Map of California's Protected Areas
This interactive map shows the Locations, Names, Areas, and Details of National Parks, State Parks, National Forests, Tribal, and other Public Lands of California. It also shows major cities and rivers for context. For more detail, zoom in. For more information, hover over the map, or scroll down.
|Lake or River|
|National Park Service|
|California Dept. of Parks and Recreation|
|U.S. Forest Service|
|Fish and Wildlife Service|
|Bureau of Land Management|
|Department of Defense|
|U.S. Army Corps of Engineers|
The Golden State is an economic powerhouse and a center of population.
California is the most populous state in the United States, with 40 million people.
With 58 counties and about 1,000 miles of coastline, this is a state of contrasts. In California you can go surfing, skiing, hiking in forested mountains, or go for a stroll in the desert.
California's climate could be described as mild. This is thanks to the California current that comes from Alaska. Cool maritime air masses moderate the heat from the desert.
The result is a cool ocean breeze in the summer and cool temperatures in the winter that don't drop very much. Nevertheless, California is a long state. So there are still climatic differences between its borders.
Unfortunately, this mild weather and arid conditions make California prone to wildfires.
There are different ways to divide California into different regions. This is a broad classification to describe a state full of contrasts. Source: California's Regions
The Sierra Nevada is a steep mountain range from sea level at the Valley floor to 10,000 feet (3,048m) of elevation, across just 30 miles (48.2Km).
In the Sierra Nevada, you can find Mount Whitney. This is the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S. with 14,505 feet (4,421 m) of elevation.
The Sierra Nevada is home to parks like Kings Canyon & Sequoia, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite. These parks attract millions of visitors each year.
The North Cascades are dominated by tall mountains and volcanoes. It has forests but also deserts that are part of the Great Basin.
California's Northern Coast
The Northern Coast is wild and has a rugged terrain. In this region, you will find Redwood National Park.
The Central Valley is a prominent region flanked by the coast and the Sierra Nevada.
Central Valley is fed by 2 rivers. The Sacramento River flows from the north and the San Joaquin River flows from the south.
The rivers originate from melting snow on the Sierra Nevada. Both rivers meet in the middle and empty in the San Francisco Bay.
The water from the rivers is crucial to growing the crops.
The valley is large and flat, it takes 11% of the area of the state, but produces 50% of fruits and vegetables consumed in the entire country.
Central Valley is also home to the Sutter Buttes, the world's smallest mountain range. It is an anomaly made of remnants of an eroded volcano.
The Bay Area is one of the largest estuaries in North America. It was carved by the union of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
The estuary is connected to the Pacific by a thin strait where the Golden Gate Bridge is located.
The Bay area is a center of population. It is home to various San Francisco, San Jose, and Silicone Valley.
The Northern side of the bay is home to Napa Valley where California's wine is produced.
California's Central Coast
The Central Coast has crops and scenic roads by the coast. It is known by the Monterey Bay and fishing culture.
California's Southern Coast
Southern Coast is what people think of California, hot weather, Hollywood, and lots of tourism.
California's Desert Region
The desert regions consist of the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. Beautiful untouched desert scenery.
The Colorado River provides an incredible contrast to an otherwise dry scenery.
This is where Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks are located.
California's Natural and Protected Areas
The Golden State's geography is the perfect setting for an incredible array of parks and natural areas for visitors to enjoy.
California has 9 National Parks, more than any other state. They are not just beautiful, they are also quite diverse, scenic, and some of the most accessible in the country!
Besides the National Parks, the National Park Service manages Wilderness Areas, Recreation Areas, Preserves, and others. These areas are represented in red on the map above.
California's National Parks are:
- Channel Islands
- Death Valley
- Joshua Tree
- Lassen Volcanic
- Lava Beds
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon
If all these National Parks are not enough, California has over 200 areas managed as State Parks. California's state park system is one of the biggest and most diverse park systems in the U.S. The state parks are represented in lime green on the map above.
