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Fly to the national parks in northern CaliforniaFly to the national parks in northern California

Big trees, big views, big waterfalls, and a volcanic park with some of the same features you’ll find at Yellowstone, but without the crowds. Stargazing, birdwatching, hiking—do it all in these northern California parks that preserve some of our most unique places.

  • Yosemite Valley, as seen from Tunnel View, just east of the Wawona Tunnel. The giant granite monolith of El Capitan rises on the left, Bridalveil Fall is seen on the right, with Half Dome in the center background. John Muir once said, “It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur.” Photo by Shelly Prevost via Flickr.
  • A photographer prepares to photograph Half Dome with a dusting of snow at Yosemite National Park. Visitors will find the park much less crowded in winter. Photo by Herton Escobar via Flickr.
  • Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park, as seen from the trail that connects the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail. Hikers can continue past Vernal Fall to Nevada Fall. Photo by Mary PK Burns via Flickr.
  • Giant sequoia trees rise overhead in Sequoia National Park. Many trails in the park are very easy to walk and handicapped-accessible. Photo by Su-May via Flickr.
  • An energetic day hike in Sequoia National Park can bring you up to an alpine lake near the tree line, where few other visitors venture. Photo by Felix Lew via Flickr.
  • After 27,000 years of dormancy, Lassen Peak (often called Mount Lassen) erupted in a series of explosions from 1914 to 1917. The largest explosion, on May 22, 1915, rained ash and debris as far away as Winnemucca, Nevada and created an enormous Devastated Area on the volcano’s northeast side. Many large boulders ejected from the volcano were too hot to touch for days. B.F. Loomis captured several of the eruptions on film. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Nowadays, Highway 89 is an easy way to view spectacular scenery inside Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Drakesbad Lodge, in the southeast corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park, provides comfortable accommodations, excellent food, and easy access to fishing spots. Photo by Rick E. Martin.
  • Hikers traverse the elevated boardwalks in Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park, to view boiling mudpots and hot springs. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • These hikers on the Lassen Peak Trail have already climbed high above Lake Helen, seen below. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • A volunteer from the Astronomical Society of Nevada helps a young visitor get a close-up view of the setting moon at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo by Michael Silverman, courtesy NPS.
  • Many trails inside Redwood National and State Parks are handicapped-accessible. Photo by Mark Weston via Flickr.
  • A young bull Roosevelt elk in a marsh, Redwood National Park. These elk are commonly seen in the park, often gathering in meadows and marshes. Photo by Mark Watson via Flickr.
  • Enderts Beach, Redwood National Park. Photo by Diana Robinson via Flickr.
  • Redwoods can live an estimated 1,200–1,800 years or more and grow to about 379 feet tall. They need coastal fog to thrive and reach full size because the tallest specimens cannot pump water up high enough to sustain their upper canopy; instead, the trees absorb about 30% of their water from fog. Photo by Greg Holtfreter via Flickr.

Yosemite National Park, California: The crown jewel of California’s national parks, Yosemite is famous worldwide. The view of Yosemite Valley, with the great granite block of El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right, Half Dome behind, and the Merced River below, is etched into our collective minds. To see it yourself, you can fly to one of two airports and avoid crossing the Sierra Nevada. From the west, land at Mariposa-Yosemite, rent a car, and drive into the park, about 90 minutes to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. From the east you can land at Mammoth Yosemite Airport and drive over Tioga Pass, about 2.5 hours. This spectacular drive is well worth it but only possible during summer, when the pass is open. Once in the park, you’ll want to visit Yosemite Falls, hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall, and continue to Nevada Fall. Mirror Lake is a great picnic spot. Drive to scenic viewpoints around the park or challenge yourself to a multi-day remote backpacking trip, climb Half Dome, walk and talk with a ranger, go fishing, take an art class, or make memorable photos. Yosemite offers a lifetime of adventures.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California: Fly to Visalia to begin your adventure in these parks, administered jointly by the National Park Service and often visited together. Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,491 feet, is also contained within Sequoia National Park. To climb Mt. Whitney you’ll need to fly to Bishop; reserve your car well ahead. Together, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks protect the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the only habitat in the world where giant sequoias grow. Here, you have truly entered the land of behemoths. Visit the Giant Forest Museum to learn about the sequoias and then walk through some of the groves. General Sherman is the world’s largest tree by volume, 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter at its base. Other activities include guided horseback rides, ranger programs, scenic drives, backpacking or day hikes, Crystal Cave tours, climbing Moro Rock, skiing, and snowshoeing. Choose from several lodges and cabins or a variety of campgrounds.

The General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest known living single stem tree on Earth. It measures 102.6 feet in circumference at its base and weighs an estimated 1,910 tons. Photo by Mark Doliner via Flickr.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California: To visit this park, which Sunset magazine called “The West’s most beautiful, least visited, wonderland,” fly to Rogers Field on the northwestern shore of Lake Almanor in northeast California. Nearby Lake Almanor Towing has rental cars; reserve well ahead. Inside the park and only open in summer, Drakesbad Guest Ranch has a heated swimming pool, massage services, guided horseback riding, fishing, and excellent cuisine. Otherwise, bring food and water as park facilities are few, but your reward is a total lack of crowds. You’ll see quiet meadows of wildflowers, jagged peaks, clear lakes, and, at Bumpass Hell, some of the hot, bubbling mudpots like you find in Yellowstone. The Lassen Peak Trailhead leads to the summit of the 10,457-foot volcano. With little light pollution, the park is great for astronomy. Manzanita Lake has easy hiking trails, fishing, primitive cabins, a camp store, and campsites.

Redwood National and State Parks, California: These parks stretch along 40 miles of rugged northern California coastline, just south of the Oregon border. The parks protect 45 percent of all remaining coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. Fly to Crescent City, just north of the parks, or Arcata, just south of the parks. The parks have no lodging (just camping) so I prefer Arcata because nearby Trinidad is lovely, I’ll dine at the Larrupin Café any chance I get, and many of the tallest trees are in the southern sections of the park. A quiet trail hike among these giants is awe-inspiring. Or, explore coastal trails and tide pools. For a change of pace, rangers lead kayak and hike-and-paddle tours, or you can take a guided bike tour through the trees.

Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as both the managing editor of Pilot Getaways magazine and editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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