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Los Angeles is well known for its glitz and glamour. However, the surrounding area also boasts some of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the United States.
As such, if you’re looking for a change of pace from city life and want to experience the beauty of nature, look no further than the nearby national parks.
1. Channel Islands National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 66 miles
The Channel Islands National Park is the closest National park to Los Angeles and encompasses five remarkable islands;
- Anacapa Island
- Santa Barbara Island
- Santa Cruz Island
- San Miguel Island
- Santa Rosa Island
The park was first established to protect the unique resources found here, both natural and cultural
As such, many scientists, historians and general explorers have visited this area to observe and learn from its distinct and sometimes unusual landscape and ecosystem.
Isolation over thousands of years had allowed this area to create unique animals, plants, and archaeological resources found nowhere else on Earth.
The nature of the location helped preserve this place, where today visitors are privileged to experience coastal southern California as it once was many many years before.
A visit to the Channel Islands National Park offers a chance to discover the rich history of the Chumash people, walk in the footsteps of past European explorers and see the intriguing remnants of offshore shipwrecks.
You’ll be amazed by the park’s breathtaking beauty and ruggedness, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot dolphins leaping in the powerful ocean currents or bald eagles soaring overhead.
2. Joshua Tree National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 130 miles
Conveniently located just 130 miles from downtown Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the closest national parks to LA and therefore a relatively short drive.
This area is easily identified by its rugged rock formations and stark desert landscape. In fact, two desert ecosystems combine here, the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert.
This desert combination results in a fascinating variety of animals and plant life including;
- White-tailed antelope ground squirrels
- Kangaroo rats
- Bighorn sheep
- Mule deer
The Joshua trees themselves were given their name by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century.
The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. Incidentally, these marvellous trees were also the inspiration for U2’s 1987 best-selling album of the same name.
In addition to wildlife viewing there are plenty of other activities to partake in including here including;
- Rock Climbing: The park is known for its unique rock formations, making it a popular destination for rock climbers.
- Hiking: With over 800,000 acres of wilderness, Joshua Tree National Park offers a variety of hiking trails for all levels of ability.
- Stargazing: The park is one of the darkest in Southern California, offering an incredible opportunity to view the stars and Milky Way.
- Wildlife Viewing: Joshua Tree National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, roadrunners, and several species of reptiles.
- Camping: The park has nine campgrounds offering over 500 individual campsites, providing visitors with a chance to immerse themselves in the wilderness overnight.
- Scenic Drives: Joshua Tree National Park offers several scenic drives, including the 20-mile scenic loop drive through the park, providing stunning views of the desert landscape.
- Photography: With its unique landscape, Joshua Tree National Park is a popular location for photography enthusiasts.
3. Mojave National Preserve
🚗 Distance From LA: 177 miles
Mojave National Preserve is situated in the Mojave Desert in the south of the golden state, California.
The vast Mojave area preserves a diverse and fascinating mosaic of ecological habitats and an extraordinary 10,000-year history of human connection with the desert.
The preserve promotes both appreciation and understanding of this largely misunderstood ecosystem through education and explanation of the ever-increasing threats to the desert’s resources.
The landscape at the Mojave National Preserve is as diverse as it is spectacular. Here you will find forest areas, mountainous zones, and rugged canyons.
Many of the characteristics of the area provide superb natural shelter for animals such as;
- Mountain lions
- Desert Bighorn Sheep
- Kit Fox
- Golden Eagle
- Black-tailed Jackrabbit
- Desert Tortoise
Located inside the Mojave National Preserve you’ll also find the stunning and popular hiking destination of the Kelso sand dunes which are well known for their majestic beauty.
Upon reaching the top of the dunes, hikers are greeted with a breathtaking view of sand that seems to stretch forever.
Interestingly, these impressive sand formations also produce haunting “singing” sounds that add to the surreal atmosphere of the area.
4. Sequoia National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 200 miles
Established in 1890, Sequoia National Park has become one of the most visited national parks in the United States.
Each year, over 1.5 million people flock to this park in the Sierra Nevada mountains of southern California to witness these extraordinary trees in person.
Giant sequoias can grow up to 8000 feet in elevation and are a true marvel to behold.
As well as admiring the forest, seeking out the world’s largest living trees and enjoying some breathtaking hiking trails along the way, first-time visitors should be sure to check out the visitors centre and The Giant Forest Museum.
This museum offers free entry and visitors can gain a wealth of knowledge about the trees and the national park in general.
Other notable features of the Sequoia National park include glacier-carved landscapes and impressive granite monoliths.
Sequoia is also home to the highest peak in the contiguous continental states area of the United States of America.
