Epic National Parks Road Trips – Heart of California Road Trip

LAST UPDATED: 5/25/23 – Heart of California Road Trip

When it comes to travel, there are few things more American than epic road trips and national parks.  Americans have been hitting the open road on their family vacations for decades. And when they do, the most popular destinations are the country’s beautiful national parklands.

In the spirit of both of these American cultural mainstays, I have put together a series of road trip itineraries. These road trips are certain to bring your family together to make memories that will last for a lifetime.

California Road Trip - Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

In this five-part series, I will lay out a series of road trips for you to explore. These road trips take you thru some of the most stunning national parklands in the country. If you are looking for a mountain adventure, there is an itinerary that will be right up your alley.

For those looking for a desert escape, I have an itinerary that will blow your mind. And for those looking to explore America’s incredible coastline, there is an itinerary you will never forget. The beauty is, there is an itinerary for everyone to enjoy! From the incredible Rockies to the magnificent canyons of Utah, to the coast of Oregon, these have it all.

Heart of California Road Trip

California Road Trip - Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument

In my final national park road trip post, I will take you thru the heart of California. This itinerary highlight some of the best national parklands that the state has to offer. Not only is California one of America’s largest states, but it is also one of the most beautiful.

For that reason, it should be of no surprise that California has so many national parks. In fact, it is tied with Alaska for the most national parks of any state with a whopping eight parklands.

You Will Start Your Adventure in San Francisco

To begin the road trip, you will fly into beautiful San Francisco, California. It is here that you will rent a car and begin your amazing California road trip. If you have time, add a few extra days to your itinerary to explore the city. Believe me, there are so many incredible things to see and do, you won’t regret it.

Leaving the city, you will head a short distance to one of the area’s most scenic spots. Muir Woods National Monument is home to some of the largest Redwood trees in the United States. Get ready, because you will be blown away by how tall these trees can get.

Take your time exploring Muir Woods and the surrounding coastline. In addition to the Redwood trees, the area also has an abundance of other incredible sights to see.

This includes Muir Beach, the Marine Mammal Center, Point Bonita Lighthouse, and Point Reyes National Seashore. When you have finished exploring Muir Woods, it will be time to head South along the coast. Your next stop will be the amazing Pinnacles National Park.

Keep Your Eyes Out for Condors in Pinnacles

Pinnacles National Park has some of the most beautiful rock formations in the state of California.  In many ways, it reminds me of Bryce Canyon National Park in Southern Utah.  Have your camera ready as you will definitely want to photograph the beautiful landscapes inside the park.  When you are done enjoying the scenery in Pinnacles, you will head to the most well-known national park in California.

Marvel at the Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park has been on the world radar ever since the famous conservationist John Muir wrote about its beautiful valley and massive granite rock faces over a century ago.  Today, Yosemite National Park is one of the most prolific rock-climbing destinations in the world. 

It is also home to some massive Sequoia tree groves, which adds to the allure of this amazing park.  You will want to spend at least a few days exploring Yosemite National Park before moving South to your next stop at Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

California Road Trip - Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

Stand Amongst Giants in Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Some of the biggest trees in the world are located in Sequoia National Park and you will marvel at the girth of these giants when you visit Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.  The parks are in very close proximity to each other, so spending a few days in the area to explore is recommended.  When you have finished exploring, you will head further South towards Santa Barbara, California and the Channel Islands National Park.

Spot Whales and Sea Life in the Channel Islands

The Channel Islands are known for their abundance of marine wildlife.  There are a plethora of tours that will take you around the islands, and some will even let you stop and hike on the islands themselves.  I would strongly recommend spending some time on the ocean to see the wildlife, with whale watching tours being one of the most popular options.

Enjoy the Beauty of the Desert in Joshua Tree and Death Valley

When you have had your fill of the Channel Islands, you will next head due East to the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park.  Renowned for its high concentration of beautiful Joshua Trees and the unusual rock formations that scatter its landscape, Joshua Tree National Park is one of America’s most beautiful desert parks.  If you are up for some adventure, you can even try your hand at some rock climbing, which is what the park is world renown for.

The final park on your California road trip is certainly not the least famous.  Death Valley National Park, which lies on the California and Nevada Border and is one of the lowest places on Earth.  Known the world over for its scorching hot temperatures, extremely dry climate, and beautiful desert landscape, Death Valley is a treat for park enthusiasts.

When you have wrapped up your visit to Death Valley National Park, you will head across the border into Nevada towards Las Vegas where you will finish your trip.  You will return your rental car and fly home, but not until after you have enjoyed some time in Las Vegas.  In addition to the Vegas strip, the Las Vegas area has an abundance of other activities for tourists to enjoy.

Considering the fact that the California road trip includes roughly 27 hours of driving, I would recommend planning to spend at least 12 days on this trip, if not a full two weeks.  You are going to want to spend ample time at some of the bigger parks, especially if you want to do some hiking and see everything the parks have to offer.


Day 1 – San Francisco and Muir Woods National Monument

California Road Trip - Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument

After arriving in San Francisco and spending some time to see the city, you will head just North of the city to Muir Woods National Monument.  Muir Woods has some of the tallest Redwood Trees in North America, so prepared to be amazed by their size and beauty. 

I would suggest planning to spend an entire day the Muir Woods as there is quite a bit to do in the area.  In addition to Muir Woods, the adjacent Point Reyes National Seashore is beautiful and worth seeing as well.

