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California's Inspiring National Parks

Pinnacles, Yosemite National Parks and Manzanar National Historic Site drive home the power and purpose of the National Park Service.

  • Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park with high Sierra granite, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Don Graham
    Photo caption
    Beautiful today, Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park was once overrun with herds of domestic animals.
  • guard tower at Manzanar National Historic Site, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of the National Park Service/Manzanar National Historic Site
    Photo caption
    Guards in towers like this at the Manzanar War Relocation Center had orders to shoot any Japanese prisoners who tried to leave.
  • condor at Pinnacles National Park, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Gavin Emmons
    Photo caption
    A giant, endangered California condor wheels over Pinnacles National Park.

This year, the National Park Service celebrates a century of existence. In California, that means honoring 27 national parks and thousands of historic sites and landmarks that preserve the state’s gripping scenery, culture, history, and wildlife. But numbers alone can’t convey their achievements—you have to experience the parks in person. Here are three goosebump-inducing spots in the state where you can see and feel the value of National Parks for yourself.

Pinnacles National Park
The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America and one of the most endangered species on the planet. Before recovery efforts began in the late 1980s, fewer than 30 were left in the wild. Pinnacles National Park, an arid swath of low mountains studded with soaring rock towers about 50 miles east of Monterey, is now the only national park to serve as a California condor release site. The program began in 2003 in partnership with the Ventana Wildlife Society. “This was a historical foraging area for condors,” Condor Program Manager Rachel Wolstenholme says about the park’s role. To release them here, she says, “just made sense.”

Condors nest in rock cavities, so the talus caves at the crest of the Balconies Trail are a fitting place for the birds to roost and for visitors to watch them. The campground also provides spotting scopes near the visitor center. On any given day, there’s a fifty percent chance of seeing some of the flock of 70, most of which were bred in captivity and then released here. Even if the birds are off in some other part of their range, which stretches as far north as Livermore, there’s plenty of fun to be had at Pinnacles, ducking between towering rock spires and gazing out at sweeping views of the surrounding hills. And if you do see one? With wingspans that can reach 9.5 feet, the condors are so enormous, says Wolstenholme, “there’s no way you wouldn’t be impressed.”

Manzanar National Historic Site
The first thing visitors see of the Manzanar National Historic Site from Highway 395 is a foreboding wooden guard tower jutting up from the dry, flat valley sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains. Eight towers like this once loomed over the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of 10 concentration camps that detained more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. It was reconstructed in 2005 and remains a potent emblem of the place where thousands who spent years confined in the towers’ shadows, their search lights trained inward by armed guards.

But the most powerful part of the historic site is found inside the two reconstructed barracks. That’s because the exhibits convey the words and often the voices of people who were here. Thanks to intimate audio and video interviews with former detainees, “You can actually stand out there in the space and have someone describe their experience,” says Chief of Interpretation Alisa Lynch. “Some are first impressions when people first got here. One section, called ‘life and loss,’ collects oral histories of people who endured very, very difficult things here. One interviewee lost his father, brother, and sister in less than a year.”

There’s also a cemetery featuring the snow-white Soul Consoling Tower, an iconic monument that draws thousands of visitors in an annual pilgrimage on the last Saturday in April. All are welcome, says Lynch. “It’s a chance to be here with people who were either in the camp, or had family in the camp, or who care about civil rights.”

Yosemite National Park
High above Yosemite National Park’s famous namesake valley, at roughly the same height as the peak of Half Dome, lies a long, rolling greensward where creeks, ponds, and a river lap against granite slabs and a lush carpet of grass and wildflowers. Called Tuolumne Meadows, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful and extremely delicate landscape, thanks to its high elevation. In the late 1880s, John Muir found it ground down and trampled by thousands of sheep and other grazing livestock—it was damage he could recognize since he had worked there as a shepherd two decades earlier. He convinced the editor of Century Magazine to come and visit and then to publish his calls for its conservation, part of a campaign that helped spur the creation of a new, federally protected park more than 26 years before the National Park Service existed.

Today, as visitors stroll along the banks of the Tuolumne River or scramble up the gently sloping, glacier-smoothed curves of Lembert Dome to gaze out over pristine meadows ringed by snowy peaks, they have Muir to thank, in part. “The upper Tuolumne Valley is the widest, smoothest, most serenely spacious, and in every way the most delightful summer pleasure park in the high Sierra,” Muir wrote nearly 150 years ago. To many of the park’s dazzled visitors, his words still hold true today.


This article was first published in November 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.