After being cooped up for months, it seems everyone had the same idea this summer: get in the car and experience the natural beauty and grandeur of a national park! Many of these protected areas saw record attendance—all the more reason to plan a visit for the off-season. From stunning waterfalls and towering redwoods to mountain vistas and epic sand dunes, each of our picks have unique charms, and all are within an eight-hour drive of Orange County. It’s time to tick these iconic spots off your travel wish list!
✓Trees ✓Mountains ✓Waterfalls ✖Cell Service
265 miles from Orange County
“Do behold the king in his glory, King Sequoia. Behold! Behold! seems all I can say … Well may I fast, not from bread but from business, bookmaking, duty doing, and other trifles.”
— John Muir, naturalist and author
Visitors flock to Sequoia National Park for one thing—to walk among giants. You can read the stats and see the photos, but for true understanding you must stand beneath the massive trees for yourself. The nation’s second-oldest national park is open year-round; hike in the summer, and snowshoe in the winter. A vehicle pass ($35) is valid for up to a week.
Whether it’s your first or 50th time here, your first stop should be the Giant Forest, an hour’s drive from the park’s southern entrance. Trek half a mile downhill to tour the grove of sequoias, including the General Sherman Tree. At 275 feet in height and 2,100 years in age, it’s not the tallest nor the oldest; but it’s the world’s largest tree by volume. Take your time on the climb back up to your car—you’re at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
If you plan to visit Crystal Cave, be sure to book tickets a couple of months in advance. Guided tours suitable for all ages run 50 minutes and are offered spring through fall by the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.
There’s no shortage of trails to explore. One of the most popular is Moro Rock, a granite dome with extraordinary views, accessible via a concrete and stone stairway with more than 350 steps. Another is Crescent Meadow Loop, a scenic 1.8-mile trail around a picturesque clearing surrounded by statuesque trees. Slightly more challenging but still doable for beginners, Tokopah Falls Trail is 3.4 miles out and back. The trail follows the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, ending at the tallest waterfall in the park tumbling down 1,200 feet in a series of small cascades. Keep an eye out for yellow-bellied marmots sunbathing on the rocks.
Whichever trails you follow, also watch for deer and black bears. And make sure to never leave food in your car. Rely on the park’s shuttle service during the summer months to avoid packed smaller lots.
The Wuksachi Lodge ($203 and up) is the park’s signature hotel. Stay in one of the 102 guest rooms spread among three buildings 100 to 200 yards from the main lodge. Wi-Fi is included, though spotty, and dogs are welcome with a $25 fee.
In normal times, the 90-seat Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge offers full-service breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the time of this writing, a limited menu was available for takeaway, with the option to dine indoors or outside, but no tableside service. Pizza ($15 to $17), salad ($7.50 to $9.25), and sandwiches ($7.50 to $11.25) from the Wuksachi Pizza Deck are available, as are daily specials such as braised short ribs or lasagna.
Kings Canyon National Park
Just to the north on Highway 180, Kings Canyon was established in 1940, 50 years after its sister park. Like Sequoia, it has its own giant groves. But the trail to General Grant Tree, the second-largest tree in the world, doesn’t require nearly as much of a climb. You’ll pass by the historic Gamlin Cabin and the Fallen Monarch, a hollow log that visitors can easily walk through.
Deeper in the valley, you’ll find spectacular cascading waterfalls such as Mist Falls, Roaring River Falls, and Grizzly Falls—the last located just a tenth of a mile from the road.