Delightful diversity. Creating a list of natural features of the West Coast national parks is like randomly drawing words from a hat and making a sentence. Glaciated mountain peaks and giant sequoia trees. Active volcanos and pristine alpine lakes. Unforgiving deserts and lush valleys.

And the range of outdoor recreation is just as plentiful. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, driving, rock climbing, and stargazing. Pick any action verb, and there is most likely a place to do it in a West Coast national park.

Beyond the diversity of natural features and outdoor recreation, the West Coast played an important role in creating the National Park Service. Less than 30 years after California was admitted to the Union, the state was the origin of the national park idea. Following the precedent of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, the first national park was established.

Four of the five oldest national parks in the country were established on the West Coast – Sequoia, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake.

The West Coast states have a reputation for outstanding national parks – and they’ve earned it. Redwood trees tower over the landscape, and giant sequoia trees are as wide as a cabin. Snow-capped mountains covered in glistening glaciers loom over valleys lush with wildflowers. Crystal clear water from the deepest lakes flows to the rugged coastline.

It would be possible to spend a lifetime exploring the 13 West Coast national parks. Which one will be your next outdoor adventure?

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West Coast National Parks Map

What is the “West Coast?”

The English language has aged like a pair of well-worn gloves – loose and no longer fitting in just the right places. When I wrote an article about East Coast national parks, I had to define “east coast” because other lists included parks a thousand miles from the coast.

Now, I’m doing the same for the “west coast.”

I think any West Coast state should include the shoreline. That makes it easy on that side of the country – California, Oregon, and Washington. I didn’t include Alaska because that needs to be its own article in the future.

After finishing this list, I might create a round-up of national parks in the “west” just as soon as I’ve defined that region.

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Photo courtesy of NPS.

No. 1

Channel Islands National Park

Aside from two visitor centers, the entirety of Channel Islands National Park is spread across five spectacular islands. No highways across the islands – you’ll have to explore this national park on foot.

The sightseeing begins as soon as the boat leaves the dock. Island Packers, the national parks approved concessionaire, offers boat trips to Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands year-round and the other three islands seasonally. Pack food, drinks, appropriate footwear, and bring your favorite outdoor gear for adventures on the islands.

On the islands, visitors can explore trails and climb the highest peak for stunning views. Kayaking and snorkeling are two of the most popular activities on the water.

Ventura, California | 805-658-5730 | www.nps.gov/chis

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Photo courtesy of NPS.

No. 2

Crater Lake National Park

7,700 years ago, Native Americans witnessed a violent volcano eruption that caused Mount Mazama to collapse – forming Crater Lake. At 1,943-feet, it’s the deepest lake in the country and one of the ten deepest in the world. Fed entirely by rain and melted snow, the water is pristine and clear nearly 100 feet below the surface.

Crater Lake National Park is Oregon’s only national park. Covering 180,000 acres across the Cascade Ridge Mountains, the national park protects the lake and offers plentiful outdoor recreation.

The Cleetwood Cove Trail is a popular hike in the national park, leading to the edge of Crater Lake. The strenuous 1.1-mile trail descends 700-feet from the parking area along East Rim Drive. An easier way to enjoy the scenery in the national park is the 33-mile Rim Drive. Thirty overlooks with plenty of parking offers a chance to step out of the car and immediately take in the view.

Crater Lake, Oregon | 541-594-3000 | www.nps.gov/crla

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A snow-capped Telescope Peak looms over Badwater Road in Death Valley National Park. Photo courtesy of NPS/Kurt Moses.

No. 3

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is the country’s hottest, lowest, and driest place. And at 3.4-million acres, it’s the largest national park in the continental United States. It’s an unforgiving environment but a breathtaking place to visit.

The national park has few trails but over 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads. Four-wheel drive vehicles are required to explore many of the backcountry roads. All cars can drive the Artists Palette Scenic Loop, a one-way road through a particularly beautiful area of the national park. Zabriskie Point is the best place to watch sunrise or sunset, and Dante’s View offers one of the most spectacular overlooks in the national park.

Death Valley National Park is a “Gold Tier” rated International Dark Sky Park. The national park is open twenty-four hours a day, so anyone can visit at night – just remember to pack a great travel telescope.

Death Valley, California | 760-786-3200 | www.nps.gov/deva

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Photo courtesy of NPS/Robb Hannawacker.

No. 4

Joshua Tree National Park

In southern California, the fascinating collision of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert is preserved in Joshua Tree National Park. The eponymous trees feature oddly shaped limbs and tough green leaves.

Backpacking and hiking are popular activities in the 792,000-acre national park. The 1.7-mile Skull Rock Trail features a trip to the trail’s namesake. The 1.1-mile Barker Dam Trail features bighorn sheep and a water tank built by early cattle ranchers. The 4-mile Lost Horse Mine Trail leads to a preserved mill from the early gold rush days. Climbers, boulderers, and highliners from around the world visit Joshua Tree National Park to tackle the 8,000 climbing routes.

