The U.S. has some of the world's best national parks and forests. The extremely diverse range of environments includes deserts, forests, and mountains. Over the last few years, Boya, my partner, and I have traveled to quite a few, largely in California. We have enjoyed the Mojave desert, Sierra Nevada mountains, the Pacific coast, and many other sites of natural beauty. Below is our travel log including dates and short reviews of each place.
I am more of a conservationist than a preservationist: we should keep our national resources is excellent shape, but make sure that they are accessible to as much of the populace as possible. I always learn something when I visit, and am confident others will as well. I think the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Park Service (NPS) do a good job of keeping these special places in great shape, while keeping entrance fees low.
Point Reyes National Seashore (November 2019)
Just an hour or so north of San Francisco, Point Reyes has some of the most spectacular big-rocks-by-the-Pacific views. The Tomales Point trail is particularly popular, easy, and stunning. You start at an old dairy, hike through an elk preserve, and end at some big rocks with views of the Bay and the Pacific.
Eldorado National Forest (October 2019)
For a reasonable price, this might be the best vacation spot in California. You can camp or AirBNB directly in the forest, and it is only a ten minute drive to Lake Tahoe. Since it is a National Forest, not a Park, it is run by Department of Agriculture, so we were allowed to bring our dog on all of the hikes. Classic high altitude Sierra Nevada mountains (complete with giant pine cones!) and Lake Tahoe is is truly very blue.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (July 2019)
Number one for majesty and just outright size. The trees are bigger: the Sequoias are huge in every dimension. At the giant grove, you can see the largest and oldest trees on Earth. But it is mobbed with people as it is flat and has good parking. Hiking away from this central site is awesome. We backpacked the Alta Peak trail, but were not able to make it all the way due to ice. There was a small earthquake on the first night we camped out, which reinforced why a satellite communication device is a smart buy.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park (May 2019)
Awesome morning hike accessible within ~1hr from Silicon Valley. It is about as classic Redwood Forest as one can get: tall coastal Redwoods, a super cute ranger station / lodge / general store, and dog-friendly trails. Stop by Alice's restaurant on the way up for the complete Portola Valley experience. The restaurant and the park get crowded, so start early or endure the crowds.
Pinnacles National Park (April 2019)
Pinnacles is the closest National Park to Silicon Valley, but it is still an ~2hr drive. The main hike goes up the Pinnacles: tall, high rocks. The entire hike takes a few hours. The coolest part are the cables to help you get through the steep portions of trail (Don't worry, this is not half dome, it's much easier than that). Only downside of Pinnacles is the parking: you need to get there early, otherwise, you may be turned away, forcing you to leave, or get a hefty parking ticket.
Joshua Tree National Park (December 2018)
We literally camped at the Jumbo Rocks camp ground and there were big rocks! Overall, Joshua Tree is awesome. It's a desert park in SoCal, with a forest of a bizarre looking trees, found only in the region. Joshua tree also has a massive cactus grove, which is beautiful and dangerous (the NPS has placed a first aid kit at the entrance to the cactus forest). On the drive to Joshua tree, you pass through Palm Springs, so you can pay a visit to the mid-century modern capital.
Mojave National Preserve (December 2018)
Mojave is the lonely preserve. When we were there, the whole park had less than ten visitors spread over its 1.5 million acres. No crowds! The ghost town feeling is a bit eerie: you pull up to the ranger station which is based in a former train depot. You drive through abandoned and operating mines on the way up (Hello from Borax California!). The desert sand dunes and back country camping were awesome. We had a fire, and the warmth attracted the local rodents, who sat with us in the desert night.
Yosemite National Park (October 2018)
The California classic: Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Peak, and so many other iconic NPS sites. It's the setting of Free Solo. John Muir new this place was awesome and it still is! We did a day trip to Yosemite, so unfortunately didn't get to see very much (we will go back again for a longer stay). I recommend going off peak as Yosemite is extremely busy otherwise. Everything in Yosemite (hiking, site seeing, rock climbing, etc...) is amazing.
Yellowstone National Park (September 2018)
Yellowstone is number one and will always be. I didn't love it while I was there, largely due to the massive crowds. But looking back at the pictures, the crowds make sense: its the most awesome of the awesome. Old faithful and other geysers, buffalo and other animal herds, hot springs with colored blooms: it's the most instagrammable place on earth. Camping is challenging due to the crowds: the sites are full.
Grand Teton National Park (September 2018)
Right next to Yellowstone, nearly as good, and virtually empty, the Grand Tetons are well worth it. Located in the middle of the park, you can fly in to Jackson Hole airport. The Grand Tetons are amazing and dominate the scene. The hikes are long, but incredible (watch out for moose!). If you go during the spring / summer, the ski lodges are empty, offering a cheap alternative to camping. Like Yellowstone, there are herds of Buffalo and other animals. Be careful while driving at night: the animals are on the road too!
Lassen Volcanic National Park (July 2018)
My favorite, the hidden gem of California's national parks, Lassen is the most beautiful, has the most amazing features, and isn't crowded. It is California's only volcanic park: think a mini Yellowstone complete with hot and sulfur springs. But it is also a California forest with amazing hiking, camping, and lake activities. I consider Butte Lake and its camp site the most relaxing place in the US. You can see the milky way at night and there's plenty of room to camp. There are volcanoes to climb and lava tubes to explore. Nothing is nearby.
Muir Woods National Monument (August 2017)
You once were able to visit these Redwood's just ~30 minutes north of San Francisco on a whim, but it became too popular, so you now need to book in advance for parking. Cathedral grove is a stunning display of California coastal redwoods: tall and serene. You walk through the area on a flat, raised, wooden path. It's the most accessible way to see the Redwood forest. There are harder hikes in the area, but they aren't as interesting.
Death Valley National Park (November 2016)
This is the coolest national park. It's ~130F in the summer, so go if you like to be cooked, or otherwise go in the Autumn (it also gets cold at night in the winter; it's a desert!). The park rangers will warn you that you can do anything you want in death valley i.e. they won't stop you, but you can also get hurt (it's much safer now that they put a cell tower in the park). The sand dunes and salt flats are alien. Death valley has the best views of the milky way at night. This one is a real adventure. Don't be dissuaded on the drive up: you pass through a few grim mining / chemical operations located in the region. That's part of the adventure!