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The MOST Underrated National Parks in California (Don’t Miss out ❌)

While national parks like Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Death Valley can boast annual visitor numbers in the millions, there are some lesser-known hidden gems where you can beat the crowds. 

These are the least visited national parks in California and are almost undiscovered by tourists.

But locals know that these underrated national parks in California have a LOT to offer!

The 3 places covered in this post have something for everyone and they’re spread out from north to south so there’ll be something for everyone.

Pinnacles National Park 🦅

Pinnacles National Park is located east of the Salinas Valley in Central California.

It’s the newest National Park in California and in 2022 it had only 275,023 recreational visitors.

Unique Attractions:

Rock Formations and Caves:

The park is renowned for its spectacular rock formations and talus caves, formed from volcanic eruptions over 23 million years ago.

High Peaks:

Offers breathtaking views and challenging rock-climbing opportunities.

California Condors:

Pinnacles is a release site for these endangered birds, making it an excellent spot for wildlife viewing.

This is an incredible experience if you’re lucky enough to see them as it’s one of the world’s rarest bird species.

It’s also the largest North American land bird!

Bear Gulch and Balconies Caves:

These talus caves provide a unique hiking and exploration experience.

Best Times to Visit:

Avoid the summer months where it can get uncomfortably hot, but spring, fall and winter are all fine.

Pinnacles is actually one of the national parks where cooler months are the most popular for visitors.

Spring (March to May):

Ideal for wildflower viewing, comfortable temperatures for hiking, and bird watching, especially for spotting California Condors.

Fall and Winter (September to February):

Cooler temperatures and fewer crowds make for pleasant hiking conditions.

Visitor Tips:

Best Trails:

High Peaks Trail: Challenging yet rewarding, offers stunning views of the park’s unique rock formations.

Moses Spring to Rim Trail: A less strenuous option that takes you through Bear Gulch Cave and to the reservoir.

Camping Spots:

Pinnacles Campground:

This place is equipped with amenities and close to hiking trails but reservations are recommended, especially during peak seasons (spring and fall).

To get to this campground you’ll have to make sure you go through the east entrance of the park as it’s the only way you can get to it.

Visitor Centers:

East and West Visitor Centers:

If you need more information about the park then the visitor centers are the best place for that and luckily there is one on each side of the park.

Both visitor centers will provide park information, maps, and sometimes exhibits.

Note that the park’s east and west sides are not connected by a road through the park.

So if you want to see things from both sides of the park you should be prepared to leave the park and re-enter from the other side.

Lesser-Known Facts:

Pinnacles National Park was originally established as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and was redesignated as a national park in 2013.

The park’s unique landscape is the result of the Neenach Volcano erupting over 23 million years ago and the subsequent movement of the Earth’s plates.

Places to Stay Nearby

  • Soledad – one of the closest towns
  • Monterey – coastal city
  • Carmel by the Sea coastal city
  • Salinas – see the old town

Channel Islands National Park – Galapagos of North America? 🦭

Channel Islands National Park is made up of a group of five islands off the coast of southern California and in 2022 had only 323,245 recreational visitors.

It’s also been dubbed the Galapagos of North America for its rich biodiversity.

Unique Attractions:

Diverse Islands:

The park consists of five islands, each offering unique experiences and landscapes.

Marine Life:

Home to a rich variety of marine animals, including seals, sea lions, and numerous bird species.

Snorkeling and Diving:

The kelp forests and clear waters around the islands are perfect for underwater exploration.

Historical and Archaeological Sites:

The islands have a rich cultural history, with archaeological evidence of early human habitation.

Best Times to Visit:

Channel Islands is one of those places where you could visit any time of year and get a lot from it depending on what you are looking for.

Spring (March to May):

Ideal for wildflower blooming and moderate weather, making it great for hiking and wildlife viewing. Also:

  • Western gulls and other seabirds begin nesting
  • Island fox pups are born
  • Spring bird migration is underway
  • California sea lions and northern fur seals start gathering at rookery sites
  • Peregrine falcons and other landbirds begin nesting

Summer (June to August):

Perfect for water-based activities like kayaking, snorkeling, and diving, thanks to warmer weather. Also:

  • Seabird and landbird chicks leave the nest and fly (fledge)
  • Whale watching begins for blue and humpback whales
  • Sea lions and northern fur seals begin pupping
  • This is the peak visitor season.

