The perfect two-week California national parks road trip to see the most highlights and experience the Golden State’s outdoor nature to the fullest.
I vividly remember my first introduction to each national park I’ve visited in California.
The first time I saw a Joshua Tree up close and experienced the next-level nature of desert stargazing.
Driving along El Portal Road on my way into Yosemite Valley, my skin prickling from the jaw-dropping scenery in front of me.
That feeling of awe as a huge California Condor flew overhead while I was hiking through Pinnacles National Park.
The national parks in California are memorable, to say the least, and all of them deserve a place on any California bucket list.
That’s why I wanted to put together an epic road trip itinerary to hit the highlights of the California national park system in two weeks.
In this itinerary, I take you through the heights of the Sierras to the lowest point in North America, as well as California’s most beautiful islands.
Along the way, you’ll experience the best of California nature and what makes each of these parks so special.
Here’s to having a national parks road trip of a lifetime, happy road tripping!
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How Many National Parks Are in California?
There are a total of nine national parks in the Golden State. This is the full list of California national parks:
- Redwood National and State Parks
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Channel Islands National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
How Much Time Do You Need to Visit All of the National Parks in California?
California is a large state and its national parks are very spread out, so if you want to hit all nine I’d give yourself at least three weeks if not a full month.
This two-week epic road trip itinerary takes you to 7 out of 9 of the national parks and is very doable, but if you want to add on more than that you should probably give yourself more time.
If you don’t have two weeks and you just want to see the most popular national parks, such as Yosemite, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree, you could do a 5-day to one-week road trip instead.
I have more road trip itinerary recommendations below for different lengths of time.
Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state.
When’s the Best Time of Year to do a California National Parks Road Trip?
It depends on what you’re looking for, but my favorite time to do a California road trip around the national parks is either late spring or fall.
Summer is the most popular time to visit the national parks, but it’s also when they’ll be at their busiest. And the ones in the deserts are impossibly hot at that time (Death Valley and Joshua Tree).
Winter can be tricky if you’re visiting the national parks in the Sierras (Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Lassen Volcanic National Park) because road closures are common due to snow.
There’s also less open in the winter so you don’t get the same atmosphere at certain parks.
Spring, on the other hand, can be an ideal time for wildflowers, waterfalls, and nice weather without too much rain (especially in late spring).
The fall will usually be warmer in California than in spring. In the fall, you’ll also be treated to fall foliage around the Sierras and reasonable temperatures at most places (for the deserts you might want to go in late fall though).
Overall, different parks are good for different times of the year but if you’re looking to hit the most national parks in one go, spring or fall are the best seasons to plan your California road trip.
America the Beautiful Pass
If you’re doing a national park road trip, it’s worthwhile to grab an America the Beautiful Pass to save on the cost of the parks.
The entrance fee for most national parks in California is around $35 per vehicle, so as long as you hit three different national parks the pass will pay for itself.
The pass is good for a year and can be used at any other US national parks as well if you’re planning other out-of-state adventures this year.
California National Parks Road Trip from San Francisco
Day 1-3: San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
Distance: 179 miles, 3.5-hour drive
Note: since we’re skipping Redwood National & State Parks on this California road trip itinerary, you might want to visit Muir Woods to see the California redwoods before you leave or once you get back to San Francisco.
Starting from San Francisco, you’ll make the 3.5-hour drive to Yosemite National Park.
Once you make a right at Yosemite Junction, prepare yourself for a winding road up to the Sierras until you get to the Big Oak Flat Information Center.
This is the western entrance of Yosemite National Park and you’re going to either be staying near this entrance or within the park for the next couple of nights.
For this first day, you’ll probably only have a half-day to see the park after driving from San Francisco.
Once you arrive, spend the rest of the day doing a mini road trip around Yosemite Valley and its surrounding areas to get your bearings and take in those jaw-dropping vista points.
Here are a few vista points to go see: Lower Yosemite Fall, El Capitan Meadow, Valley View, Tunnel View, Washburn Point, and Glacier Point.
Since you’ve already been in the car for a few hours, you can choose to do as few or as many of these as you want.
