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Want to avoid Yosemite-size crowds? Sample other national parks in California

Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park
A beautiful, fiery orange sunset illuminates the clouds reflected on the calm waters of Manzanita Lake at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
(Bill Walser / National Park Service)

Tired of driving around Yosemite Valley looking for a parking spot? No wonder. The national park had 4 million visitors last year — not a record (5 million in 2016), but daunting when you consider that in 1906, it hosted 5,414. If you’re in search of more solitude, consider visiting California’s lesser-known national parks. Here are some of our picks:

Pinnacles National Park

2018 visitation: 222,152

At 26,686 acres, Pinnacles National Park, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose, has a fraction of Yosemite’s land (761,748 acres), so proportionately, it can seem crowded on the weekends, especially during the busy spring season. Park officials recommend arriving early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid crowds.

Pinnacles National Park
A California condor takes off from Pinnacles National Park in Central California.
(Kurt Moses / National Park Service)

Pinnacles offers hiking, camping and rock climbing and its climbing routes range from easy to multipitch ascents along Machete Ridge.

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Don’t miss the park’s Bear Gulch Cave — home to the largest maternity colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats between San Francisco and Mexico. (The cave will remain closed until Monday while the bats raise their young.) Along with bats, keep an eye out for peregrine falcons, golden eagles and perhaps even the endangered California condor, whose wingspan can be as wide as 9½ feet.

Info: Pinnacles National Park, nps.gov/pinn/index.htm

Lassen Volcanic National Park

2018 visitation: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park, about 50 miles east of Redding, is known for the hydrothermal areas among its 106,589 acres, including roaring fumaroles (steam and volcanic-gas vents), bubbling mud pots, boiling pools and steaming ground.

Water from rain and snow that falls on the highlands of the park feeds its hydrothermal system. Once underground, the water is heated by hot or molten rock beneath Lassen Peak, the National Park Service says.

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Rising hot water boils to form pools and mud pots, while steam reaches the surface through fractures in the Earth to form fumaroles. Examples of those can be found at Bumpass Hell and Sulphur Works, which are among the park’s main attractions.

Info: Lassen Volcanic National Park, nps.gov/lavo/index.htm

Channel Islands National Park

2018 visitation: 366,250

Ironically, one of the most remote national parks can be found in the country’s most populated state. Channel Islands National Park might be off Southern California, but it feels like a world away.

Hiking trails can be found on each of the park’s five islands — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara.

Visiting the Channel Islands requires some preparation. Unlike Yosemite, there are no services such as food stores or gear rental shops. Transportation to the islands is available by park concessionaire boats, Island Packers (islandpackers.com), and planes, Channel Islands Aviation (flycia.com), or by private boat.

Info: Channel Islands National Park, nps.gov/chis/index.htm

Redwood National and State Parks

Visitation 2018: 428,536

Together, the National Park Service and California State Parks manage Redwood National and State Parks. Along with the tallest trees on Earth, the parks showcase vast prairies, oak woodlands and nearly 40 miles of rugged coastline.

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The parks — including Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park — can be found in Northern California, just south of the Oregon border.

Redwood National and State Parks contain nearly half of the remaining protected old-growth redwoods in California. Be sure to visit Redwood National Park’s Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, an easy one-mile loop through stands of old-growth redwood, tanoak and Douglas fir.

Info: Redwood National and State Parks, nps.gov/redw/index.htm

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Visitation 2018: 1.23 million Sequoia, 699,023 Kings Canyon

Redwoods are known for their height, but sequoias, found in the Sierra, are larger in volume. Sequoia National Park is home to General Sherman, the largest tree by volume in the world.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (the two parks are adjacent to each other in the southern Sierra) can attract crowds and create traffic congestion, especially during summer weekends. But the parks also have remote backpacking hideaways such as Evolution Valley.

Park officials suggest arriving on weekdays and buying your pass online ahead of time to allow more time in nature and less time in the car.

Info: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, nps.gov/seki/index.htm


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