The largest city in California offers a gateway to some of the most dramatic scenery in North America. With seven parks within 4 hours of Los Angeles, families can explore desert visas, giant redwoods, or an island sanctuary. From the largest protected desert in the world to the largest trees in the world, California national park sites feature world-class scenery. So much for families to discover when they visit California.

Cabrillo at Low Tide, a California National Park

Cabrillo National Monument, a California National Park site, offers tide pooling for the kids along with a history lesson and seasonal whale watching. Photo Credit: National Park Service

7 National Parks a Road Trip Away for LA

1. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

2. Death Valley National Park

3. Joshua Tree National Park

4. Channel Islands National Park

5. Mojave National Preserve

6. Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

7. Cabrillo National Monument

 

Visit Sequoia National Park, a California National Park, for giant redwoods.

The Giant Sequoia, a redwood tree unique the the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, appears to touch the sun. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

As the National Parks TravelingMom, I escape to the parks to ease the burdens of adult life. I always find the answers in the parks. Need inspiration? Or a break from the hectic life as a mom? Need to remind yourself that life is beautiful? I found the answers in a park. Southern California offers such a diversity in landscape with deserts, redwoods and coastal parks, all within 4 hours of downtown LA.

1. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

During the warmer seasons, families hike on trails winding through the redwoods trees so tall they touch the sun. Kids climb through the trunk of a fallen giant. Saddle up the school-aged kids and take a guided trail ride though the forest. Pack up the tent or rent a cabin for an unforgettable weekend getaway with the family.

The first national park in California and the second national park in the system, Sequoia was established in 1890 after Yellowstone. Sharing a boundary with Sequoia, Kings Canyon was established in 1940. Home to the highest peak in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, and the mighty Sequoia tree, a species of redwood, Sequoia earns its rank as a top California destination.

A cabin in the woods in Kings Canyon, a California National Park

Kids love cabins so reserve one for your trip. I stayed in one at Grants Grove in Kings Canyon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Sequoia and Kings Canyon Details

Sequoia is 200 miles from Los Angeles and Kings Canyon is 240. They remain open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year, though seasonal road closures apply. Admission is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.

Camping, cabins and lodging offered in both parks, though reservations are recommended.

Badwater Basin tops the list of must do hikes in Death Valley, a California national park.

A hike to Badwater Basin tops the bucket list of Death Valley. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

2. Death Valley National Park

Though it might sound more like a nightmare than a getaway, Death Valley offers families a unique landscape to explore. This California national park captures a kid’s imagination with just its name.

Death Valley, a land of extremes, is the largest national park outside of Alaska, with over 3 million acres. It’s home to the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. The highest air temperature ever recorded happened at the Furnace Creek Resort in 1913 (134 F/56.7 C).

The pool at The Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, a California National Park

The lodging at Furnace Creek features two spring-fed pools in Death Valley National Park. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

In some of the harshest living conditions in North America, I discovered a luxurious side of Death Valley. At The Inn at Furnace Creek, an AAA four-diamond resort, I found an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, massages and a glamorous spring-fed pool.

Minutes away, the family-friendly The Ranch at Furnace Creek offers a horse corral, a spring-fed swimming pool, a playground and several restaurants with western themes. Explore Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette, and Mesquite Flat Dunes with the family to get a taste of the landscape. 

Visit Death Valley National Park, a California national park for the desert hikes

Death Valley National Park offers epic desert scenery along with camping, cabins and lodging. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Death Valley Details 

Death Valley National Park, 274 miles from Los Angeles, remain open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year. Admission is $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.

Camping, cabins and lodging offered in Death Valley, though reservations are recommended.

Explore Joshua Tree, a California national park for rock piles and cactus.

Joshua Tree National Park offers families two different desert ecosystems to explore. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

3. Joshua Tree National Park

Travelers driving out of Los Angeles, California, fail to look beyond the lane lines as they race east to Phoenix. And they’re missing out. Just outside Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, famous for an 80s album cover, offers families a glimpse into two different desert ecosystems. Best explored during the school year, families can hike in a national park larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Hike Bajada Trail or the Keys View Trail for family-friendly loops. The north entrance of the park offers more Joshua trees than the south entrance.

Joshua Tree, a California national park, offers several Junior Ranger programs.

Earn a Junior Ranger badge or patch during your visit to Joshua Tree National Park. The program takes a little over an hour to complete. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Details for Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is located 143 miles from Los Angeles, remains open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year. Admission to Joshua Tree is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.

I found year-round camping, some first-come, first-serve. Palm Springs offers nearby lodging and food service, that’s not located in the park.

Explore the Channel Islands Visitor Center, a California national park.

A journey to the Channel Islands might be a bit much for families with small children yet the mainland visitor center offers an interpretive area. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

4. Channel Islands National Park

Five seemingly lonely islands float on the horizon off the coast of Southern California. Though over 2,000 species of plants and animals call them home and 145 of those can only be found in the Channel Islands National Park.

