All Articles 6 must-visit national parks near Los Angeles

6 must-visit national parks near Los Angeles

Forest bathing, rock climbing, hikes of all lengths—these are the things you didn’t know your L.A. trip needed.

Emily Pennington
By Emily Pennington3 May 2024 6 minutes read
Hiker taking a break at Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Image: Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

Let’s be honest, serene national parks are hardly the first thing most people think about when they picture the sunny metropolis of Los Angeles. Hollywood and incredible taco trucks? Yes. Natural wonders? No.

Yet one of the coolest features of this enormous California city is how easy it is to escape its sprawl and strike out for several show-stopping pieces of public land. As a 19-year resident of LA who loves to hike and camp, I’ve spent dozens of weekends doing just that. I hope that this guide to the best national parks near Los Angeles helps you get the R&R you’re craving, whether it be in the sandy desert or among towering, snow-capped mountains.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Hiker standing near giant trees at Sequoia National Park
Image: Carmen Martínez Torrón/Getty Images

Mile for mile, this duo comprises the best low-effort, high-reward parks for those seeking a quick weekend getaway from LA. Home to the largest trees on the planet, the tallest peak in the lower 48, and hundreds of miles of day-hiking and backpacking trails, they combine to make a true wilderness escape about 3.5 hours from LA.

How to get there: Like nearly all California parks, you’ll want to rent a car to efficiently travel to and around this majestic landscape. Take Interstate 5 and Highway 99 north to Visalia, then turn right onto Highway 198, which meanders through quaint Three Rivers before entering the park. Once inside Sequoia, a free park shuttle can take you to top sights such as Crescent Meadow and the General Sherman Tree, if parking lots are full.

Can’t miss:

  • Marvel at General Sherman Tree, the largest on the planet by volume. If you’ve got energy for a hike, crane your neck up at other enormous sequoias along the two-mile Congress Trail.
  • For a heart-pounding effort and second-to-none views of the Great Western Divide, tackle the 400-step ascent of Moro Rock’s domed backside.
  • Pack a picnic and visit less-traveled Kings Canyon, gazing up at its soaring granite walls from the quietude of the alpine Zumwalt Meadow.

Tip: Go early if you’re hell-bent on parking inside the Giant Forest. Most parking lots near the giant sequoias fill by mid-morning throughout the summer and early fall.

Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point view on Anacapa Island, in Channel Islands National Park, California
Image: benedek/Getty Images

Channel Islands comprises five small, rocky islets that sit off the coast of SoCal—distance-wise, it’s the closest national park to LA. Home to tiny island foxes and a wide variety of endemic plants, this park is also famous for its secluded rocky coves and colorful sea caves. Santa Cruz is the largest and most popular of the bunch, boasting a developed walk-in campground and miles of view-studded hiking trails. But don't overlook smaller, rockier Anacapa—it's a photographer’s dream, with opportunities to photograph stunning coreopsis flowers and a rookery of nesting western gulls.

How to get there: Channel Islands’ visitor center sits in quiet Ventura, 66 miles northwest of LA. Park in the huge lot to sign in and board your Island Packers ferry to the island of your choice. The ferries can be bumpy in inclement weather, so take note if you're prone to seasickness.

Can’t miss:

  • Hike to Pelican Bay on Santa Cruz Island. This four-mile trek takes you up and over the hills of coastal scrub that make up the park’s largest island. Along the way, try to spot an endangered island fox.
  • Photograph brilliant yellow wildflowers from Inspiration Point—perhaps the park's most famous viewpoint—on Anacapa, in spring.
  • Book a guided day trip with Channel Islands Adventure Company and paddle your way around deep green kelp forests and the craggy sea caves that make these islands so unique.

Tip: Especially in the summer and on weekends, ferries to the park’s islands book up well in advance. Choose your dates early and purchase tickets in advance to have your pick of the litter.

Pinnacles National Park

A California Condor lands on the edge of a cliff in Pinnacles National Park
Image: Chris Fairfax /Getty Images

Though it’s likely the most overlooked national park in the state, the bat-filled caves, colorful spring wildflowers, and sky-high rock fins found in Pinnacles make it well worth a visit. Plus, if you’re lucky, you might even spot an endangered California condor.

How to get there: Head north on Interstate 5, then take Highway 198 west for roughly 45 miles before heading north on Highway 25—it’ll take you just over four hours. This'll put you on the park’s eastern side, which has a large visitor center, campground, and great trails. There is no continuous road through the park, so be sure to map to the section of the park you wish to visit (east or west).

