California is home to 28 national parks. This includes nine designated National Parks and 19 National Monuments, National Recreations Areas and other units managed by the National Park Service. You’d likely need several months to visit all these parks and truly enjoy the experience. Since most folks don’t have that much time, we suggest focusing on just one region at a time. Here, we share our itinerary for visiting the Northern California national parks.
First, let’s clarify what we mean by “northern” California. For this particular itinerary, we focus on just the parks that are north of San Francisco and Sacramento. Second, because of the proximity, we include a couple of parks in southern Oregon.
The seven parks you’ll visit on this itinerary are Redwood National and State Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, Crater Lake National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, Tule Lake National Monument, Lassen Volcanic National Park and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. What we didn’t know before setting out on our journey is that the National Park Service has coined this particular itinerary the Circle of Discovery.
Along the route, you’ll see the country’s tallest trees and deepest lake. You’ll also visit marble caves, hydrothermal areas, volcanic landscapes and even a Japanese American WWII relocation center. As you can see, the parks included protect a wide range of landscapes, natural features and historic sites.
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Planning Your Northern California National Parks Trip
The location of the seven parks on this Northern California national parks itinerary makes almost a perfect loop. Thus, you could easily start at just about any location. It also can fairly easily be accessed from the north, south or east. This flexibility allows you to drive from home, fly into several different airports or connect the itinerary to other sights if you have more time.
For the sake of this article, we start the loop at Redwood National Park, which is easily accessed via Highway 101, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway. If you are coming in from the north side, you might prefer to start the loop at Crater Lake NP. From the east, Lassen Volcanic NP would be your starting point.
You can also drive the loop either clockwise or counterclockwise. Honestly, this would probably just be based on personal preference or when you can get reservations in each location.
Best Time to Visit
Both Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic National Parks generally receive a large amount of snow in the winter. The parks are open year-round, but you’ll have limited service in the winter. Additionally, some areas of both parks will be very difficult to reach unless you are prepared for over-snow travel.
Thus, summer is certainly the best time to complete this road trip. But not too early in the summer. Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic are generally not fully open until late June or early July. The exact date of various areas and services changes from year to year, depending on snowfall.
You’ll also need to be prepared for a wide range of temperatures along your route. Lava Beds NM, Tule Lake NM and Whiskeytown NRA will likely be very hot and dry in the summer. In fact, during our visit, the temperature at Whiskeytown was more than 110 degrees.
On the other hand, the temperature at Redwood NP was in the mid-60s. Due to its location on the Pacific coast, Redwood NP gets quite a bit of cloud cover, fog and cool breezes off the ocean. You’ll likely want long-sleeves or a lightweight pullover here, especially in the mornings and evenings.
Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic tend to have more moderate temperatures. Mornings and Evenings can be cool, though. And temperatures can vary greatly from lower elevation to higher elevation.
Basically, you need to make sure you have the proper layers with you while visiting the northern California national parks.
Northern California National Parks Itinerary
We did this trip as an RV road trip. It would also work well if you are just in a car and staying in hotels or tent camping. You definitely need a car, though, as this is a very remote area with essentially no public transportation.
Redwood National Park – 3 Days
Redwood National Park is a very interesting park and you’ll likely never tire of looking up at the massive redwood trees it protects. That said, one grove of redwoods really is not all that different from another. So, you can get a very thorough visit to the park in one day or even less.
Still, the park preserves more than just redwood trees and you can easily spend several days exploring it all. A 3-day visit allows you plenty of time to enjoy all the different aspects of the park.
Be sure to visit several groves, such as Lady Bird Johnson Grove on the south end or Stout Grove on the north end. There are also a number of scenic drives, including the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Coastal Drive and Bald Hills Road. For a different perspective on the park, a hike through Fern Canyon offers a look at the lush vegetation that is found right along the coast.
With three full days, you can get in a few longer hikes, such as the Trillium Falls Trail, Boy Scout Trail or Tall Trees Trail. You can even do some tidepooling and look for marine animals hiding out under the rocks at low tide.
Where to Stay
We recommend staying in either Crescent City on the north end or perhaps Klamath or Orick further south. Based on the layout of the park, you may even choose to spend 1-2 nights on the south end and 1-2 nights on the north end.
Inside the park, there are a few campgrounds but no lodges or restaurants.
Oregon Caves National Monument – 1 Day
Oregon Caves NM is located just east of Cave Junction, OR, which is just about an hour north of Crescent City, CA. The park preserves a marble cave that is somewhat hidden several miles off the main highway, in the Siskiyou Mountains.
To visit the cave, you’ll have to schedule a cave tour. Typically, the park offers four options, the most popular of which is the Discovery Cave Tour. We also recommend the Candlelight Cave Tour. While we haven’t done that tour at this park, we really enjoyed the candlelight tour at Wind Cave and highly recommend it anytime it is offered.
