Five National Parks Near Los Angeles

El Capitan, a granite monolith, dominates Yosemite valley.

El Capitan, a granite monolith, dominates Yosemite valley.

Story and photos by Susan Hegger

Susan worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter and feature editor. She is a world traveller and an avid photographer.

All the destinations are beautiful and within a day’s drive.

What could be more American than celebrating Thanksgiving in a national park? I’ve done that with my brother and his family for the past five years, ever since I was widowed. I’ve welcomed forging a new tradition for a new life; we’ve all embraced the closeness that comes from sharing adventures in some of the country’s most beautiful and iconic settings. As flexible as we are, we have one non-negotiable requirement: The park must be within a reasonable day’s drive of Los Angeles. (Think three kids, now 7, 9 and 11, in a minivan.)

We leave the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, giving us an early start. But, like the rest of the world, we return to LA on Sunday, braced for traffic.

In order nearest to farthest, here are estimated travel times, mileage and routes to five parks in easy reach of Los Angeles.

Joshua Tree National Park

2 hours, 20 minutes (211 kilometres) via Interstate 10 East

For starters, the park has no stores, restaurants or hotels. So unless you rough it, consider staying in Palm Springs, about 80 kilometres from the park. The popular town’s dose of mid-century modern sophistication is the perfect complement to a day hiking in the desert. If you have kids, make sure to see the aptly named Skull Rock, near Jumbo Rocks campground. Make an adventure out of it by taking the 2.7-kilometre trail from the campground instead of just parking in a nearby lot.

Sequoia National Park 

3 hours, 33 minutes (327 kilometres) via Interstate 5 North and CA-65 North

Sequoia is officially Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park, although we never quite made it into King’s Canyon. We found plenty to see in Sequoia, including the General Sherman Tree, reportedly the world’s largest tree. In the gateway town of Three Rivers, we discovered the Ol’ Buckaroo, a food truck with picnic tables, fire pit and plenty of space for kids to run around. The food was so good we kept coming back. Now, apparently, there’s an actual indoor restaurant.

Yosemite National Park 

4 hours, 45 minutes (452 kilometres) via CA-99 North and Interstate 5 North

Yosemite, one of the most beautiful places in the world, was especially magical in early winter, with snow and diminished crowds. We stayed inside the park at a Yosemite West loft condo. (Be forewarned: The development is at a higher elevation than Yosemite Valley, and the snow that year was quite deep; chains were required for the car.) This is where we perfected our slow cooker dinner routines.

Zion National Park

6 hours, 35 minutes (697 kilometres) via Interstate 15 North

Normally, I prefer, if possible, staying within the national park. But not at Zion. The charming town of Springdale is right smack at the park’s entrance. If possible, drop by the Bit and Spur restaurant for tasty Southwestern fare. A convenient shuttle from Springdale takes visitors into and around the park, where they can hike everything from the easy Emerald Pools Trail to the difficult Angels Landing Trail.

Grand Canyon National Park

7 hours, 10 minutes (782 kilometres) via Interstate 40 West

Our group expanded this year, with my sister and brother-in-law joining in. We rented a house in Williams, about an hour’s straight shot south of the Grand Canyon. Williams is an appealing Route 66 town, with a retro main street, full of neon signs, classic cars and souvenir shops.

Next year? Who knows? We may push the limits. We’re talking Bryce Canyon. That’s 7 hours and 42 minutes, 848 kilometres. But who’s counting?

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