6 Best Least-Visited California National Park & Recreation Areas

California has more National Parks than any state.

The National Parks Service (NPS) protects the most pristine lands and greatest treasures that the United States has to offer. From ocean-side to the mountaintop, nowhere else can rival the variety of NPS units represented by California. It was here that an effort to set aside the lands of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California began the creation of the NPS system as we know it today.

Our family can’t get enough of seeing our various park units. A “park unit” is a location under the umbrella of the NPS including National Parks, National Monuments, National Preserves, National Historic Sites, National Historical Parks, and National Memorials. Three years ago we became avid “park stamper” hobbyists and now schedule our travels with park units in mind. My 5-year-old loves earning Junior Ranger and Junior Conductor badges while I enjoy seeing her learning about history and nature more organically. There are so many things to see and do that bond us as a family and create wonderful lifetime memories.

One thing that park stamping forced me to do was to get off the beaten path of the NPS units. Sure California offers Yosemite, Sequoia, and Redwoods National Parks, the Golden Gate Bridge (part of a larger National Recreational Area), and Alcatraz are worth a look. But there are just as many gems within the system that get missed.

Here are our Top 6 “Unseen” NPS recommendations.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial

The site of the largest homeland disaster during World War II, this memorial also epitomizes the struggle for African-American equality in our nation’s military. On July 17, 1944, an explosion rocked this Naval Ammunition Depot killing 320 and destroying two ships. Most of the dead were African-American enlisted sailors in the segregated Navy who were forced to handle more labor-intensive and dangerous tasks.

A month after the explosion there was a work stoppage by the soldiers due to ongoing safety concerns and fear of a repeat explosion. Instead of improving conditions, the Navy took hundreds into custody and convicted the “Port Chicago 50″ with mutiny. This brought attention to the racial disparity in the Armed Forces and was a turning point in the fight for equality and desegregation of the Navy.

When I asked a group of fellow park stampers their top unseen park units, this was a unanimous selection. As a resident of the Bay Area, I was unaware of this park unit for years. The site, located in the East Bay just north of Concord on the banks of the Sacramento River, does prove challenging to visit. One must make a reservation and get clearance to enter the Concord Naval Weapons Station AT LEAST two weeks in advance. In 2012, there was a total of 533 visitors making it the least visited park unit in the State of California. But this is one that you’ll want to definitely visit if only to talk to one’s children about the fight for racial equality in America.

Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

Born in a hotel off-Broadway, Eugene O’Neill grew up to become what many consider America’s greatest playwright. It was his last three largely autobiographical plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, which drew him the most notoriety. O’Neill became the only American playwright to ever be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Located on the hillside in Danville, his ranch estate has been preserved as he left it. This is another park unit in which prior reservations are necessary most days. It is nestled in a cozy neighborhood and therefore the only way to access the property is by NPS shuttle bus. The bus leaves from downtown Danville and I would also recommend stopping by the O’Neill Commemorative Sculpture before or after your visit.

The planning is well worth it when visitors are greeted with sweeping vistas overlooking the San Ramon Valley and Mt. Diablo in the distance. Once off the bus, visitors are given a tour of the house provided by some of the most passionate and knowledgeable Park Rangers I have ever encountered. At the end of the tour, guests are able to look at his Nobel Prize which is on display near the bookstore.

Luckily there is additional time built into the tour bus visit for one to tour the grounds. There are orchards, garden walks, a pond, classic barn, and several acres of trails. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the serene setting. As the second least visited park unit in California, with less than 3,000 visitors in 2012, one can see how this homestead not only inspired O’Neill but also gave him the peace and seclusion he was in search of.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Rising from the Pacific Ocean into the hills of the Santa Monica, this recreation area is actually a compilation of various state parks and open space preserves. As one of only 5 areas in the world with a semiarid Mediterranean climate ecosystem, this area is definitely a natural gem.

Start your visit at the new Interagency Visitors Center at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas. Our family had the pleasure of being at the grand opening last year. This facility uses interactive technology, hands-on education, and interpretive displays to examine the cultural, historical, and biodiversity of the region. If you bring children, don’t forget to head out to the courtyard and examine the “skat” displays of area animals.

I highly recommend a stop at one of the many cultural sites or historic homes (Will Roger’s house is among them). One of our favorites is the Satwiwa Native American Indian Cultural Center. While it may be a little off the beaten path this facility is a great peek in the lives of the Chumash and Tongva/Gabrielino cultures. Not only can one see a replica of an Ap (a traditional Chumash hut) and hike meadow trails but we’ve also participated in amazing hand-on activities and attended great lectures. One note – watch out for snakes!

If one isn’t interested in cultural, historical, or environmental offerings there are always abundant recreational opportunities including hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and beach-combing. This park unit is definitely one that has “something for everyone”!

