See Every California National Park with this Epic Road Trip Itinerary

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Did you know that California has the most National Parks out of any state? It makes sense when you see just what parks are in the Golden State, as well as the size and geographic variety of the state. While Texas and Alaska may be bigger, California is by far the largest state if you’re measuring North to South. Which is what gives it the variation in climate and geology. I know, that’s getting a little nerdy! But if you want to see the variety, you can in this California National Parks Road Trip.

This itinerary covers the 8 National Parks in California. However, depending on the time of year you visit, it may not make sense to hit them all in one trip. Use this as a guide to determine when and how you want to visit California. I’ll include suggestions on how to break this into more than one trip.

I did build this as a round trip from San Francisco. You could easily do this trip out of Los Angeles and start at the Channel Islands or go west and start at Joshua Tree. It’s also easy to start in San Francisco and end in Los Angeles. However, I know a round trip from one destination is usually a cheaper flight, which is why I created this as a circle tour.

How to Plan a California National Parks Road Trip

To start a road trip this massive, it’s helpful to have a route planner. This could be Google Maps, where you can input multiple stops along a trip. However, I prefer Roadtrippers. With Roadtrippers Pro, I can add as many waypoints (or stops) as I’d like, and it automatically inputs the stop in the best place along the route. And if I don’t like it there, I can easily move stops around.

I used Roadtrippers to create this itinerary here, with some small modifications. My goal is no more than five hours on the road. However, California is vast, so there is a six-hour day in here. Plus, keep in mind, road conditions and estimates can vary.

You can learn more on how to use Roadtrippers here.

Moon Guide’s USA National Parks is another essential to getting the details of every park. The NPS site is good as well, but Moon Guides will tell you the best hikes, the top 3 sites in the park, what to do if you have one day, etc. It was an essential guide for some of the hikes I did on my recent trip to California.

How to get from park to park

We’re talking an epic road trip here. For this trip, I am mapping this out as if you have a car, RV, or plan to do some van camping in California.

I recommend camping, as it is a beautiful opportunity to connect with the natural beauty that is the National Parks. You could even rent something such as an Escape Campervan so you’re not pitching a tent or setting up an RV every night.

I realize camping is not for everyone, so I also have lodging recommendations in each location as well. These range from cabins in campgrounds, to home rentals, and park accommodations where possible.

Ready to hit the open road? Let’s go!

California National Parks Trip on Roadtrippers
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Day 1 – San Francisco

  • Start: Home
  • End: Sonoma Valley
  • Miles: 80 miles

If you’re flying in, you’re likely not landing until the afternoon. By the time you get off the plane, get your rental vehicle, and load up on snacks or groceries, it doesn’t leave you with a lot of time to get to the Redwoods.

If you do get in early, head straight to Day 2.

Why not cross the Golden Gate Bridge and spend some time in Sonoma County instead? Visit wine country and grab a bottle or three for the road. Don’t drink and drive of course. This is for your evenings around a campfire.

Must See: Vineyards, everywhere. It’s lovely driving through this farmland and seeing every vineyard, even small homestead ones.

Where to Stay: Vintner’s Inn is everything you’d expect an inn to be in the middle of wine country. Located on a vineyard trail, guests receive a free bottle of wine upon arrival.

For camping in the area, we stayed at Bodega Dunes. There are a few different options here, with a boardwalk to the beach.

Alternate Stay: Stay in Point Reyes National Seashore at Samuel P Taylor State Park. Cabins and camping is available and it’s not too far to visit the seashore.

Driving through the redwoods on a California National Parks road trip

Day 2 – Redwoods

  • Start: Santa Rosa
  • End: Orick
  • Miles: 259 miles

National Park: Redwood National Park and State Parks

On your way to the Redwood National park, take a slight detour and drive through the Avenue of Giants. You won’t regret this scenic drive with plenty of stops to wander the giant Redwood trees. It’s about 40 miles long. Redwood trees are the tallest trees, while later in the trip you’ll view Sequoias, the biggest by volume.

The Redwoods National Park requires no entrance fee, however for some of the activities you do need a reservation. This ensures the area isn’t overcrowded. Highlights include visiting Elk Meadow and strolling the beach just inside the park.