Maybe you just want to have a picnic at Lower Yosemite Fall and watch the sunset at Glacier Point and call it a day, it’s up to you!
This is your day to get out of the car and start hiking Yosemite’s popular trails. You have two options for today – a challenging long hike or a self-guided waterfall hiking tour.
Half Dome is the most famous hike in Yosemite, but you’ll need to really plan ahead and snag a permit to do the full hike and climb the cables at the end.
Permits are done by lottery (the best way to enter is by doing the pre-season lottery from March 1st-31st on Recreation.gov) so you’ll want to book early and there’s no guarantee you’ll get one.
If you’re not able to get a permit for Half Dome, tackle Clouds Rest instead, which is just as beautiful and not as crowded.
If you’re not up for that strenuous of a hike, I’d recommend doing a tour of Yosemite’s waterfalls through 1-3 trails. These are your options:
- Bridalveil Fall Trail (0.5-mile)
- Lower Yosemite Fall Trail (1 mile) – Most family-friendly waterfall hike for those traveling with kids or with mobility issues.
- Vernal Falls (2.4 miles) and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail (5.4 miles)
- Wapama Falls Trail (4.6 miles) – You can also see Hetch Hetchy Reservoir here too.
- Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (7.2 miles)
Note: The best time to do waterfall hikes in Yosemite is during peak runoff in May or June. If you’re traveling outside of this time, these are still stunning hikes to tackle. Otherwise, I’d recommend the Mirror Lake Trail (2-5 miles) at any time of the year besides winter.
For your last day in Yosemite, it’s time to check out the eastern side of the park in the Tuolumne Meadows area.
If you’re not too tired from hiking the previous day, you can also tackle one of the many hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area.
The hikes around here take you through the subalpine meadow, as well as craggy peaks and calm lakes. In other words, they’re gorgeous.
Once you’re done hiking, continue enjoying the scenic drive along Tioga Pass, taking your time and stopping to check out the views along the way.
If you have extra time, drive just outside the eastern side of Yosemite National Park to spend an hour or so at Mono Lake.
This is one of the oldest and most unique lakes in North America, featuring alien-like tufa towers.
Where to Stay in Yosemite
- Camping: Lower Pines Campground, North Pines Campground, Upper Pines Campground
- Hotels: Yosemite Westgate Lodge, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, The Ahwahnee
Day 4-5: Yosemite National Park to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Distance: 147 miles, 3.5-hour drive
The drive from Yosemite National Park to Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Parks is another 3.5-hour journey, so I’d recommend starting early from Yosemite and arriving at Kings Canyon National Park (your first stop) by noon.
Note: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two separate California national parks. However, they’re often grouped together because they’re located next to each other and administered together by the National Park Service.
Leaving from Yosemite Valley, don’t miss Mariposa Grove where you’ll find the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite and some of the biggest sequoia trees in the world.
At Kings Canyon National Park, you’ll have the chance to explore meadows, waterfalls, epic views, and Sequoia trees. Kings Canyon National Park is also home to the deepest canyon in the US (8,200 ft).
Once you get to Kings Canyon, drive the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway that starts around Dunlap on Highway 180 and goes until Road Ends.
Along the way, there are plenty of sights to check out, including the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, Panoramic Point, General Grant Grove, Hume Lake, Junction View, Grizzly Falls (a good picnic area), and Zumwalt Meadows.
You have all of today to explore Sequoia National Park at your leisure and there’s a lot to pack in.
Sequoia National Park is another place where you’ll find some of the biggest trees in the world, as well as interesting rock formations, caves, viewpoints, and plenty of hikes.
If you have the energy, start your day off with 1-2 hikes inside the park. Here are a few options:
- Big Trees Trail (1.5 miles)
- Tokopah Falls (1.7 miles)
- Crescent Meadow Trail (1.8 miles)
- The Congress Trail (3 miles)
And then spend the rest of your day visiting Moro Rock, General Sherman, and the Giant Forest Museum.
If you have extra time, you can also sign up for a 45-minute tour of Crystal Cave, just reserve your spot at least two days in advance.
