Sometimes urban life gets the best of us, and our spirits need some time in nature to recoup and heal. Los Angeles is one of the world’s biggest cities, and it can make a person feel like they’re trapped in an endless urban landscape full of unending traffic jams. It does for me, anyway.
But LA also is a great city for nature lovers, because it is surrounded by some spectacular national parks that make for a wonderful weekend getaway or an epic tour of Southern California’s varied landscapes. For either one, this is your comprehensive guide to the LA National Parks. For a brief run down of the parks, see below:
(1) Joshua Tree National Park: Unique rock formations, plenty of trails, climbing opportunities
(2) Santa Monica: Coastal mountains, urban landscapes, plenty of trails
(3) Sequoia National Park: Giant redwoods, varied landscapes, small mountain towns, plenty of trails
(4) Death Valley National Park: Extreme desert ecosystem, plenty of trails
(5) Mojave: Varied desert landscapes, plenty of trails
Remember to always hike prepared. Bring proper clothing, sturdy shoes, and water/snacks. Bring maps, and when appropriate, let rangers know where you are going. You are always responsible for your own safety while exploring.
Joshua Tree National Park
Distance from LA: 3 hours (132 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 3.5 hours (222 miles)
Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter
Cost: $30 per vehicle
Joshua Tree is probably the most popular of the LA National Parks, particularly in recent years. The park is named for the unique plants that dot that landscape, the illustrious Joshua trees, but I’d say that the rock formations of the park are the big draw for me. It is a famous climbing location, but there is plenty to do here for people with all kinds of interests. For those of you who aren’t big on hiking, there is a beautiful road that you can drive down and see all of the sights. This goes from Yucca Valley in the north to the I-10 in the south, so keep in mind that this is not a loop road in the park, but it can be made into one if you enter from one direction and then head out from the other.
I will list three of my favorite hikes in the park below, but some other spots that you really should check out on your drive are Keys View, White Tank, and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Keys will bring you up high enough in the mountains to see Palm Springs, and it is a great view of the surrounding mountains, as well. Arch Rock is amid some lovely rock formations where you can stop for a leisurely lunch and stroll. For those of you that have never seen a Cholla, the cactus garden is for you, but please, please stay on the trails here. Stepping on the roots of cholla over and over can hurt them, and they are also dangerous for you (so spiny!). Keep a respectful distance.
Cottonwood Spring Trails
These trails will give you a pretty easy stroll through the ecosystem that Palm Springs is named for; wild springs with massive, wild palms growing around them. There are also some mining remnants that have left a lasting impact on both the landscape and history of the area. There is some incline on these trails, but not much, and there is a large spring near the trailhead. So, this is a great place to stop whether you are a hiking enthusiast or not.
If you are looking to gain some elevation without committing to a big hike for a summit in the valley, Ryan Mountain is a great trail. It is only 3 miles (out and back) but you will pack on about 1,050 feet, so it is a great workout. The mountain is also located in the center of the valley so the views from the trek up and at the top are absolutely amazing- you can just about see the whole park from up there.
The Hidden Valley loop is a MUST-DO trail for any one that can make the walk. It is a short 1-mile loop, and it will take you through a narrow passage of massive rock formations into another world. Hidden Valley will make you forget that there is a larger valley surrounding you and the city will be the furthest thing from your mind while you are there. This place was once used by ranchers as a nature pen for cattle, but now it is a peaceful place for visitors of all kinds. That being said, Hidden Valley is easily accessible from the road, so this is one of the most crowded trails.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Distance from LA: 1.5 hours (39.1 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (418 miles)
Best Seasons: All
WOOLSEY FIRE: Currently, some big patches of the SMNRA are closed due to the Woolsey Fire. Please consult with the National Park website for up-to-date information on what is open.
The Santa Monica Mountains are a wall of stone and wilderness between LA and the coast to the west. So, they are a great place to escape the stress of the city, and view the ocean from above. I also love exploring them in order to understand more about what this place looked like before people came and changed everything. This is really a great place for hikers, despite the closeness of the park to the city. For long distance hikers, the Backbone trail is 67 miles through the mountains.
Solstice Canyon Trail
This trails follows a canyon up into the mountains toward the historic Roberts Ranch. When I was here, not only was there water running in the canyon, but there were parrots playing in the boughs and whizzing through the air. This is a great hike for anyone that can deal with some incline and wants to explore the interior of the Santa Monica Mountains. This is just a 2.1-mile round trip (out and back), but there are plenty of other trails in the area to explore if you need to stretch your legs more.
