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!
✓History ✓Scenery ✓Popularity ✖Spontaneity
323 miles from Orange County
“When I was about 15, I went to work at Yosemite National Park. It changed me forever. Nature had carved its own sculpture, and I was part of it, not the other way around.”
— Robert Redford, actor and director
Yosemite usually gets more than 4 million visitors a year, but the pandemic cut the numbers in half in 2020. Plenty has changed for this year: No shuttle service in the valley, and advance online reservations are required to enter the park through at least Sept. 30. The pass ($35) is good for three consecutive days, rather than the usual seven. Visit on weekdays or during the off-season (October through May) for all the park’s wonder without the heat or crowds.
Outdoor enthusiasts make Yosemite their playground, with rock climbing, biking, hiking, fishing, and winter sports aplenty. Those who prefer to observe nature’s wonders with photography, art, stargazing, or bird-watching have their pick as well. Majestic views of El Capitan and Half Dome are best captured in nonpeak hours—before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Up for a hike? Vernal Fall is a moderate option that will make you feel like an expert as it gains elevation while you meander through narrow passages and over bridges. Take it easy with a walk around Mirror Lake Loop or to the base of Yosemite Falls. Wander through The Ahwahnee hotel, whether or not you stay there, for a self-guided historical tour of the place that has lured royalty and presidents and is a National Historic Landmark.
For the most luxurious stay in the park, The Ahwahnee ($341 and up) is the place, but you’ll need to reserve about six months in advance. Marvel at the lobby’s details and the murals throughout. Peek into the beautiful solarium to imagine yourself in a different era. The rooms in the main building have been remodeled and decorated with reproductions of the botanical finds writer and naturalist John Muir pressed into his notebooks. For homestyle accommodations outside the park, head to the Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge. Quiet cabins ($242 and up) are set on their own loop down the hill from the main resort. Relax in front of the fireplace or on the porches and balconies, some of which overlook the creek, while still having access to all the resort’s amenities.
Feast surrounded by history in the grand dining room at The Ahwahnee for the breakfast ($32) or dinner ($59) buffet. This is an upscale occasion: no T-shirts or shorts. For more casual fare, and a pretzel the size of your head, try The Ahwahnee Bar. There are also plenty of fast-casual options for takeout meals and picnics at Curry Village.