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10 of California’s Best National Parks

California is home to some of the absolute best state and national parks. Death Valley, Yosemite, and Redwood are just a few of the impressive parks with even more impressive views. Np1 Late afternoon light tints the mountains as two hikers trek across sand dunes in Death Valley. Photograph: Beatrice De Gea/AP Death Valley Though the name doesn’t invoke too many pleasing images, what will be found here is quite the opposite. Located within the Mojave Desert, in the lowest and driest area in North America, Death Valley gets extremely hot. Even in the middle of winter, daytime temperatures can reach 85 degrees. That being said however, winter and early spring are the best times to visit to see this site as a surprisingly lively and beautiful place with rich and intense colors all around. Death Valley earned its name in 1849 when a man from a lost group hoping to get rich off of the California Gold Rush died while attempting to cross it. Though he didn’t make it, the people of the Timbisha tribe survived living in Death Valley for thousands of years by moving around between the valley floor and more fruitful mountains according to the seasons. Now, no one actually lives in the vast valley, but it receives many visitors and the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race across the desert, takes place every year in mid-July. Accommodations within the park include nine campsites and air-conditioned lodges, for example, the historic Furnace Creek Inn (doubles from $365) and the Panamint Springs resort (doubles from $79, quadruples $94). Tip: Visit Zabriskie Point at sunrise or sunset to see Death Valley in a stunning display of colors. This viewing point can be easily accessed from a short walk from the large parking area. Useful Death Valley Links: history, lodging, Badwater Ultramarathon   NP2 Yosemite Great Falls, California, the tallest falls in USA. Photograph: www.alamy.com Yosemite Found 200 miles east of San Francisco, Yosemite is one of the more well known national parks in the U.S., and for good reason. It is shaped by massive glaciers, hosts ample wildlife, and has topnotch fun and recreational activities. Composed of mostly stunning granite structures, Yosemite’s geographic formation began around three million years ago, when the area was almost completely covered in ice. Yosemite is now known for its wide variety of activities, such as great hiking, fishing, rafting, wildlife watching, and is a huge hub for extreme rock climbing. The park is a lovely place to visit year-round with each season bringing a new perspective to the magnificent wonderland, but tends to be most crowded in summer. During the winters, various park roads and trails are inaccessible or temporally closed from the middle of November until late spring because of the weather. That being said, Yosemite still stays open for the whole year so winter enthusiasts can enjoy snowshoeing, cross-country and backcountry skiing. It would be difficult to explore Yosemite as a day trip. The recommended time is several days. Accommodations include camping to luxurious cabins found in Ahwahnee Hotel, with doubles from $360 a night. Tip: Yosemite is best seen on foot. The Glacier Point and Tuolumne Meadow trails are easy but remarkable walks, or if you are feeling more adventurous, you could try the 7.2-mile walk to the top of Yosemite Falls. Half Dome, a 14-mile hike and hard-to-get permits, requires hanging on to cables bolted in the face of the rock. Useful Yosemite Links: reservations, walking, how to apply for a Half Dome permit   NP3Point Reyes beach. Photograph: Alamy Point Reyes Seashore One of California’s few wild beaches, Point Reyes national seashore is the place to go for those that prefer a quiet and serene beach with both maritime and wildlife abound. You’ll find it 37 miles north of San Francisco. No residential development is allowed, and therefore the peninsula is relatively untouched. Tomales Bay almost keeps this expansive 180-square-mile park cut off from the mainland. Animal lover will find this charming sanctuary enormously pleasing. Nesting sea birds and raptors make their hoes in the headlines and cliffs overlooking the ocean. Tule elk, whom once roamed through all of California, graze on the northern end of the peninsula. Though it’s a year-round destination, Point Reyes gets especially busy from late December to mid-March, due to the massive grey whale migration. The 20,000 something whales are on their way to their breeding grounds in the Baja California area. Coming from Alaska, this is the longest migration that’s made by any mammal. Accommodations include backcountry and boat-in camping only. Permits are required beforehand as well. There are many hiking trails, both short and long. Earthquake trail (goes through the San Andreas fault), and Kule Loklo trail, (explores the restored village of the Miwok Native Americans) are examples of the shorter ones. Those with more time and energy can take advantage of the 6,800-mile American Discovery Trail, which starts in Point Reyes and goes east to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the