5 most exciting nature parks for an off-the-beaten-track holiday in California

California’s hundreds of state and national parks provide incredible opportunities for communing with nature and learning about California’s fascinating history. From state beaches covering most of the 1,264-mile coastline, forests filled with the largest trees in the world, and museums and historical sites preserving priceless cultural artifacts, California’s 4.1 million National Parks acres and 1.3 million State Parks acres offer a place for the entire family to learn, grow and participate in many exciting adventures.

Yosemite National Park- Few things are more breathtaking than a starry summer night in the High Sierra, when the sky is filled with an impossible number of twinkling constellations, why not opt for a snug campsite in one of the world's most spectacular destinations in the Sierra - and the world- Yosemite National Park. First protected in 1864, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. Two Wild & Scenic Rivers, the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, begin in the park and flow west to the Central Valley. Yosemite is a scientific laboratory of hydrology, geology and glaciology, amongst other sciences. Visitors fall in love with the park's many waterfalls, specifically 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls that ranks as the tallest in North America, flowing down into the scenic Valley meadows. Hikers take notice of the enormous granite mountains from the 8,842-foot Half Dome to the 13,114-foot, Mt. Lyell-Yosemite's tallest peak. Glaciers, which John Muir sought out in California as well as Alaska, add into the mix with the Maclure and Lyell still intact. Nearly 95 percent of Yosemite National Park is designated Wilderness. Wilderness is a special distinction granted by Congress protecting land from further development. The best way to experience the 1,100 square miles of the Yosemite Wilderness is to explore it firsthand.


Death Valley National Park- The legendary Death Valley, featuring the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, is a desert of streaming sand dunes, snow-capped mountains, multicolored rock layers, canyons and three-million acres of stone wilderness. In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley. Home to the Timbisha Shoshone and to plants and animals unique to the harshest deserts. On any given summer day, the valley floor shimmers silently in the heat. For five months of the year unmerciful heat dominates the scene, and for the next seven the heat releases its grip only slightly. Despite the harshness and severity of the environment, more than 1000 kinds of plants live within the park. Those on the valley floor have adapted to a desert life by a variety of means. Some have roots that go down 10 times the height of a person. Some plants have a root system that lies just below the surface but extends out in all directions. Others have leaves and stems that allow very little evaporation and loss of life giving water.

  

Redwood National and State Parks - Most people know Redwood as home to the tallest trees on Earth. But the parks also protect vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and nearly 40 miles of pristine coastline, all supporting a rich mosaic of wildlife diversity and cultural traditions. As you drive through Redwood National and State Parks in the Crescent City region, crane your neck to see the world’s tallest trees—or look a little closer to the ground to see spectacular Roosevelt elk. Cruise the 10-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Stop at Elk Prairie visitor center, hub of numerous trails, and keep an eye peeled for Roosevelt elk grazing in meadows. The amazing coast redwood ecosystem is one of the last bastions for this magnificent creature, drawn especially to prairie grasses. In the fall, bull elk sport spectacular racks; if you're lucky you might see the big males dueling. Even if you don't see the elk, listen for them--their whistling bugle is a distinctive sound of the region, especially during early morning and late evening.


Sequoia National Park - Sequoia National Park is California’s first national park and America’s second oldest, next to Yellowstone. Late spring/early summer is one of the most beautiful times to visit, with fields of wildflowers and abundant wildlife. Rivers and waterfalls run crystal clear, while higher parts remain a snow-capped testament to the recent winter. The giant sequoias are an impressive reminder of nature’s beauty and resilience, while the oak chaparral is second only to the rainforest in diversity of plants and animals. Enjoy lunch at the historic Reedley Opera House, built in 1903.


Kings Canyon National Park- This national park was established 50 years after Sequoia and is just as beautiful. Make sure to see the Kings River and the canyon that this park is named after. Additionally, don’t miss Grant Grove, home to the General Grant Tree – the Nation’s Christmas tree. Springtime visitors will find booming rivers and blooming dogwoods. The trees here are giant (the General Sherman tree ranks as the largest in the world) and the crowds can be too during peak summer months. But head into the park as soon as roadways reopen and you'll be rewarded by not just uncrowded groves of these spectacular trees, but also the chance to see lovely mountain dogwoods in bloom. This small tree bears saucer-size, creamy white flowers (actually specialized leaves surrounding tiny blossoms) on spindly black branches--the effect looks like doves floating through the giant sequoia's looming cinnamon trunks. Also in spring, mountain snowmelt sends water booming down creeks and into swift rivers--beautiful but dangerously cold, so don't be tempted to wade. The road to Cedar Grove usually opens mid-April and the Mineral King Road by Memorial Day, weather and snows permitting. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National protect half of the caves more than a mile long in California, including the longest cave in the state. They contain Pleistocene-era fossils, rare minerals and unique animals.

 

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