Top 5 National Parks in Southern California

National Parks offer more to see in the Los Angeles area than just Hollywood and Disneyland. You can experience captivating landscapes and landmarks all within a few hours’ drive from LA. Whether you’re planning a day trip, a camping trip, or you plan to see them all, these top 5 choices will surprise and amaze you.

1) Joshua Tree National Park

Famous for the Joshua trees with their outstretched arms, this park actually features much, much more. A drive through Joshua Tree has a whimsical feel as you experience a surprise around every turn. You’ll see blooming deserts, “teddy bear” cactus gardens, and rock formations so unusual that you can’t imagine how they formed! Spring is the best time to visit because everything takes its turn to bloom, starting with the Joshua trees’ enormous white flowers from February to late March. Surprising fact: Joshua trees are actually part of the lily family! The park information says that the cactuses in the desert areas bloom in April and May, but my visit in late March seemed to catch the Joshuas and the cactuses in bloom at once. Bring a windbreaker, sunscreen, sunglasses, and sturdy shoes. Expect to spend most of the day, and bring a packed lunch because there aren’t any food stores in the park. Palm Springs is a nice stop for dinner on your way back. Allow about three hours travel time each direction from Los Angeles.

2) Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Rising between Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, this area is a unique opportunity for exercise and inspiration close by. Approaching the mountains from the city, you will travel through grasslands and wildflowers, along the coast of the Santa Monica Bay, and gradually climb to the peak of the mountains where you can overlook the ocean. Hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking give you the chance for a closer look at canyons and the rocky coastline. If you’re a hiker, you’ll love the nearly-completed 65-mile Backbone Trail, the masterpiece the National Park Service has been working on for nearly 35 years. With several Visitor Centers, the Santa Monica Mountains offer a calendar packed with tours and informational programs year-round. For a longer stay, two state parks within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area offer camping.

3) Cabrillo National Monument

A monument named for a 16th century explorer might not sound must-see, but wait until you hear the main attractions! Whale watching tops the list. In the winter months, December through February, you can watch the annual migration of Pacific Gray Whales. Year-round, explore the rocky intertidal area or hike the Bayside Trail through rare coastal sage scrub habitat. The trail, at just two miles long, will treat you to a panorama of San Diego and the bay. Round off your visit with views and a history lesson at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Cabrillo National Monument is about 2 to 3 hours’ drive from Los Angeles.

4) Channel Islands National Park

This group of five coastal islands close to Los Angeles features plants and animals found nowhere else but this tiny, undisturbed chain. Channel Islands National Park provides a respite from the city and offers recreation opportunities like no other, from hiking to birdwatching to snorkeling. Plan ahead for a successful visit– vistor centers are located on the mainland, but the islands are only accessible by boat or plane, both of which are operated by the park with advance reservations. Boating tours are great if you want to see the sights for a few hours or a day. Check out the park website for information about viewing gray whales (December through April) or blue whales (Spring and Summer). If you want to stay longer, there are campgrounds on each of the five islands. Bring your own food and gear! There are no food or gear stores in the park.

5) Mojave National Preserve

At 1.6 million acres, you’re going to need more than a day to see the treasures you’ll find in this desert park. Most captivating to the imagination are the “singing” Kelso Sand Dunes. If you climb to the top of these dunes and run down, you just may be able to hear the booming sound that the sand grains make sliding down the slopes. By foot, by horse, or by four-wheel drive, you can explore canyons, mountains, Joshua tree forests, and lava formations. Dozens of options are available for camping, including campgrounds, wilderness camping, roadside camping in designated areas, and even facilities for camping with your horses! If you must stop by briefly while driving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, the park website gives you suggestions for what to see in a quick stop. Mojave National Preserve is about 2 to 3 hours’ drive from Los Angeles.