Adventures in California’s National Parks & Recreational Areas

California has an amazing selection of National and State parks, and figuring out which ones to visit can be overwhelming. I spent most of my childhood being dragged all over the state viewing the many wonders it had to offer. Some of them are obvious stand outs that I plan on dragging my family to see. I say ‘dragging’ because most kids don’t wake up in the morning and say, ” Hey Mom and Dad, can we drive an enormous amount of miles in a car until my butt falls asleep, and then hike all over a mountain until I am so hungry and thirsty I can eat the bark of a tree!” If that’s your kid, then this post is definitely for you.

My husband was nervous the first time we all went hiking in the forest. It didn’t help that we saw a steaming pile of bear scat a short distance into our hike, but he soon realized how rare that was, and how wonderful the reward of a day’s hike was for our well-being.

The experience will linger with your family their entire life, and at some point they will thank you for the wonderful experience. So strap on a good pair of hiking boots, and go see the great outdoors. Here is just a taste of the National Parks and recreational areas in California.


With 1,200 square miles, it’s hard not to find something for the family to enjoy. Beautiful blooming meadows, breathtaking waterfalls, giant Sequoias, and mountain ranges that go on forever. You can see why this park was protected in 1864. If you are planning to spend the evening, there are a variety of accommodations, but be sure to plan ahead as sites fill up quickly, especially during the busy seasons.  You will need a permit if you plan on doing any overnight hiking or camping, and a day hikers permit is required for hiking Half Dome. They only allow 300 hikers per day on Half Dome, and the lottery system determines who can go. They have a preseason lottery in March if you want to have a set schedule while you are there.  

There is plenty of lodging and campgrounds to choose from in the park, but if you don’t want to leave your car, that’s okay. Every road through Yosemite is scenic, and there are some popular roads through Yosemite Valley you may want to drive. Make sure to check road conditions before heading out into the area. They’ll let you know about any closures or adverse road conditions.   

Hiking trails: Yosemite Valley, Tioga Road, Southern Yosemite, Glacier Point Road, Hetchy Hetchy and Big Oak Flat


Point Reyes Point Reyes National Seashore

This scenic shoreline has 150 miles of hiking trails. Visit their trail information guide to see what best suits your family. There are a variety of off-road biking opportunities, paved biking areas, kayaking, whale watching and horseback riding. Rentals are available for bikes, kayaks and horseback riding. There are camping sites available in neighboring areas, or you can make reservations at the only lodging available within the boundaries of the National Seashore, the Point Reyes Hostel. This hostel has accommodations for all ages with shared or private rooms and a LEED Gold-certified addition.

Point Reyes National Seashore has a wonderful selection of beaches; Palomarin and Sculptured Beaches are good for tide-pool adventures, while the remaining beaches have a vast amount of sand for other activities. Although the water may look inviting, it rarely gets above  10°C (50°F). Wetsuits are a must if you are getting into the ocean, but keep in mind there are riptides, sneaker waves and the possibility of hypothermia. If you want to head into the wooded areas, there is backcountry hike-in camping along Drakes Bay and in the Phillip Burton Wilderness.

Tide Charts for beach combing and tide-pooling.

Lassen Volcanic National ParkLassen Volcanic National Park

Situated at the crossroads of three great biological areas, the Cascades, Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin, Lassen Volcanic National Park is the only place to see the largest hydrothermal high-velocity steam measuring as hot as 322°F (161°C). If you are planning a trip to this National park, be sure to visit Bumper Hell Trail located at the Southwest entrance of the park. Big Boiler, the largest fumarole in the park will not disappoint.

Spend a day or a vacation exploring miles of trails in the park’s scenic backcountry. During the Summer and Fall you can engage in the many water activities, participate in the ranger-led programs,  hike, and horseback ride. In the Winter and Spring seasons, there is skiing, snowshoeing, and other snow related activities available. You can reserve a cabin at Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins or stay overnight at Drakesbad Guest Ranch where you will find many amenities.

Stargazing is extraordinary in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The night skies are free of city lights, giving visitors the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular evening display. The Starry Night ranger-led program and the Lassen Dark Sky Festival are a couple of the activities available at various locations within the park.

Sites to visit: Manzanita LakeLassen PeakDevastated AreaBrokeoff MountainCinder ConeBumpass HellDevils KitchenBoiling Springs LakeKings Creek Falls, Butte LakeWarner Valley, and Juniper Lake


sequoia-national-park-53289_640Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

If you ever wondered what it would be like to stand among giants, this is the park to visit. It’s hard to stand next to an amazingly large tree and not be humbled. If their size doesn’t impress you, than maybe the age of the oldest trees of more than 3,000 years might. In the Sequoia National Park, you will find the General Sherman tree, an impressive 274.9 feet tall and the world’s largest living tree. Head over to Kings Canyon and you’ll find Grant Grove and the General Grant Tree, the second largest tree in the world. 

Depending on the season you decide to visit, you can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, children’s programs , field seminars, ranger-led walks, rock-climbing, fishing, spelunking, cross-country skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, wildlife watching, and swimming at Hume Lake. Moro Rock, in the Sequoia National Park, is a climb up 400 steep steps to a spectacular view of the Great Western Divide, or head over to Kings Canyon, with a maximum depth of 8,200 feet (2,500 m),  and visit Boyden Cavern or Crystal Cave. The John Muir Trail runs through this area before heading up to Mt Whitney, total of 215 miles from the Yosemite starting point.

Like most of the National parks, this park is very busy during the summer months. Be sure to make reservations and get any necessary permits ahead of time. Something to be aware of, bears. Make sure you store your food out of the sight and smell of bears, and throw your trash in bear proof canisters.