Drive Time:  45-minute drive from San Francisco to Muir Woods National Monument

Day 2 – Pinnacles National Park

California Road Trip - Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park

After exploring the Muir Woods National Monument and surrounding area, you will next head South to Pinnacles National Park.  Pinnacles National Park protects some of the most breathtaking coastal mountains that you will see in North America and includes some of the most beautiful rock formations that you will see outside of Bryce Canyon National Park.  It is also one of the newest national parks in the United States as it only became national parkland in 2013.

Drive Time:  3-hour drive from Muir Woods to Pinnacles National Park

Day 3-5 – Yosemite National Park

California Road Trip - Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

The next stop on the itinerary is to one of the United States’ oldest and most famous national parks, and certainly one of its most beautiful as well.  Yosemite National Park is world renowned for its gigantic granite rock faces, which climbers from all over the world come to Yosemite to climb. 

The park also offers some of the most magnificent hiking routes in the United States, with the legendary John Muir Trail going thru some of the most beautiful sections of the park.  I would suggest spending at least a few days in Yosemite as there is so much to see and do in the park.

Drive Time:  4-hour drive from Pinnacles to Yosemite National Park

Day 6 – Kings Canyon National Park

California Road Trip - King's Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park

After visiting Yosemite, you will turn South and head towards Kings Canyon National Park.  In Kings Canyon, you will find a number of old growth Sequoia tree groves.  These are some of the largest trees in the world and will make your jaw drop when you see how big they are in person. 

Make sure you stop by the gigantic General Grant Tree in Grant Grove and check out the Cedar Grove, which is surrounded by towering granite canyon walls.  Kings Canyon is in close proximity to your next stop, which is Sequoia National Park so I would suggest finding lodging in between the parks.

Drive Time:  3-hour and 30-minute drive from Yosemite to Kings Canyon National Park

Day 7 – Sequoia National Park

California Road Trip - Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park

If you didn’t get your fill of humongous old growth Sequoia trees in Kinds Canyon, fear not because Sequoia National Park has some of the oldest and largest in North America.  When you visit Sequoia, make sure you check out General Sherman Grove, the underground crystal cave, and climb Moro Rock, which allows you to see for miles inside the park. 

I would also make sure that you drive thru the tunnel tree, which is an amazing experience.  When you are finished exploring the park, you will head South towards Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.

Drive Time:  15-minute drive from Kings Canyon to Sequoia National Park

Day 8 – Channel Islands National Park

California Road Trip - Channel Islands
Whale off of Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands National Park is one of the United States’ most unique national parks and is the next stop on your California road trip.  To tour the park, you are going to want to book a tour with one of the local tour companies.  I would strongly recommend Island Packers Cruises as they have some really amazing tour packages.  They have tour packages that access the islands as well as cruises to view the marine wildlife such as whale watching cruises.

Drive Time:  4-hour drive from Sequoia National Park to Santa Barbara, California

Day 9-10 – Joshua Tree National Park

California Road Trip - Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

Once you have had your fill of amazing boat rides and marine wildlife, you will head East and travel inland towards Joshua Tree National Park.  Joshua Tree National Park is one of the United States’ most underrated national parks in terms of its beauty and the number of adventure activities available. 

This beautiful desert landscape is home to the highest concentration of Joshua Trees in North America and is also a premier rock-climbing destination.  If you are looking for a rock-climbing guide in the Joshua Tree area, there are plenty of good ones available.

Drive Time:  3-hour and 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara to Joshua Tree

Day 11-12 – Death Valley National Park

California Road Trip - Death Valley
Death Valley National Park

The last national park stop on your California road trip is one of the United States’ most well-known parks that is located in one of this world’s most well-known deserts.  After visiting beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, you will head back North and towards the Nevada Border. 

Here you will stop at Death Valley National Park.  As one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth, Death Valley has a mean reputation.  However, it is also incredibly beautiful.  Make sure you take enough time to explore the park, but also make sure you have plenty of water on you at all times.

Drive Time:  4-hour drive from Joshua Tree to Death Valley National P ark

Day 13 – Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada

After exploring Death Valley, you will head East to Las Vegas, Nevada where you will conclude your trip.  You will return your rental car and catch a flight home, but not until after taking a day or two to explore this exciting city.  In addition to gambling, Las Vegas also offers a wide range of exciting shoes, some premier golf courses, and many other exciting things to do.

Drive Time:  2-hour drive from Death Valley to Las Vegas, Nevada

Best Time to Go

California Road Trip - Yosemite
Yosemite National Park

While this California road trip is a trip that you can take all year-round, there are some months of the year that are better than others.  For instance, if you take the trip during the summer months of June thru August, you will have to deal with scorching hot temperatures in Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks. 

However, if you decide to take the trip in the Winter months of December thru February, you may have to deal with snow in the alpine sections of Yosemite and King’s Canyon national parks.

For these reasons, I would suggest you look at taking this California road trip either during the Spring months of March thru May or the Autumn months of September thru November.  You will have much more moderate temperatures in the desert parks, and you are less likely to get snowed out of the mountain parks.

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Categories: California, National Parks Itineraries, North America, North America Travel Itineraries, Pacific Parks, Pacific Parks Itineraries, Road Trips, Travel, United StatesTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. A great post with beautiful pictures. I’d never heard of a few of those parks – Pinnacles and Channel Islands in particular – so thanks for bringing me up to speed.

    • No problem! I was supposed to go to the Channel Islands when in Cali, but weather didn’t permit. Amazing whale watching. If you visit, go during blue whale season. My brother says it is absolutely incredible.

  2. I want to tut-tut you for not including a drive through Big Sur, but that would add at least one additional day.

    Either way, fantastic post!

  3. Love all your posts and followed your blog for such future posts. I have also started blogging recently and would be happy if you could visit my blog and show some love and support. Looking forward to your feedback on my content and I hope to earn a new follower today.

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