Travel

California's Most Beautiful Parks Are Also the State's Least Visited

Volcano skiing, hot springs, and island diving where you wouldn't think to look.

Photo courtesy of Visitventura
Photo courtesy of Visitventura
Photo courtesy of Visitventura

California is home to more National Parks than any other state-but many are more hidden than you might guess. The state’s most famous parks, like Yosemite, Death Valley, Redwoods, and Joshua Tree, tend to take center stage and overshadow the others, but can get pretty overcrowded any time of year. Though, with so many National Parks in California-plus state parks, landmarks, and monuments more stunning than some states’ National Parks-who says you can’t hit up more than one parcel of mother nature in a single trip?

These newer or more isolated parks have towering spires and pinnacles, skiing on volcanoes, petrified saber-tooth cats, and some of the best diving spots in the world. One has even been nicknamed the Galapagos of North America. And they’re conveniently located a couple hours drive (or boat ride!) from LA, San Francisco, or Las Vegas. Skip the crowds and see for yourself why they call this land the Golden State.

Stass Gricko/500px/Getty Images
Stass Gricko/500px/Getty Images
Stass Gricko/500px/Getty Images

Lassen Volcano

Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northeastern California has all four types of volcanoes found on Earth (cinder cones, composite, lava, and shield volcanoes) with 300 active domes. Lassen has a fraction of Yosemite’s visitors, but has many similar landscapes and geothermal sites. You’ll come across sulfur vents, fumaroles, mud pots, wildflower meadows, mountain lakes, waterfalls, lava tube caves, and boiling hot springs. Don’t miss the Bumpass Hell trail leading to the largest of the eight hydrothermal areas and the easy-to-reach Kings Creek waterfall.

There are 150 miles of trails in the park, 700 flowering plants, and 250 vertebrates. Hike the Cinder Cone volcano in the park’s Butte Lake section, and you’ll see breathtaking 360-degree views of the Painted Dunes and the volcano’s crater. The most famous volcano in the park, Lassen Peak, also offers skiing in the winter.

Brent Barnes/Shutterstock
Brent Barnes/Shutterstock
Brent Barnes/Shutterstock

Channel Islands

The archipelago of Channel Islands National Park is accessible only by a boat with limited seating, making it one of California’s lesser-visited National Parks. Island Packers Cruises is the sole concessionaire allowed to go ashore, so reserve your spot several weeks in advance. The five remarkable islands include Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. The nearest launching points are Oxnard, near LA (60 minutes away) or Ventura (70 minutes).

The nicknamed Galapagos of North America are home to the formerly endangered housecat-size Island Fox, the Island Scrub-Jay, and fields of otherworldly looking flowers. Hike paths with sweeping seascape views, kayak on the ocean and into sea caves, stargaze with lack of light pollution, and enjoy world-class snorkeling and scuba diving. You can find sea stars, sea anemones, and octopuses in the giant, underwater kelp forests. Above water, spot dolphins, orcas, harbor seals, and, depending on the time of year, migrating blue, gray, and humpback whales.

Artur Debat/Moment/Getty Images
Artur Debat/Moment/Getty Images
Artur Debat/Moment/Getty Images

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark is a fascinating cluster of roughly 500 oddly shaped tufa (calcium carbonate) spires and towers dotted across a 14 square mile area in the California Desert Conservation Area. These mineral outcrops originally formed underwater before popping up randomly in the ancient lake bed just east of Ridgecrest, CA. There are many sorts of shapes and sizes of the towers, with the most gigantic pinnacle rising 140 feet above Searles Dry Lake Basin. The Trona Pinnacles is North America’s most spectacular area of tufa tower formations and has been a designated National Natural Landmark since 1968.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Grover Hot Springs

Grover Hot Springs State Park is about 45 minutes south of Lake Tahoe in Markleeville. Soothe your sore muscles in the park’s steamy water that emerges from underground at a scalding 148 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t worry, before you enter the natural hot spring, the green waters are cooled and piped into the park’s two concrete mineral pools. Reservations are required to enter the pools and must be made at least 48 hours in advance or up to three weeks in advance. It’s $10 per adult and $5 per child (ages 0-16).

tanagamine/500px/Getty Images
tanagamine/500px/Getty Images
tanagamine/500px/Getty Images

Pinnacles National Park

Rock climbers and the endangered California condor seem to love the spires of Pinnacles National Park, situated about two hours south of San Francisco. The cliffs were shaped by multiple volcanic eruptions about 23 million years ago, plus wind and water erosion over the millennia. But as old as all that is, Pinnacles is the newest National Park in California, earning the status in 2013, thanks to President Barack Obama.

A beautiful drive along Highway 101 or California State Route 25 gets you there, past Big Sur, the coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the wine region in Monterey County. Once there, canyon bottoms full of piney chaparral and oak woodlands provide over 30 miles of trails. The most popular hike is the High Peaks Loop. For other wildlife fanatics, the easy Balconies Cave loop to the Talus Caves hosts 13 types of bats (including the endangered Townsend’s big-eared bat) and open up to an incredible vista of pinnacles.

Flickr/Matthew Dillon
Flickr/Matthew Dillon
Flickr/Matthew Dillon

Castle Mountains

The Castle Mountains National Monument straddles the Nevada state line and Mojave Desert. Covering about 21,000 acres, Castle Mountains is home to sprawling Joshua tree forests and rare desert grasslands. Seventy-eight miles from Las Vegas, the mountainous area is only reachable by dirt roads, so it’s crucial to have four-wheel drive for this bumpy ride. Spring is a gorgeous time to visit, as wildflowers bring vivid colors to the sweeping desert. In the hot summer months, the monument’s highest elevations, such as the Mid-Hills and the New York Mountains, provide a refreshing view.

Nick Ocean Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Nick Ocean Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Nick Ocean Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Lava Beds

Just south of the Oregon border, Lava Beds National Monument has a pretty self-explanatory name, but we’ll go over the history anyway. Formed by volcanic eruptions over the last half-million years, the butte-studded high desert wilderness has over 800 caves, many Native American rock art sites, and incredible topography. At Petroglyph Point, you can see antiquated Modoc rock craftsmanship. Go caving and see a variety of bat species including Townsend’s big-eared bats. The most developed caves are located along the 2-mile Cave Loop near the visitor center, while the least challenging caves to hike are Mushpot, Sentinel, Valentine, Skull, Merrill, and Big Painted.

Angela Dukich/EyeEm/Getty Images
Angela Dukich/EyeEm/Getty Images
Angela Dukich/EyeEm/Getty Images

Red Rock Canyon

Movie buffs will love seeing the familiar desert cliffs, buttes, and rock formations at The Red Rock Canyon State Park, where many old Hollywood westerns were filmed. The park’s colorful outcrops were eroded by wind and water over the millennia leaving behind towering walls striped in reds and oranges. The 27,000-acre park has short hiking trails to extraordinary tributary canyons, the most popular of which lead to Hagen Canyon and Red Rock Canyon. Look closely at the cliff’s sediments to see the remains of prehistoric animals such as three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats, and alligator lizards. You can also view petroglyphs from the indigenous Kawaiisu people.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Lola Méndez is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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