1. SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS
Just southeast of Yosemite, these equally awesome but much less-visited national parks, which you can scratch off the list at the same time because they share a border and $5 entrance fee, offer camping and hiking among the world’s biggest trees. And you'll have to see them on foot, as there are very few roads through their rugged landscapes.
Get ready for some serious neck-craning at Sequoia, which is the nation’s second national park and is home to the largest tree in the world, by volume: The General Sherman’s trunk is estimated to weigh more than 2,000 tons. It’s one of five of the 10 largest trees in the world within the park’s Giant Forest, some as old as 3,500 years. Gape at their grandeur over the 40 miles of trails that wind trough the grove.
Kings Canyon, meanwhile, protects the two of California’s most picturesque and pristine rivers, the Kings and San Joaquin rivers. The south fork section of Kings river, known as Kings Canyon, is one of the deepest in the country, at about a mile and a half deep. Carved from solid granite by glaciers during the last ice age, the canyon was once described by John Muir as “a rival to Yosemite.”
Insider Tip: Most of the 14 campgrounds open during summer within the parks are first come, first-served, unlike those at nearby Yosemite, which have to be booked months in advance.
2. POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
For some of the most serene coastal landscapes in the Bay Area, this gorgeous stretch of protected wilderness can’t be beat. Located 37 miles north of San Francisco, the 180-square-mile park offers a spectacular array of wildlife, including raptors, nesting sea birds, tule elk, and grey whales, which migrate off the coast from December through March.
Insider Tip: It’s well worth it to make a weekend out of a trip here, but the park offers hike-in and boat-in camping—no RVs or car camping available. Or, see if you can score reservations at the Gold LEED certified hostel on property, the Point Reyes Youth Hostel, which offers dorm beds and private rooms.
3. PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
America’s newest national park is just over a two-hour drive from San Francisco, with spectacular rock formations, spires, canyons, and caves that offer a welcome respite from the summer heat. The park’s otherworldly landscapes are actually the remains of an ancient volcano that was split in half by the San Andreas fault. Nowadays, the rock walls are popular with rock climbers and hikers and also attract bird and wildlife watchers, who come to catch glimpses of bats, falcons, and California condors, one of the world’s rarest birds.
A great, but ambitious, day hike is the 6.7-mile Bear Gulch Caves Trail to the High Peaks trail, which winds up to the reservoir, through some of the park’s most iconic rock formations, and through the aptly named Steep and Narrow portion of the High Peaks Trail. Expect plenty of steep, tight stairs cut into the cliff faces and maybe even some boulder scrambling.
Insider Tip: Planning a trip just for the caves? Check the website first to make sure they’re open, as they’re occasionally restricted because of their bat colonies.
4. LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
Only two volcanoes have erupted in the continental U.S. in the 20th century: Washington’s Mt. Saint Helens and Lassen Peak, which is located 50 miles east of Redding. The 10,462-foot peak is the world’s largest volcanic dome—and also the star of the show at Lassen Volcanic National Park, which was created to preserve the devastated areas following its 1915 blast.
In the summer, the park’s 150 miles of trails offer an up-close look into the park’s fascinating geological features, including geysers, mudpots, and steam vents. Highlights are Sulphur Works, Devils Kitchen, and Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest hydrothermal feature, as well as Boiling Springs Lake, whose temperature averages around 125 degrees. Be sure to stay on designated walkways and paths, as venturing off them can result in serious injury—just ask the tourists who have been burned.
Insider Tip: Lassen offers several astronomy-centric events throughout the summer, including Dark Sky events, stargazing talks, and the Dark Sky Festival from August 7-9.
5. THE LOST COAST
Along the coast of northern California, in the 65-mile stretch between Eureka and the Lost Coast where highways 1 and 101 don’t run, is the aptly named Lost Coast. There are no roads into the area, which is protected by the protected by the King Range national conservation area, so you’ll have to explore on foot sans car. But views of the Pacific stretching for miles and the nearby ruins of an old lighthouse make for an unforgettable excursion.
Take the potholed gravel road to a campsite at the mouth of the Mattole River; from there you can wander south down the coast as far as 25 miles before you come to the next road at Shelter Cove. As the 6½-mile round-trip hike from campsite to the stunning ruins of the 1912 Punta Gorda Lighthouse, which was decommissioned in 1951, is one of the most gorgeous beach walks in California, if not the world.
Insider Tip: You’ll need tide charts to navigate the headlands, and keep in mind that although the hike is mostly flat, hiking on sand can be extremely tiring. Plan your trek accordingly.