Touring Southern California’s National Parks

In the United States, there are sixty-two national parks, each unique in landscape, features, waterways, and plants and wildlife. Of these sixty-two parks, nine reside in the beautiful state of California. Some are found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, while others are found in the desert and still others along the scenic coastline. Three of these magnificent national parks are in Southern California, and the winter and early spring seasons can be the best times to visit these lovely places. Travelling here in your RV only adds to the enjoyment, so buckle up and let’s take a tour of the national parks of SoCal.

Channel Islands is one of the national parks that does not exist within the continental US.

1. Joshua Tree

Less than three hours from Los Angeles or under an hour from Palm Springs, you can find Joshua Tree National Park. This park marks the rare intersection of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in a land that was once sculpted by heavy rains and strong winds. Driving through the park, visitors will encounter lots of mountains, rock structures, desert cactuses and plants, abundant wildlife, and, of course, the park’s namesake Joshua trees. These wacky trees are rather rare, being found only in parts of southern Nevada, southern California, small sections of Arizona and Utah. Their odd shape and structure makes them look like something from a Dr. Seuss book, but they have actually been around for thousands of years. 

Driving through the park, visitors can see entire fields of Joshua trees, and these are what many folks picture when they think of Joshua Tree National Park. However, there is much more to do here than meets the eye. Between the hiking, rock climbing, biking, backpacking, stargazing, birding, photography opportunities, camping and more, there is no shortage of things to see and do on any trip to Joshua Tree. Since the park has nine excellent campgrounds to choose from, visiting in your RV is easier than ever.

Joshua Trees are a rare variety of the yucca plant.
Credit: Shay Spatz

Camping

Of Joshua Tree’s nine campgrounds, four are reservable, and five operate on a first come, first-served (FCFS) basis. All campgrounds besides Hidden Valley and White Tank permit RVs up to thirty-five feet in length. Hidden Valley and White Tank permit RVs up to twenty-five feet in length. Camping is reasonably-priced, and most campgrounds are closed from May through September, so winter and spring are the best times to visit. Be sure to book ahead of time if you want to stay in a reservable campground, or arrive early in the day to choose a campsite at an FCFS campground.

Joshua Tree is one of the quirkiest national pakrs in the US.
Credit: Hannah Schwalbe

2. Death Valley

Despite its less than inviting name, Death Valley welcomes over one million guests per year in the largest national park in the continental United States. Here, Badwater Basin marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, but just over 100 miles away lies Mount Whitney, the highest point in North America. Many consider this park the land of extremes. Dried up lake beds, tall desert peaks, rock structures of rainbow hues, glistening sand dunes, and sprinkled vegetation all create the beauty seen here. The summer temperatures can reach over 130 degrees, and Furnace Creek holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth at 134 degrees Fahrenheit.

Considering the size and diversity of this park, it’s not surprising that there is so much to do here. Popular activities include hiking, backcountry driving, biking, stargazing, auto touring, camping, and more. Even in the winter months, it can be very hot here, so visitors must hike and bike early in the day and pack plenty of water. 

Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous US.
Credit: Bob Dass

Camping

There are six Death Valley campgrounds open to RVs. Only Furnace Creek accepts reservations in the winter, and the other five are first come, first served. Besides a handful of sites with hookups at Furnace Creek, the rest are all dry camping, so plan accordingly. 

Death Valley is one of the most stunning national parks in the United States.
Credit: Esther Lee

3. Channel Islands

The final Southern California national park is located across five islands in the Pacific Ocean, rather than in the desert. Because these islands have been isolated from the continent for so long, they contain unique plant and animal life found nowhere else on earth. Transportation to this national park is by park concessionaire boats or planes, or by private boat. Tickets for boat transportation are available year round and should be purchased as far in advance as possible. Because there are five separate islands, one must plan several boat trips to see all of them. Of these, Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island are the most popular.

Once you have reached the islands, there are plenty of activities to do and beautiful sights to see. There are lots of hiking trails, leading to some of the most marvelous views, and private companies rent kayaks and gear for snorkeling, diving and kayaking. Surfing, tidepooling, and fishing are popular from the island shore, and opportunities for all sorts of wildlife watching abound.

Channel Islands is one of the national parks that does not exist within the continental US.

Camping

Unfortunately, there is no RV camping on the Channel Islands because the island is not driveable. However, those wanting to tent camp can stay on any island with advanced reservation. There are several great RV parks and other free camping locations located in Ventura and Oxnard nearby the ports to Channel Islands, perfect for anyone visiting in their RV and day tripping to the islands.

Kayaking is a popular activity at Channel Islands.

The Southern California national parks are some of the best in the country, and it’s even more fun to visit them in your RV. Be sure to make reservations ahead if you are wanting to camp in any of the reservation-only campgrounds. Remember that winter is the best time of year to visit these parks, so start planning your trips for the end of this season or next winter soon!

Death Valley is a land of extremes.
Credit: Sandrine Néel

Have you visited Joshua Tree, Death Valley, or Channel Islands National Parks? How was your experience? Comment below to share your thoughts and memories!

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  1. Kevin
    20th February, 2020

    Good article. THE POP-UPs ARE EXTREMELY ANNOYING!!