Parks and Recreation
The Best of California’s National Parks
- Written byBonnie Graves
As if it weren’t enough to have more than 800 miles of stunning Pacific coastline, California also leads the country with more national park outposts than any other state. From the towering redwoods of the North Coast and Lassen’s jagged volcanic peaks to the frolicking dolphins of the Channel Islands and the desolate beauty of Death Valley’s Panamint Springs, we are blessed with an unparalleled wealth of federally preserved natural treasures. Not sure what to do for your next weekend adventure? Buy an annual national parks pass for you and your family, stick it in your glove compartment and gas up the car. At only $80 for the year, this precious piece of plastic is your ticket to outdoor splendor and memories to last a lifetime.
Desert Wildflowers in Joshua Tree National Park
The old cliché of the desert as a barren wasteland is laid to rest each spring when Joshua Tree National Park explodes in wildflowers. While the timing of the bloom varies with winter precipitation, March and April are typically peak viewing months. There are two distinct desert microclimates that intersect within the park’s boundaries—the Colorado desert dominates the eastern half, with its hallmark creosote bush, while the western half is Mojave desert, a slightly cooler and wetter climate in which the eponymous Joshua tree flourishes. When spring conditions are optimal, Joshua Tree National Park becomes an incredible tapestry of color. Whether you hike with an expert naturalist or simply enjoy the view from your car window, be sure to check the wildflower hotline at the park to pick the best weekend for wildflower splendor. (nps.gov/jotr)
Drive time from Los Angeles: 2¾ to 3 hours, depending on traffic and point of entry to park.
Where to Stay: Sacred Sands (63155 Quail Springs Road in Joshua Tree National Park. 760-424-6407, sacredsands.com)
This amazing retreat, just a mile outside the park, has quickly become the cognoscenti’s desert getaway. Owners Scott and Steve will go out of their way to make sure this quietly luxurious bed and breakfast becomes your own private Zen paradise. $299 per night with two-night minimum stay.
Where to Eat: Bistro Twenty-Nine (73527 29 Palms Highway in Twentynine Palms. 760-361-2229, bistrotwentynine.com)
You might not expect to find great restaurants out in the remote desert community of Twentynine Palms, but this lovely little bistro is so much better than it has any need to be. Order the brown sugar spiced pork chops with ginger chutney and a bottle of Erath pinot noir after a long day of hiking and save a bit of room for the grilled pound cake with chocolate sauce.
Family Whitewater Rafting and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks
For many Californian families, no photo album is complete without the prerequisite vacation shot in front of the legendary General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park. Estimated to be nearly 3,000 years old and reaching a height of 275 feet, it’s an awesome, ancient sentinel that must be seen to be believed. Sequoia and its sister park, the jaw-droppingly scenic Kings Canyon, remain less trafficked than their more famous neighbor to the north, Yosemite. A particularly fun weekend in the area includes whitewater rafting on the Kings River, from which the park takes its name. The Kings isn’t as technically challenging as other nearby rivers but still packs plenty of rapids for late spring and early summer adventure.(nps.gov/seki)
Drive time from Los Angeles: 4½ hours, depending on traffic and point of entry to parks.
Where to Stay: The John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon is ideally situated to take advantage of both parks. Open year-round and with new enhancements like WiFi, it’s a rustic, old-school national park experience with affordable room rates that make it quite popular. Be sure to book ahead, especially if you’re traveling with children, and take a moment to toast Mr. Muir, without whom most of our California parks wouldn’t exist. (559-355-5900, sequoia-kingscanyon.com)
Where to Eat: The Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park is the most ambitious dining option along the meandering park roads and is open year-round, unlike other food service outlets in the parks. It’s not haute cuisine but offers great family fare with earnest service so you can grab breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on your ultimate destination. Check driving times and pass on alcohol if you’re not also staying at Wuksachi, as the roads are treacherous after dark. (visitsequoia.com/dining.aspx)
Christmas in Yosemite
Ah, Yosemite. Only Yellowstone in Wyoming or the Grand Canyon in Arizona can begin to rival its summertime traffic jams and influx of camera-toting tourists. Here’s a hot tip: go at Christmas, splurge on a room at the Ahwahnee and enjoy Yosemite in its winter splendor. The best part of Christmas in Yosemite is the legendary Bracebridge Dinner at Ahwahnee, a once-in-a-lifetime, four-hour feast that is an homage to medieval England. Begun in 1927 and based on Washington Irving’s short story “Old Christmas,” a lesser-known local named Ansel Adams later reworked the script and music that is still performed to this day. Like climbing the Eiffel Tower and seeing the Great Wall, the Bracebridge Dinner should be on your bucket list. It’s incredible. Expect a waiting list of a few years!
Drive time from Los Angeles: 5½ to 6 hours, depending on traffic.
Where to Stay / Where to Eat: The Ahwahnee Lodge at Yosemite National Park. (yosemitepark.com/Accommodations_TheAhwahnee.aspx and bracebridgedinners.com)