California is home to more national parks than any other state in the USA. What better way to experience them than by renting a car and hitting the open road?
This 10-day road trip itinerary will take you through five of California’s most beautiful and diverse national parks, all easily accessible from Los Angeles or San Francisco. Just remember to pack your hiking boots!
Days 1 -3: Joshua Tree National Park
LA is the arrival point of many international flights, so it makes sense to begin your national park tour here. It’s an easy 131 miles to Joshua Tree (2 hrs), where you’ll swap LA’s coastal vibe for the dry, rocky desert. It’s an exciting moment when you spot your first Joshua Tree from the car window!
Make a beeline for the Visitor Centre where you can chat with the ranger, buy a ticket and make your plan of attack. It’s best to begin at the park’s west entrance and, as you drive through, stop at the various hiking trails along the way.
For a short visit, some of the best short hikes and landmarks include the Hidden Valley loop, Keyes View (best for sunset), Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden (best for sunrise) and Skull Rock.
You won’t find anywhere to buy food inside the park so bring a packed lunch. Outside the park, dine at La Copine in Flamingo Heights or the iconic Pappy & Harriet’s in nearby Pioneertown. There is quite a good selection of Airbnbs in the area to stay at.
Days 4-5 Death Valley National Park
It’s a big day of driving today as you’ll clock up 346 miles (6 hrs). Don’t worry though, the mesmerizing landscape ensures that time passes quickly. Heading north towards the Nevada border, you’ll drive through the Mojave Preserve and pass ancient lava flows and limestone canyons.
Make sure you’ve got a full tank of gas and plenty of sunscreen and water because Death Valley is one of the most unforgiving, remote and inhospitable places on earth. It’s a place of extremes–not only is it the largest national park outside Alaska, it’s also the hottest and driest place in North America.
Luckily though, most of the main attractions can be seen without venturing too far from your car. The top highlights include Badwater Basin, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Zabriske Point and the Artist’s Palette scenic loop.
There’s limited accommodation in the park itself but a good, albeit expensive, option is The Oasis at Death Valley.
Days 6-7 Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Get ready for a change of scenery because you’re about to swap the desert for the forest. This isn’t just any old forest, however. The Sequoia National Park is home to the biggest trees on the planet! Today’s drive totals 286 miles (5.5 hrs) and, although it’s a long day on the road, the destination is every bit worth it.
Arriving in the afternoon, head directly to see General Sherman, the largest tree on earth. It’s usually less crowded in the afternoon, which is a bonus. Get up bright and early the following morning and try to see as much as you can before lunchtime. Some highlights are Giant’s Forest, Tunnel Log and the Moro Rock hike.
Like Death Valley, accommodation is limited so it’s best to stay at the Wuksachi Lodge within the park.
As you leave Sequoia National Park, you enter Kings Canyon National Park, which lies adjacent. With its deep valleys, towering trees and rocky outcroppings, you can easily see why John Muir once labelled this place ‘a rival to Yosemite’.
Days 8-10 Yosemite National Park
Once you’ve exited Kings Canyon National Park, you’ll be on your way to the last park of your trip, the iconic Yosemite National Park. You’ll be spending a much shorter day in the car than what you’re used to–it’s only 133 miles (3hrs) today.
Depending on when you arrive, you might be able to catch golden hour at Tunnel View. Beholding the view of the whole Yosemite valley sweeping out before you, you’ll instantly understand why Yosemite is revered as California’s most spectacular national park. Known for its sheer granite cliffs, thundering waterfalls and peaceful meadows, Yosemite is perhaps the grandest of all the national parks you’ve seen on this trip.
Unmissable highlights include Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, Glacier Point and Bridalveil Falls. Conveniently, there are a few restaurants and cafes inside the park you can eat at as well as a grocery store to stock up on supplies.
There are a few accommodation options inside the park, including the upscale Ahwahnee Hotel but cheaper options can be found just outside the parks’ borders. Alternatively, The Narrow Gauge Inn is a great, budget-friendly option.
San Francisco is the closest city to Yosemite National Park and is 204 miles (3.5 hrs) away. No doubt you’ll be planning a return visit before you’ve even left!
This guest post was written by Rachel Bale.