Traveller's Guide: California's National Parks

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This remarkable US state does weird and wild like no other, so take your pick of giant trees, volcanic pools, huge waterfalls or flowering cacti.

The world's tallest and oldest trees, the highest US mountain outside Alaska and the lowest land in North America: wild California is about as stunning as it gets. Nearly all its wonders are found in the state's eight national parks, and those that aren't are nearby in state parks or national forests, all easy to visit on a loop around the state.

Camping prices range from nothing for a patch of earth in the backcountry to $20 (£13.30) in some of the better-equipped parks. Campgrounds near the parks offer full RV hook-ups, showers and playgrounds for around $40 (£27.70) per night. And, at least in summer, it's very unlikely to rain.

California is by far the most populous state in the US, but residents and visitors tend to gravitate towards the 840-mile coast, leaving vast tracts of forest, desert and mountain almost empty. The interior is split north–south by the frequently snow-capped Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges. In the east are the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

If you have to choose just one national park, it is hard to beat the waterfalls, bears, huge trees and magnificent cliffs offered by Yosemite. With river swimming, gentle rafting and a host of ranger programmes, it is one of the best for kids, too. Sequoia and Kings Canyon have a similar appeal (and even chunkier trees) but fewer visitors, making them more attractive to those seeking solitude.

Further north, sequoias give way to immensely tall redwoods in Redwoods National Park, while more modest forests cloak the lower slopes of Lassen National Park with its low-key geothermal wonders. Over the mountainous divide, Death Valley can be searingly hot and dry, though the cooler seasons are better for appreciating its desert landforms and mining relics. Desert rats will also love Joshua Tree, its weird rocks and spiky vegetation making the park wonderfully photogenic. Offshore, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara make up the Channel Islands National Park.

The state shook off its frontier image long ago, but the legacy remains in the form of lumber mills, abandoned mines and even the odd swing-door ghost town, such as Bodie, near Yosemite. The national parks themselves are devoid of real towns, though usually populated by clusters of hotels, restaurants and well-spaced campgrounds.

Highways get you to most places but in winter the Sierra Nevada makes all but a few main routes impassable. Companies such as Thrifty (01494 751 500; thrifty.co.uk) charge around $250 (£167) for two week's hire of a compact car. This will give you time for the classic 10- to 14-day round trip from San Francisco, taking in Yosemite, Tioga Pass (June to October only), Death Valley and Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Add Redwoods and Lassen and you'll need at least two weeks.

Make sure you call in at one or two of California's state parks (parks.ca.gov). Most are tiny, though large tracts of the southern deserts – over the hills from San Diego – fall within the massive Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest in the US outside Alaska. Everyone arrives in March hoping to catch the desert carpeted in its myriad blooms. You can also get a ferry to Angel Island, guarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay, where you can hike or bike with fabulous views past Alcatraz to the high-rises downtown.

All national parks charge $10–20 (£6–12) per car entry fee, so it's worth getting an "America The Beautiful" pass ($80/£53) at your first stop, giving unlimited access to national parks across the US for a year.

There are no tours covering all of the state's national parks, though several companies combine Yosemite and Death Valley with Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and other natural marvels. TrekAmerica (0844 576 1400; trekamerica.com) runs a seven-day "Western Wonder" loop through Yosemite and the Grand Canyon from £599. Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3865; virginholidays.co.uk), Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) and American Sky (0844 332 9392; americansky.co.uk) all include a couple of parks in their fly-drive plans. A typical two-week itinerary in late September with Bon Voyage costs £1,600.

BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), United Airlines (0845 844 4777; unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Heathrow to LA and San Francisco. American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com) and Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) also fly direct to LA, and BA to San Diego.

When to go

California's national parks are great places to visit at any time of year, but heat and snow will significantly affect the shape of your trip. In July and August, the desert parks – Joshua Tree and Death Valley – are best suited to lizards. Hiking is restricted to the hours around dawn and dusk, though campground nights are wonderfully balmy. Spring andautumn are much more appealing, though campers will need a good sleeping bag.

Snow restricts access to large sections of Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Lassen national parks from November to at least May. Late September and October are perhaps the best months for these: the mountain passes are still open, the hiking is good and the deserts are cool enough to thoroughly enjoy. Yosemite's waterfalls are at their thundering best in May and June.

Yosemite

Yosemite Valley is a wondrous sight. No matter how many times you've visited the National Park (001 209 372 0200; nps.gov/yose) it is hard not to be as awestruck as the first-timers gazing slack-jawed at the rock architecture all around them and the eight-mile-long chasm, strung with myriad waterfalls during the spring snowmelt.

Binoculars are trained on the mightiest granite cliff of them all, the great grey 3,000ft-high face of El Capitan up which daredevil rock-climbers inch their way over four days. The end of the valley, Half Dome, looks like a giant upturned bowl of granite sliced down the middle by the glacier that once creaked through Yosemite Valley.Between these two behemoths lies an idyll of river meadows and coniferous forests where black bears hide out and vibrant-blue Steller's jays and chipmunks stake-out campers for morsels.

The park's classic hike is to the summit of Half Dome (12 hours return), an extension of the equally magnificent Mist Trail (two to three hours return) where the granite steps are washed by wafts of spray from Vernal Fall, pictured, and rainbows play against a cedar backdrop.

Drive an hour to Glacier Point for the nightly ranger talk (sunset, summer only) as alpenglow bathes Half Dome, and set aside a day or two exploring Tuolumne Meadows, where deer graze on wildflowers at almost 9,000ft.

