California features the most national parks of any state in the U-S of A, so it can be tough to choose between them. If you’re taking a trip to the Golden State and are wondering which national park to add to your itinerary, look no further. We’ve broken down Cali’s nine national parks by location and dominating quality for your planning pleasure.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

For an explosive experience: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Closest city: Redding
Annual visitors: 507,256
Distinctive features: Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world; Hydrothermal areas that include fumaroles, mud pots, and hot springs
Why you should visit:
Because of its location, the landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park is ever-changing. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can find all four volcano types (plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and strato), and the park’s active hydrothermal areas are the result of this volcanic activity. The park also features over 150 miles of hiking trails, with paths of varying difficulty. The Pacific Crest Trail even winds through the park, so dedicated trekkers can take in the park’s landscapes on their thru-hike.

Photo by Audrey Murray
Photo by Jennifer White

For tree-huggers: Redwood National Park

Closest city: Crescent City
Annual visitors: 445,000
Distinctive feature: Redwoods, the tallest tree species on Earth
Why you should visit:
The trees of the old-growth temperate rainforest found in both Redwood National and State Parks will make even the tallest person in the world feel small. These incredible skyscraper-height trees can live for thousands of years, and there are enough of them in the park to warrant forest hikes that can last for days. Thankfully, there are plenty of both developed and backcountry campsites in the park for those who want to take their time among the mighty redwoods. For those who prefer the comfort of a car, Redwood features a variety of scenic routes that weave in between these majestic trees.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

For that classic NP view: Yosemite National Park

Closest city: Mariposa
Annual visitors: 4,336,890
Distinctive features: Yosemite Valley; Half Dome; El Capitan; Yosemite Falls
Why you should visit:
It may be one of the most well-known and popular national parks in the country, but Yosemite rarely disappoints. The park features valleys, meadows, waterfalls, granite rock formations, forest trails, a grove of giant sequoias, and plenty of observation points. Yosemite National Park has an experience for every type of visitor, so be sure to check out our helpful guides when planning your trip.

For endless outdoor adventures: Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

Closest cities: Fresno & Visalia
Annual visitors: 692,932 & 1,291,256
Distinctive features: The Sierra Nevada Mountains; Sequoia trees
Why you should visit:
Though Kings Canyon and Sequoia are technically two different national parks, they’ve been managed by the same administration since the 1940s. Featuring giant sequoia trees, staggering mountains, impressive canyons, caverns, and rushing rivers, Kings Canyon and Sequoia is a two-for-one national park experience is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts. Get lost among the magnificent sights, and don’t forget to say hello to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living organism, before you leave.

Photo by Kaylor Dastrup
Photo by Logan Davidson
Photo by Dan Moore

For rockin’ canyon views: Pinnacles National Park

Closest cities: Soledad
Annual visitors: 233,334
Distinctive feature: Pinnacle rock formations
Why you should visit:
The eponymous rock formations at Pinnacles are the result of over 23 million years of geologic evolution. Thanks to tectonic plate movement, the Pinnacles area was moved roughly 200 miles to its current location, and is still full of the leftovers of half of a now-extinct volcano. If that’s not impressive enough, you can actually climb the pinnacles to get an up-close-and-personal experience. Rock-climbers delight at this national park, but it also attracts hikers, campers, bird watchers, and cave enthusiasts.

Photo by Ian Clazie
Photo by Ian Clazie

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

For star-gazers: Joshua Tree National Park

Closest cities: Yucca Valley, Palm Springs
Annual visitors: 2,853,619
Distinctive features: The odd-looking, resilient Joshua trees
Why you should visit:
This park’s namesake tree is reason enough to travel there, but its wide open landscapes are the reason to stay. Joshua Tree National Park is situated on the border of two desert ecosystems — the Mojave and the Lower Colorado — which means that, come nighttime, the sky cracks open with thousands of stars. Far enough away from any major city-center to be plagued with light pollution, Joshua Tree has long been a favorite of stargazers. If catching a glimpse of the Milky Way isn’t your thing, there are plenty of outdoor activities (hiking, rock-climbing, horseback-riding, etc.) at Joshua Park to keep you busy during daylight hours.

Photo by Sonja Saxe

For awe-inspiring landscapes: Death Valley National Park

Closest city: Lone Pine
Annual visitors: 1,294,827
Distinctive feature: Its sheer variety of landscapes, including sedimentary hills, badlands, valleys, salt-flats, sand dunes, canyons, mountains, and deserts
Why you should visit:
Claiming the title as the hottest, driest, and lowest national park, as well as the largest in the lower 48 states, Death Valley is an extreme place to visit. But don’t let its name deter you. From the bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, jackrabbits, and birds, to the plantlife and thriving wilderness, Death Valley is full of a shocking amount of life. Hike through the incredible landscapes of this park, or make the trek via car and resist the urge to stop every few minutes for new photos. If you happen to stay until nightfall, don’t forget to look to the sky — Death Valley is a registered dark sky park.

Photo by Dave C

For island-hopping: Channel Islands National Park

Closest city: Santa Barbara
Annual visitors: 383,687
Distinctive feature: Five different islands off the coast of Southern California
Why you should visit:
Not many people know about Channel Islands, and their relative isolation means they remained untouched as the rest of Southern California developed and moved into the 21st century. The five islands — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara — are only reachable via ferry or plane, but all offer extensive exploration opportunities once you get there. Take a hike, watch for both marine and land wildlife, set out on the sea in a kayak, grab your surfboard, or head underwater on a snorkeling trip. If you’re feeling adventurous, plan to camp on one of the islands overnight. Our day-trip guide has everything you need to know.

Photo by Erin Feinblatt
Photo by Josh Katz