5 National Parks 5 Ways
From rugged camping to high-end resorts, these California national parks have it all.
RUGGED CAMPING: Lassen Volcanic National Park
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” —John Muir
Be sure to bring
Your hiking boots—just a few steps off the main road, you can access complete solace along the empty trails.
Only with the clear night sky overhead and a quiet so endless you can hear the breeze rustle the trees might you find the truth in Martinez writer and naturalist John Muir’s notion: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
This year, Muir’s muse, the National Park Service, celebrates a century of connecting humans with the gifts of the outdoors. Whether you want to pitch a tent and roast mallows over the open fire, or rest your hike-weary legs in a plush king-sized bed after a chef-prepared meal, you’ll find the solitude and the adventures you crave. Here are five ready-made national park adventures—including tips from park experts and our picks for where to stay and eat, and what to pack—for the seasoned rugged camper to the luxury-lover seeking solitude.
What it’s known for
Situated in the northeastern corner of the state, California’s undiscovered national park houses volcanoes (some that you can even climb), a volcanic landscape with bubbling mud and vents, camping, backcountry trips, and more than 150 miles of trails. Just a four-hour drive from the Bay, Lassen Volcanic National Park lures adventure seekers eager to explore.
Volcanologists wax poetic about Lassen’s volcanoes: The park houses all four types found on the planet, including one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world, and features a massive hydrothermal system.
“At Lassen Volcanic National Park, geologic time is now,” says National Park Service Ranger and geologist Todd Jesse. “Visitors can witness bubbling acidic mud pots eroding the landscape or find the newest rock in California created in a massive eruption on Lassen Peak 101 years ago.”
If that’s not enough, join NASA scientists to check out Sulphur Works and the steaming fumaroles—steam and volcanic gas vents.
For those who don’t want to get out of the car, motor along the scenic highway to spot all four volcanoes and the Devastated Area—which showcases the effects of the Lassen Peak eruptions—before enjoying a picnic on the shores of Summit Lake. If you have more time, cross hiking up a volcano off your bucket list by ascending Cinder Cone. If you visit in the fall, snap photos of the impressive autumn colors in Hat Creek.
First-timers should explore Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area west of Yellowstone National Park. The 2.6-mile round-trip hike weaves along Bumpass Mountain, offering views of Mount Tehama before dipping down into the thermally active basin, where a wooden boardwalk allows hikers to skirt the boiling mud pools safely. The showstopper of the park is the pools’ iridescent blues and aqua rarely seen in nature.
In summer, picturesque Manzanita Lake is the best spot for car camping under the pines. The campground offers a general store and gift shop, showers, swimming, and kayak rentals. Catch a trout to grill at dinner, or play in the cool mountain waters. For the most privacy, book a spot six months in advance on Loop A, or get to the park early for a site in the first-come, first-served Loop D.
Though small, Lassen Café and Gift in the Kohm Yah-Mah-Nee Visitor Center makes a great stop for families. Kiddos appreciate the ice-cream selection while parents delight in the craft beer offered, best sipped under the pines after a long day of trekking in the volcanic landscape. nps.gov.
GLAMPING IN A Tent cabin: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” —John Muir
Be sure to bring
Food options are slim pickings in these parks, so stock up on hiking snacks before heading into the forest. Note that bears thrive in the forest, so be sure to pack up your trash and seal your snacks on the way out.
What it’s known for
Home to the planet’s largest trees, the state’s highest peak (Mount Whitney), and a wilderness so pristine and unpopulated you can camp tonight without reservations, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks beckon those wanting to escape the crowds. Just four hours from the East Bay, this wildlife playground boasts peaceful lakes, rushing rivers, abundant wildlife, and quiet hiking trails that you won’t have to share with other humans.
These twin parks share a border, allowing travelers to explore the highlights of the region in one go. To get up close with the massive sequoias, visit the Giant Forest, home to the world’s largest living tree, or motor along Generals Highway, a road weaving through the giants. Drivers with less time to spare might opt to explore the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which winds through Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, one of the deepest canyons in the country.
“The majesty of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is evident everywhere you look,” says Sequoia Parks Conservancy spokesperson Dayna Higgins. “Whether standing beneath the canopy of the largest trees on Earth or taking in the view of the grand granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada, these parks are truly a land of superlatives.”
At least once in your life, you must stand beneath a giant sequoia. These native giants are thicker than any we see in the Bay Area: You’ll need 20 people to hug the ancient trees, which have stood since dinosaur times. nps.gov.
