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National parks of the great Pacific Southwest extend from California all the way to the Samoa islands, which are closer to Australia than the U.S. This guide will detail a route doable mostly by car, and one short boat ride, but American Samoa, Hawaii Volcanoes and Maui’s Haleakala National Park should certainly be explored at some point in your lifetime. Get ready to see intensely diverse terrain, from rugged desert to mountainous wonderland, along this epic road trip (mostly) through this stunning portion of North America. Get your playlist ready, because this epic road trip is 19 hours of drive time, not including park exploration.
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Yosemite National Park
Yosemite—you hear its name maybe more often than most, because of its unmistakable grandeur. Turbulent waterfalls that seem to fall forever, dramatic granite rock and some of the most immersive hiking terrain have been preserved as a National Park for well over a century. Tiago Road likely offers the most gorgeous glimpses if limited to only your car, but taking a few hikes over the course of three or so days is suggested by experts. Like many parks, Yosemite is ladened with wildlife and dicey terrain, so consider a pro guide to ensure a safe adventure.
Pinnacles National Park
Ultimately you might choose to reroute and take on another park first, but we are going to take the three-hour jaunt to Pinnacles National Park right out of the gate. This might be one of the few National Parks that is moving—you read that right. The geologically fascinating volcanic peaks lie along San Andreas Fault, and tectonic shifts have been ever so slightly pushing the park’s main feature a little at a time. Since the east and west entrances don’t connect, Pinnacles National Park is primarily a hiking destination. One campground resides here, but numerous marked trails ranging from somewhat easy to ridiculously hard await. Be extremely cautious when doing any type of climbing, and seek professional guidance. Volcanic rock is soft and porous–this can be dangerous.
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
Kings Canyon and Sequoia are two parks fused together and technically operating as one. Less than four hours away, it is all about record-breaking sites here, from towering mountain peaks to enormous Sequoia trees that only grow in very specific groves. You’ll find a long list of outdoor activities to enjoy, from extreme rock climbing, cave exploration to peaceful hikes, the extensive wilderness welcomes all. General Highway is the fast track through the park for those on a tight schedule (it could be a one-day activity). But National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks of the United States recommends taking a few days to travel Kings Canyon Scenic Byway which goes by some of the park’s best sites and delves overall much further into many of the most special spots.
Death Valley National Park
Five hours away, Death Valley National Park lives up to its name with scorching temperatures and mere drops of water sizzling onto its barren landscape through the year. Record-breaking temperatures have been recorded here, so maybe it’s the spot to destroy those winter blues. Somehow, despite its inhospitable presentation, Death Valley is totally striking and an exciting destination for adventurers, and a depiction of how the harshness of nature can suddenly create something artistically beautiful. Badwater, the lowest place on the continent, is almost 300 feet below sea level, and is accessible via Badwater Road. Several camping options, both near the visitors center and more remote in the hills, are offered year round. Late spring is particularly a good time to come.
Channel Islands National Park
Ventura, California may feel like a world away from Death Valley, but its just a little under five hours by car. Afterward, the Channel Islands can be reached by boat. Five islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara present prime nature opportunity, far away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. While dozens of campsites are available to visitors, traveling to one of these rocky chunks of land can be a day trip. Snorkeling, kayaking and hiking are among the allure of making the one hour plus (depending on the island) journey to Channel Island National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park
Three and a half hours east you’ll discover Joshua Tree National Park, famed for the unusual trees that grow in the higher portion of the park’s north territory—in the shadows, the crooked foliage somewhat resembles creatures from Monsters Inc. Separated into two distinct environments, high and low desert, more otherworldly plants are to be discovered along the backdrop of boulders and mountains. Park Boulevard is a main vein through Joshua Tree, but the National Geographic guide suggests spending more than one day, to add on Pinto Basin Road. Joshua Tree is an appropriately iconic spot to round out the trip.