towering rock spires are home to wildlife like peregrine falcons, golden eagles and the California condor.
Bear Gulch Cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats, a “sensitive species” that is protected. With luck, depending on your timing, you may be able to sneak a peek at them. Otherwise, spend your time rock climbing and hiking desert trails.
MICHELLE ARELLANO MARTIN