Must See: Hiking through Fern Valley was one of my favorite things we did during our trip to Redwoods. During peak season it does require a reservation permit to visit. Also, keep in mind the drive is somewhat steep and narrow to climb. Four-hour permits are available at 8:00 am and 1:00 pm. From talking to the rangers, essentially you are allowed in at any time during your reserved time slot, so you could do this on the same day as you arrive. Alternatively, you could go first thing on day 3 and then use the remainder of the day to drive to Lassen.

Where to Stay: Sue Meg State Park was stunning and just outside the Redwoods area. The park is filled with tall pines and paths lead out to a rocky beach overlook area. Cabins are available if you’re not camping.

Lassen Peak in Lassen Volcanic National Park California National Parks Road trip

Day 3 – Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Start: Orick
  • End: Manzanita Lake
  • Miles: 223 miles

National Park: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic is a hidden gem on your national park road trip. Because it’s tucked away in Northern California, it often gets overlooked. The good news is it makes it a great place to get away and have some hikes to yourself, even in summer. A lot of this park does close for winter, and even one of the trails we wanted to do wasn’t open yet in June. Snow stays on the ground and we even hiked while it was snowing.

Lassen Peak is not the tallest mountain in California or even the US. But it does clock in at over 10,000 feet and makes for an impressive visit. It is an active volcano, but don’t expect molten lava pouring from the mountain. the US Geological Society believes the volcano is in a period of subsidence, or a less active period.

Must See: While Bumpass Hell trail is most mentioned, for its hydrothermal and sulfur mud pool activity, it may remain closed until mid to late June. We enjoyed Kings Creek Falls Trail. This trail took us through a meadow, still dotted with snow, to a mountain climb. The trail circles around to a rocky and beautiful waterfall.

Note that this area was devastated by the Dixie fires in 2021. You can still see where many burnt trees are standing. Don’t let this deter your visit however as it’s a striking contrast from one side of the trail to the other.

Where to Stay: Manzanita Lake Campground, both camping, and cabins available. Manzanita also has showers, laundry, and a decent general store for stocking up.

Lake Tahoe Emerald Bay Mountain trees

Day 4 – Lake Tahoe

  • Start: Manzanita Lake
  • End: Lake Tahoe
  • Miles: 216 miles

While technically this is not a national park, I included Lake Tahoe to break up the drive. Your California National Parks Road Trip has long drives these first few days. You could skip over Lake Tahoe and head straight to Yosemite. That would be about a 7-hour drive through the Sierra Nevada mountains. While Lake Tahoe isn’t a direct path between the two parks, it does break it up nicely and you still get extraordinary hikes and views.

Must See: Emerald Bay is part of Lake Tahoe and seemingly where a lot of the action happens. We hiked into the main area, but you can drive as well. During the summer it is busy with lots of activity. Our hike began at our campground, making it that much more convenient. We kayaked near Fannette island, toured the Vikingsholm grounds, and enjoyed the clear emerald water views.

Where to Stay: Emerald Bay State Park and Eagle Point campground was an absolutely perfect campground. Our site was steps from the hiking trail, allowing us to park the van and explore immediately. They do close in early September and fill up in the summer. be sure to book early.

For non-campers, I would look at any of the stunning home rentals here. Many cabins have extraordinary lake views.

Yosemite National Park California National parks road trip

Day 5 – Yosemite

  • Start: Lake Tahoe
  • End: Yosemite Valley
  • Miles: 165 miles or 195 miles

National Park: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park has 4 entrances. I would recommend the Big Oak Flat Entrance on the northwest side. if you map to the valley, however, it may take you through the Tioga pass entrance on the east side. Either works, but we’re all about maximizing our time in the parks and not on the road.

Since we’re only allowing 2 days on this itinerary, I’m focusing on the highlight of Yosemite National Park, in the Yosemite Valley.

Must See: If you feel up for squeezing in a hike after arriving at the park, head to the Lower Yosemite Falls. This flat easy 1-mile hike will give you a view of the lower falls and plenty of photo ops. You could also head over to the Mist Trail at Vernal Fall.