Can’t miss:

  • For a chance to spot a California Condor and get an up-close look at the park’s namesake volcanic pinnacles, take the two-mile (round-trip) Condor Gulch Trail from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
  • Bring a headlamp and explore the spookier side of the park on this easy jaunt through Bear Gulch Cave from the park’s eastern side.
  • Challenge yourself on the High Peaks Trail. If you’re an avid hiker, there’s no better trek in Pinnacles than this strenuous, all-day option, which takes you up and over the park’s most iconic igneous rock formations.

Tip: Be aware that the park’s bat colonies hibernate during winter months, and as such, some or all of Bear Gulch Cave may be closed to hikers. Check the NPS website ahead of your visit to avoid any disappointment.

Yosemite National Park

Hikers on Glacier Point with Half Dome in background, at Yosemite National Park
Image: Per Breiehagen/Getty Images

As far as national park sights go, the skyscraper-sized cliffs, roaring waterfalls, and glacially-polished granite domes of Yosemite Valley are about as iconic as they come. Plus, in summer, you can take advantage of Tioga Road reopening and easily access high alpine lakes and meadows.

How to get there: Yosemite is roughly five hours by car from LA, though most top trails and sights are an additional 45 minutes into the park. For the most efficient drive, head north on Interstate 5, then veer north on Highway 99, before turning onto Highway 41 in Fresno, which turns into the main park highway. Yosemite is also one of the few western national parks with decent public transport, so take advantage of the park’s free shuttles.

Can’t miss:

  • Take an accessible, family-friendly trail to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, or, if you’re an experienced hiker, challenge yourself on the thigh-busting, 7.2-mile day trip to the top of the falls for a spectacular valley view.
  • Don’t miss an opportunity to wander amongst Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias’ ancient conifers for an afternoon, especially if you’ve never been to Sequoia National Park.
  • Catch a sunrise or sunset at Glacier Point. For a top-down look at Yosemite Valley, without the burn of a long hike, park at the point and take in the bird’s-eye view of all that granite.

Tip: To nab an incredible snapshot at the famed Tunnel View without having to dodge hundreds of tourists, go at sunrise.

Joshua Tree National Park

Hiking over large rocks at Joshua Tree National Park
Image: Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

This wonderland of desert boulders and spiky, Seussian trees has become a bohemian mecca, located just over two hours from the sprawl of LA. It’s a favorite for rock climbers, stargazers, and shoulder-season hiking.

How to get there: Getting to Joshua Tree from central Los Angeles is easy—most of the journey is a straight shot east on Interstate 10. At Palm Springs, you’ll veer north onto Highway 62, then follow signs for the national park’s various entrance stations, depending on what trail or attraction you’re checking out.

Can’t miss:

  • Hike through the Joshua trees on an easy stroll to Arch Rock or a longer jaunt out to the historic Lost Horse Mine. Either way, you won’t be disappointed with the scenery.
  • Head to Keys View at sunset and be wowed by panoramic vistas of the Coachella Valley from Joshua Tree’s best viewpoint.
  • Send the gnar on a rock climbing course. Beginners are welcome on this half-day excursion into the huge monzogranite boulders of this climbing-rich national park.

Tip: Unlike most California parks, Joshua Tree is at its best in winter and early spring. It’s the perfect place to plan a nature-centric city escape when other parks are blanketed in snow.

Switzer Falls in the San Gabriel Mountains, California
Image: trekandshoot/Getty Images

It's not technically a national park, but the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument has been in the news lately as President Biden is expected to expand its already enormous borders. Situated less than an hour from LA, this mountainous expanse of tree-freckled peaks and rocky valleys is the perfect place for a day trip away from the city. Plus, in wintertime, it’s the closest spot to play in the snow.

How to get there: There are loads of ways to drive or hike into the San Gabriel Mountains, but most people will head north on Highway 2 from LA’s Silverlake neighborhood until it becomes the Angeles Crest Highway, which spans the length of the national monument.

Can’t miss:

  • Tackle the moderate hike to Switzer Falls. It’s a must-do on warm summer days, offering the promise of a watery cool down at the turnaround point.
  • For a longer weekend getaway (and some primo stargazing), go early on a Thursday or Friday and nab a coveted site at the woodsy Buckhorn Campground.
  • Experienced hikers won’t want to miss the chance to tick Mt. Baden Powell off their list. Park at Vincent Gap and follow the pine-shaded switchbacks up, up, up until you reach the summit.

Tip: If you’re already in the area, it’s worth taking some time to view one of the most iconic peaks in Southern California–Mount Baldy. Take the ski lift up to the notch, or wander around the quaint mountain village below and have lunch at the Mt. Baldy Lodge.

Emily Pennington
Emily Pennington is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Boulder, CO. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Lonely Planet, Adventure Journal, REI, and Backpacker, among others. She has visited every national park in the U.S., and her book Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks, came out in February 2023.