California’s Most Beautiful Parks Are Also the State’s Least Visited
Volcano skiing, hot springs, and island diving where you wouldn't think to look.
California is home to more national parks than any other state—but some of the most stunning aren’t the spots you may already be familiar with. Popular parks like Yosemite, Death Valley, Redwood, and Joshua Tree tend to steal the spotlight and overshadow the rest. And while they certainly are gorgeous, these parks are pretty packed year-round. With so many national parks in California—plus state parks, landmarks, and monuments—conveniently located a couple hours’ drive (or boat ride!) from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, look to some of these lesser-visited gems “hidden” throughout the state.
California is pretty diverse in terms of nature since it’s home to both the highest point (Mount Whitney) and lowest/driest/hottest place (Death Valley) on the continent. And these newer (or more isolated) parks have towering spires and pinnacles, petrified saber-tooth cats, and some of the best diving spots in the world—and you can go skiing on volcanoes. One has even been nicknamed the Galapagos of North America, so California’s beauty and wealth of natural wonders are more than verified. Skip the crowds and see for yourself why they call this land the Golden State.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northeastern California has the four types of volcanoes found on Earth—cinder cones, composite, lava, and shield volcanoes—with 300 active domes. Lassen has a fraction of Yosemite's visitors, but has many similar landscapes and geothermal sites. You’ll come across sulfur vents, fumaroles, mud pots, wildflower meadows, mountain lakes, waterfalls, lava tube caves, and boiling hot springs. Don’t miss the Bumpass Hell trail leading to the largest of the eight hydrothermal areas and the easy-to-reach Kings Creek Falls.
There are 150 miles of trails in the park, 700 flowering plants and 250 vertebrates. Hike the Cinder Cone Volcano in the park's Butte Lake section, and you’ll see breathtaking 360-degree views of the Painted Dunes and the volcano’s crater. The most famous volcano in the park, Lassen Peak, also offers skiing in the winter.
The archipelago of Channel Islands National Park is accessible only by a boat with limited seating, probably the reason why it’s one of California’s lesser-visited national parks. Island Packers Cruises is the sole concessionaire allowed to go ashore, so reserve your spot several weeks in advance. The five remarkable islands include Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. The nearest launching points are Oxnard, near LA (60 minutes away) or Ventura (70 minutes).
Nicknamed the Galapagos of North America, if that tells you anything, these islands are home to the formerly endangered, housecat-size Island Fox, the island scrub-jay, and fields of otherworldly looking flowers. Hike paths with sweeping seascape views, kayak on the ocean and into sea caves, stargaze with lack of light pollution, and enjoy world-class snorkeling and scuba diving. You can find sea stars, sea anemones, and octopuses in the giant, underwater kelp forests. Above water, spot dolphins, orcas, harbor seals, and, depending on the time of year, migrating blue, gray, and humpback whales.
The Trona Pinnacles, a National Natural Landmark, are a fascinating cluster of roughly 500 oddly shaped tufa (calcium carbonate) spires and towers dotted across a 14-square-mile area in the California Desert Conservation Area. These mineral outcrops originally formed underwater before popping up randomly in the ancient lake bed just east of Ridgecrest. There are many sorts of shapes and sizes of the towers, with the most gigantic pinnacle rising 140 feet above Searles Dry Lake Basin. The Trona Pinnacles is North America’s most spectacular area of tufa tower formations and has been a designated National Natural Landmark since 1968.
Grover Hot Springs
Grover Hot Springs State Park is about 45 minutes south of Lake Tahoe, near Markleeville. Soothe your sore muscles in the park’s steamy water that emerges from underground at a scalding 148 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t worry, before you enter the natural hot spring, the green waters are cooled and piped into the park’s two concrete mineral pools. Reservations are required to enter the pools and must be made at least 48 hours in advance or up to three weeks in advance. It’s $10 per adult and $5 per child (up to 16 years old).
Pinnacles National Park
Rock climbers and the endangered California condor seem to love the spires of Pinnacles National Park, located about two hours south of San Francisco. The cliffs were shaped by multiple volcanic eruptions about 23 million years ago, plus wind and water erosion over the millennia. But as old as all that is, Pinnacles is the newest national park in California, joining the list in 2013 thanks to President Barack Obama.
A beautiful drive along Highway 101 or California State Route 25 gets you there, past Big Sur, the coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the wine region in Monterey County. Once there, canyon bottoms full of piney chaparral and oak woodlands provide over 30 miles of trails. The most popular hike is the High Peaks Loop. For other wildlife fanatics, the easy Balconies Cave loop to the Talus Caves includes sightings of 13 types of bats (including the endangered Townsend’s big-eared bat) and opens up to an incredible vista of pinnacles.
The Castle Mountains National Monument straddles the Nevada state line and Mojave Desert. Covering about 21,000 acres, Castle Mountains is home to sprawling Joshua tree forests and rare desert grasslands. Seventy-eight miles from Las Vegas, the mountainous area is only reachable by dirt roads, so it’s crucial to have four-wheel drive for this bumpy ride. Spring is a gorgeous time to visit, as wildflowers bring vivid colors to the sweeping desert. In the hot summer months, the monument’s highest elevations, such as the Mid-Hills and the New York Mountains, provide a refreshing view.
Just south of the Oregon border, Lava Beds National Monument has a pretty self-explanatory name, but we’ll go over the history anyway. Formed by volcanic eruptions over the last half-million years, the butte-studded high desert wilderness has more than 800 caves, many Native American rock art sites, and incredible topography. At Petroglyph Point, you can see antiquated Modoc rock craftsmanship. Go caving and you’ll spot a variety of bat species, including Townsend's big-eared bats. The most developed caves are located along the 2-mile Cave Loop near the visitor center, while the least challenging caves to hike are Mushpot, Sentinel, Valentine, Skull, Merrill, and Big Painted.
Red Rock Canyon
Movie buffs will love seeing the familiar desert cliffs, buttes, and rock formations at Red Rock Canyon State Park, where many old Hollywood westerns were filmed. The park’s colorful outcrops were eroded by wind and water over the millennia, leaving behind towering walls striped in reds and oranges. The 27,000-acre park has short hiking trails to extraordinary tributary canyons, the most popular of which lead to Hagen Canyon and Red Rock Canyon. Look closely at the cliff’s sediments to see the remains of prehistoric animals, such as three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats, and alligator lizards. You can also view petroglyphs from the Indigenous Kawaiisu people.