Sandstone Peak Area
Sandstone Peak is the high point of the Santa Monica Mountains, and there are miles and miles of great trails in this area. This hike is a bit more difficult, so as much as I love the views up there, I would not suggest this area for people that aren’t comfortable with heights, steep inclines, and rough terrain. We did a loop in this area and ended up hiking for about 6 miles. You could go for longer, or summit and then turn around for a shorter hike. This is honestly the best place to get a sweeping view of the mountains in all directions.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Distance from LA: 4 hours (210 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 9 hours (574 miles)
Best Seasons: Late spring, summer, early fall (Chains required with snow)
Cost: $35 per car
Unfortunately for me, I did not have the opportunity to explore Kings Canyon when I visited the LA National Parks, due to snow, but Sequoia is a wonderful place to visit. As its name implies, there is a beautiful forest of giant redwoods here, but there is so much more, as well. At the entrance of the park, there are sweeping landscapes of grasslands and rolling hills that are in stark contrast to the forests that the road will begin to climb up through after you pass through the small town at the base of the park. (Be sure to stop here for food, or consider staying in one of the small lodges). After that, the road follows the canyon until it begins weaving its way up into the mountains that are crowned by the redwood forest. Be aware that several roads in this area are closed during the winter, so you may want to avoid it during this time. If you do visit when there is snow, you need have either four-wheel drive or chains.
Be sure to check out hospital rock with its beautiful petroglyphs, and of course, the stunning redwoods. The General Sherman tree area is a particularly great place to experience the majesty of redwoods on foot. Be on the lookout for signs asking you to keep your distance from some of the trees to protect their roots. Remember that these ancient trees are more important than your photo (you can always edit a photo to make it look more dramatic without hurting any trees).
Death Valley National Park
Distance from LA: 4 hours (215 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (402 miles)
Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter
Cost: $30 per vehicle for 7 days
Death Valley is many things, including the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States, but don’t let its name and these things scare you off. Death Valley is an absolutely breathtaking LA National Park with desert landscapes that are as unreal as they are harsh. I grew up and live in a desert, but I have never seen somewhere as stark at Death Valley. In fact, this might be one of my favorite national parks with the power to pull me back just like the Grand Canyon, and the Channel Islands.
There is just something about the painted, dead mountains and cracked, salty bottom of the valley that speaks to both the majesty and danger of nature. When you drive through, be sure to stop at the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village, take Artists Drive through the Artists Palette, stop at the salt flats of Badwater Basin, and make time to spend sunset at Dante’s View. If you are a hardcore hiker/enjoy four-wheeling, I would also suggest trying to come with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, as there are many dirt roads in the park. It should go without saying, but be extra careful about having enough water in this park while exploring, and watch your car’s gas levels and monitor any issues with overheating. This place is no joke.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
You can easily view the Mesquite Sand Dunes from your car or from the parking lot, but I really enjoyed trekking out into the sand towards the largest dune in sight. Of course, there was a fair amount of sand to be poured out from my shoes on a regular basis, but I think that there is no better way to experience the dunes than by immersing yourself in them. There isn’t really a trail here, so you can wander where you’d like and for as long as you’d like.
Again, you can just view the crater from the parking lot, but I think you will get a lot more out of the 1.5-mile trail that loops around the crater. Not only will you get to view this beautiful place from all angles, but you will get some wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, too. This is one of the northernmost places that you can easily access with all vehicle types in the park. You might also be ambitious enough to hike down into the crater, but be forewarned, it is quite steep.
The entire time that I was in Death Valley, I was enchanted by the canyons that snaked away into the skeletal mountains of the valley – these places that seemed utterly without life. Golden Canyon Trail, which links to a variety of trails, was a great way to get a taste of the heart of the most characteristic mountains of the valley. The canyon itself could be home on any dead and rocky planet like Mars, and the vibrant colors of the rock make it seem even more otherworldly. There are also breathtaking sandstone formations on the trail such as the Red Cathedral and the Manly Beacon. When we did this hike, we made a loop of Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch, which was around 3 miles in length.
Mojave National Preserve
Distance from LA: 4 hours (177 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 4.5 hours (252 miles)
Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter
The Mojave National Preserve is one of the more secluded parks on this list. Although it is not quite as far from the city as some of the other LA National Parks, it is far less visited. That being said, it has an amazing variety of landscapes and offers some of the same draws as the other places on this list, including Joshua Trees and a huge stretch of sand dunes. The Mojave National Preserve is also home to some completely unique places, and the historic Kelso train depot, making it well worth visiting in its own right.
Teutonia Peak Trail
This short, 3-mile out and back trail will introduce you to the unique desert of Mojave. This is especially striking if you have seen Joshua Tree NP recently, as there are Joshua Trees here but they are markedly different than those of the other park. As you approach Teutonia Peak, you will have the opportunity to walk through a forest of these unique plants, and you will also be rewarded with a sweeping view of the Cima dome on your way up the mountain. Unfortunately, the end of the trail was unclear to us when we visited, so I can’t say much for the summit itself. Even so, I think this was a great place to get a taste of why this national preserve is so special, while also getting a sense for what connects it to the other places in this list.
Hole in the Wall and the Rings Trail
I loved this trail because of the beautiful rock formation that you get to explore while taking it, and also because of its unique character. At the beginning or end of the trail (depending on which way you start) you will be required to climb down steep stone passageways by clinging onto large metal rings that form ladders in the rock. As you can imagine, this wouldn’t be a great activity for people with a fear of heights, or at any time when the metal might get hot in the sun. However, if you’d like to avoid the rings but still see the rock formations, you can hike in from the other direction and just stop as soon as the rings appear.