Stay and Eat
Sustainable architect Burr Hughes built the Sequoia High Sierra Camp to celebrate the remoteness of the national park. Guests hike a one-mile trail to this walk-in-only camp that offers everything from meals to toiletries. You only have to bring your clothes (make sure they’re warm for the evenings), some bug spray, and a camera. Stay in a canvas tent decked out in artisanal furnishings that evoke the surrounding forest. Throw in high-thread-count sheets and three chef-prepared gourmet meals (with wines curated by Berkeley’s Kermit Lynch) served alfresco under a wooded canopy, and your glamping adventure is complete. The season is June to September, so book now for next summer’s adventure. sequoiahighsierracamp.com.
AIRSTREAM COMFORT: Joshua Tree National Park
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Be sure to bring
Act like a local, and try your hand at creating a masterpiece. Pack a sketch pad, pencils, and watercolors to capture the sun sinking behind a Joshua tree.
What it’s known for
Fed by the open spaces, the vast night sky, and a fierce dollop of creativity, Joshua Tree—eight hours southeast of the East Bay—pulses with a spirit unlike any other destination. A thriving arts culture—sourced by musical venues, interactive outdoor galleries, and funky architecture—has become the unofficial trademark of this desert.
Inside the park, adventurers connect with their muse. Climbers test their skills on the many bouldering opportunities. Hikers trek through fields of springtime wildflowers, ascend Mastodon Peak to view the Salton Sea, or find solace in the Lost Palm Oasis Trail. Day trippers marvel over the geologic features, including rock arches, those emblematic Joshua trees, and palm-filled oases, as they await the sunset magic hour that makes photographers giddy.
Besides protecting the physical space and wildlife within the park, the National Park Service preserves the natural spaces from light pollution. One thing’s for sure: Joshua Tree’s night sky is the stuff of legends. Artist Robert Michael Jones, who just finished a residency at Joshua Tree Highlands, a renowned arts program, says the region lets us “watch the cosmos stretch across the horizon” so we can reconnect with our place in the solar system.
Each October, the Night Sky Festival celebrates the celestial wonderland showcased in the desert sky.
“Viewing the night sky from our national parks is as close as we can come to the celestial experience of our earliest ancestors,” says astronomer Steve Caron of Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center. “Few images evoke an exotic destination as does a Joshua Tree silhouetted by the Milky Way.”
This year’s festival runs October 28–30. nps.gov.
Bed down in an updated Airstream in the Pioneertown hills at Rimrock Ranch, just a short drive from the park. The trailer’s interior displays whimsical prints: Expect a comfy bed, a private detached bathroom, and a private patio. Though the Airstream lacks a kitchen, the ranch has a deep-pit BBQ. At night, gather around the fire pit to strum tunes with visiting musicians, or take a plunge in the pool. rimrockranchpioneertown.com.
After your first glance at the wooden picnic tables and license plates strung up on the walls, you might wonder why world-famous musicians like Robert Plant and Vampire Weekend have chosen to perform in this dusty venue high in the Mojave Desert. Yet for over 50 years, Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has been slinging excellent burgers, veggie Tex-Mex quesadillas, and slabs of baby back ribs paired with rocking musical performances. pappyandharriets.com.
LUXURY RESORT: Death Valley National Park
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” —John Muir
Be sure to bring
If you’re visiting during any season other than summer, be sure to bring warm clothes. It gets chilly in the desert, with temperatures known to drop down in the 30s.
What it’s known for
Death Valley might be the country’s hottest, lowest, and driest national park, but this diverse desert dishes up surprises at every turn. Rabbits hop through fields of springtime blooms, oases are filled with tiny fish, and hiking trails offer otherworldly views of geologic processes unseen elsewhere on the planet.
While most associate Death Valley with giant thermometers advertising 120-degree summer temperatures, the highlight of this quiet park in California’s southeastern pocket—an eight-hour drive from the Bay—is visiting in the winter.
“Visitors frequently stay longer, escaping cold weather elsewhere,” says Linda Slater, chief of interpretation. “Although visitors rarely see rain, flash floods from intense rainstorms carve the many canyons and create the alluvial fans [deposits of sediment] that skirt the mountain ranges, [making] canyon hikes a popular activity after the heat of summer relents.”
The largest national park in the contiguous United States—it spreads across 3.4 million acres—Death Valley’s diverse geology lures repeat visitors. Photographers flock to capture the light changes that morph the rock formations during the epic sunrises and sunsets. Sleuths come to unravel the mysteries of massive rocks sliding across the Racetrack, a dry lake bed. Trekkers congregate to hike into the saltwater flats of Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level. And night sky devotees won’t find a clearer view of the Milky Way. nps.gov.