longest U.S. trail. Tip: Reservations are needed at the only indoor lodging inside the park. The Point Reyes Youth Hostel offers dorm beds ($25) and private rooms (from $82, sleep up to five) to travellers of all ages. Point Reyes Links: campsites, whale watching, hiking   NP4 Photograph: Alamy Joshua Tree The strange looking trees, a tall species of the yucca, are usually the main focus in pictures of Joshua Tree. However, the real fascinating sites here are the rock formations. Embedded with crystal, the piles of boulders sparkle in the California sun. Because of that, Joshua Tree is a world renowned rock climbing destination. Pros and novices alike are able to enjoy scaling the pink granite rocks. Joshua Tree isn’t just a place to visit in the daytime, as the stars are extremely visible due to lack of pollution and humidity. The Milky Way in particular is awesomely vivid. Meteor showers, such as the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November, or the Geminids in December are truly an indescribable experience when viewed from within the park. Located in the Mojave Desert, summers are practically unbearable, but the weather in all other seasons are prime time for visiting. There are nine campsites from which to choose from, all in different locations. Black Rock and Cottonwood are the only two that provide running water, with none offering RV hookups. The park is very close to Twenty-nine Palms and Palm Springs, where a range of air-conditioned accommodations can be found. Tip: There is a 7.2-mile loop trail to the Lost Palms Oasis, a rather difficult but rewarding along the same path of an ancient Native American trail that leads to an oasis hidden in a boulder canyon. What’s more, you might see some big-horned sheep roaming about. Joshua Tree Links: trails, camping, climbing and routes; climbing guides: joshuatreerockclimbing.comcliffhangerguides.com, joshuatreeguides.com   NP5 Photograph: Alamy Lassen Volcanic National Park Lassen Volcanic National Park is northern California’s version on the world-famous Yellowstone national park in Wyoming, and is located 50 miles east of Redding, CA. Only two volcano’s have erupted in the continental U.S. within the 20th century, and Lassen was one of them in 1915. (The other was Mount Saint Helens in 1980 in Washington.) Lassen Peak, which is 10,462-foot wide, is the largest volcanic dome in the world. Following the blast that had consequently destroyed large areas of surrounding land, a national park was created with the idea to preserve the devastated areas for future observation and study. Now, nearly 100 years later, visits remind us of the power of the Earth to heal itself. Although there still are many volcanic deposits, in between the hardened rock the fauna and flora are thriving. In the summer, hikers and walkers can take advantage of the over 150 miles of hiking trails Lassen has to offer. They lead to different and interesting volcanic features such as Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell, which are the park's largest hydrothermal feature. In the winter, Lassen turns into a winter wonderland as it can receive up to 900 inches, or 75 feet, of snow in one season. Snowshoers, cross-country and backcountry skiers alike enjoy the park during this time. Lassen Volcanic national park has eight seasonal campsites and country cabins available at Manzanita Lake from May to October. Tip: There are photography, geology and birding workshops offered through the non-profit Lassen Association's Field Seminar Program. It’s worth it to sign up for one! Lassen Links: hiking, camping and cabins, Lassen Association   NP6 Photograph: Alamy Sequoia and Kings Canyon Sequoia and Kings Canyon are actually two separate national parks, making it convenient for those who have a California park checklist. They are relatively close to Yosemite as well, are co-managed, and share a border and an entrance fee ($5 for each). Both offer lodges and campsites, but they are rather remote and inaccessible by car so to see them, you’ll have to do a bit of hiking. Sequoia wins having the largest tree in the world contest with General Sherman. Even though Redwoods are taller, giant sequoias are extremely massive. General Sherman's trunk has a volume of 1,487 cubic meters and is over 2,000 tons. The John Muir Trail runs through Sequoia and Kings Canyon on its way up to Yosemite, but Sequoia gets to claim the portion that has Mt. Whitney, the highest summit on the U.S. mainland. Kings Canyon national park has Kings river and San Joaquin river running through, both which are known for being two of the most scenic and untouched rivers in California. Tip: The Giant Forest in Sequoia national park is home to five of the 10 largest trees in the world, General Sherman being one of them. These 3,500-year old sentinels can be admired along the 40 miles of trails that wind through the woods. Sequoia and Kings Canyon Links: hikingcamping, lodging, John Muir Trail   NP7 Photograph: David Muench/Corbis Pinnacles Pinnacles is the most recent addition to the national park system. It is 40 miles southeast of Salinas and consists of dramatic cliffs, spires, and canyons that are actually what’s left of an ancient