There are 14 campgrounds with varying amenities offered throughout the parks. Four lodges are  located in the park region, two of which are open year-round. 

Photo Gallery

townsendii-386924_640                                                Pinnacles National Park

If Condors, Talus caves, and wildflowers aren’t enough to get you to this park, how about climbing among some crazy spires and rock formations? One of the newest additions to the National parks, this park is on the move, 3-6 centimeters per year. It was originally 195 miles south of it’s current location, and thanks to it’s proximity along the San Andreas Fault, it will continue to move northward.

Trails have volcanic and sedimentary boulders along the way from volcanic activity over 23 millions years ago. The park offers Night Hikes , rock climbing, camping, and bird watching along the 30 miles of hiking trails. The park has two talus caves, Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Be sure to check the status of the caves before visiting as they close occasionally for bat roosting. Pinnacles National Park has a large bat population consisting of 14 out of the 23 bat species in California. Three of the species are fruit or nectar feeders, the rest eat insects and arachnids. No blood suckers here, you’ll have to travel to South America for those bats.

The best time to visit Pinnacles National Park is during the cooler winter months and early spring, as extreme temperatures during the summer months are not ideal for young hikers. Regardless the time of year you visit, it is advised to bring lots of water, as the weather is very dry and warm. Rangers recommend that each person consume 1 liter per hour while hiking.

Additional information: Weather conditionsLodging

california-684302_640   King Range National Conservation area

Known as the California’s Lost Coast, a good amount of the trails are beach hiking with several stretches of 1-2 ft. rounded boulders.  King Range National Conservation area has 68,000 acres and extends along 35 miles of coastline between the mouth of the Mattole River and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. Wear sturdy hiking boots and bring your sense of adventure as there are 70 miles of hiking trails through this coastal wilderness.

King Range National Conservation area attracts a wild array of interest from abalone divers to surfers. This is a great place for bird watching with 300 different native and migrating species, and hikers can view sea lions, tide pool creatures, seals and elk. This area is busy during the summer and holiday weekends, so if you are looking for some solitude, try to plan a weekday or spring/fall trip.

This is bear country, so don’t feed any animals while you are there, and make sure to store your food items in the bear canisters when you leave your campsite. This area has ticks and rattlesnakes that you may encounter, so be watchful and make sure you prepare your family.

There are hiking trails for all ages and skill levels. Lost Coast Trail-North is a total of 24.6 miles of mostly level terrain.  This King Range hike offers one of the few coastal wilderness hiking experiences in the United States. You can view sea lions, tidepools and spectacular spring wildflowers. This is about a three day hike, and recommended for the older kids. 

For the younger family, Chemise Mountain Trail near Wailaki and Nadelos Campground is 1.5 miles and a 800 ft. climb.  This is one of the easier hikes in the King Range. You will experience vistas of the coastline and inland mountain ranges from the 2,598 foot summit of Chemise Mountain.                                                                                                                                                   

Other Sources: Permits,

redwood-315731_640                                   Redwood National and State Park

Located in Northern Coastal California and Oregon, it isn’t just about the tall redwood trees, although they are quite impressive. the park has vast prairies, oak groves, raging rivers, and 40 miles of coastline. Watch gray whales migrating offshore along the coast December thru January or March thru April, or venture inland and walk through the fog drenched woods.

Thinking of staying overnight, choose from a few campgrounds that offer a wide variety of scenic encounters. Be sure to visit Fern Canyon, a 30 foot wall of dripping wet ferns, whose ancestry can be traced back 325 million years, surrounding a creek full a little creatures. There are many events to enjoy throughout the year, and watch an inside scoop from the park rangers who live and work in the area.  

Like all national parks, you will need to take safety precautions from sneaker waves, black bears, mountain lions, ticks and poison oak. 

Other Sources: Campground guide, Current Conditions, Animal guide

california-poppies-539751_640                                Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Located in Los Angeles’ backyard are 500 miles of trials, historical and cultural sites where you can hike, bike, climb, horseback ride, and even camp. Mishe Mokwa Trail to Split Rock is a 3.5 mile hike with spectacular views of Carlisle Canyon and Balanced Rock. Backbone Trail and Cheeseboro Canyon Trail to Modelo Trail Loop will render some amazing views of rolling hills, mountain ranges and grasslands. Be sure to bring plenty of water in this Mediterranean climate, and guard yourself against ticks, especially during the spring and summer months.

There are events for kids throughout the year like Be a Wildlife Biologist and Creatures of the Night, as well as art and cultural events for the whole family.

Other parks in the area are Topanga State Park and Point Mugu State Park each has their own campsites situated among amazing scenery, from sand dunes to major river canyons.

Sources: Camping, Wildflower Guide, Malibu Riders, Rocking Horse Rentals

stream-573570_640                 Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Just west of Redding is a day trip adventure or some overnight camping at the Oak Bottom Campground. If you just want to take your family for a day trip, visit the picnic and beaches along Whiskeytown lake, but Whiskeytown is not just a beautiful lake, it’s also an area surrounded by 70 miles of trails, 39,000 acres of wilderness, pristine creeks, and four waterfalls. Trails like the one that leads to Boulder Creek Falls, traverses through a canyon filled with moss and ferns at the feet of towering ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Although, the round trip hike is 5.5 miles, it is a perfect trail for hikers, bikers, and equestrians.

If you and your family are big history buffs, the park rangers give tours of the historic mines and buildings from the Gold Rush Era. For the whole family or just the kids, there are kayak tours, stargazing, and junior ranger programs. Enough activities to keep the whole family busy during your stay.

Source: Future Leaders, Outdoor Activities