Stay and Eat
Book a couple nights of pampering in the historic Inn at Furnace Creek. Reserve a room facing the property’s oasis, where freshwater springs feed a thriving garden of 50-foot palm trees and lush Bermuda grasses. Guest quarters are decked out in desert hues, many offering glimpses of the snow-capped Panamint Mountains in the distance. For the ultimate escape, opt for the pool bungalow, a stand-alone room just steps from the spring-fed pool. Book a massage, and release all of your cares before dining in one of five restaurants, including The Wrangler Steakhouse, home to a steak you’ll want to split with your sweetheart. furnacecreekresort.com.
ICONIC CALIFORNIA: Yosemite National Park
“Yosemite Park is a place of rest. . . . None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.” —John Muir
Be sure to bring
Your camera—Yosemite is the queen of nature’s models.
What it’s known for
Towering rock formations and thundering waterfalls guard serene Yosemite National Park, just three hours east of the East Bay. Though four million people visit annually, Yosemite’s more than 1,100 square miles of rugged wilderness provide plenty of space for all.
“It’s as if millions of people have an unwritten agreement: ‘Let’s all go here and disappear.’ And even with all these people, there’s plenty of opportunity and space for just that,” says photographer and creator of the Yosemite People project Jonas Kulikauskas.
While you may have to share the iconic valley floor sites like Half Dome, the ancient Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and Mirror Lake, you can still find solace to play music by the fireside, sojourn up granite peaks, fly-fish, or merely wake up early to catch the sunrise rainbow in the mist at Yosemite Falls. nps.gov.
First-timers should skip the traffic and bike the valley floor loop’s 13 miles of paved trail, which leads to the best of this iconic park. Start early from the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center for your first stop: an on-foot trek up the 2.4-mile (round-trip) Mist Trail to Vernal Fall for an up close look at the waterfall. Hop back on your bike, and pedal over to Half Dome Village for lunch under the conifers, pausing to admire Glacier Point and the granite walls. Then, join the masses on the mile and a half meander to snap photos of the 2,700-foot Yosemite Falls before ending your ride with some relaxation at Merced River’s Sentinel Beach, where you can take in the views of El Capitan.
Been there, done that? YExplore Yosemite Adventures offers four-hour photography workshops to teach budding Instagram stars how to capture perfect pics of Yosemite’s icons. It also offers two-day guided family-friendly hikes up Half Dome, with expert hiker John P. DeGrazio, who has hiked Half Dome over 138 times. yexplore.com.
Stay and Eat
Check in to the newly renovated Tenaya Lodge, located just south of the valley, where bucolic aesthetics merge with luxurious amenities. After a long day of hiking, treat yourself to a massage and a steam at Ascent Spa before heading to dinner. Try the roasted duck breast bathed in a snow pea and trumpet mushroom ragout at Embers Restaurant, then melt into your plush bed with epic views of the wild lands of America’s favorite park. tenayalodge.com.
By Samantha Simonich
How many of the five California National Parks above have you visited? Did you know there are also tons of national monuments right here in the East Bay and all over NorCal? Here are our top five must-visit spots.
John Muir National Historic Site
A visionary and an adventurer, John Muir and his musings on the natural world became catalysts for the establishment of the National Parks Service. What better way to celebrate the centennial of the nation's parks than by recognizing the role Muir played to maintain our beautiful wilderness?
Muir took up residency in Martinez for the last 24 years of his life and now visitors continue to have the opportunity to explore the fruit trees and scenic trails Muir considered home at the John Muir National Historic Site. Visitors can walk around the grounds at their own leisure or take a tour guided by a Muir expert. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m., with ranger tours every day of the week at 2 p.m. 4202 Alhambra Ave. Martinez, (925) 228-8860, nps.gov.
Eat: Plan ahead and grab a sandwich a Luigi’s to bring with you for a picnic on the top of Mount Wanda. 537 Main St., Martinez, (925) 229-8920, luigisdeliandmarket.com.
Play: Take a guided Full Moon Walk on Mount Wanda Saturday, October 15. To join the trekking group, meet at the Mount Wanda trailhead at 5:30 p.m. for the two-mile round-trip hike. nps.gov.
See: Visit the Martinez Adobe—located in the visitor center—to see the only permanent display of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. nps.gov.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Take a quick trip up Highway 1 to discover some of California’s cleanest beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore. This protected coastline—comprised of 80 miles of sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, and native grasslands—is home to 38 different threatened and endangered animal species, including the leatherback sea turtle and Myrtle’s Silverspot butterfly. Close enough for a day trip, Point Reyes is full of activities from biking to bird watching. If you are into hiking, explore the San Andreas Fault with a short hike on the Earthquake Trail or tackle the more challenging 13-mile journey to and from Alamere Falls, where the water dives down 30 feet onto Wildcat Beach. Open year-round 6 a.m.–12 a.m., nps.gov.