volcano. The volcano’s original location was 150 miles away, but the movement created by the San Andreas Fault led it to where it is now. The enormous walls draw bats, falcons, and the California condor, one of the rarest birds in the world. The condor is a type of vulture and the largest bird in North America. Poaching, poisoning and habitat destruction unfortunately rendered the bird extinct in the wild in 1987. However, there have been captive breeding programs that have released many of the big black birds into various parks in Utah, Arizona, and California. In 2012, Pinnacles was home to 32 wild condors according to the count. There are two campsites in the park, one on the east side and one on the west. The eastern site is more developed. There are no roads that go directly through the middle of the park, which helps Pinnacles keep it’s wild environment. Tip: Don't miss the unique talus caves, found in Bear Gulch to the east and Balconies Cave to the west. The passages between the rocks were formed by boulders that fell into the steep canyons, and the caves host Towson's big-eared bats. Therefore, these caves may be closed during birthing season or after rains that bring high water levels. Pinnacles Links: condors recovery program, climbing, camping, caves   NP8 Basalt columns at Mammoth Lake, Devil's Postpile national monument. Photograph: Alamy Devil’s Postpile At first glance, the Devils Postpile may have you thinking that a crazy sculptor might have gone too far, but actually it’s one of the best examples of columnar basalt, which is rather rare. It is near Mammoth Lakes on the east side of Yosemite and the Postpile's 59 feet columns were formed by basaltic lava cooling and contracting at a standard rate, but the lava split along seams into the columns that are present now. They are mostly pentagonal or hexagonal, with a few three, four, and seven-sided columns scattered throughout. It’s a rather mild half-mile walk from the campsite to the base of the Postpile, and after that it’s uphill to the top. The incline isn’t very steep and it takes about 15 minutes or so. Both the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails pass through the park, and many thru-hikers use Devil’s Postpile as a place to rest before continuing north to Canada or south to Mexico. Tip: Do the extra uphill hike to the top of the Postpile. It is only moderately difficult and is well worth it to see the formations up close. Devils Postpile Links: camping, geology, Pacific Crest Trail   NP9 Photograph: Mary Caperton Morton King Range A map of California will show Highways 1 and 101 go along the entire coast, right? What about that 65 mile piece between Eureka and Rockport? That’s what’s known as the Lost Coast. That section is the longest stretch of wild beach in California and it’s protected by the King Range national conservation area. Being completely wild, there are no roads into the Lost Coast, so you have to walk to get to it. One entrance is a potholed gravel road, which runs to a campsite located at the mouth of the Mattole river. From there it’s 25 miles along the coast before the next road, at Shelter Cove. Although the hike is mostly flat, walking in the sand will tire you quickly, especially if you have a backpack. Tide charts are necessary to help navigate past the immense headlands. Bear canisters are also necessary for all food, mainly because of the seagulls, which are very aggressive. Tip: There is a six-and-a-half-mile round trip hike from the Mattole river campsite to the sophisticated ruins of the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. Built in 1912 and put out of business in 1951, the lighthouse and the trip to it could be one of the most beautiful beach walks in the world. The ocean waters are rough and cold, but the area is still rather popular with surfers. Lost Coast Links: hiking trails, bear safety and canister regulations, history of the Punta Gorda lighthouse   NP10 Photograph: Alamy Redwood National and State Parks Though Sequoia boasts the largest trees in the world, Redwood takes the place for having the tallest. Standing next to any one of the Redwood trees is quite a humbling experience. Redwoods can live for thousands of years. This fact makes it even more devastating to learn that about 96% of the giant Redwoods that once covered more than 5,000 square miles of coastal California were cut down between 1850 and 1920. Today, nearly half all the redwoods that are left are found in these adjoining national and state parks. There are four campsites found through the parks, and no indoor accommodation within the park boundaries. Picturesque lodgings are in the close by small towns of Klamath, Requa and Orrick, and there are larger hotels in Crescent City, Arcata and Eureka. Tip: The easy walking trails through the Ladybird Johnson Grove trail and Tall Trees Grove trail in the southern are of Redwood national park are ideal for gazing up to try to see the treetops. Redwood Links: camping, the search for the tallest tree, Redwood canopy tours: northcoastadventurecenters.com and redwoods.info http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/sep/17/t...

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