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California offers the most national parks in the U.S. and several are less than a 4-hour drive from Los Angeles. Find desert visas, giant redwoods, or an island sanctuary. Or learn about the largest protected desert in the world and largest trees in the world. California national park sites boast world-class scenery. Here’s what you need to know about visiting the beautiful national parks in Southern California with kids.
Everyone needs a break from the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Southern California every once and awhile. Head east to the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains for a breath of fresh air. Or if the gray skies of winter get you down, drive to the lowest place in North America for the warm winter sun. And the coast offers excellent marine animal watching year-round at several national parks in Southern California. If you’re traveling with kids who love to explore, they can earn junior ranger badges at the parks.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening times and dates are subject to change without warning. Always check the website for the latest information before heading to a national park.
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Read More: Awesome Road Trip Ideas Across the USA
1. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
During the summer, hike on winding trails through the redwoods so tall they touch the sun. My kids had fun climbing through the trunk of a fallen giant. Or have the school-aged kids saddle up and take a guided trail ride through the forest. And pack up the tent or rent a cabin for an unforgettable weekend getaway with the family. That’s just the beginning of your Sequoia and Kings National Parks road trip.
The first of the many national parks in California and the second in the US National Park system, Sequoia, was established in 1890. It’s where you can find General Sherman, the largest tree in the world.
Sharing a boundary with Sequoia, Kings Canyon was established in 1940. As the home to the highest peak in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, and the mighty Giant Sequoia tree, a species of redwood, Sequoia earns its rank as a top California destination.
Where is Sequoia and Kings Canyon?
Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are next to each other. Sequoia National Park is 200 miles from Los Angeles and Kings Canyon is 240 miles away. Both parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, though seasonal road closures happen. Admission is $35 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or visit on a national park free admission day or buy an America the Beautiful Pass.
Camping in and Near the Parks
Camping, cabins and lodging offered in both parks, though reservations are recommended.
It’s tough to think about visiting any national park and NOT think about camping. But that whole sleeping-on-the-ground-in a-tent thing isn’t for everyone. That’s when it’s time to think about a more comfortable type of camping, in an RV. RVs come in many shapes and sizes – from pop-up pull-behind campers to luxurious motorhomes. The one thing they all have in common? Mattresses.
TravelingMom Tip: Read these tips from a TravelingMom who fights wildfires before visiting California in wildfire season.
National Parks Sites Near Sequoia and Kings Canyon
The US National Park Service also manages monuments, historic sites, trails and other properties. Located close to Sequoia and King Canyon are:
Devils Postpile National Monument
Hike the trails through the sugar pine forests in the Sierra Mountains and see one of the world’s best examples of columnar basalt; it’s 60 feet tall. Located on the Devils Postpile Access Road, Mammoth Lakes, CA. The mandatory Devils Postpile/Reds Meadow shuttle bus ($10 per person) departs from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Free to enter. Shuttle runs in summer only.
Manzanar National Historic Site
In 1942, the U.S. government detained 110,000 Japanese-American people in military-style camps like the one at Manzanar. Drive through the site, tour the visitor center and see the exhibits of Block 14.
Located at 5001 Highway 395, Independence, CA. Open sunrise to sunset. Free to enter.
2. Death Valley National Park
This California national park captures a kid’s imagination with just its name. Though it might sound more like a nightmare than a vacation, Death Valley offers a unique landscape, like sand dunes, to explore during the mild winter months.
Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska, with more than 3 million acres. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s home to the lowest point in the United States. And the highest air temperature ever recorded happened at the Furnace Creek Resort in 1913 (134 F/56.7 C).
With the harshest living conditions in North America, I discovered a luxurious side of Death Valley. At The Oasis at Death Valley, an AAA four-diamond resort, I found an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, massages, and a glamorous spring-fed pool.
Explore Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette, and Mesquite Flat Dunes with the family to get a taste of the landscape.
Where is Death Valley?
Death Valley National Park is 274 miles from Los Angeles. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Admission is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or visit on a national park free admission day or buy an America the Beautiful Pass.
Camping, cabins, and lodging offered in Death Valley, though reservations are recommended.
3. Joshua Tree National Park
Travelers driving out of Los Angeles fail to look beyond the lane lines as they race east to the Grand Canyon. And they’re missing out. Just outside Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park offers 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. My kids loved climbing on the rock formations.
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.
Where is Joshua Tree?
Joshua Tree National Park is located 143 miles from Los Angeles. Open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Admission to Joshua Tree is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or NPS Annual pass.
