From the tallest peak in the Lower 48 (that’d be Mt. Whitney) to the lowest point in America (Death Valley, of course), the great state of California boasts a bounty of natural splendor. And if you’re willing to haul some serious ass, you can see a lot of it in just a few days! If you have a car, a pair of hiking boots, and a lot of caffeine, you can check a few of the world’s most famous natural wonders off the list in single business week.
Fair warning, though: this crash course in wilderness wonder will see you spending a lot more time in a car than in a pair of hiking boots. Sure, taking the scenic route is usually better, but sometimes you just want to cram things in.
Get Ready to See 5 Great Parks in 5 Days!
Get started by flying into Los Angeles International Airport and renting a car. Just make sure you can leave said vehicle at SFO a few days later (enlisting a friend to come along for the journey is also acceptable–nay!–preferable).
Leave the airport and head for…
Joshua Tree National Park (a mere 155 mile drive due east)
If you plan things properly (e.g. an early AM arrival), you should be able to get there with enough time to spend five or six hours roaming the stunning desert and perhaps musing as to why U2 named an album after these unique samples of florae. (Sure, Joshua Trees are lovely, but to a bunch of dudes from Ireland?)
Leave the park heading due north by the early evening and either make camp or get a hotel once you have logged about 130 miles. This will put you half way to your next destination, the peerless…
Sequoia National Forest (some 250 miles north of Joshua Tree)
There is much to see and do among the Sequoias, but you’re on a mission, dammit! So let’s get right to it and head for General Sherman, the largest known (single stem) tree on the whole planet. General Sherman stands at 275 feet tall and weighs an estimated 4.12 million pounds. Yeah, it’s big. Take a few minutes to admire the grandeur and then… well… hit the road! We’re headed for…
Yosemite Falls (170 indirect miles; you might want to stop for the night in Fresno)
Yosemite Falls is but one of the many draws in Yosemite National Park, along with the stunning El Capitan and Half Dome rock formations popular among hikers/climbers, but we don’t have time for all the fancy footwork: you can enjoy the falls by walking just a few hundred yards from the main Yosemite Lodge, so that’s your destination. Just be aware it doesn’t flow as majestically when the snow’s not melting. Anyway, now it’s off for…
Lake Tahoe (can you make the 184 miles in the same day?)
Lake Tahoe is a great ski spot in the winter, great for swimming and other water sports in the warmer months, and if you cross over to the LAs Vegas side, you can gamble. So in other words, there’s something for everyone. Yahoo. Depending on the season and your preferred hobbies, spend a night, then hit the road headed west for the beloved…
Napa Valley (another 150 miles, but there’s wine!)
In Napa Valley (or neighboring Sonoma) you can enjoy hikes, bike riding, and other such recreation, but lets be honest: you just dragged yourself up and down and all around this massive state… you want to relax and drink wine now! Spend the afternoon and evening relaxing and tasting and then settle into a luxurious suite or some fleabag motel you passed earlier on the highway.
From most parts of Napa, it’s just under 70 miles to the San Francisco Airport, a short jaunt after what you’ve done. Head out in the morning and get back to that “real life” of yours!
(Of course, if you want to go nuts, it’s just over 275 miles north to the Redwood National Forest! But frankly, beautiful as the Coastal Redwoods are, save ’em for next time, you’ve seen big trees already.)