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Top 5 national parks in California

Death Valley national park

It sounds like a place to avoid, but don’t let the ominous name scare you away. Most of the year, this vast and rugged expanse of east Californian desert is brutally hot, but visit in winter or early spring (though even in the dead of winter, midday temperatures can hit 30C) and you’ll find a surprisingly beautiful and vibrant place. First-time visitors are often awestruck by the desert’s vivid colours. For thousands of years, the people of the Timbisha tribe thrived here, migrating seasonally between the valley floor and more fertile mountains. The name Death Valley was bestowed in 1849 by a band of lost California-bound gold rushers, one of whom did actually die while trying to cross it. The legend doesn’t seem to deter runners of the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race across the vast valley held in mid-July.

Yosemite national park

With its stunning glacier-sculpted geology, abundant wildlife and world-class recreational opportunities, Yosemite, 200 miles east of San Francisco, is one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. Yosemite’s granite wonderland was carved by massive glaciers around three million years ago, when ice covered all but the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada.

Today, Yosemite valley is known for fantastic hiking, rafting, fishing and wildlife watching, not to mention being a mecca for big-wall rock climbing. A year-round destination, Yosemite is resplendent but often crowded in the summer; winter transforms the park into a quiet snowy paradise. Many park roads and trails are closed or inaccessible from mid-November until late spring, but Yosemite valley stays open year-round for snowshoeing, cross-country and backcountry skiing.

Point Reyes national seashore

California is known for its beautiful beaches, but those preferring seals and solitude to bikini babes and boardwalks should head to Point Reyes national seashore, 37 miles north of San Francisco. Protected in 1962 to save the area from residential development, the peninsula is one of California’s few wild beaches. The 180-square-mile park is nearly cut off from the mainland by Tomales Bay, an elongated body of water that sits in the rift zone created by the San Andreas fault.

Headlands and sea cliffs provide a sanctuary for wildlife, including raptors and nesting sea birds. A large herd of tule elk – a subspecies that once roamed throughout California – grazes in the northern highlands of the peninsula. Point Reyes is popular year-round, but especially from late December to mid-March, when as many as 20,000 grey whales migrate past the peninsula from their Alaskan feeding grounds to their breeding grounds off Baja California, in the longest migration undertaken by any mammal.

 

Joshua Tree national park

The park was named after the otherworldly trees that dot the landscape – actually an unusually tall species of yucca – but the real stars here are the rock formations: jumbled piles of outsize boulders that glitter with crystals in the southern Californian sun. Rock climbers come from all over the world to scale these boulders, but you don’t have to be a pro to have a blast scrambling around this pink granite jungle gym.

The other stars of Joshua Tree are the stars themselves: with no humidity and skies devoid of light pollution, the Milky Way is overwhelmingly vivid. For an out-of-this-world experience, try scheduling your trip during a meteor shower, such as the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November, or the Geminids in December. Summers in the Mojave Desert are sweltering, but the weather in early spring, late fall and winter is usually delightful.

Lassen Volcanic national park

Yellowstone national park in Wyoming is world-famous for volcanic features such as geysers, fumaroles and mud springs, but  northern California boasts its very own version: Lassen Volcanic national park, 50 miles east of Redding.

The park is capped by 10,462-foot Lassen Peak, the world’s largest volcanic dome. Lassen’s 1915 blast makes it one of only two volcanoes to have erupted in the continental US in the 20th century (the other being Washington’s Mount Saint Helens in 1980). After the eruption, which laid waste to vast swaths of surrounding land, Lassen Volcanic national park was created to preserve the devastated areas for future observation and study. Visiting the area now, nearly 100 years later, is a dramatic lesson in the Earth’s own healing powers; it still bears vast scars of hardened lava, but between the rocks, the flora and fauna are flourishing.