Take either today or the later part of tomorrow and visit the history of the Yosemite park in the museums located in the valley. See the valley Visitor Center, Yosemite Museum, Ansel Adams Gallery, and the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee, all steps from each other.

Where to Stay: You can’t go wrong with any of the accommodations within the valley. Choose from Yosemite Valley Lodge, The Ahwahnee, or Curry Village for luxury accommodations or cabins. Housekeeping Camp has tent cabins for a glamping experience. The valley also has tent and RV camping at Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, and Camp 4. Note Camp 4 used to be first come first serve, but during peak season is available by a daily lottery, one day in advance. If you’re willing to chance it, this is a perfect base camp for your hike to upper Yosemite Falls.

Day 6 – Yosemite

  • Start: Yosemite Valley
  • End: Yosemite Valley
  • Miles: 0 miles

National Park: Yosemite National Park

You need at least 2 days in this popular park, especially if you want to get a good hike or two in. Today, tackle all or half of Upper Yosemite Falls. It is a strenuous hike in the 2nd half with steep rocky inclines. If you do just the first half, you still get rewarded with stunning views of the falls. The full hike will take you to the top of the mountain with more once-in-a-lifetime views of El Capitan, but it’s not for everyone.

If you didn’t get to Mist Falls yesterday, do that one today. Or hike an easier terrain at Mirror Lake.

Not up for a hike today? Take in views of Half Dome, Bridal Veil Falls, and Yosemite Falls, by riding the free bus transportation throughout the valley floor, stopping at various scenic points.

Where to Stay: Spend another night here and relax!

A note about the timing in this trip. Depending on the time of year, you may want to exclude Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks due to the extreme heat in the summer months. if you’re traveling in the later winter months, you may find sections of the northern parks closed. Do some research on the National Park Service website to find what is open and when. You could also split this trip into separate times of the year and start in Southern California for the following parks.

Day 7 – Yosemite

  • Start: Yosemite Valley
  • End: Furnace Creek
  • Miles: 303 miles

National Park: Yosemite National Park and Death Valley National park

While today you will end up in Death Valley, depending on the time of year and the heat, you may not want to arrive until the evening when the heat has abated. Plan to drive and explore more of Yosemite National Park and arrive late.

Today you’ll head out of the park towards the Tioga Pass entrance. This scenic drive passes Tuolumne Meadows, Tenaya Lake, and Olmsted point. Tuolumne Meadows is a popular place to spot wildlife and wildflowers. Tenaya lake as well as Cathedral Lakes, and Gaylor Lakes also make for scenic reflective views as well as easy to strenuous hikes.

Finally, you’ll head towards Death Valley, which is about a 4-hour drive from the Tioga pass Entrance Station.

Must See: Nighttime in Death Valley offers some of the best stargazing in America. Designated as a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky association means you won’t miss a thing by arriving here at night. Death Valley has a Dark Sky Festival in the later winter or spring months. There are night ranger programs and even full moon night hiking at Mesquite flat Sand Dunes or Badwater Basin. Check out the park’s night explorations here.

Where to Stay: the oasis at Death Valley is a privately owned historic luxury property with pool views overlooking the desert. however, for more unobstructed night sky viewers, I’d recommend Furnace Creek Campground which is open year-round. Furnace Creek, as opposed to the other first-come-first-served campgrounds, accepts reservations.

brown rocky mountain under blue sky during daytime

Day 8 – Death Valley

  • Start: Furnace Creek
  • End: Twenty-Nine Palms
  • Miles: 236 miles

National Park: Death Valley National Park & Joshua Tree National park

Did you know that Death Valley is below sea level, making it the lowest point to visit in the national parks? Today explore what you can of Death Valley before driving you California National Parks road trip on to Joshua Tree. By making your way south from Furnace Creek, you’ll hit the highs and lows of Death Valley.

Must see: Just south of Furnace creek is Zabriskie Point, with an overlook of the badlands and unique erosion and winds that shape the desert. From there, keep traveling south to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level. Badwater’s salt flats provide another highlight of what the variety in Death Valley offers.