Where to Stay in Sequoia and King Canyon National Parks
- Camping: Lodgepole Campground, Dorst Creek, Azalea Campground
- Hotels: Waksuchi Lodge, John Muir Lodge, Cedar Grove Lodge
Day 6-7: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks to Death Valley National Park
Distance: 311 miles, 5.5-hour drive
The next segment of your California national parks road trip itinerary will feel completely different from what you’ve done so far.
You’re now entering the Southern California desert region and the first stop is Death Valley National Park – the most brutal and extreme California national park on this list.
In fact, it’s the lowest and driest national park in the contiguous US.
This is the longest driving day in terms of distance between parks, so make sure you budget enough time from Sequoia National Park to get to Death Valley while it’s still light out.
On your way into the park, stop at Father Crowley Overlook where you can sometimes see fighter jets practicing overhead.
If you want to pick up a map and learn more about the history of the area, your next stop should be the Death Valley National Park Information Center.
Depending on what time of day it is and where the temperatures are at, you may just want to rest for the afternoon until it starts cooling off.
Start your only full day in Death Valley as early as possible.
Spend the morning at Badwater Basin, the park’s famous salt flats and the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
Take your time walking around this massive area and snap some pictures while you’re there.
Right next to Badwater Basin, you can do the two-mile hike to Natural Bridge to look at interesting rock formations.
Next up, you can visit Devil’s Golf Course, which is another unique salt flat near Badwater Basin.
Nearby there’s also the 9-mile Artist’s Palette Drive, which features two viewpoints looking out over a rainbow-colored mountain.
If it’s not too hot yet, you can also do a hike at Golden Canyon (there are a few different hikes of varying lengths at the trailhead).
Spend your last evening in Death Valley making the journey to Mesquite Sand Dunes. You can hike to the top of them (it takes about 20 minutes) for prime golden hour views.
Where to Stay in Death Valley National Park
- Camping: Furnace Creek Campground, Wildrose Campground, Mahogany Flat Campground [But I’d only recommend camping at Death Valley if you’re visiting during the cooler months (October-April)]
- Hotels: The Inn at Death Valley, The Ranch at Death Valley, The Oasis at Death Valley
Day 8-9: Death Valley National Park to Joshua Tree National Park
Distance: 228 miles, 3.75-hour drive
Continuing your California road trip itinerary, it’s now time to introduce you to my favorite California national park – Joshua Tree!
There’s really no other place like Joshua Tree. It spans two deserts (the Mojave and Colorado) and features alien-like landscapes and funky-looking cacti.
It was the first place I realized how beautiful the desert can be.
There’s a lot to see in and even on your way to Joshua Tree, so you’ll want to be on the road early for the four-hour drive through the desert.
Make sure to fill up on gas when you can and enjoy the many unique sights the California desert has to offer.
There are a few stops you can make on your way into the west entrance of the park.
Make a stop at Pioneertown to see what was once a Wild West movie set turned live town, grab a coffee from Joshua Tree Coffee Company, and walk around the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum to see the beauty of “junk art.”
Once you get into Joshua Tree, you’ll probably have a few hours left to sneak in some sights before calling it a day.
For your first introduction to just how beautiful the Joshua Tree landscape can be, head over to the Arch Rock Nature Trail.
This 1.2-mile trail takes you to an interesting rock formation in the middle of the desert shaped, as you probably guessed, in the form of an arch.
Next, head over to another one-mile loop at the Hidden Valley Nature Trail to take in even more desert scenery.
Finally, end your day with a sunset at Keys View – a panoramic viewpoint that looks out over the Coachella Valley.
Start your day early today to beat the heat of the desert and get in some hikes.
You have a few options today for hiking around the park.
If you’re up for the challenge I’d recommend starting with the more difficult Ryan Mountain Hike (3 miles). It’s a steady uphill climb to get to the summit but the views at the top are worth the effort.
Note: If you’d rather explore the other side of the park that features a slightly different landscape, head south instead of doing the Ryan Mountain Hike. In the southern part of the park, you can hike the Mastodon Peak Loop Trail (2.6 miles) or the Lost Palms Oasis Trail (7.2 miles) to get a different perspective of Joshua Tree.