Towering over the earth below at a staggering 14,494 feet, Mount Whitney lies on the eastern border of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest.
5. Death Valley National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 220 miles
Death Valley National Park is an infamous area, located east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, straddling the California and Nevada border.
This is the largest national park in the contiguous United States and is home to the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
This vast basin experiences almost constant drought-like conditions and off-the-chart summer heat, thus making it one of the driest and hottest places on earth.
Rare but torrential rain storms result in luscious fields of colourful wildflowers, and over 50 different types of mammals have made this arid place their home. These include;
- Bighorn sheep
Situated within Death Valley is Racetrack Playa which is famous for hosting one of this national parks most intriguing mysteries; a dry lakebed with rocks scattered across its surface.
These rocks leave marks on the ground when they move. Sounds innocent enough. Until you take into consideration that some of these rocks weigh up to 700 pounds and have inexplicably travelled over 1,500 feet.
This phenomenon had scientists scratching their heads for many years, but the mystery has now finally been solved. Researchers discovered a rare combination of events resulting in the movement of the rocks.
Sometimes the lake bed floods. When nightfall comes the temperature drops and freezes this water into a thin layer of ice.
This ice then breaks into large floating panels and when daytime arrives, winds drive the rocks forward across the slippery surface, which leaves trails in the soft mud below.
6. Kings Canyon National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 240 miles
Kings Canyon National Park is found adjacent to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Many compare the landscape and terrain found here to that of Yosemite National Park since it features enormous trees, vast valleys, magnificent waterfalls and fascinating rock formations.
The Kings Canyon is, at least in our opinion the main attraction at this national park.
Formed by glacial erosion and the cutting of the Kings River, and is considered the deepest canyon in the United States (even deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon) reaching a maximum depth of 8200 feet from Spanish Peak to the confluence of the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River.
A must-visit landmark here is the 3500-year-old General Grant tree in Grant Grove, which holds the title of the world’s third-largest tree and stands at an impressive 267 feet tall with a trunk circumference of 107.6 feet.
In addition to these areas being well documented, and indeed well-Instagrammed sequoia groves this glaciated valley is also the perfect destination for activities such as;
- Horseback riding
Kings Canyon National Park can be enjoyed fully during the spring, summer and fall whilst it is worth noting that the winter can bring snow which can affect road access.
7. Yosemite National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 280 miles
Yosemite National Park is slightly further away from Los Angeles than some of the other parks at roughly a 4.5-hour drive (one-way).
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, this national park is well known globally for Tunnel View, the iconic vista of towering Bridalveil Fall and the breathtaking granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome – however, that’s not the only reason to visit.
Other popular activities in the area include;
- Hiking: Yosemite is home to hundreds of miles of trails, including iconic hikes such as Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
- Rock Climbing: The park is renowned for its rock climbing opportunities, with routes for climbers of all skill levels.
- Scenic Drives: Take a drive through the park to admire its breathtaking landscapes, including scenic roads like Tioga Pass and Glacier Point.
- Wildlife Watching: Yosemite is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including black bears, deer, and several species of birds.
- Camping: The park offers several campgrounds, including Yosemite Valley and Wawona, for visitors to enjoy the great outdoors.
- Water Activities: Take a swim in the park’s many rivers and lakes, or go rafting, kayaking, or fishing.
- Winter Sports: Yosemite offers winter activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating.
Situated within Yosemite national park is Yosemite village. This area is a starting point for many first-time visitors to the region and offers a range of amenities and services such as visitor information, lodging, dining, and shopping.
8. Pinnacles National Park
🚗 Distance From LA: 290 miles
One of the lesser well-known national parks in the region is Pinnacles, which is located east of the Salinas Valley in the heart of California, and around 80 miles southeast of San Jose.
Around 23 million years ago multiple colossal volcanoes erupted to form what we now know to be Pinnacles National Park.
Technically the San Andreas Fault Zone sits just east of Pinnacles National Park but it is solely responsible for how Pinnacles National Park got here.
All this ancient shifting of plates, rocks and flowing and cooling of lava created a unique and mind-blowing landscape.
As you explore this national park you can expect to come across;
- Rare talus caves
- Extraordinary rock formations
Alongside an array of life forms including;
- More than 400 bee species
- Black-tailed deer
Pinnacles National Park is also home to one of the only release sites for the previously endangered California Condors.
These magnificent birds have been listed as endangered since the 1960s due to hunting and habitat loss. By the 1980s just ten birds remained.
However, a wildly successful recovery programme was established, and now nearly 400 California Condors thrive in the wild, with Pinnacles National Park playing a critical role in their preservation and restoration.