Where to Stay: tonight stay in Twenty Nine Palms or Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree National park only has campgrounds. black Rock or Cottonwood Campgrounds are the most developed. Outside of the park check out the Desert Lily Lodge for more dark sky views.

I took this photo at Joshua Tree National Park in the early morning.

Day 9 – Joshua Tree

  • Start: Joshua Tree
  • End: Ventura
  • Miles: 224 miles

National Park: Joshua Tree National Park

Wake up and explore Joshua Tree National Park from the north or west entrance stations. Either will take you along Park Boulevard for the more popular sections of the park. If you can enter through Oasis Visitor’s Center and exit through to the Joshua Tree Visitor’s center, you’ll explore all of Park Boulevard.

Must See: Hidden Valley has more than 400 places to climb and clamor over the various rock formations. With 8,000 climbing routes, it’s a rock climbers’ paradise. Even if you’re a beginner, you can join a beginner rock climbing course. And if you don’t want to climb, you can still pretend you are a rock climber by walking the Barker Dam Nature Trail.

After exploring Joshua Tree, head west towards the Channel Islands.

Where to Stay: Emma Wood State Beach is near the ferry that will take you to the Channel Islands National Park.

Sunset at the Channel Islands.

Day 10 – Channel Islands

  • Start: Ventura
  • End: Sequoia
  • Miles: 221 miles

National Park: Channel Islands National Park

Wake up in Ventura and explore the Channel Islands National Park. You cannot drive to the Channel Islands and there are no cars on the islands. If you want to camp, you can pack in for primitive camping on the island. Otherwise, boats leave at 4 pm allowing you enough time to drive to Sequoia next.

There are five Channel Islands in total. The ferries take you to Anacapa or Santa Cruz Islands year-round, and to Santa Rosa during the summer months. A popular and easy hike is the one to Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island. This is where you’ll see the Anacapa Lighthouse and spectacular views and photo ops from the higher elevation.

Must See: The sea caves on Santa Cruz Island are a perfect place to explore by kayak. For kayak rentals and tours, check out the Channel Islands Kayak Center. Rates are very reasonable for a full day at $35 for a single kayak.

Where to Stay: You’re on your way to Sequoia once you depart the boat. Stay in one of the many campgrounds between Sequoia and Kings Canyon, or check out the Sequoia National Forest Campgrounds. The Silver City Mountain Resort is another perfect cabin getaway too.

Day 11 – Sequoia & Kings Canyon

  • Start: Sequoia
  • End: Kings Canyon
  • Miles: 60 miles

National Park: Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park

Because they border each other, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are often lumped together as one park, but still operate separately. today start out at the south end of the park and make your way to Moro rock for an overlook of the park. It is a strenuous hike, but only a 1/2 mile round trip and mostly stairs with guard rails. There are 380 steps up (and down).

Must see: The top sight in Sequoia National Park is the giant sequoia trees, and you won’t go wrong doing the largest tree, General Sherman tree and surrounding trails. You’ll find other tall trees along the Congress Trail. If you have time, stop into the Forest Museum to learn more about what makes these the largest by volume trees and the sturdiest.

From here, make your way north along the Generals’ Highway, through the Sequoia National Forest, and on to Kings Canyon National Park.

In Kings Canyon, do the short trail that leads to the General Grant tree. Take Kings Canyon Scenic byway and stop at Canyon View for amazing views of Kings Canyon.

Where to Stay: Grants Grove has campsites and cabins available.

If you want to do just Sequoia and Yosemite on a trip, follow the route here.

Day 12 – Pinnacles

  • Start: Kings Canyon
  • End: Pinnacles
  • Miles: 190 miles

National Park: Pinnacles National Park

Get an early start and you can get to Pinnacles National Park by noon. Alternatively, you could leave the night before and wake up in Pinnacles. Pinnacles National Park is the home of the California Condor, an endangered species. If you are lucky, you’ll see them soaring above in on the high peaks trail. A strenuous, 7.2-mile trail if you complete the whole thing, you may want to start this in the morning when you’re fresh.

Pinnacles is also noted for its cathedral-like rocky spires. Many of the hikes here are moderate to strenuous. If you’re not a hiker, however, you can still drive from the east entrance to overlooks at Peaks View and the trailheads at Old Pinnacles and Bear Gulch to view the ancient and intricate geological formations.