Backcountry roads spread across the park, allowing four-wheel-drive vehicles to leave the pavement behind. The 18-mile Geology Tour Road is the most popular route in the national park. The road passes through a fascinating landscape with scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and climbing routes.

In 2017, Joshua Tree National Park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park. Pack your travel telescope and get ready for a night of stargazing in southern California.

Twentynine Palms, California | 760-367-5500 | www.nps.gov/jotr

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View of Kings Canyon from Lookout Peak. Photo courtesy of NPS/Rick Cain.

No. 5

Kings Canyon National Park

Kings Canyon National Park was established in 1940, incorporating General Grant National Park into the new national park’s boundaries.

Towering 267-feet tall and 29-feet in diameter at the ground, the General Sherman Tree is the largest sequoia tree in the national park. It’s the site of the annual “Trek to the Tree,” a Christmas event started by the Sanger Chamber of Commerce in 1926. During a 1956 ceremony attended by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, President Eisenhower declared the General Sherman Tree a National Shrine – it’s the only living shrine in the country.

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Generals Highway from the Lodgepole Visitor Center to Grant Grove, the location of the General Grant Tree, is one of the scenic drives through Kings Canyon National Park. The 28-mile paved route includes a few overlooks at meadows and mountains, including the Kings Canyon Overlook with a sweeping view of the national park.

Highway 180 is another popular driving route, although it leaves the national park’s boundaries for a majority of the 35-mile route. The paved road includes peaceful meadows, waterfalls, and stunning scenic overlooks along the way.

Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have been administered together with a single admission fee.

Three Rivers, California | 559 565-3341 | www.nps.gov/seki

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Photo courtesy of NPS/Victoria Stauffenberg.

No. 6

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Three hours from Sacramento and Carson City and an hour from the nearest interstate highway, Lassen Volcanic National Park is remote. The national park preserves 106,000 acres of jagged mountain peaks, steaming fumaroles, and alpine lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California.

More than 150 miles of hiking trails provide access to the natural wonders of the national park. The 1.7-mile Manzanita Lake Trail is an easy hike around the lake with views of Lassen Peak. The 2.3-mile Kings Creek Falls Trail is a strenuous hike with a 700-foot elevation change that features an overlook at the 30-foot cascading waterfall. One of the most popular trails in the park is the 3-mile Bumpass Hell Trail. With only a 200-foot elevation change on a packed gravel path, the trail explores the largest area of hydrothermal vents in the park.

Fishing, boating, and swimming are popular activities on the alpine lakes. Although not a certified dark sky park, Lassen Volcanic National Park is popular for stargazing and is home to the annual Dark Sky Festival.

The 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Highway is the best way to experience the entire national park. The two-lane paved road connects the northwest and southwest entrances, passing through the park. The road features scenic views of the alpine lakes, valleys, and mountain peaks and access to hiking trails.

Mineral, California | 530 595-4480 | www.nps.gov/lavo

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Photo courtesy of NPS.

No. 7

Mount Rainier National Park

Towering 14,410-feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the most glaciated mountain in the continental United States. And it’s also an active volcano.

Established in 1899, Mount Rainier National Park was the country’s fourth national park. Sprawling across 236,000-feet two hours southeast of Seattle, the park features hiking trails, rock climbing, and scenic drives.

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The 5.5-mile Skyline Trail is one of the most popular in the national park. The strenuous trail features a 1,700-foot elevation change as it winds along the ridges and descends into Paradise Valley. The trail features stunning views of Mount Rainier and Nisqually Glacier. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653-mile national scenic trail, passes through the eastern part of the national park – Tipsoo Lake is a good day hike area on the trail.

Paradise Valley is arguably the most gorgeous place to visit in Mount Rainier National Park. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center is centrally located in the valley, making it the perfect place for day hiking. Wildflowers cover the valley in a beautiful tapestry of vibrant colors during the spring and summer months. During the winter months, 54-feet of annual snow cover the valley, transforming it into a popular place for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding.

At 6,400-feet in elevation, Sunrise is the highest point in the park that anyone can drive. A visitor center, comfort station, and picnic area make it a great place to spend a few hours.

Ashford, Washington | 360 569-2211 | www.nps.gov/mora

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Photo courtesy of NPS/Michael Liang.

No. 8

North Cascades National Park

Over 300 glaciers cover the alpine landscape of North Cascades National Park, about three hours north of Seattle. It’s a lightly trafficked national park, which means you’ll have fewer people to contend with on the trails.

The national park features dozens of hiking trails ranging from accessible boardwalk trails to strenuous hikes across the jagged peaks. The 2-mile Happy Creek Forest Walk is one of the easiest in the park and features a waterfall. The 3.6-mile Thunder Knob Trail is a moderate hike with views of Diablo Lake. The 3.7-mile Cascade Pass Trail is one of the most popular in the national park – the strenuous hike includes a 1,700-foot elevation change and spectacular views.

Horseback riding, rock climbing, and bicycling are other popular outdoor activities in the national park.