Above ground, there are six hiking trails, offering views of the mountains and fir forest. While the cave is certainly the highlight of this park, we enjoyed a short hike. It’s also a good way to spend an hour or two while waiting on your tour.
During our visit in the Summer of 2021, the park offered only the Discovery Tour. Additionally, tour tickets were available only on a first-come, first-served basis, at the visitor center in Cave Junction. This was due to the changing conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditionally, though, you can purchase tickets for any of four cave tours ahead of time at recreation.gov.
Check the park’s website for updated information regarding tour availability and where to purchase tickets.
Where to Stay
We camped for two nights in Cave Junction. It’s a fairly small town, though, with limited options for lodging and dining.
About 45 minutes north of Cave Junction, Grants Pass is a much larger town with abundant options for camping, lodging, dining and shopping. If you can secure cave tickets in advance, we suggest staying in Grants Pass. If you will have to rely on first-come, first-serve tickets, you might prefer to stay in Cave Junction to avoid a very early morning drive.
The historic Oregon Caves Chateau, right across from the cave entrance and visitor center would be a great place to stay. Unfortunately, it has been closed for renovations and does not currently have a projected reopening date.
Crater Lake National Park – 1 Day
At 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. It is also is generally regarded as the bluest lake. A drive around the lake provides ample opportunity to take in the stunning blue water and surrounding scenic beauty.
Depending on how many stops you make, the drive around the lake should take you 2-3 hours. You can spend the rest of the day doing a couple of short hikes. In particular, we enjoyed the Plaikni Falls Trail, which is a relatively easy 2-mile hike.
If you are up for a challenge, check out the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which descends 700 feet to reach the lake. At the lake, you can swim, fish or take a boat tour. Just make sure you can handle the hike back up to the rim!
Unfortunately, the park canceled boat tours during our visit (again, due to COVID-19). We were really looking forward to spending a few hours out on the lake and possibly even doing some hiking at Wizard Island. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to return to Crater Lake NP one day so that we can enjoy a boat tour!
I’d suggest adding at least one additional day onto your stop if you do plan to hike to do a boat tour or spend any considerable time down at the water. Of course, we could also just spend a couple of days sitting on the porch of the Crater Lake Lodge enjoying the scenery!
Where to Stay
We spend almost a week in the area, camping at Broken Arrow Campground just north of the park. The campground does not have any hookups but was still one of our favorite campgrounds of all time.
With well-spaced sites tucked into the trees, we really enjoyed the serenity of the campground. And, it was only a 10-minute drive to the north entrance of Crater Lake NP.
Honestly, though, the history, scenic views and charm of the Crater Lake Lodge is difficult to pass up. It will certainly be a struggle to choose between the lodge and a return visit to the campground on our next visit!
Tule Lake National Monument and Lava Beds National Monument – 1 Day
Our Northern California national parks itinerary returns to California to two National Monuments: Tule Lake and Lava Beds. The two parks are located just 20 minutes apart in Tulelake, CA.
Previously just one unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, in March 2019 Congress redesignated the park, creating Tule Lake National Monument as a separate park from the better-known Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii. Tule Lake NM preserves the largest of 10 relocation “camps” that housed incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.
Unfortunately, Tule Lake NM has limited visiting hours and we were not able to visit this park during our trip in the Summer of 2021. We have, however, visited other relocation camps, such as Heart Mountain in Cody, WY and Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome, ID. This little-known piece of American history is a story that deserves more attention.
On a lighter note, Lava Beds NM preserves a volcanic landscape, which is home to more than 800 caves, historic battlefields and Native American art. What we enjoyed most about this park was being able to explore the lava caves on our own. At most parks, caves can only be explored on a guided tour.
Only a small fraction of the 800 caves are open to the public but you can still easily spend an hour or two exploring them. There are also a few hiking trails but be prepared to hike through a desert climate with essentially no shade. We generally love a good hike but based on the summer climate, the caves are a much more comfortable way to spend your day.
Where to Stay
We actually visited Lava Beds NM as a day trip from our campground at Crater Lake. While that worked for us, it did make for a long day, since it was about a 2-hour drive, one way. And that did not include a visit to Tule Lake NM. You probably don’t want to do that if you plan to visit both parks.
Tulelake is a very small town without much to offer in terms of camping, lodging or dining. As such, we would suggest staying in Klamath Falls, OR. You could use Klamath Falls as a base for visiting Crater Lake NP also. Crater Lake is about an hour’s drive from Klamath Falls.
Lassen Volcanic National Park – 3 Days
Continuing south, Lassen Volcanic NP is yet another volcanic landscape with mountains, forests, hydrothermal features and more. We suggest spending 1-2 days in the main area of the park and 1-2 days in the Warner Valley/Juniper Lake area on the southeast side. With additional time or specific interest, visit the northeast area of Butte Lake.
Coming in from the north, you’ll enter the park at Manzanita Lake. Stop here for a quiet and easy stroll around the lake, a visit to the Loomis Museum or pick up a bite to eat at the Camp Store. As you drive the main highway through the park, stop at some of the many pullouts to learn more about the landscape and take in the scenery.