The place to stay is the grand Arts & Crafts/Native American-influenced Ahwahnee Hotel (001 209 372 1407; yosemitepark.com), either in sumptuous rooms or in deluxe cabins (both US$528/£321, room only, between April-October) scattered among the pines. If the price tag puts you off, stay in the tent cabins at Curry Village (001 209 372 8333; yosemitepark.com) from US$123 (£75), but be sure to take Sunday brunch (US$50/£30) at The Awahnee's majestic dining room with its 34-foot sugar-pine beamed ceiling.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon

The middle elevations of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (001 559 565 3341; nps.gov/seki) are peppered with clusters of giant sequoia trees. Though neither the fattest nor the tallest trees in the world, they win out for sheer bulk – almost 300ft high and nearly 30ft across at the base.

Tourists first started visiting the trees immediately after the American Civil War, so it is hardly surprising that the two most gargantuan examples honour titans who were on the winning side in the conflict. Oddly, the General Grant Tree (named after the Union commander and 18th President, Ulysses S Grant) is just pipped by the General Sherman Tree, named after the man who served under him. Both trees draw big crowds, so strike out on one of the forest paths such as the Congress Trail to little-visited groves that contain marginally smaller specimens but easily compensate with abundant tranquillity.

Once again, camping is a superb way to experience the parks, perhaps at the streamside Lodgepole (US$18/£12) withaccess to some great trails. The nearby Wuksachi Lodge (001 801 559 4948; visitsequoia.com) offers comfortable rooms for US$100 (£61) without breakfast and has a good restaurant.

Redwoods

Every Californian seems to have a photo of a relative waving from their car as they drive though the base of a massive redwood. A century ago some canny entrepreneurs bored holes though trees and charged a few cents for the privilege of passing through. Now you pay $5 (£3.30), but only on the outskirts of the Redwoods National Park (001 707 464 6101; nps.gov/redw) – it's frowned upon inside. Instead, you get a beautiful stretch of wild shoreline where coast redwoods – the world's tallest trees – thrive. They need year-round moisture, which they get from fog and winter rain.

Camp at Gold Bluffs Beach (US$35/£23 per site; no reservations) beside a wild Pacific beach, almost hidden under a forest of driftwood logs. Roosevelt elk (the largest species of all deer) often graze the wetlands just behind it.

Joshua Tree

Dawn is the best time to be out and about in Joshua Tree National Park (001 760 367 5500; nps.gov/jotr). Campers are still in their tents, coyotes are about and the air is cool enough for a walk into the Wonderland of Rocks, where a short climb gets you on top of the sculptural clusters of Buddha-like monzogranite boulders that dot the desert floor. Cross your legs and spend the next hour watching the rising sun cast ever-shrinking shadows of Joshua Trees across the desert.

At the remnants of Keys Ranch (001 760 367 5555) you can learn how tough it was for ranchers to graze this barren land, though the weathered buildings saw use for 60 years until abandoned in 1969. You can only visit on a 90-minute guided tour ($5/£3.30; book in advance). Back then it was far easier to steal cattle. A mile-long loop trail threads its way into Hidden Valley, an almost complete circle of rocks where rustlers once corralled their ill-gotten gains.

For yet more other-wordliness, don't miss the Cholla CactusGarden, a patch of desert densely littered with these wonderfully photogenic spine balls. At the nearby Ocotillo Patch, long, spiny tendrils reach for the sky.

The only places to stay inside the park are the nine campgrounds, most with tap water and vault toilets. Hidden Valley is popular with rock climbers while White Tank is another favourite: both cost US$10 (£6) per site. Just outside the northern limits of the park, Twentynine Palms Inn (001 760 367 3505; 29palmsinn.com) charges US$90 (£60) for a double room set in a low-key mesquite and palm oasis.

Lassen

Snow restricts access to Lassen Volcanic National Park (001 530 595 4480; nps.gov/lavo) for all but five months of the year. Between June and October the park road is open (often cut between huge banks of snow in early season) providing access to much of the best that the park has to offer. A half-day drive-through is more rewarding here than in most parks. The 10,000ft Mount Lassen hasn't erupted since 1915, but the area is still active. Fumaroles spew sulphurous gas and pools boil at Bumpass Hell, while the similarly active Devil's Kitchen is easily reached on a lovely four-mile hike through the meadows of Warner Valley.

Staying in the park means camping, at its best at Manzanita Lake (US$18/£12 per site) if you want facilities, or Summit Lake (US$16/£11 per site) for more seclusion and access to great hiking.

Death Valley

The best time to visit Death Valley National Park (001 760 786 3200; nps.gov/deva) is in spring and autumn when the daytime temperatures are manageable. Only mad-dog Europeans come in July and August, when temperatures in the main settlement at Furnace Creek can sometimes reach 50C.

Everyone makes the pilgrimage to Badwater Basin, a salty roadside puddle that at 282ft below sea level is the lowest point in North America. When you are acclimatised to the dry desert air, the humidity around the pond is like throwing water onto sauna coals.

Further north, past some of the largest sand dunes in the country, visit Scotty's Castle (001 877 444 6777; recreation.gov), a baronial mansion built in the 1920s for an absentee Chicago insurance broker, but mostly lived in by local shyster "Death Valley" Scotty, who claimed it as his own.

When the heat gets too much, head for the 11,000ft Telescope Peak, named after the 360-degree views from the summit – down to Death Valley and across to the saw-tooth horizon of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In winter, stay at the Furnace Creek Inn (001 303 297 2757;furnacecreekresort.com) where US$384(£223) gets you a room in a lovely hotel. The nearby Furnace Creek Ranch (furnacecreekresort.com), which opens all year, is less special but only costs US$165 (£100) per night.

For a night under the crystal desert sky, camp at Stovepipe Wells (US$12/£8; escapetodeathvalley.com), or the simple and cooler Wildrose Flat (free), on the slopes of Telescope Peak.

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