John Muir National Historic Site

Considered the “Father of the National Park Service”, preservationist and naturalist John Muir have left an immense legacy for the nation and the world. He was instrumental in leading the fight for the conservation of our greatest natural treasures such as Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, and the Grand Canyon. As the founder of the Sierra Club, he worked tirelessly to make sure that nature was not exploited and that instead it was revered.

At the Muir homestead, you’ll find a step back in time. Step into the farmhouse and view artifacts and antiques from the days in which Muir and his family lived there. There are tours available that talk about the significance that Muir had on the Bay Area region as well as the national stage. While exploring, do stop and ruminate for a while in Muir’s study. There are several letters and other writings from him that are on display to read. And don’t forget to let the kids into the attic to ring the bell!

The fruit and nut orchards outside are a perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon picnic. Try to stay close to the babbling brook which completely drowns out the nearby freeway noise and allows for peaceful reflection. While on the grounds, don’t miss the Martinez Adobe at the back of the property. This is actually part of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail (see list below) and a great additional educational opportunity.

Lastly, don’t leave without visiting Mount Wanda! While the estate lends itself to leisurely strolls, Mount Wanda is really the place where one can step into Muir’s shoes and hike the same hilly trails that he once did. Do note that Mount Wanda is NOT attached to the Muir homestead but is actually down the road a bit. Be prepared to either walk the short distance or drive.

One thing I do HIGHLY recommend is to take part in the many events and activities offered at this park unit. From Family Days to moonlit walks to campfire programs there is such a variety of educational courses and tours that are available. It’s a shame that more people don’t realize what a resource and opportunity this park unit offer as it is the third least visited unit in California.

Pinnacles National Park

For those that love iconic natural sights like Devil’s Tower or Mt. Rainier, I highly recommend a visit to the Pinnacles. Located south of Hollister, this park is a skyline wonder as sheer rock faces reach to the sky from the Salinas Valley floor. With camping, hiking, cave exploration, and a variety of other trekking activities, this is a National Park where one truly feels alone and “at one” with nature.

his park unit is probably where I’ve had the greatest “I wished I had known ahead of time” feeling. First, I highly recommend NOT visiting this park during the summer months. On our first visit, while Salinas may have been a hot 90 degrees, the Visitors Center (inside the East Entrance Gate) was recording a sweltering 114 degrees when we arrived. If you do decide to venture out during the hot months DO bring extra water and make sure your car has plenty of gas. There is quite a drive through farmland and dry terrain with little to no services available (gas, food, water, bathrooms).

The other item to note is that there are TWO entrances. One to the East where the main Visitors Center is and one to the West where the Bear Gulch Nature Center is located. There is NO road connecting through the park. To go from one center to another is a considerable trek by car so be prepared!

Rosie The Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park

Celebrating not only the contribution of “Rosie The Riveter” civilian women gave during World War II, but this park unit also honors all those who helped win the war at home. It is a glimpse into the life of the men and women who worked hard to help out the war effort.

Located along the Marina Bay waterfront in Richmond, the various exhibits, tours, and educational events personalize the daily lives and struggles of Americans. Featured sites include the SS Red Oak Victory Ship, Rosie The Riveter Memorial, Ford Assembly Plant, and the Kaiser Shipyard. One can even see what preschool was like at the Maritime Child Development Center.

Once again, pre-planning is a MUST for this location so you don’t waste a trip out. It is good to note that certain parts of the park unit are not open daily (example: the partner-run SS Red Oak Victory Ship) so check the schedule before arriving. Reservations are required for some events such as the city bus tour so call ahead to book. It wasn’t until our second visit that we were able to see all of the park offerings as the buildings are spread out. I highly recommend you head to the Visitor Education Center first, talk to the friendly Rangers, grab a map, and set out from there.

Top 6 Honorable Mentions

  1. Manzanar National Historic Site – As the 4th least attended park unit in California, this previous Japanese internment camp serves as a reminder of America’s dark side during World War II.
  2. Devils Postpile National Monument – This 5th least attended park unit in California has natural wonder written all over it. Not only does it have basalt columns over 60 feet high but you’ll also find the 101 foot Rainbow Falls here.
  3. César E. Chávez National Monument – This “in progress” location at the gravesite of César Chávez highlights the leader who founded the nation’s first agricultural union in order to secure greater workplace safety and higher pay for workers out in the fields of California.
  4. Lava Beds National Monument – Volcanic activity lead to amazing geological formations here (Mineral Lake, lava tubes & caves, rock formations, etc) which in turn inspired cultural and historical creations.
  5. Mojave National Preserve – There is so much to explore in this desert oasis that comes alive with spectacular views, amazing plants and animal life, and historical treasures just waiting to be discovered.
  6. Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail – This commemorates several key stops on the trail that Anza and over 240 people traveled from Arizona to the Bay Area. A cool addition is the Amtrak Coast Starlights’s “Trails And Rails” program along the route.
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