To see the best hydrothermal area, hike the 2.6-mile Bumpass Hell Trail, our top recommendation in the park. If you’re not up for the moderately-strenuous hike, you can still get a small taste of thermal features at the Sulphur Works pullout near the southwest entrance.
In Warner Valley, our recommendation is yet another thermal area, Devils Kitchen. As a much more remote area, you just might like Devils Kitchen even better than Bumpass Hell. At Juniper Lake, you can take an easy stroll along the lake or hike up Mount Harkness for some of the best views in the park.
Dixie Fire of 2021
You likely heard the news of the Dixie Fire in the summer of 2021, which burned more than 950,000 acres in and around Lassen Volcanic National Park. The fire started less than three weeks after our visit to the park. The fire burned through some areas of the park, destroying several structures along the way.
In particular, the Mount Harkness Lookout Tower was lost in the fire. When we did the hike up Mount Harkness in late June, we were surprised to find the tower unstaffed. Upon asking a ranger about this, she said that traditional staffing regulations hadn’t quite caught up with climate change.
In addition to the fire lookout tower, a few other structures and a campground were destroyed. Some trails and footbridges have been affected as well. Of course, the burned areas will be visible for years to come. While this is heartbreaking to see, fire is a part of nature. And some vegetation thrives after a fire, with some relying on fire for reproduction.
Where to Stay
Since Lassen Volcanic NP is remote and fairly spread out, finding a central place to stay can be difficult. We camped at The Village at Childs Meadow, near the Southwest entrance in Mineral, CA. The location proved to be a good location for visiting the main area of the park, Juniper Lake and Warner Valley. There are a few other options for lodges and even a small resort in that area.
If you prefer to tent camp or stay in a cabin, you’ll find both at Manzanita Lake at the north entrance to the park.
Larger cities with more services are at least an hour away.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area – 1 Day
As with most National Recreation Areas, Whiskeytown will appeal mostly to visitors looking to recreate on or in the water. Whiskeytown Lake is the centerpiece of the park, with swimming, boating and paddling being popular activities for visitors. In the summer, the water is a welcomed relief from the oppressive heat that typically engulfs Redding, CA.
Of course, there are also opportunities for hiking, scenic drives and mountain biking, among other activities. Unfortunately, a good portion of the park is still closed following the 2018 Carr Fire. This fire burned 97% of Whiskeytown NRA and affected more than 100 structures. Based on this, it is considered the most destructive fire in the history of the National Park System.
Between the extreme heat (well over 100 degrees) and the lack of shade due to the fire, visitors must plan their time at this park carefully.
We made a point to get up early to do a couple of hikes. Indeed, by noon we found the heat to be almost unbearable. If you do have time for a couple of hikes, the namesake Whiskeytown Falls is well-worth the moderately strenuous 3-mile roundtrip hike. Crystal Creek Falls is another nice waterfall that can be reached with a short and easy 5-minute walk along a paved road.
Additionally, the Kennedy Memorial commemorates President John F. Kennedy’s participation in the dedication of the dam in September 1963, just two months before his assassination.
While we made the most of our visit, I have to admit that Whiskeytown NRA was not our favorite park. In fact, unless you have a specific interest in boating, I’d say you can skip it. Of course, if you are like us, and are looking to visit all 400+ units of the national park system, you will go and find something to enjoy, if only for a few hours!
Mostly, we just want you to know what to expect in terms of the weather and extreme temperates so that you can have a safe visit.
Where to Stay
Whiskeytown NRA is located just outside Redding, which is a large city with plenty of options for camping, lodging and dining. We camped at the Redding Premier RV Resort. While we enjoyed the campground, the extreme heat was just too much for our camper’s air conditioner.
Based on our experience, I would not advise camping unless you have a powerful AC that can withstand extreme temperatures. I certainly would not recommend tent camping unless you are very used to camping in extremely hot and dry conditions.
Thankfully, there is a wide variety of hotels available in Redding.
Final Thoughts on the Northern California National Parks
With a wide range of landscapes and features, Northern California and southern Oregon are home to some incredible national parks. The area is home to an incredible volcanic landscape, which creates much more variety than you might initially expect. With hiking trails, scenic drives and numerous caves, there is no shortage of activities to pique your interest.
Ultimately, this itinerary is full of extremes. You’ll find extremely tall trees, an extremely deep lake, extremely remote areas and, perhaps, even some extreme temperatures.
This Northern California national parks itinerary is flexible on its starting point and makes for a good road trip in a car or RV. There also are a number of airports providing access to the region, though you should be prepared for a drive of at least an hour or two from any airport to the nearest park.
Many of the parks can be enjoyed in just a day or two. Those who prefer to travel slower or doing some additional hiking can easily enjoy a longer visit at most of the parks, especially the designated National Parks.
However you complete this journey, you are sure to find something you enjoy.
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