Must See: Bear Gulch Cave has a self-guided path that weaves between the lodged boulders. These boulders create gulches, caves, and caverns. Be sure to bring some light beyond your cellphone flashlight. The trails from the Bear Gulch Day Use area is about a 2.2-mile moderate hike.

Where to Stay: Tonight stay in the Pinnacles campground if you’re van camping on your California National Parks road trip. Keep in mind this campground fills up fast so make your reservations early. Pinnacles has an east and a west entrance and they do not connect by road. If your activities are on the east side, and you want to avoid driving all the way around the park, you may want stay the night in Hollister, about 34 miles north. The good news is that puts you closer to your final destination.

Day 13 – San Francisco

  • Start: Pinnacles
  • End: San Francisco
  • Miles: 134 miles

If you’re doing some of the more strenuous hikes and arrived mid-day yesterday, you’ll want an extra day in Pinnacles. If not, make you’re way to San Francisco for the final leg of your journey.

Many flights east leave late in the day in San Francisco so that you can have a red-eye home. If like us, you did a later flight, you’ll have time to explore the city.

Note, however, that if you’re renting a campervan for your California National Parks road trip, you may need to return it early in the day. This can also play a factor in your overall driving and touring plans.

We returned our van early in the day, then took an Uber to the city to explore. We rented baggage space at a local hotel using the Bounce App. After exploring, we took an Uber to the airport for our 9 pm flight.

Must See: There are a lot f things to see and do in San Francisco that if you wanted an extra day, to spend, go for it. These are just a few of our favorites.

  • Ghiradelli sign
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Chinatown
  • San Francisco Trolley
  • The Painted Ladies
  • Lombard Street

If you do decide to take a Day 14, an extra day on this trip, cruise up the California coast on the Pacific Coast Highway, Bixby Bridge, and Big Sur for a scenic route.

2 Week California National Parks Road Trip

There you have it. 2 weeks to see every California National Park on a road trip. It’s a lot and only covers the highlights of each park. But if you’re on a mission with limited time, this will do it!

On our California adventure, we did 11 days covering more days in the parks. Our trip looked like this:

  • Day 1 – Bodega Dunes Campground
  • Day 2 – Redwoods – Sue meg Campground
  • Day 3 – Lassen – Manzanita Lakes Campground
  • Day 4 – Overnight in Sierraville
  • Day 5 – Lake Tahoe – Emerald Bay Campground
  • Day 6 – Drive to Yosemite – Groveland, CA
  • Day 7-8 – Yosemite
  • Day 9-10 Sequoia & Kings Canyon
  • Day 11 – Santa Cruz and depart San Francisco

We enjoyed a lot of scenery and hikes on this trip, as well as many bucket list destinations.

Alternate Itineraries

Here are a few other California National Parks Road Trip itineraries you could do in fewer days. or take these itineraries and spend extra time in places such as Yosemite, Sequoia, or the Channel Islands.

Northern California National Parks Round Trip Route:

  1. San Francisco
  2. Redwood
  3. Lassen
  4. Lake Tahoe
  5. Yosemite
  6. Kings Canyon & Sequoia
  7. Pinnacles
  8. San Francisco

Lost Angeles to San Francisco Route:

  1. Los Angeles
  2. Joshua Tree
  3. Kings Canyon & Sequoia
  4. Yosemite
  5. San Francisco

Southern California National Parks Round Trip Route:

  1. Los Angeles
  2. Joshua Tree
  3. Death Valley
  4. Sequoia
  5. Channel Islands
  6. Los Angeles

When to go to California

Witha. trip this size, it’s hard to say when the right time to go to California would be. Too early in the spring, and some sites may still be closed due to snow. Some rentals will tell you not to visit Death Valley in the summer. And fall may see some of the campgrounds closed, although crowds will be fewer.

Personally, I think if you’re going to visit all the California National Parks on your road trip, spring or fall would still be the best time to do it. You may sacrifice some trail and campground closures, but you’ll still see a majority of the highlights with fewer overall crowds.

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