The five distinct islands offer refuge to animals and plants. Families prepared to hike can discover beaches or canyons. Snorkeling, kayaking and swimming are popular activities too.

Stop by the Channel Islands Visitor Center, a California National park, for a tide pool exhibit.

Kids will delight in the tide pool exhibit in the mainland Channel Islands Visitor Center. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Channel Islands Details

The Channel Islands mainland visitor center, located in Ventura, is 66 miles from Los Angeles. It offers an interpretive area with a tide pool for the kids. It’s also an opportunity for families to learn about the Channel Islands without visiting them.

Channel Islands National Park remains open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year. The Channel Islands are free.

A National Park concessionaire provides ferry service to several of the Channel Islands. Tickets and reservations are required in advance.

The Channel Islands offer no services for visitors, like food or water. Rustic camping is available on all islands. Reservations for boat passage and campground reservations are required.

Explore Mojave, a California national park, for its rugged landscape.

Mojave National Preserve offers a rugged desert landscape for families to explore. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

5. Mojave National Preserve

From pinyon-pine speckled mountain peaks to valleys teeming with creosote bush, the Mojave National Preserve challenges my perception of the desert. Mojave National Preserve is greener than its neighbor, Death Valley National Park.

As I drive through, it’s the jack rabbit’s gigantic ears that give him away, delighting my animal-loving kids. With its convenient location off major interstates, a first-time visitor can get a glimpse of the Mojave desert as they drive through like I did on our recent trip.

Explore the rail road town Kelso in Mojave, a California National Park.

The Kelso Depot, a restored rail road depot, houses the Mojave Visitor Center. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Details for Mojave

Mojave National Preserve sits between interstates 15 and 40, about 200 miles from Los Angeles and remains open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year. It’s free to enter.

Mojave provides rustic camping, first-come, first-serve with water but without utility hook-ups. Barstow offers limited lodging, 98 miles away.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountain National Monument, a California national Park, offers cool summer temperatures.

Escape to a pine-covered mountaintop with cool summer temperatures above the Palm Springs desert. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

6. Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Perched high above the Coachella Valley, minutes from Palm Springs, California, I found an alpine forest boasting towering trees with summer temperatures rarely reaching 80F. As the seasons change, the treed oasis transforms into a winter wonderland perfect for a day of sledding or snow-shoed exploring. Climb aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for a breathtaking ride in the world’s largest rotating tram cars.

Looking for a unique way to explore Palm Spring, California’s national park site? The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ascends 2.5 miles to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

Visit Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, a California national park, in Palm Springs.

Take a tram to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, for summer shade in Palm Springs. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains Details

Palm Springs is 100 miles from Los Angeles. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway located six miles from downtown Palm Springs, is open seven-days-a week. Admission for tram, national monument is free.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway features food service with a view. Rustic camping is available and a wilderness permit is required. Palm Springs offers lots of lodging options.

Explore 7 California National Park Sites within 4 hours of Los Angeles. With redwood trees, tide pools, and deserts, the parks offer nature at its best.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument guided the way for ships in the 1800s. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

7. Cabrillo National Monument

Named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast in 1542. This California national park site is minutes away from San Diego.

During our visit, we walked through exhibits on the early explorers, a big hit with my boys. Then learned about the importance of pollinators, a must for butterfly lovers. Cabrillo features the Old Loma Lighthouse (1855-1891) and the kid favorite, tide pools. Seasonal gray whale watching offers families a chance to see the marine giants during migration.

Los Angeles offers 7 National Park Sites within 4 hour road trip. Add one your road trip itinerary when you visit California.

Details about Cabrillo

Cabrillo National Monument is 10 miles from Downtown San Diego and 130 miles from Los Angeles. Pack a lunch and make a day of it. Food service isn’t available.

First of all, check out the tide schedules for low tide. Plan to arrive early, as parking is limited. Cabrillo National Monument is a day-use only park, admission is $10 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.

Explore 7 California National Park Sites within 4 hours of Los Angeles. With redwood trees, tide pools, and deserts, the parks offer nature at its best.

A stop by the tide pools at low tide is a must for families at Cabrillo National Monument. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Tips for the National Parks TravelingMom:

  • Make reservations for national park lodging and tours as soon as possible. Lodging reservations can be made 13 months in advance.
  • Carry extra water year-round.
  • Plan ahead and pack meals, because food service is limited in national parks.
  • Don’t rely on technology for directions in national parks. Instead, get a map at the visitor center.
  • Flat tires are common on unpaved roads. Be prepared.
  • Don’t hike at the lower elevations in the summer.
  • Don’t leave kids or pets in vehicles during the summer in the desert. Temperature can reach 160F.
  • Keep wild animals wild. Don’t feed them for your safety and theirs.
  • Do not enter mine shafts or tunnels.
  • Water shoes are a must for tide pool exploring.