After the views at Ryan Mountain or doing a hike in the south, it’s time to tackle one or two of Joshua Tree’s most popular (and easier) trails – the Barker Dam Nature Trail (1.3 miles) or the Wall Street Mill Trail (2.4 miles).
The Barker Dam Nature Trail gives you the highlights of the Mojave Desert and guides you through the landscape with interpretive displays.
This is a good one to do if you want to learn more about the local flora and fauna or you’re traveling with young kids.
However, if you’re a history buff interested in looking into Joshua Tree’s past, head to the Wall Street Mill Trail.
Along the trail, you’ll find leftover remnants of another time in the form of rusted-out cars and a mill that’s in disrepair. There are also signs along the trail that teach you about the history of the area.
This is actually my favorite hike in Joshua Tree if only for the interesting juxtaposition of abandoned cars in the middle of the desert.
After you’re done hiking for the day, head over to the Cholla Cactus Garden to see the cute and fuzzy teddy bear cacti (just don’t give it a hug!).
These are also nicknamed “jumping cholla” cacti because they “jump” when you get too close, so please be careful and keep your distance from the cacti.
If you have time, you can round out your day by touring Keys Ranch, which is a historic ranch and homestead that was once lived in from 1910 to 1969 by William F. Keys and his family. Just note that tours are only offered from October to May.
Before hitting the hay, finish off the night with a warm cup of hot chocolate (or a hot toddy depending on your preference) and do some stargazing.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park
- Camping: Belle Campground, Hidden Valley Campground, Jumbo Rocks Campground
- Hotels: Pioneertown Motel, Joshua Tree Inn, Sacred Sands
Day 10-12: Joshua Tree National Park to Ventura & Channel Islands National Park
Distance to Ventura: 200 miles, 3.5-hour drive
Ventura to Santa Cruz Island: 1-hour ferry ride
Oxnard to Anacapa Island: 1.5-hour ferry ride
You’ve made it to the last leg of your national parks road trip, congrats! It’s finally time to head to the coast to check out California’s famous Channel Islands.
Since ferries to the islands leave early from Ventura and Oxnard, I’d recommend using your road trip from Joshua Tree to Ventura as an excuse to see some nearby Southern California sights instead of trying to rush to the ferry in time.
Once you arrive in Ventura, you have the option of staying on Santa Cruz Island for two nights or doing two-day trips – one to Anacapa and the other to Santa Cruz – to see more of the islands.
Today is the perfect day to add some detours into your California road trip itinerary, especially since you’ll need to cross through the Los Angeles area anyway.
Here are a few detour options you can make on your way to Ventura.
- Whitewater Preserve – a scenic park in the desert that’s not too far from Joshua Tree.
- Disneyland – You’ll want to get here early if you plan to visit, but this can definitely be a fun stop to break up the long hiking days and time in nature.
- Spend the day around Los Angeles – Read my full list of 100+ Things to do in the city.
- Enjoy a mini Pacific Coast Highway road trip – You can hightail it over to the California Coast from Joshua Tree, and then do a mini highway 1 road trip starting around Dana Point and ending in Ventura. Check out my guide to the Pacific Coast Highway to find out where to stop along the way.
It’s time to choose your adventure. You can either head to Santa Cruz Island today for two nights of camping or just do a day trip to Santa Cruz Island.
I recommend starting with Santa Cruz Island because it’s close to the mainland and there are the most things to do for first-time visitors.
On the island, you can book a kayaking tour to explore the island’s sea caves, go snorkeling in clear waters, spend the day at the beach, or hike around the island.
Today, you’ll either continue exploring Santa Cruz Island if you’re camping there or you’ll do a day trip to Anacapa Island.
Anacapa Island is another Channel Island that’s close to the mainland and offers good views, a touch of history, and some short hikes.
There aren’t any accessible beaches on Anacapa but it’s a nice spot for a picnic and some coastal hiking.
Day 13: Ventura to Pinnacles National Park
Distance: 225 miles, 4-hour drive
You’ll end your California national parks road trip at the newest national park in the state – Pinnacles!
