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The Ultimate Guide to National Parks in Northern California

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My home state of California has an important designation when it comes to national parks – California has more national parks than any other state. Five of California’s nine national parks are within a few hour drive from my home base in the San Francisco Bay Area. So it probably goes without saying that my family makes national parks travel a priority. We think your family should too!

Yosemite National Park - Half Dome from Glacier Point

I’m often asked about which is the must-visit national park on a trip to Northern California. Often visitors to San Francisco come for a full week and want to include a day trip or even a weekend jaunt to a national park to enjoy California’s great outdoors.

My answer about which park is best is different for every traveler. It also varies depending on the time of year. Weather is very much a factor at all of Northern California’s national parks. Snow is a common occurrence in several of the parks in many winter months, sometimes resulting in limited access or even complete closures. Summer can bring its own challenges as well at some parks. Peak season is often very crowded, and some parks are hard to visit without planning many months in advance.

In order to give other traveling families guidance about which parks to pick and when, here’s a guide to Northern California’s national parks, with a local’s tips and tricks about when to visit and the best things to do while you are there.

Visiting Northern California? Get outdoors at these top 5 national parks, from Yosemite to Lassen Volcanic and beyond. Tips for the best seasons to visit, great hikes, and how to get to each park by car or air. #NationalPark #FindYourPark #KidsToParks #California #VisitCalifornia

Northern California’s 5 National Parks

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park views at Tunnel view
  • Location: About 80 miles east of Modesto, CA
  • Closest airport(s): Fresno-Yosemite (FAT) ~ 2 hours (to Yosemite Valley), Merced (MCE) ~ 2 hours (to Yosemite Valley). Larger airports of Oakland (OAK), San Francisco (SFO) and Sacramento (SMF) are 3.5-4 hours with no traffic (but plan for plenty of traffic).
  • Best time of year to go: Late spring, early fall, summer weekdays
  • Recommended visit length: 2-4+ days
  • 2023 price to visit: $35 per car

In the pantheon of national parks, Yosemite looms large. Most Americans know something about it and at least know the name, even if they don’t travel to national parks regularly. The park’s majestic waterfalls, monuments like El Capitan and Half Dome, and views from Glacier Point are some of the most iconic national parks images. The hiking and outdoor opportunities are pretty endless. My husband worked in Yosemite years ago, and it is the park we have visited most often, so we can say from a lot of personal experience that it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, Yosemite has been a bit of a victim of its own success in recent years. It has almost gotten too popular. Stories about the long lines to enter and complete lack of parking for the cars that do enter flood the news during the summer high season.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It just means more strategy is required to make a trip successful. If you must go in the summer peak season, weekday visits are highly preferable to weekend ones. If you must enter on a summer weekend, plan to arrive very early to beat the crowds (as in, sun up early). Finding lodging inside the park can also really help you dodge many of the crowds since you can park and take Yosemite’s shuttles or rent bikes.

Yosemite can also be pretty glorious during shoulder season. Early fall right after the Labor Day crowds leave is a sweet spot, as is May before Memorial Day. Yosemite in winter is an entirely different type of vacation, with snow blanketing much of the park during the season. The park is even home to one of the very few ski resorts within national park boundaries – Badger Pass. Just be sure to watch for road and park closures during winter storms.

See all our family’s best tips in my complete guide to Yosemite National Park with kids. And be sure to check the park’s website in advance of your visit. While Yosemite has announced it does not plan to require reservations for the rest of 2023, it has required reservations off and on the last several years. A reservations requirement could always return again if crowds warrant it.

2. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia National Park
  • Location: About 70 miles east of Fresno, CA
  • Closest airport(s): Fresno-Yosemite (FAT) ~ 1.5 hours, Bakersfield (BFL) < 2 hours, San Jose (SJC) ~ 3.5-4 hours
  • Best time of year to go: Late spring through early fall
  • Recommended visit length: 2 days
  • 2023 price to visit: $35 per car

I might be stretching it a bit to place Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks in Northern California. They are just south of the dead center of the state in the southern Sierra. But they are more often visited from San Francisco as home base, so we claim them up north!

Technically the two are separate national parks, but they are adjacent to one another and usually visited together. A popular national parks road trip includes visiting both Sequoia and Kings Canyon as well as Yosemite in a single drive. But I’d only recommend this if you have 4 total days or more because these parks cover a lot of ground.

The parks are – unsurprisingly given the name – home to giant sequoia trees. The most famous of these trees are the General Sherman tree in Sequoia and the General Grant tree in Kings Canyon. There are numerous hikes available to get up close and personal with the largest trees in the world.

