This post was written in partnership with the National Park Trust and sponsor Northside USA for Kids to Parks Day.
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!
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. 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.
Northern California’s 5 National Parks
Yosemite National Park
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. Its majestic waterfalls and monuments like El Capitan and Half Dome are some of the most iconic national parks images. And the hiking and outdoor opportunities are pretty endless.
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, 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. See all our family’s best tips in my complete guide to Yosemite National Park with kids.
Yosemite at a Glance:
- 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
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
I might be stretching it a bit to call 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 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. The parks are – unsurprisingly given the name – home to giant sequoia trees, the two most famous of which are the General Grant and General Sherman trees.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon at a Glance:
- 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
Lassen Volcanic National Park
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!
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 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.
Lassen at a Glance:
- 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
Pinnacles National Park
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. But just be sure to choose between the two driving park entrances carefully because they do not connect up within the park! Also watch out and plan for inland summer heat.
Pinnacles at a Glance:
- 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
Redwood National Park
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.
- 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
Kids to Parks Day from the National Park Trust
In talking about the five major national parks, 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)
If you are looking to get your kids outside more, this month is a great time. May 19, 2018 is Kids to Parks Day, a day encouraging families to get out into these many parks, sponsored by the National Park Trust. The National Park Trust calls it a day to “learn about park stewardship, outdoor recreation, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and the history of our country.” Parks all over the country are hosting special events, so chances are good one is close for your family too!
Learn more about Kids to Parks day HERE, where you can also register to participate on Kids to Parks Day and be entered to win a camping package from The North Face, hiking boots from Northside USA, a Jr. Ranger package from Eastern National, or a Year of the Bird package from National Geographic!
Giveaway from Northside USA
Last but certainly not least, I’m doing a giveaway in celebration of Kids to Parks Day as well! Northside USA is giving away a free pair of shoes to a lucky Trips With Tykes reader. Our family had the chance to try a variety of their shoes and boots this spring from Northside, and they have everything from the cutest hiking boots for my preschooler to lightweight and really comfortable sport shoes for my daughter and me that we can wear in the water too.
It probably goes without saying why it is so important to be prepared for parks with the proper footwear. I remember all too well once seeing visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah trying to hike a set of muddy switchbacks in flip flops – don’t be that person! It’s dangerous to you and everyone on the trail. Good shoes don’t have to cost a fortune, even with growing kids, so I’m thrilled to have partnered with Northside USA through the National Parks Trust to get that word out!
What is your family planning to do to celebrate Kids to Parks Day? Are any NorCal National Parks in your plans?
Tuesday 29th of May 2018
This is an awesome guide.