Why not take a page out of your parents’ guidebook to family trips? Don’t jump on a plane to Hawaii, pile in the car and drive to one of the many amazing national parks right here on our doorstep in the great state of California. Not only does a family that road-trips together stay together, it’s a wonderful way to see the beauty of our natural world. So where to go? Don’t worry—we’ve rounded up five fantastic parks for you to choose from.
- Joshua Tree National Park
In the southeastern desert area of California, you’ll find Joshua Tree National Park. Yes, that place with the funny trees and is also the name of a U2 album from the 80s. Why should you visit? Because the California desert has a lot more to offer than you may think: strikingly hulking boulders, gold mining ruins, rugged mountains. Don’t miss the lookout from Keys View, as you’ll find a panorama that includes Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio. If you look carefully, you can see the Salton Sea shimmering in the background, behind Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, grab your binoculars to get a glimpse of Mexico! Yep, Mountain Signal is in Mexico, over 90 miles away. The spot was named after rancher and miner William F. Keys, and you can stop by the Keys Ranch, a preserved Old West Ranch, for a 90-minute walking tour. The kids will love the family programs at the Desert Institute, with half-day animal tracking classes, creative arts programs, and science classes focused on the creatures of the desert. There are camping options at Joshua Tree, and it’s one of the best places in Southern California to see the night sky far from the city glare.
- Yosemite National Park
Who hasn’t been awestruck by the famous Ansel Adams photo of Half Dome? To see it in person is even more spectacular. This year is a great one to visit Yosemite (although please wait until the recent local fire is under control!), as the massive snowfall last winter means the park’s waterfalls are pouring at full volume. Yosemite Valley is where the dramatic granite formations are, like Half Dome and Liberty Cap, and it’s easy to see most of the top sights from a drive around the valley floor. You can also drive up to Glacier Point, where jaw-dropping vistas can be seen without a strenuous hike—although the hikes in Yosemite are worth the effort. To get away from the crowds, head out Highway 120 to Hetch Hetchy Valley for waterfalls, a lake, wildflowers, and some great lodges with the perfect refreshments for post-hike rewards. Hikers and backpackers should head to Tuolomne Meadows, but those not so adventurous still have things to do there with a visitor center and short trails—plus breakfast and lunch at the Tuolomne Meadows Grill.
- Redwood National Park
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be surrounded by giants, head to Redwood National Park. There are five visitor centers with plenty of information about these stunningly tall and old redwood trees, and they are a great place to start a driving tour. Visit the Klamath River Overlook for a view of an estuary where the Pacific Ocean meets the freshwater river, and keep an eye out for migrating grey whales, especially during the months of December through April. Drive or mountainbike the Coast Drive that follows the coastline for nine miles, and stop at the High Bluff Overlook for a picnic with the local sea lions, brown pelicans, and thousands of seabirds. Two short, one-mile hikes are the Yurok Loop and the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Loop—the first will take you to the pristine Hidden Beach, and the other through the gigantic trees.
- Channel Islands National Park
What if you could visit a beautiful ocean sanctuary, one that’s been compared to the Galapagos Islands? Head to the harbors of Oxnard or Ventura, and catch a boat to the Channel Islands National Parks. There are no lodgings, stores, or restaurants (so plan ahead!), just a bounty of local plants and wildlife on land and in the sea. The five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—are worth a week of exploring, but you can still see a lot in just a half-day trip. The best way to see the islands are by ocean kayak, and you need to book that trip before heading out on the boat. Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Rosa islands all have great hiking trails, and keep your eyes peeled for local island foxes. Each island has its own campground, and full-service expeditions are available from one to ten day trips where you’ll get to paddleboard, snorkel, surf, SCUBA, or just relax on a beach all on your own.
- Pinnacles National Park
This is California’s most recent addition to the national park club, and its cliffs, crags, and cave formations were formed by an ancient volcano along the San Andreas Fault. Rock climbers love the rocky outcroppings formed millions of years ago by earthquakes along the faultline, but many caves like the Talus also provide entertainment. The park is divided into an east and west side, and you can’t drive from one side to the other, but a 5-mile hike on foot will do the trick. On the west side, there is no lodging, camping, or overnight accommodations, but on the east side you’ll find camping, a visitor center, and a store. Enjoy wildflowers, defy death by climbing rocks, or hike through the High Peaks area. For those who like their park experiences with a bit of fine dining on the side, don’t miss The Inn at Tres Pinos. It doesn’t have a fancy dress code—it used to be a favorite watering hole of 1880s cattle ranchers—but the food is top notch with a wine list to match.
Before hitting the road to one of these amazing destinations, make sure your car, truck, minivan, or SUV is in top driving condition. Click here for a checklist, and have a great time! We hope you have a trip full of natural wonders, beautiful discoveries, songs around the campfire, and perfect S’mores. Mosquitoes not invited, thank you very much. If you’d like to check with us about your car insurance, or even travel insurance, give us a call before you go: 714-838-1911.