1. The bucket-list stop: Yosemite National Park
If you only have time to visit one of California's national parks, Yosemite should be at the top of your list. Around 10 million years ago, the revered landscapes of eastern California were being shaped into the dramatic valleys, towering cliffs and sprawling forests so loved today, and the park was deservedly named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
But while it may attract millions of visitors a year, this vast wilderness still provides special moments of peaceful silence, a refreshing escape from the relentless noise of everyday urban life. And with each small detail more awe-inspiring than the most perfect of paintings, you’ll find it even harder to leave. To quote Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in the Dharma Bums, you’ll feel ‘like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all.’
2. Gold Rush territory: Death Valley National Park
The words ‘national park’ may have you thinking of towering trees, lush woodlands and sprawling waterways – but for a taste of the unexpected, you may want to try Death Valley on for size. It takes a peculiar type of nature to thrive in an arid land where month-long temperatures of 50°C are not just possible, but expected – consequently, this area is unlike any other in the world.
For a road trip experience that’s warming rather than charred, it’s best to visit in the colder months, when the surreal landscapes can be appreciated in more comfortable temperatures. While the dry conditions mean a scenic scale of gold is guaranteed, the afternoon sun brings a flush of colours from across the spectrum, so that the entire area lights up with the spectral hues of a lava lamp.
3. A world of weird wonders: Joshua Tree National Park
The U2 album may get you to the Wikipedia page, but you’ll end up making the trip for the views – Joshua Tree is one of the most out-of-this-world national parks in California. And if the area’s weird natural beauty – consisting of bizarre trees, gravity-defying boulders and skies full of unfiltered stars – doesn’t win you over, then the unusual history of the area sure will.
Built as a movie set in the 1940s, the nearby Old West settlement of Pioneertown provides an uncanny stop for all visitors to the national park. There you can still see mock gun fights outside the facades of saloons and stables, before stopping at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a lively bar for live music and classic American food to the west of the strange wilderness.
4. Elephantine nature: Sequoia and Kings Canyon
The Redwood may be the tallest tree in the world, but Sequoias are the largest. This gargantuan species will make you feel ant-like in comparison, and a visit to Sequoia national park will have you struggling to see the top of the gargantuan General Sherman tree. The largest tree in the world has a circumference of 25m and stands at 84m tall, about the height of a 27-storey building.
Sitting on the south-eastern edge of Yosemite, Sequoia national park is ideal for hiking, and the $5 entry fee also gets you access to the nearby Kings Canyon. There you’ll see fearless rock climbers scaling dramatic cliff faces – or maybe you’ll be enjoying the view from above for yourself.
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