California also has 20 National Forests. These forests are mainly located on the Cascades and in the Sierra Nevada. National Forests and Wilderness Areas managed by the USFS are represented in dark green on the map.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees 15 million acres of public lands in California, about 15% of the Golden State’s total landmass. Because of their use, these lands are not just for conservation and recreation, they are also used for foresting, mining, and grazing. BLM.gov
IUCN Protected Areas
IUCN is a program within the World Commission on Protected Areas. IUCN stands for International Union for Conservation.
Protected Areas are "a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values".
"Protected areas – national parks, wilderness areas, community conserved areas, nature reserves and so on – are a mainstay of biodiversity conservation, while also contributing to people’s livelihoods, particularly at the local level." Source: IUCN Programme
IUCN helps countries designate and manage these areas so they can value and conserve biodiversity while sharing its benefits equitably.
IUCN Protected Areas Categories
As you explore the map and hover over the parks and natural areas, you may read that some have an IUCN category.
Their purpose is to classify protected areas according to their management objectives.
These excerpts are summarized from IUCN Categories System:
- Ia Strict Nature Reserve: Category Ia are strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphic features.
- Ib Wilderness Area: Category Ib protected areas are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character.
- II National Park: Category II protected areas are large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational, and visitor opportunities.
- III Natural Monument or Feature: Category III protected areas are set aside to protect a specific natural monument.
- IV Habitat/Species Management Area: Category IV protected areas aim to protect particular species or habitats and management reflects this priority.
- V Protected Landscape/ Seascape: A protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character.
- VI Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources: Category VI protected areas conserve ecosystems and habitats together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems.
California's Best National and State Parks
Making a list of California's best Parks could be limited to just its National Parks. Nevertheless, this list tries to include other designations and protected areas that may be enjoyed by visitors.
These are California's most-searched parks and natural areas on Google trends.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are located east of Fresno and are represented in red on the map above.
The main attraction of this park is the giant sequoias, the largest tree in the world.
Besides their size, sequoias stand out from other trees by their red and orange bark color, which is different from other gray and brown tree trunks.
These giants grow between 4,000 and 8,000 feet (1,219 and 2,438 m) in elevation, along the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. These are not the oldest trees, but they can live around 3,400 years.
Sequoia groves are mixed conifer forests with giant sequoias. These mixed groves allow for a more visually striking experience.
Giant Forest is one of the many groves tourists can visit. This grove has the largest sequoias, including General Sherman, the largest one of all.
Sequoias are not just carbon sinks and an attraction for visitors. Their tree rings are a valuable record of climate fluctuations in the past.
Given their location, sequoias have evolved with fire. Their bark protects the trees against fires and is not rare to see trees with scars from past blazes.
Fires are also important as they promote seedlings to grow. Bare and barren mineral soil, left by fires, is indispensable for sequoia seeds to germinate. Sequoia.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is a desertic environment east of Los Angeles. This park is characterized by its granite monoliths and boulder formations.
This is a rainshadow desert as the mountains block the rain from reaching this area.
Daily high and low temperatures can vary as much as 50°F (28°C).
Joshua Tree has two recognizable desert ecosystems, Colorado and Mojave.
The western half of Joshua Tree National Park ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 feet (609m-1,524m) in elevation
The desert receives about 3-5 inches (76.2-127mm) of rain annually, most of which occurs during the winter.
The Mojave Desert has a slightly cooler climate than the Colorado Desert and is also recognized by the Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to this region.
The eastern half is part of the Colorado Desert, also part of the Sonoran Desert. This is one of the aridest regions in North America.
It is characterized by low elevations (<2,000 feet or <609m), hotter temperatures, and less rainfall than the Mojave Desert.
The Colorado Desert may appear barren, but supports a greater diversity of plants and animals than the Mojave desert. Nevertheless, the Joshua Tree is absent here.
