Five glorious parks within four hours of San Joaquin County; beat the heat and crowds!

Beat the summer heat and crowds while basking in nature’s glory in these five close-at-hand parks!

Trail in Pinnacles National Park leads to eerie talus caves (bring a flashlight or headlamp!).

We’re less than a week from the start of summer, it’s getting hot in the valley – and you haven’t made your summer travel plans yet? Let’s consider some of the nearby parks and natural wonders that can take you out of San Joaquin County’s heat, yield incredible adventure and are only a few hours away.

We will pass over several close-at-hand gems, which become especially crowded in the summertime. Yosemite National Park and portions of the Lake Tahoe area are best saved for September and October when the crowds die down. We recommend three nearby national parks, a national recreation area and the high Sierra.

A favorite, Pinnacles National Park is only 2.5 hours from Stockton and remains one of the least visited of all the national parks in the west despite its eerie allure. Long a national monument, it was just elevated to national park status in 2013.

Just 30 miles south of Hollister, California, Pinnacles features the remnants of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles to the south near Los Angeles. The Pinnacles volcanic area has been moving slowly but steadily several inches north each year on the San Andreas Fault, distancing itself from the mother volcano.

Pinnacle's Machete Ridge, the remnants of an ancient volcano located near LA!

It’s a land of strange rock formations, talus caves, abundant wildlife and frequent sightings of the California condor. Located in the California coastal mountain range, the cooling Mediterranean breeze coming off the nearby Pacific keeps the park consistently cooler than the nearby California Central Valley.

Pinnacles is a park made for short or longer hikes (take a headlamp/flashlight if you want to explore the talus caves) in the rugged volcanic spines and valleys of these mountains, with lots of greenery to provide shade. The park offers two campgrounds and overnight accommodations can be found in nearby Hollister. For additional adventure, tour south to Mission San Antonio, and continue west on a winding road over the Santa Lucia Mountains, dropping you in the center of Big Sur on the California coast.

Sequoia's General Sherman tree, with a 40' diameter trunk is, by volume, the world's largest tree!

Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks share a common border and are just 100 miles south of Yosemite in the high Sierra. Approaching Sequoia, you’ll climb from near sea level in the San Joaquin Valley to 7000 feet, passing numerous Sequoia groves and unfolding views of the towering Sierra, deemed the ‘Range of Light’ by John Muir.

Amongst thousands of huge sequoias, the General Sherman sequoia stands out.  Its trunk is 40 feet in diameter, 275 feet in height and is the largest tree in the world in total volume. The nearby General Grant sequoia in Kings Canyon is nearly as large – both attract crowds in the summertime.

Sequoia National Park also offers plenty of hiking opportunities, along with Moro Rock and the Auto Tree where you can drive your car through a huge, downed sequoia. Kings Canyon is several thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon, a favorite of rock climbers and, like Sequoia, offers plenty of hiking and camping options. The two parks offer several classic lodges for those who want more traditional lodging.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, just four hours to our north, is second only to Yellowstone National Park as a volcanic and thermal wonderland. It’s also more compact than Yellowstone, as well as within a single days drive. Just 100 years ago, Mount Lassen exploded, hurtling large boulders for 3 miles and leveling the forest miles further.

Frozen Lake Helen, with Mt. Lassen in the background.

The park offers mud pots and fumaroles; those and the Devastated Area will thrill youngsters to seniors alike. Check the park’s Hwy. 89 road report; it cuts through the park, rises high on the flank of Mount Lassen and sometimes can be snowed in until late June or July. Nearby Chester offers lodging and the park offers several scenic campgrounds. Sleeping giant Mt. Shasta is just north, allowing an extended adventure to its surrounding campgrounds and quaint towns.

For a cool summer retreat, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, plan a trip to Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Walk the beach where Sir Francis Drake claimed California in 1579 for Queen Elizabeth, see whales offshore, tour a spectacular lighthouse and spot tule elk and elephant seals.

Pt. Reyes Lighthouse is a beacon for ships on this rugged CA coast.

Stop at the Drakes Bay Visitor Center and then walk the beach (we found a huge elephant seal on a recent visit). Continue west along the Point Reyes Peninsula, reaching the Point Reyes lighthouse at the very tip of the peninsula, open for tours, though closed Tuesdays through Thursdays.

Looking to the south, you’ll see the Farallon Islands on a clear day, 20 miles away. Don’t miss the classic little town of Point Reyes Station, set among historic farms dating back to 1859. You can find several places to purchase oysters along the way, and several cute restaurants in the town itself.

Lastly, a plug for our Central Sierra just east of San Joaquin County.  Accessed by Highways 88, 4 and 108, each road takes you high into the Sierra at altitudes up to 10,000 feet where clean air, cool temperatures, pristine lakes, fishing and hiking options abound.  You’ll find special attractions like Calaveras Big Trees, the Arnold Rim Trail, Lake Alpine and Pinecrest Lake, depending upon your route.

Horses from Kennedy Meadows Pack Station, on trail to Relief Reservoir, just off Hwy. 108 in the Sierra.

El Dorado and Stanislaus National Forests encompass this broad area, with campgrounds strung along rivers and lakes like jewels. With the federal America the Beautiful pass, for seniors 62/older, you’ll get free admission to all national parks and half price on most federal campgrounds; it’s just $10 for a lifetime pass!

For more info: Pinnacles National Park,, phone: 831.389.4486; Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,; or phone  559.565.3341; Lassen Volcanic National Park, www.nps/gov/lavo, phone, 530.595.6100; Point Reyes National Seashore,,  (415) 464-5100; for the high Sierra, check the El Dorado and Stanislaus National Forest sites, respectively,, For national parks and forest service campgrounds,, or call 877.444.6777. Purchase the America the Beautiful senior pass in person at NPS units, or on-line,

The America the Beautiful senior pass (for those 62 and older) gets you into national parks for free, and saves you 50% off most federal campgrounds. Just $10 for life, it has probably saved us $1500!

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the westy!


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