Pick Six: Top national parks in California and surrounding states

Ranger explains how massive General Sherman Sequoia is largest tree, by mass, in the world.

Yosemite Falls thunders, with our ’64 Scotty trailer in foreground.
Couple admires Grand Canyon from rim near Moran Point

Wheeler Peak stands over 13,000 feet in Great Basin National Park, studded with ancient Bristlecone Pines.

Our top six picks: The top national parks in California and surrounding states

This week is National Parks Week, with admission to all national parks and monuments FREE through the 29th! Californians are blessed by close proximity to this amazing world; the best of the US and the West is captured for posterity by our national parks.  This week we offer the top six parks within California and the three states surrounding: Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.

Our first thoughts fall to the west’s most-visited national park, Yosemite. While about 90% of visitors cram into the one mile wide, eight mile long Yosemite Valley, real Yosemite explorers suggest touring to lesser known corners of the park, such as hiking along the north shore of Hetch Hetchy Valley (John Muir called it Yosemite’s twin) by crossing the O’Shaunessy Dam, or hiking west along the Tuolumne River from Tuolumne Meadows. Get off the beaten path and discover new wonders in Yosemite’s Sierra wonderland.

Smashing as Yosemite is, don’t overlook nearby dual wonders Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, sharing a common border in the Sierra above Fresno, just 90 miles south of Yosemite. Both parks are home to the mighty Sequoia, with Sequoia’s General Sherman (largest tree in world) and Kings Canyon’s General Grant Grove.  Here you can drive your car under a mighty fallen giant, or tour to the end of Kings Canyon with Mt. Whitney looming in the distance.

Joshua Tree National Park is located east of the Palm Springs area, offering a wild and other-worldly assortment of plant life.  From 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, to Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – alien and hardy creations!

Should you enter Joshua Tree’s north-entrance, you’ll find the home of the park’s namesake Joshua Trees. The route slowly descends in elevation, past old mining roads, through the Jumbo Rocks area (our favorite campground at the Rocks).  Here a jumble of boulders and rock slabs is thrust into the sky like pick-up-sticks – a kid’s wonderland of climbing opportunities. At lower elevations, patches of Ocotillo, the Cholla Cactus Garden and other strange plants appear.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, makes our list, just north of the California border and offering wondrous vistas. Start at the Crater Lake Lodge area on Rim Drive’s southside.  Walking to the crater’s  rim, the first view remains always inspirational.  Crater Lake, which filled a collapsed volcano’s caldera some 7,700 years ago, at 5 miles across and 6 miles long, is the bluest azure blue. Just west across the Cascade range is the lovely town of Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with three theatres staging varied Shakespearian works and more modern plays like those of Tom Stoppard.

Great Basin National Park, Nevada, anchors the majesty of the Great Basin and Range area. To get there, take Hwy. 50, deemed the “Loneliest Road in America”, with wide, open desert valleys, peaks green with foliage due to afternoon thunderstorms, and historic towns, Native American and Pony Express sites sprinkled throughout.

Great Basin National Park is anchored by 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak, second tallest in Nevada. The park offers the solitude of the desert, sagebrush, jack rabbits, mountain lions, mule deer and the darkest of nighttime skies (you’ll clearly see the Milky Way). The allure of Lehman Cave, not the largest but one of the most impressive of caves in the US (Ranger-led tours trek 1,500 feet into the mountain, offering some of the most dramatic caverns, stalactites and stalagmites in the country). The caverns and Bristlecone Pine groves (gnarly trees older than 4,000 years) above 9,800 feet on Wheeler Peak set the park apart from others.

I first visited Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park with my family as a wide-eyed 14 year-old Ohioan, and many times as an adult.  Each visit comes with the jaw-dropping, catch-your-breath amazement that accompanies the first look into that huge, colorful abyss, some 5,000 feet deep in the high desert. Approach the park’s rim at sunrise or just before sunset and find the canyon bathed in stunning hues from the rising/setting sun; below, the Colorado River runs 277 miles through the park’s canyon, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep  – incredible!

The majority of visitors enter the park at the south entrance. The south rim runs for miles, offering unique vistas and history, including the Tusayan Ruins and Museum, chronicling the history of the native people that once made their life on the rim. Take a hike down the Bright Angel Trail, where mules haul people all the way to the canyon bottom – we hiked about a mile down the trail, then had approximately 700 vertical feet to climb out – definitely tougher than the hike down! The town of Williams, 60 miles south, is a featured stop on old Route 66, with blocks of the city center recaptured in their early Route 66 finest.

Lodging/camping: Yosemite Park, Sequoia/Kings Canyon Parks, Crater Lake and Grand Canyon all offer both lovely campgrounds and classic lodges; Joshua Tree and Great Basin offer stunning campgrounds (for overnight motels, check nearby towns).

For more information on any national parks, nps.gov and pick your park.  For camping, Reserveamerica.com; book early, these gems sell out during summertime.
Contact Tim, tviall@msn.com; follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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