Joshua Tree National Park

After the deaths of an infant son and then her husband, South Pasadena socialite Minerva Hoyt (1866-1945) found peace and consolation in the beauty of the desert. But the avid gardener turned activist in the 1920s as the rage for exotic landscaping, accelerated by affordable autos and paved roads, took a toll on the land. Named to a state commission, “The Apostle of the Cacti” prepared a report, recommending parks be created in Death Valley, the Anza-Borrego Desert, and the Joshua tree forests.

The Irvine Connection: James Irvine and the Redwoods

Among the network of paths at Prairie Creek is the James Irvine Trail, named for the founder of The Irvine Company. After the 1906 San Francisco quake, James Irvine II (1867-1947) relocated to the family ranch in Orange County, but kept his ties with Northern California. He joined the Save the Redwoods League in 1921 and remained a $2-a-year member for 23 years. A $15,000 donation to the league established a grove of redwoods that bears his name, and he provided an additional $85,000 to help the league purchase more of the ancient forest from timber companies.

Death Valley National Park

Despite its forbidding name, Death Valley isn’t a desolate wasteland. The otherworldly landscape intrigues with charms that are both subtle and severe—immense, colorful volcanic craters; layered, water-carved canyons; silky sand dunes; and a radiating heat that seems three-dimensional. Even when the park fills with visitors pursuing spring wildflowers, the vast emptiness swallows sound and light, and opens a path to restful silence, joyous starry skies, and unending wonder about the planet’s origins.

Kings Canyon National Park

Strong-willed, heartily disliked, and highly effective Interior Secretary Harold Ickes (1874-1952) took an interest in wilderness preservation that went beyond most: parks without roads. Wheeling and dealing—which inluded selling FDR on the idea with commissioned Ansel Adams photographs—Ickes got his wish in Kings Canyon.

Sequoia National Park

Certain that ancient trees had a highter purpose than becoming fence posts and shingles, George W. Stewart, the 21-year-old city editor of the Visalia Delta, penned an 1878 editorial calling for a state ban on cutting giant sequoias. For the next dozen years, the newspaperman battled mining, livestock, and timber interests, and spurred state and federal officials to secure the park’s first 76 square miles.

The Thinking Person’s Vacation

Not that you asked, but some of the smartest people in America have chosen their favorites from among the nation's 58 national parks.

Perfect Getaway: Yosemite—for the Park’s 125th Anniversary

To appreciate the majesty of Yosemite National Park, you need to visit often—and the 125th anniversary is a great time to start. Experience 360-degree...

Lassen Volcanic National Park

A place of beauty, yet volatile and violent. Among the clear lakes, grazing mule deer, and fields of wildflowers sleep all four types of volcanoes—cinder cones; shields, which spew lava in all directions; composite, which emit lava, ash, cinders, and blocks; and plug domes, whose lava piles up inside the crater. More than 20 years before Lassen Peak last blew its plug, Muir wrote: “Miles of its flanks are reeking and bubbling with hot springs, many of them so boisterous and sulphurous they seem ever ready to become spouting geysers ...”

Redwood National & State Parks

Thanks to the minimal signage in this national/state park, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve just stumbled upon a forgotten corner of a lost world.

Philanthropreneur: Parks Project

Underwhelmed by the gear available at National Park shops, Sevag Kazanci, 33, flipped the souvenir model on its head. He launched a giving brand...