If you perform a Google search for the “best California national parks in fall or winter,” you may be struck by how many of the results are clustered around early fall activities—or, even more glaringly, late summer outings masquerading as fall. Where’s the love for the chilly seasons?
It’s true that you’ve missed virtually all of foliage season if you haven’t ventured out from quarantine yet. The high mountain passes and vertical routes are in imminent danger of being closed out to all but the hardiest explorers due to snow. On the beach, the shorter and cooler days mean trading bikinis and boardshorts for (sigh) long pants and closed-toes shoes.
Don’t despair, friends. California’s embarrassment of national park riches provides fun year-round—even during the months thoughtlessly dismissed as “mud season” by many. So here (in no particular order) is a quick Far Out Guide to five of best national parks in California for late autumn and winter.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
One of the northernmost Park Service units in California, Lassen’s unique blend of thermal features and volcanic landscapes will melt your brain. According to the park, Lassen is one of the relatively few thermally active zones to feature all four kinds of volcanoes found in the world. As we all know, that’s shield, composite, cinder cone and plug dome. Active for millions of years, volcanoes like Cinder Cone and Lassen Peak have erupted in the relatively recent past—as evidenced by the many bubbling mudpots, steam vents and boiling springs found throughout the park. The heavy snows haven’t arrived yet in normal years. And while the trees have all bid their leaves farewell by now, fall colors can still be found in the meadows beneath the volcanoes.
Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re around my age, you probably first learned about Joshua Tree from the U2 album of the same name. Or, if you’re wanting a deeper dive, from the song “Twentynine Palms” by Robert Plant. But, with autumn and early winter, come the park’s warm days. This, in addition to cool, starry nights, it makes a perfect road trip destination (with the radio pegged, of course). With two distinct desert (Colorado and Mojave) ecosystems, Joshua Tree’s miles of trails beckon hikers to spend the daylight hours pounding out some serious miles. More into the views? Photographers will be tempted to spend their days waiting for the perfect rays of soft autumn sunlight to fall gently on the park’s namesake trees. And, bam, the picture of a lifetime from one of the best national parks in California.
Point Reyes National Seashore
The pristine natural beauty on display at Point Reyes will make you wonder if you’re really only 40 miles from San Francisco. Miles of blazed paths like the Tomales Point Trail provide long and leisurely opportunities to watch waves crash violently on the shore—particularly if an early winter storm is brewing offshore. Wildlife viewing takes center stage as fall edges towards winter. Threatened birds like snowy plovers and Northern spotted owls get the headlines year round, joined by dozens of migratory species throughout October and November. Often spotted in the brush, charismatic predators like bobcats and coyotes roam. While spectacular Pacific grey whales make free in the park’s harbors (your polarized sunglasses will help you spot them). Point Reyes is a peaceful escape from your daily grind.
Death Valley National Park
While it’s shoulder season in most of California’s parks, it’s high season in Death Valley. Hikers positively swarm to the park to take advantage of more moderate fall and winter weather. But our favorite activity this time of year involves two wheels in, addition to two feet. Many of Death Valley’s nearly 800 miles of roads are suitable for cycling. The park’s wildly varying topography facilitates skinny-tire outings ranging from flat and gentle circuits to crushing mountain ascents. Add in the mind-bending alien landscapes and amazing assortment of colorful desert flora, you’ll understand why so many people (nationwide) make an annual pilgrimage to Death Valley in the fall.
Yosemite National Park
Choose your path in Yosemite carefully this time of year. Many of the park’s most famous (and famously crowded in summer) locations have closed for the season. But the places that remain accessible provide a stark and brooding contrast to the sights and sounds of summer. Tendrils of ice are starting to form on many of the park’s iconic waterfalls. Their diminished shoulder-season flows provide sublime photographic opportunities. The Park Service actually opens the famous Mariposa Grove of sequoias to camping once the road closes for the season. This provides a unique opportunity for solitude in an iconic spot. And don’t miss the chance to ice skate in the shadow of Half Dome at the Curry Village rink. Once the hard freezes set the surface, it makes the perfect skating spot.
BONUS: California State Park System
As if the collection of national parks isn’t enough, California’s state park system is the envy of the union. Comprised of nearly a million and a half acres of mountains, prairies and ocean beaches, it’s the largest and most varied in the country.
Fantastic late-fall and winter destinations include Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, whose three-mile Buzzard’s Roost Trail offers towering redwoods and inspiring sea and mountain views (when weather permits). Or Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with a hundred-plus miles of trails to keep you busy until the sun goes down (too early).
A note about COVID safety…
It’s still a weird world out there, folks, so be sure to check hours and services, and respect local, state and federal requirements for COVID safety. But don’t let that stop you. Grab your favorite polarized sunglasses, hit the road, and enjoy the cold seasons in some of the best national parks in California!