Much of both parks are at substantial elevation, so they are subject to closures during winter storms (parts of Kings Canyon more so than Sequoia) and reduced offerings in winter months. Some parts of the parks were damaged by a large wildfire in 2021, so be sure to check for continued closures into 2023 as repairs are being finished. (Related: Tips for Traveling During Wildfire Season)

3. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park Entrance Sign
  • Location: About 45 miles east of Redding, CA
  • Closest airport(s): Redding (RDD) < 1 hour, Sacramento (SMF) < 3 hours
  • Best time of year to go: Late summer, early fall
  • Recommended visit length: 1 full day
  • 2023 price to visit: $30 per car

Lassen Volcanic National is the hidden gem of Northern California’s national parks. So many people – including NorCal locals – don’t even know it exists. The park is centered around Lassen Peak, a volcano that last erupted from 1914-1917. The area is still seismically active, creating bubbling mud pots and sulfur vents that make the park an especially engaging sight for kids. The hike to “Bumpass Hell” is one of our family’s favorites at a national park ever!

Lassen Volcanic - Family at Bumpass Hell Hike
Our family hiking Bumpass Hell.

With its thermal activity, Lassen feels like a mini-Yellowstone, but without the crushing crowds. In fact, it rarely has crowds at all due to its more remote location. The only “catch” you need to worry about at Lassen is the weather. It is located at very high elevation and gets the most snow of any spot in the entire state of California, so snow closes the road that connects the park’s two entrances/exits for much of the year. Unless you want to participate in winter sports (and there are some there), the time to go for families is in late summer or early fall when the snow has melted.

4. Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park
  • Location: About 75 miles southeast of San Jose, CA
  • Closest airport(s): Monterey Regional (MRY) ~ 1 hour, San Jose International (SJC) ~ 1.5 hours
  • Best time of year to go: Spring, Fall
  • Recommended visit length: 1 full day
  • 2023 price to visit: $30 per car

Like Lassen Volcanic, most people have never heard of Pinnacles National Park. Since it has only been a national park since 2013, that is at least a bit more understandable! Pinnacles is located right on top of the San Andreas fault, which has created some unique rock formations and caves to explore.

Pinnacles should be on the radar of many traveling families because it isn’t that far from Monterey, a very common destination that many travelers with kids visit when in Northern California or the Central Coast. It’s an easy day trip from there if you are paying the Aquarium a visit.

One thing to watch for: be sure to choose between the two driving park entrances carefully because they do not connect up within the park! It’s a long route around the park (about an hour’s drive or more) if you choose incorrectly! More visitors head to the east entrance which has the main Visitor Center and several more popular hikes, including some family friendly hikes through caves (not always open due to an endangered bat colony).

Also watch out and plan for inland summer heat.

5. Redwood National Park

Redwoods in Northern California
  • Location: About 40 miles north of Eureka, CA to southernmost area of the park; just minutes from Crescent City, CA to northernmost area of the park.
  • Closest airport(s): Del Norte County Regional Airport (CEC) ~ 15 mins; Arcata/Eureka Humboldt County Airport ~ 45 mins
  • Best time of year to go: Spring, Summer, Fall
  • Recommended visit length: 1 full day
  • 2023 price to visit: Free (but some state park areas may require fees but accept National Parks Passes).

Last but certainly not least is the northernmost national park in the state. You’ll often see it designated as Redwood National and State Park, as the area does double duty as both a national and a state park. The redwood trees in this area of the state are truly a sight to behold, creating some peaceful hiking opportunities, particularly for families with young kids just getting started with national parks travel. The redwoods thrive in moist areas not far from the coast, so the weather is usually mild and pleasant year round (although winter brings more rain).

The challenge of visiting Redwood National Park is that it is quite far from civilization and thus major airports. It’s at least a 5 1/2-6 hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area. The closest airports are the very tiny ones in Crescent City, CA or Arcata/Eureka. The park stretches for about 60 miles north to south so visitors need to plan which regions to tackle carefully, especially when considering drive time.

More Information On California’s National Parks

Northern California National Parks - Toddler Climbing Tree

In talking about the five major national parks in Northern California, I’ve only scratched the surface of the outdoor offerings the NPS has in the northern half of the state as well as all over California. The National Park Service also manages national monuments and various historic and conservation areas all over the country, many of which are in Northern California too! (Related: National Park Sites in the San Francisco Bay Area)

And of course the California State Parks system and so many local and regional parks have robust outdoor offerings within the state too. The key is just to get started with them! (Related: Getting Started with National Parks Travel: National Parks Tips for Beginners)

Your guide to ALL the major national parks in Northern California, from Yosemite to Lassen Volcanic and beyond. Tips for the best times to visit, hike recommendations, closest airports, and driving details.

This post was originally written in partnership with the National Park Trust and sponsor Northside USA for Kids to Parks Day. Kids to Parks Day is held the third Sunday in May (May 20 in 2023) and is a day encouraging families to visit public lands with special events in many parks, sponsored by the National Park Trust. This post has been subsequently updated independent of that relationship. All opinions are my own.

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Tuesday 29th of May 2018

This is an awesome guide.