The 3 Best National Parks In Southern California

Amazing National Parks in Southern California

California has nine absolutely incredible national parks, of which three are in Southern California. All three national parks in Southern California promise remarkable outdoors and ample adventure activities. Furthermore, each national park provides great opportunities for sighting wildlife.

If you are planning to visit this part of the USA, make sure to explore these three Southern California national parks.

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A Quick Glance Through

Map – California National Parks

California National Parks Map

National Parks In Southern California

1. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree - One of The Amazing National Parks in Southern California
Joshua Trees In The Park

Beckoning travelers with its awe-inspiring landscapes, Joshua Tree National Park is situated right at the junction of two vast deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado.

The Mojave Desert forms the western part of the national park whereas the Colorado Desert occupies the eastern part.

Originally created as a national monument, it became a national park in 1994. The Park gets its name from the abundantly found Joshua trees.

It is spread over 1,235 sq mi (3,199 sq km), of which about 671 sq mi (1,738 sq km) is designated as a wilderness area.

Joshua Tree is located 140 miles east of Los Angeles. It is one of the most popular national parks in Southern California and attracts more than 2 million visitors every year.

Things To Do

Besides the unique Joshua trees, the main highlights of Joshua Tree National Park are massive lava-formed rocks and boulders.

Rock climbing, hiking and camping are some of the popular outdoor activities here. There are numerous hiking trails in the park for everyone, from beginners to serious hikers.

If you are visiting for the first time, you may want to take short and easy hikes like:

  • Arch Rock: 0.5 mile (0.8 km)
  • Hidden Valley: 1 mile (1.6 km)
  • Barker Dam: 1.1 mile (1.8 km)

Then, there is the Ryan Mountain trail which is steep but one of the most rewarding. You can get a bird’s eye view of the entire park from the summit.

Cholla Cactus Garden
Teeming With Cacti – Cholla Cactus Garden

Another unmissable attraction of the park is Cholla Cactus Garden. It features an impressive array of beautiful cacti including the most popular teddy bear cholla.

You can take a stroll to appreciate the awesomeness of this desert garden.

The park harbours several types of wild animals. Coyotes, rabbits and chipmunks are some of the most commonly spotted animals in Joshua Tree.

Keep a watch for wildlife when you are exploring the park.

Also Read: 10 Unmissable Attractions in Joshua Tree National Park.

How To Get There

The park is less than 3 hours drive from Los Angeles and about an hour drive from Palm Springs. Joshua Tree Visitors Center is located on the west entrance.

There are two other entrance stations, the north entrance in Twentynine Palms and the south entrance near Cottonwood Spring.

Palm Springs is the closest airport, just 40 miles away from the park.

Best Time To Visit Joshua Tree

The most desirable time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is in Fall and Spring when the daytime temperatures are mild. Blooming wildflowers make the Spring season even more special.

Winter is perfect for those who want to avoid crowds. It is usually sunny during the day but nights can be quite cold.

The desert is scorching hot in summers with daytime temperatures often exceeding 100˚F (38˚C). Summer months are not recommended for outdoor adventures.

Where To Stay

If you want to extend your trip beyond an all-day excursion, you will need to find a place to stay. Fortunately, there are plenty of stay options in the nearby towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms on the northern border of the park.

Affordable lodging options in Twentynine Palms – El Rancho Dolores at JT National Park, Motel 6-Twentynine Palms, Americas Best Value Inn – Joshua Tree. Book Your Stay In Twentynine Palms.

Budget Vacation Rentals in Joshua Tree – Casa De Frank, Joshua Tree Village House, Bungalow in the Boulders. Book Your Stay In Joshua Tree.

Camping is the only way to go if you want to stay inside the park. You can check the availability of campgrounds through Recreation.gov.

However, most campgrounds are on a first-come, first-served basis in off-peak months (May to September).

2. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley - One of The Best National Parks in Southern California
Death Valley – One of The Most Amazing National Parks in Southern California

Death Valley National Park lies at the border between California and Nevada. Famously known as the land of extremes, Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America.

The lowest point in the U.S., Badwater Basin is located in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level. As the largest national park in the contiguous United States, it covers approximately 3.4 million acres.

There are many such interesting facts about Death Valley National Park that you will be surprised to know. Read my post – 14 Amazing Facts About Death Valley National Park

It was initially set up as a national monument which was converted to a national park in 1994. The most striking feature of Death Valley is its diverse landscape encompassing mountains, salt flats, valleys, canyons and sand dunes.

It’s truly one of the most fascinating national parks in Southern California to explore.

Things To Do

Death Valley is huge and there is a lot to do and see. The park’s major attractions include Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, Artist’s Palette, Dante’s View and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

In addition, Death Valley is home to several abandoned mines. Harmony Borax Works is one of the most famous mine sites that is worth a visit. It is less than 2 miles away from Furnace Creek.