Fall (September to November):

  • Best time for ocean visibility
  • Northern elephant seals begin to gather at their rookery sites in late fall.

Winter (December to February):

  • Best sunsets
  • Gray whale watching starts
  • Northern elephant seals begin pupping
  • Harbor seals begin pupping
  • California brown pelicans begin nesting
  • Islands start to turn green at the end of winter

Visitor Tips:

Best Trails:

Santa Cruz Island:

Offers a variety of trails, from the easy Scorpion Loop to the challenging hike to Smuggler’s Cove.

Anacapa Island:

A short loop trail leads to breathtaking views and the iconic lighthouse.

Camping Spots:

Santa Cruz Island’s Scorpion Ranch:

Accessible and equipped with facilities.

Primitive Camping:

Available on all islands, but requires preparation and self-sufficiency.

Visitor Centers:

Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center:

Located in Ventura Harbor, it’s the main gateway with exhibits and information about the islands.

Lesser-Known Facts:

Channel Islands National Park is often called the “Galapagos of North America” due to its unique biodiversity.

The islands were used for ranching and farming until the mid-20th century, leaving behind historical ranch buildings and cultural artifacts.

Places to stay nearby 

  • Oxnard
  • Santa Barbara
  • Ventura

Redwood National and State Parks – Ancient Trees🌲

Redwood National and State Parks is located in northernmost coastal California—about 325 miles (6-hour drive) north of San Francisco.

Roughly 50 miles long, the parklands stretch from Crescent City, CA (near the Oregon border) in the north to the Redwood Creek watershed south of Orick, CA.

Out of the three parks we’re talking about today, this is the most visited with 458,400 recreational visitors in 2022.

Unique Attractions:

Tallest Trees on Earth:

The parks are famous for their awe-inspiring redwood trees, some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world.

Diverse Ecosystems:

Besides redwoods, the parks feature prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and nearly 40 miles of pristine coastline.

Fern Canyon:

A remarkable, lush canyon with walls covered in ferns, often featured in films.

Wildlife:

Home to a variety of wildlife, including Roosevelt elk, black bears, and numerous bird species.

Best Times to Visit:

In general, spring and summer will be the best times to visit Redwood National and State Parks.

Summer (June to August):

Ideal for hiking and exploring, with the most stable weather and less rain. Recently though there have been wildfires.

Spring (March to May)

Less crowded and great for enjoying the natural beauty with mild weather. In spring you’ll find the place to be quite lush and green, but not as quite as wet as the winter months.

Visitor Tips:

Best Trails:

Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail:

  • An easy and family-friendly trail that showcases giant redwoods.

James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon:

  • Offers a more immersive experience in the park’s diverse ecosystems.

Scenic Drives:

Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway:

  • A ten-mile drive through old-growth redwood forest.

Visitor Centers:

Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center:

  • Offers comprehensive information about the parks and is near to a beautiful beach.

Prairie Creek Visitor Center:

  • Ideal for learning about local wildlife and ecosystems.

Lesser-Known Facts:

The parks are a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, highlighting their global ecological significance.

The redwoods in these parks have been growing for hundreds to thousands of years, with some estimated to be over 2,000 years old.

Places to stay Nearby

  • Arcata
  • Eureka
  • Trinidad

Summary

So there you have it! 3 hidden gems in California each with a unique reason to visit.

For marine life, go to Channel Islands. 🦭

For grandiose trees and mystical forests, go to Redwood National and State parks. 🌲

And for the great California condors and mysterious caves, visit Pinnacles National Park 🦅

Megan Jones is a travel expert and founder of Traveller's Elixir who has been travelling the world full time since 2021. Megan's travel tips been featured in numerous media outlets including Metro, Timeout, Thrillist and more.

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