Pinyon Pine and Juniper Zone
There is also a third ecosystem in the park. It is at high elevations and it hosts pinyon pine and juniper trees. This woodland provides shelter and shade in the highest mountains. Source: USGS
Joshua Tree Wildlife
During the daytime, not much wildlife is visible, since most of its inhabitants are nocturnal. Most of them are active after dark.
Some of Joshua Tree's inhabitants include coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, golden eagles, and the Mojave Desert Tortoise.
If your interest is geared towards the stars, this park was recently designated as an International Dark Sky Park.
Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood is along the Pacific Coast and close to the Oregon border.
This unique site is the partnership between 3 state parks Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, plus Redwood National Park.
Redwood's weather is moderated by the Pacific Ocean, with temperatures ranging from 50°F to 60°F (10°C to 15°C). Summers are dry and winters are rainy.
These parks are recognized for having the tallest trees in the world, the massive coastal Redwood. Visitors can also see mosses ferns and the scenic coastline of northern California.
The best hike in the park is Tall Trees Grove. This grove is home to the tallest tree, Hyperion, with 379 feet (115m). Source: Redwood.
Death Valley National Park
Situated east of Fresno, close to the border with Nevada, this is a park of extremes.
Death Valley has recorded the hottest temperature on Earth 134°F (57°C).
Death Valley is also the driest U.S. National Park, in addition, it features the lowest elevation in North America with -282ft (86m).
Death Valley is an adventure waiting for visitors to experience. There are majestic dunes, slot canyons, salt flats, and rocky peaks for visitors to explore.
Despite being a desert, Death Valley has more than 1,000 plant species, from ancient bristlecone pines to spring wildflowers.
This plant diversity is thanks to 11,000 feet (3,352m) of elevation change.
The park is also known for spectacular spring blooms. Nevertheless, they don't occur every year. Perfect conditions allow for this event to happen and lure visitors. Source: Death Valley
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
West of Fresno, on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, right by the Pacific Coast, is Pfeiffer Big Sur.
Visitors enjoy walking by the banks of the Big Sur River, redwoods, conifers, sycamores, cottonwoods alders, oaks, maples, willows, open meadows, and waterfalls.
The park has no access to the beach, but visitors may find some ocean views. The main attraction is the nature trails for hikers to explore. Source: Big Sur
Crystal Cove State Park
Just south of Los Angeles by the Pacific Coast. This park has a Mediterranean climate, foggy summer mornings, warm days, and cool evenings.
Crystal Cove State Park has rolling surf, sandy beaches, tidepools, sloping hills, and deeply wooded canyons, and ridges.
Crystal Cove is visited by hikers, swimmers, and surfers. Source: Crystal Cove
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Located just south of San Jose, by the California Coast, on the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is California's oldest state park.
The biggest attraction of the park is the Redwood trees. The trees may be 305 feet (93m) tall, 50 feet (15m) round, and even 1,500 years old!
The park also has mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats. Source: Big Basin
Red Rock Canyon State Park
North of Los Angeles, is a lime green speck on the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada.
This scenic park has desert cliffs, buttes, and rock formations. Visitors enjoy viewing the dramatic shapes and lively colors.
The park has different canyons with distinctive features.
Like other sites in the state, this park blooms after winter with spring rains. Source: Red Rock
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If you plan on visiting one of these arid parks or hiking up the Sierra Nevada, I suggest you get some of these items found on Amazon.
- CamelBak, Hydration Pack: This comfortable vest and pack holds 2 Liter of water and is designed for quick loading and refilling.
- Merrell Waterproof Hiking Boot: Ideal for walking comfortably through California trails.
- Victorinox Swiss Army Huntsman Pocket Knife (Red): An army knife always comes in handy. You never know what you will find or need in remote areas.
Resources for California's Protected Areas Map
The shapefiles with California's state boundary lines, major rivers, and cities were downloaded from Natural Earth Data.
The Parks and Public Lands shapefiles for California were downloaded from USGS.
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Made by Luz K. Molina with D3.js.