If you are planning an extended vacation, you can check out a few more places – Ubehebe Crater, Eureka Dunes and Racetrack Playa.

Death Valley National Park also offers camping and stargazing opportunities.

Furnace Creek, Mesquite Spring and Texas Spring are excellent camping locations inside the park.

Stargazing is an unforgettable experience in Death Valley. You can see some astounding views of starry skies due to low levels of light pollution.

How To Get There

Death Valley is 130 miles (209 km) from Las Vegas. It is around 2.5 hours drive to Furnace Creek via Pahrump and Death Valley Junction.

The closest airport to Death Valley is Las Vegas McCarran Airport. You can get direct flights to Las Vegas from most US states.

Best Time To Visit Death Valley

Spring (March-April) and Autumn (October-November) months are the best for visiting Death Valley. The weather is pleasant in both seasons. While you can see wildflowers bloom in spring, it is missing in autumn.

Park is less crowded in winter because the temperature drops considerably and it gets freezing cold at night. So, plan and prepare accordingly if you are visiting in winter.

Summer is the least optimal season due to unbearable desert heat.

Where To Stay

Apart from the campgrounds, the lodging options are pretty limited. Here are some of the options to consider:

The Inn at Death Valley: Located in the heart of the desert, this historic inn offers a range of amenities including an outdoor pool, an in-house restaurant and a beautiful garden. Book A Room Here.

The Ranch at Death Valley: If you are looking for a family-friendly place, stay at this hotel. It is located right next to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The property features a spring-fed swimming pool, a restaurant, a tennis court and a playground. Book A Room Here.

3. Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island (Source)

The Channel Islands are a cluster of eight islands just off the coast of California. Five of these islands (Santa Cruz, Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara) make the Channel Islands National Park.

Aside from Anacapa Island, which is in Ventura County, all other islands are in  Santa Barbara County.

Initially, a national monument, then designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1976, Channel Islands became a national park in 1980.

The park also encompasses a marine sanctuary that extends 6 nautical miles offshore around the five islands.

Given the remoteness of the location, it remains one of the least explored national parks in Southern California. The park gets 200,000 to 300,000 visitors every year.

Anacapa Island Lighthouse
Anacapa Island Lighthouse

Things To Do

Channel Island National Park is a perfect place to relax and unwind amidst the beauty of nature. There are plenty of things to do and see for outdoor and wildlife lovers.

Hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, camping, birdwatching and whale watching are some of the popular activities in the park.

Keep an eye out for the wild residents of the Channel Islands. You can see island foxes, spotted skunks and many types of land and sea birds.

If you are camping on Santa Cruz Island, you may spot the island scrub-jay, an extremely rare bird. It is found only on Santa Cruz Island in all of North America.

Brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants and western gulls are some of the seabirds, you can see here.

The waters around the national park are rich in marine life. Sea lions, elephant seals, sea otters and dolphins are commonly sighted.

When it comes to exploring the park, you can choose from a day trip, overnight camping, or multi-day camping. Island Packers, the only authorized concessionaire, offers tours to each of the islands.

How To Get There

The park’s mainland visitor center is located in Ventura which is the gateway to Channel Islands National Park.

Ventura Harbour is easily accessible by car from Los Angeles (65 miles) and San Diego (190 miles).

Ferries depart daily from Ventura but you will need to make reservations in advance. Island Packers provides transportation to all five islands.

Plane service is also available on some islands. However, most people travel via water because that is much cheaper.

The travel time ranges from 1 to 4 hours depending on which island you are headed to.

Approximate time taken by boat from Ventura Harbour: Santacruz Island (1 hour), Anacapa Island (1 hour) Santa Rosa Island (3 hours), San Miguel Island (4 hours), Santa Barbara Island (3 hours).

Best Time To Visit Channel Islands

This Southern California National Park is a year-round destination. The climate is mild with little temperature variation – lows in the low-50s and highs in the mid-60s (°F)

The best time to visit is determined by things you want to do there. Fall is perfect for snorkeling and diving with amazing underwater visibility.

Spring is when you can see wildflowers bloom. Winter is best for gray whale watching and sunsets. Summer is considered the best for blue and humpback whale watching.

Before planning your trip, remember to check for closure updates on the Channel Islands National Park website.

Where To Stay

Unlike other national parks in Southern California, there are no hotels on the Channel Islands. If you want to stay overnight, camping is the only accommodation available.

You will find campgrounds on each island. Some of the best campgrounds are Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz Island and Water Canyon on Santa Rosa Island.

Besides these two campgrounds, potable water is not available at any other campground. Reservation can be done through Recreation.gov.

You can’t buy anything here. So, pack everything including a tent, sleeping bag, cooler, mess kit, garbage bag, snorkel gear and hiking shoes.

Over To You Now…

We hope you have a wonderful time exploring these amazing national parks in Southern California. Happy Adventuring!

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