Eat: Stop by the original creamery and cheese shop location of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station for both fresh and aged cheeses. 80 Fourth St., Point Reyes Station, (866) 433-7834, cowgirlcreamery.com.
See: From August through October, head to Tomales Point to see herds of Tule Elk wandering the grasslands. On the weekends, docents will be present from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at Tomales Point Trailhead to educate visitors about the re-established elk population. nps.gov.
Play: Kayak on Tomales Bay, the California coast’s largest unspoiled coastal embayment. Blue Waters Kayaking rents both single and double vessels for your excursion. 12944 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Inverness, (415) 669-2600, bluewaterskayaking.com.
Eugene O’Neill House Historic Site
The only playwright in America to win the Nobel Prize, Eugene O’Neill wrote some of his most notable plays—A Moon For the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Iceman Cometh—in his Danville residence, Tao House. Visit the O'Neill exhibit inside the Tao House, wander around the historic pathways, or take a ranger-guided tour of the grounds. Open Wed.–Sun. for reserved guided tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Open Saturdays for self-guided tours at 10:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m., and 2:15 p.m. 1000 Kuss Rd., Danville, (925) 838-0249, nps.gov.
Eat: On Saturdays, head over to the Danville Farmer’s Market for a savory crepe and some fresh fruit. Saturdays 9 a.m.–1 p.m., 205 Railroad Ave, Danville, co.contra-costa.ca.us
See: View Museum of the San Ramon Valley’s exhibit “Two Centennials: The National Park Service and Eugene O’Neill,” a celebration of the National Park Service’s 100 years and Eugene O’Neill’s first produced play. The exhibit runs through November 15. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–1 p.m., 205 Railroad Ave, Danville, (925) 837-3750, museumsrv.org.
Play: The Eugene O’Neill Festival puts on productions of The Emporer Jones, N, and Seascape, September 2 through October 2, at the Old Barn at the Eugene O’Neill Historic Site, as well as The Danville Village Theater. eugeneoneill.org.
San Francisco Maritime Historical Park
Only a short walk from Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, you can experience what life was like on the high seas and learn about the maritime history of the United State’s Pacific Coast. Visit the maritime museum to view changing exhibits, and stroll down Hyde Street Pier to see vessels dating back to 1886. You can even get a ticket to board the historic ships, but plan accordingly—tickets are not sold after 4:30 p.m.
Wanting more history? Venture three miles northwest to Fort Point Historic Site for a photo op at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort has guarded the bridge for over 150 years since the beginning of its construction during the Gold Rush. Maritime Museum is open year round 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Hyde Street Pier is open year round 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.; Fort Point Historic Site is open Fri–Sun 10 a.m.–5 p.m. nps.gov.
Eat: For a variety of house-made chowders stop by the Blue Mermaid Chowder House and Bar, just a two-minute walk from the Hyde Street Pier. 471 Jefferson St., San Francisco, (415) 345-5526, argonauthotel.com.
See: Go onboard the eight historic vessels on Hyde Street Pier dating from 1886 to 1915 to get a real glimpse into the Bay’s maritime past. $10, children 15 and under are free; 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. nps.gov.
Play: Attend the 28th Annual Sea Music Concert Series with shows beginning at 8 p.m. on the Balclutha. The event takes place October 15th with a performance by Hank Cramer and November 12th with a performance by John Roberts and Debra Cowan. Tickets start at $12, eventbrite.com.
Muir Woods National Monument
Looking for another way to pay homage to the father of the National Parks System? Visit Muir Woods National Monument and take a step back from our technology-driven world to reconnect with nature (there’s limited cell service anyways). Wander along the six miles of board-walked trails weaving beneath the towering coastal redwoods—most between 600-800 years old. The trails are friendly for all activity levels, but for the more daring, hike out of Muir Woods into the surrounding area of Mout Tamalpais State Park and all the way to the Pacific coast just four miles away. This popular spot gets extremely busy on the weekends, so for a stress-free trip, plan your outing during the week or early morning. Open year round, 8 a.m. until sunset, nps.gov.
Eat: Swing by Sam’s Anchor Café in Tiburon for a delicious lunch with a waterfront view. 27 Main St, Belvedere, Tiburon, (415) 435-4527, samscafe.com.
See: Keep your eye out for a plaque honoring President Teddy Roosevelt, nestled amongst the redwoods, placed in Muir Woods by the United Nations after WWII in 1945. nps.gov.
Play: When you finish exploring Muir Woods, drive three miles west to Muir Beach Overlook for beautiful views of the Pacific.