California has some of the most stunning scenery in all of North America, and much of the best of it has been preserved in National Parks. There is astonishing variety here, from the awesome barrenness of Death Valley to the forests of redwood and sequoia trees - great monuments to the wonder of life on earth.
Redwood National Park
Redwood trees are sequoias - the world's largest trees. The redwood forests of Northern California are an awe-inspiring sight: the species here, Coast Redwoods, grow in tightly packed forests, creating an internal space that is described as cathedral-like for its scale, for the dappled light that drops through the high canopy, and for the silence. Although ruthlessly logged for timber, a slice of natural forest has been preserved along the coast to the north of Eureka, traversed by a spectacular road, with various stopping points at highlights, such as the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Another spectacular drive leads along the 'Avenue of the Giants' in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, to the south of Eureka. This contains the world's tallest tree: the Stratosphere Giant, rising to about 370 ft (113 m).
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Volcanic activity and earthquakes are part and parcel of the West Coast's history and folklore. The Lassen Volcanic National Park, in Northern California, focuses on Mount Lassen, a volcano that erupted repeatedly between 1914 and 1917, causing widespread devastation. Today the park serves as a reminder of the forces that lie beneath the earth's crust, with steaming mud pots and fumaroles, sulphur springs and lava flows, all set against the magnificent landscape of the Cascade Range.
Yosemite National Park
This magnificent national park, some 140 miles (225 km) east of San Francisco, contains much of the best that the landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountains has to offer: steep-sided gorges, granite cliffs, forests, groves of sequoia trees, and waterfalls (including North America's highest, the Yosemite Falls). There are good roads for touring by car, as well as trails for hikers and horseback riders in search of true wilderness.
Sequoia National Park
Coast Redwoods may be the tallest trees in the world, but Giant Sequoias - a related species - are more massive. Indeed they are the world's biggest trees, by volume. The largest Giant Sequoia is in the Sequoia National Park: the 'General Sherman' is nearly 275 ft (84 m) high, and has a girth of more than 107 ft (32.6 m). It is believed to be about 2,200 years old. The park not only holds these extraordinary wonders of nature; it also encompasses Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the USA outside Alaska. Adjacent to the Sequoia National Park is the Kings Canyon National Park, with its impressive granite canyon scoured out by ancient glaciers; it also has Giant Sequoia groves, and includes the 'General Grant', the world's second largest tree.
Death Valley National Park
Close to the border with Nevada, the land drops to its lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 ft (86 m) below sea level, creating a searingly hot and dry cauldron of salt beds and sand dunes, surrounded by stark mountains. Summer temperatures can reach 120ºF (49ºC). Yet there is an ethereal beauty to this unforgiving landscape, and various life forms have found a niche in its inhospitable climate, such as the pupfish in Salt Creek, lizards, rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats, mesquite trees and date-palms. Outposts of human activity, such as the remains of the old borax mines (used in glassmaking and washing powder), and oasis dwellings help to underline the hostility of their setting.
Joshua Tree National Park
This stark, rocky, semi-desert landscape 100 miles (160 km) east of Los Angeles includes startling outcrops or eroded granite, and a large variety of cacti and desert flowers. But its stars are the gnarled and brush-like Joshua trees, a species of yucca unique to southwestern North America; many of them are several hundred years old.