The 30-mile North Cascades Highway is a great way to see the national park’s old-growth forests and mountain views. It’s the only road that passes through the entire park, connecting the campgrounds, visitor centers, and hiking trails.

Sedro-Woolley, Washington | 360 854-7200 | www.nps.gov/noca

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Photo courtesy of NPS.

No. 9

Olympic National Park

Spread across 922,000 acres and 70 miles of coastline, Olympic National Park offers one of the country’s most diverse national park experiences. The largest temperate rainforest in North America, secluded Pacific Ocean beaches, and glacier-capped mountains are all within reach with a visit to this Washington national park.

Kayak the Class II-V rivers or opt for a peaceful evening on one of the lakes. Explore the tidepools at Beach 4 and Ruby Beach. Spend a day at Rialto Beach and go hiking along the ocean. Explore the national park’s 600 miles of hiking trails, including the summit of Mt. Olympus.

Visit the Hoh Rain Forest and take a leisure hike on the 0.8-mile Hall of Moses Trail through the old-growth forest. Enjoy the breathtaking views from Hurricane Ridge. Travel into Elwha Valley to experience the silence of serenity.

Port Angeles, Washington | 360-565-3130 | www.nps.gov/olym

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Photo courtesy of NPS.

No. 10

Pinnacles National Park

Established in 2013, Pinnacles National Park is California’s newest national park. And at just 26,000 acres, it’s the state’s smallest. The national park preserves an area carved by volcano activity 23 million years ago that created a diverse and unique landscape.

Explore the national park along 30 miles of hiking trails, inside the Bear Gulch Cave or Balconies Cave, and go rock climbing along set routes.

One of the most popular activities is bird watching. It’s a year-round activity that can be enjoyed with nothing more than a good pair of binoculars. The national park is home to dozens of bird species, including the California Condor with an impressive nine-foot wingspan!

Paicines, California | 831 389-4486 | www.nps.gov/pinn

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No. 11

Redwood National and State Parks

The tallest trees in the world tower like wooden skyscrapers at Redwood National and State Parks. It’s a unique arrangement with a national park and three state parks co-managed by the National Park Service and California State Parks. But all the parks have the same goal: to preserve the old-growth redwood forests.

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Dozens of trails cross hundreds of miles across the parks. The Big Tree Wayside is the easiest way to see giant trees in the parks. The half-mile Stout Memorial Grove Trail passes through a 44-acre redwood grove on the banks of the Smith River. The 5.5-mile Boy Scout Tree Trail is a rewarding hike through old-growth redwoods.

The best way to experience the parks is a drive on the 16.5-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. The parkway passes several redwood groves, hiking trails, the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, and the Elk Prairie Campground.

With 40 miles of rugged coastline, a day at the beach is another great way to explore the parks. Explore tidepools at Endert’s Beach, Damnation Creek, and False Klamath Cove. A few months each year, watch for whales at the Klamath River Overlook.

Crescent City, California | 707 464-6101 | www.nps.gov/redw

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Photo courtesy of NPS/Kiel Maddox.

No. 12

Sequoia National Park

Established in 1890, Sequoia National Park was America’s second national park and the first to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum, also known as Giant Sequoias. U.S. Army Cavalry troops protected the national park for the first twenty years and built some of the earliest roads to the big trees.

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Standing 275-feet tall and 36-feet wide at the base, the General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest tree when measured by volume. The half-mile Main Trail to the tree passes through Giant Forest, the largest unlogged sequoia grove in the national park. The nearby Giant Forest Museum features exhibits about the eponymous trees and why the giant trees grow in that landscape.

At 6,713-feet, Moro Rock is the most popular attraction in the national park that has nothing to do with giant sequoia trees. It’s a short but strenuous walk from that parking lot that begins on a wooden boardwalk and ascends 350 steps to the top of the granite rock. The scenic overlook at the top provides a stunning panorama view of the Great Western Divide’s mountain peaks.

Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have been administered together with a single admission fee.

Three Rivers, California | 559 565-3341 | www.nps.gov/seki

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The Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley. Photo courtesy of NPS.

No. 13

Yosemite National Park

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act establishing Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Grove as federally protected wilderness areas. It was the first time in the country’s history that lands were protected for public use and preservation. In 1872, using the precedent of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, Yellowstone National Park was established as the world’s first national park. In 1890, Yosemite National Park was established.

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Yosemite Valley is one of the most iconic vistas in America, with sheer granite cliffs, snow-capped mountains, and a vibrant forest across the floor. It’s the heart of the national park and the location of some of the most popular places like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan. 

Tunnel View is the most popular scenic overlook in the national park, providing visitors with the famous view of the Yosemite Valley. But the best view comes from Glacier Point, where visitors can see Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and three waterfalls.

Visitors need permits for most activities in the national park because of its popularity – and overcrowding. But a scenic drive is one of the easiest ways to explore the park. The 46-mile Tioga Road bisects the national park and connects many popular sections. The 26-mile Wawona Road whisks visitors to Mariposa Grove, the largest grove of giant sequoias in the national park.

Yosemite, California | 209-372-0200 | www.nps.gov/yose

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