Pinnacles is a small park so you can easily see a good chunk of its sights and viewpoints in one day.
If you’re driving up from the south, I’d recommend hiking the 8.4-mile High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop.
This trail gives you the bulk of the park highlights and even lets you explore the Balconies Cave (if it’s open), just make sure to bring a headlamp!
Also, keep your eyes peeled for California Condors flying overhead. They’re the park’s most famous residents and pretty incredible to see in person.
If you don’t have time for an 8-mile trail, there are a number of shorter hikes you can do from the west side of the park as well. The best one is probably the 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs to Balconies Cave Loop.
Where to Stay in Pinnacles National Park
Day 14: Pinnacles National Park to San Francisco
Distance: 145 miles, 2.5-hour drive
It’s time to head back to the starting point of your road trip today.
Depending on your energy levels, you can just head back to San Francisco to rest up, grab some food, and maybe have a drink to cheers to an epic road trip.
San Jose also has a lot of things to do if you’re looking for a more full day of sightseeing.
Another alternative is heading to the coast and taking the longer but more scenic route back up to San Francisco along Highway 1.
California National Parks Road Trip from Los Angeles
If you want to do a national park road trip from Los Angeles, you can just reverse the above road trip itinerary and start from the bottom.
I’d recommend the following order if you’re starting from Los Angeles: Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park, Pinnacles National Park, and Channel Island National Park.
Other 14-Day National Park Road Trip Variations You Can Do
Winter: Redwood National & State Parks, Pinnacles National Park, Channel Islands National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Sequoia National Park (if you want to see red sequoias in the snow).
Summer: Redwood National & State Parks, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and Channel Islands National Park.
Shorter Road Trip Variations to see California’s National Parks
From San Francisco: Yosemite National Park and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.
From Los Angeles: Joshua Tree National Park & Death Valley National Park.
From San Francisco: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.
From Los Angeles: Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Channel Islands National Park.
From San Francisco: Yosemite National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park.
From Los Angeles: Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park.
Tips for Planning a National Park Road Trip in California
- Double-check the weather and air quality ahead of time – If you’re traveling in winter or early spring, check snow levels and make sure there aren’t any road closures (this is mostly for the Sierras). Wildfires are also always something to keep in mind when you’re doing a California road trip. They can, unfortunately, happen pretty much year-round these days, but it’s especially good to check air quality and any nearby fires in the summer and fall.
- Book things early – National parks are very popular in California, make sure to book your accommodation (especially if you’re staying at campsites or in the parks) at least three to six months in advance.
- Fill up on gas and don’t always expect to have cell service – This is especially the case near the more remote parks like Death Valley, but make sure to fill up on gas when you can. Also, don’t expect a ton of cell service in a lot of the areas around or inside the parks. It’s good to download maps ahead of time so you can access directions even without service.
- The best parts of these parks are outside your car – Although some people visit national parks and barely get out of their cars, the parks in California are best experienced when you’re hitting the trails and immersed in the outdoors. Sure, you might be able to see some nice viewpoints from the road in parks like Yosemite, but it won’t beat getting out on the trail to really take in what these parks have to offer.
- Leave no trace – This is just common courtesy when you’re visiting any place, but please pack out what you brought with you and leave no trace. We want to keep our national parks beautiful for years to come.
What to Pack for Your California Road Trip
- Driver’s license/registration
- Spotify/iTunes playlists
- America the Beautiful Pass
- Road trip snacks & extra water
- Hat that’s good for hiking
- Daypack for hiking
- Hiking shoes
- Lightweight and moisture-wicking hiking clothes
- Sandals or flip flops
- Good walking shoes
- Bathing suit
- Various tops, shorts, jeans/pants, dresses, underwear, socks, PJs (and at least one super comfy outfit for longer driving days)
- Light sweater
- Windbreaker or puffy jacket
- Bug spray
- First aid kit
- Reusable water bottle
- Microfiber towel
- Usual toiletries (lip balm, hairbrush, hair ties, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, makeup, pads/tampons)
- Downloaded maps/paper maps
- Portable charger/USB cord
- Books or Kindle
- Camping gear (if you plan to camp)
- Travel insurance
Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state.
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