“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stegner (1983)
The United States has 59 protected areas known as national parks that are operated by the National Park Service. Criteria for the selection of National Parks include natural beauty, unique geological features, unusual ecosystems, and recreational opportunities (though these criteria are not always considered together). National parks must be established by an act of the United States Congress. The first national park, Yellowstone was signed into law by President Grant in 1872. The Organic Act of 1916 established the National Park Service to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Twenty Seven states have national parks, as do the territories of American Samoa and the United States Virgin Islands. California has the most (nine), followed by Alaska (eight), Utah (five), and Colorado (four). You can access the National Park page here.
Since there are so many national parks to write about, I decided to focus on a manageable task-writing about California’s National Parks. You can access information about the parks online or through this website here.
1. Death Valley National Park: In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley. I actually had a chance to drive through this park and it was absolutely stunning. I remember being scared because there was no one around, but if you like that sort of thing then by all means visit. It gets pretty hot!
2. Yosemite National Park: Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra. First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. This is an absolutely majestic beast of a place. I have had a pleasure of coming here a couple of times and each time it is an adventure. The best time to come is in spring when flowers are blooming and the waterfalls are the heaviest. Summer can get crowded. You can also camp here, but make sure you book a spot months before as they do sell out. My family and I rented a cabin/home in the early spring of 2010 and it was so beautiful. My best memory was seeing all the brilliant stars at night. Do note there are no cellular services and one gas station here.
3. Joshua Tree National Park: Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California. Come explore for yourself. I took a tour through here and was not disappointed. I have never seen a sight of cacti like here. And a little known fact is that if you camp under the stars here you find the most brilliant and magical milky-way stars.
4. Lassen Volcanic National Park: Northeast of San Francisco, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to steaming fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes. Jagged peaks tell the story of its eruptive past while hot water continues to shape the land. Lassen Volcanic offers opportunities to discover the wonder and mysteries of volcanoes and hot water for visitors willing to explore the undiscovered.
5 and 6. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: Southeast of San Jose and contiguous to one another, this dramatic landscape testifies to nature’s size, beauty, and diversity–huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees. These two parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley. Weather varies a lot by season and elevation, which ranges from 1,370′ to 14,494′. Sequoias grow at 5,000 – 7,000′, above usual snowline. Hiking here is absolutely a spiritual experience.
7. Pinnacles National Park: Some 23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park. What remains is a unique landscape. Travelers journey through chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms. Hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with life: prairie and peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the inspiring California condor.
8. Redwood National and State Parks: Most people know Redwood as home to the tallest trees on Earth. The parks also protect vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and nearly 40 miles of rugged coastline. For thousands of years people have lived in this verdant landscape. Together, the National Park Service and California State Parks manage these lands for the inspiration, enjoyment, and education of all.
9. Channel Islands National Park: In Southern California, the Channel Islands National Park encompasses five remarkable islands and their ocean environment, preserving and protecting a wealth of natural and cultural resources. Isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth and helped preserve a place where visitors can experience coastal southern California as it once was.