California has long been associated with the wild, and even if its human society has generally been tamed, its natural world remains thankfully feral. From the deserts of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, through the incredible geologic forces revealed in Pinnacles and Lassen, all the way to the fabled scenery enshrined within the parameters of Yosemite, the state’s sublime National Parks contain some of the most iconic settings in the entire United States.
Along the Northern California coast, the North American and Gorda tectonic plates grind against each other, creating a build-up of heat that finds an outlet in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Concentrated in Lassen Volcano, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, this fiery tectonic tension can also be seen in a number of remarkable hydrothermal features. Hikers through the park should look out for pounding mud pots, spitting pools, steaming stretches of earth and hissing fumaroles, rumbling reminders of the immense geologic forces unfolding beneath our feet at all times.
At the heart of Pinnacles National Park are a series jagged towers and spikes, the dramatic eroded remains of an extinct volcano. Stretching away on either side is a dry and arid landscape dotted with boulders, monoliths and gulleys, scraped from the lower slopes of the Gabilan Mountains, and formed by millennia of intense geologic tension along the San Andreas fault. Hiking trails run right through from one end of the park to the other, while rock climbers come looking for particularly unusual, tricky and creative challenges. Below ground, damp talus caves provide a home to over 10 species of bat, while condors and falcons dart and wheel in the skies overhead.
A world away from the green forests and silvery waterfalls of Yosemite, Death Valley is situated a couple of hundred miles deeper into California’s arid southern interior. In places, this National Park lives up to its name, encompassing empty acres of sand dunes and desert, including the driest and lowest place in North America, and the hottest in the world (in 1913, a temperature of 57 degrees Celsius was recorded, the highest ever). In such regions, many an outlaw perished, and brittle sand whistles through the ribcages of blanched animal skeletons. But as well as such serious desert, the park also contains ice-capped peaks during winter and huge meadows strewn with wildflowers in spring, as well as interesting geologic features such as springs, faults, and salt flats. It is well set up for exploration by car as well as on foot, though both require careful forethought during the summer months.
Joshua Tree’s desert surface can look homogenous, but in fact this national park stitches together three different ecosystems, each with its own distinct atmosphere. The lowest, driest and hottest part of the park is the Colorado Desert, dotted with cacti and desert shrubs and also containing the Coachella Valley, where sparse grasslands give way to rolling sand dunes. Joining the Colorado Desert from the north is the Mojave Desert, the native home of the Joshua Tree itself, along with clusters of bare rock hills, popular with climbers. Finally, in the west of the park, copses of juniper and pinyon pine dot the wetter slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Hiking trails run through all three areas.
California’s quintessential wilderness, Yosemite has captured the imaginations of great writers and naturalists such as John Muir, along with countless casual hikers and climbers. It’s a vast, untamed wilderness, threaded with rivers and waterfalls that flow through shadowy forests and tumble down granite cliffs. This varied terrain is home to a a great deal of wildlife, with bobcats and black bears moving between the open meadows and the cover of the forests, while humans can explore the dizzying landscape on over 800 miles of hiking trails.