Find year-round camping, some first-come, first-serve. Palm Springs offers nearby lodging and food service, located close to the park.
4. Channel Islands National Park
Five lonely islands float on the horizon just off the coast of Southern California. Five of the eight Channel Islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara) were made into the Channel Islands National Park in 1980. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary encompasses the waters six nautical miles (11 kilometres; 6.9 miles) around the islands. The islands and marine sanctuary are home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals — 145 of them can only be found here. We spent the day hiking and discovered beaches and canyons. Snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming are popular activities too.
How to get to the Channel Islands
The Channel Islands mainland visitor center is located in Ventura, 66 miles from Los Angeles. With the main interpretive area and a tide pool for the kids, it’s the first stop. It’s also an opportunity for families to learn about the Channel Islands without visiting them.
Channel Islands National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; the Channel Islands are free, but getting there is not. You need to book passage on a ferry or plane. Prices range from $59 for adults/$41 for children for ferry service and $1200 for a charter flight to the Channel Islands. Tickets and reservations are required in advance..
The Channel Islands offer no services, including food or water, so bring snacks and plenty of water with you. Rustic camping is available on all of the islands. Reservations for boat passage and campground reservations are required.
Near Ventura: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Find lots of miles of trails for hiking and biking, rock climbing and springtime wildflowers. Located at 26876 Mulholland Highway, Calabassas, CA Open 24 hours-a-day. Free to enter.
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. Since Mojave National Preserve is greener than its neighbor, Death Valley National Park, you may forget it’s a desert at all!
Still, life abounds. 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 while driving through southern California.
Where is Mojave?
About 200 miles from Los Angeles, Mojave National Preserve sits between interstates 15 and 40. It’s open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. And it’s free to enter.
Mojave provides rustic camping, first-come, first-serve, with water but without utility hook-ups. In addition, Barstow offers limited lodging, 98 miles away.
Near Mojave: Castle Mountains National Monument
Located next to Mojave and the Nevada state border, Castle Mountains is a primitive desert park with lots of solitude and no visitor services. Take Walking Box Rand Road from Nevada State Rd. 164. Free to enter.
6. Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Perched high above Palm Springs’ Coachella Valley, an alpine forest boasts 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 snowshoeing. These are the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains.
Climb aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for a breathtaking ride over the valley in the world’s largest rotating tram cars.
How to get to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains
Palm Springs is 100 miles from Los Angeles. Take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to get to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains Springs. Admission required for the tram. However, the national monument is free.
At the top of the mountain, find food and restrooms at the tram terminal.
Rustic camping is available and a wilderness permit is required. Palm Springs offers lodging, restaurants, and shopping.
7. Cabrillo National Monument
This monument is 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 downtown San Diego.
First, find exhibits on the early explorers, a big hit with my boys. Then learn about the importance of pollinators, a must for butterfly lovers. And Cabrillo features the Old Loma Lighthouse (1855-1891) and the kid favorite, tide pools. Finally, seasonal gray whale watching offers families a chance to see the marine giants during migration.
Where is Cabrillo?
About 10 miles from Downtown San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument is 130 miles from Los Angeles. Food service isn’t available, so pack a lunch if you plan to make a day of it.
First, check out the tide schedules for low tide. Parking is limited, so plan to arrive early. Cabrillo National Monument is a day-use only park. Admission is $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or use an America the Beautiful Annual Pass.
National Trails in California
The National Park Service protects national scenic trails as well. The following are found in Southern California.
- California National Historic Trail
- Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail
- Pony Express National Historic Trail
Other National Parks in California
East of San Francisco in Northern California, find several other national parks, like Pinnacles National Park, known for its California condors and spires. And Yosemite National Park offers the unsurpassed beauty of Yosemite Valley, especially for hikers.
Then close to the Oregon border, Redwood National and State Parks, offers another giant forest. Or take the kids to hike on an active volcano at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Learn about the conservation efforts of John Muir at several sites.
Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids
- As soon as possible, make reservations for national park lodging and tours. Lodging reservations can be made 13 months in advance.
- Since water can be scarce, carry extra water year-round.
- Because food service is limited in national parks, plan ahead and pack meals.
- WiFi and data coverage can be spotty, so 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.
- During the summer, don’t hike at the lower elevations.
- Since summer temperature can reach 160F, don’t leave kids or pets in vehicles in the desert.
- For your safety and theirs, don’t feed wild animals.
- And another safety tip – don’t enter mine shafts or tunnels.
- Pack water shoes for the tide pools. The bottoms can be rocky and you won’t be able to keep the kids from wading in!