It is always a great time to visit one of the country's incredibly beautiful national parks, and the costs can be quite affordable ($80 annually for a pass). If you’re in the military, you can get an annual pass for free, and if you’re age 62 or older, you can get an annual pass for $20 or a lifetime pass for $80.
Lodging, on the other hand, can get costly, especially at the really popular parks. But with a little help from credit card points and hotel loyalty programs, you can lower the cost of accommodations when visiting America’s Best Idea.
How to stay near California’s national parks on points
California has national park sites of all shapes and sizes and in every corner of the state. Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park are among the most popular and most accessible — and they’re places where your hotel points will come in handy. Rules for park admission could change any time due to the pandemic, so before you finalize your plans, check the National Park Service website for your California destination to be sure your trip will go as planned.
Joshua Tree National Park
One of our favorite parks in California, home of the famous trees found only in this very small part of the state plus a few spots in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
It is a small park but highly visited due to its proximity to Palm Springs, which makes it easy to fly into. But it’s just as easily accessible by car in these pandemic times. The area is home to myriad hotels, most of which are incredibly overpriced during the high season. Here are some options paying with points.
IHG – Holiday Inn Express & Suites Twentynine Palms
This is hands down the best location if you want to get the most out of your visit to the park. It’s not the fanciest hotel. But it’s near the park entrance, so after a quick breakfast you’ll be exploring Joshua Tree in no time.
We found rooms for 15,000 points per night, but IHG’s variable pricing means your dates could cost more or less.
Fairfield Inn Twentynine Palms
As they say, location, location, location. And that’s about as much as this hotel has to offer — perfectly acceptable accommodation with no frills whatsoever.
As a Category 3 Marriott property, the nightly rate is between 15,000 and 20,000 Bonvoy points, and the hotel offers free on-site parking.
Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa
A very nice property with outdoor pools and a spa, the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells is a good place to stay. It is not as close to the park as some other properties, but it’s closer to Palm Springs, so your nightlife and restaurant options are broader.
This hotel will set you back 20,000 World of Hyatt points a night, but when you pay with points you do not incur a resort fee ($46.60 for this hotel). If you’re a Hyatt elite, your parking is comped.
If you’re short on points or want to save some for a future stay, the Hyatt Palm Springs goes for 12,000 points a night and, although not as fancy, it is in a similarly convenient location. If you feel like splurging, there is an Andaz coming soon, but no pricing information has been made available yet.
Hampton Inn & Suites Palm Desert
This Hampton has recently renovated rooms, free Wi-Fi, breakfast and an outdoor pool. It’s closer to Palm Springs than it is to the park, but only barely.
Award night prices vary, so check your dates. We found rooms starting at 23,000 Hilton Honors points per night. Parking is complimentary.
Yosemite National Park
Near San Francisco, this is California’s most visited national park, drawing 4.4 million visitors annually. Normally, this park gets crowded on spring and summer weekends. During COVID-19, the National Park Service is restricting the number of guests by instituting a reservation system. Go to the reservation website before heading to the park to make sure you have a secured reservation.
Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth
This is a really nice hotel with a very “lodgey” feel to it. It’s a great location even if you’re visiting during winter. Mammoth is a lovely, quaint town where we wouldn’t mind spending more time if lodging were cheaper.
Currently the only Marriott hotel nearby, the Westin Monache will cost you between 50,000 and 70,000 Bonvoy points per night. On-site parking is complimentary, although very limited in my experience.
» Learn more: The 5 best ways to rack up Marriott Bonvoy points
Hyatt Place Fresno
This is a great Hyatt Place with a modern feel. The downside is that it’s 55 miles from the park, and while that isn’t too terrible, you’ll need to wake up earlier to arrive at a decent time.
This hotel goes for 8,000 points per night and offers free parking. This is also a pet friendly hotel in case you’re taking your pooch along on your road trip.
Holiday Inn Express Oakhurst
This modern Holiday Inn Express is close to the entrance of the park and less than 50 miles from Fresno. No frills to be found at this hotel, but it includes breakfast and free parking.
The nightly rate is around 20,000 IHG Rewards points, but check your dates as pricing varies based on demand.
DoubleTree by Hilton Modesto
Located in Modesto, 85 miles from the park, this is the closest Hilton family property you’ll find. For the dates we searched, a room here will set you back 30,000 points per night and you’ll spend about two hours getting to the park.
» Learn more: Hilton Honors: The complete guide
More great park experiences in California
There are plenty of other parks in California that you could visit instead, or combine them with a trip to Joshua Tree or Yosemite. You could even use some of the same hotels as jumping-off points to travel from one park to the next.
For example, both Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks are about 2 1/2 hours from Yosemite, and if you have never stood next to a giant sequoia, we highly recommend that humbling experience. The Devils Postpile National Monument, just 50 miles from Yosemite, is another natural treasure in the area.
Joshua Tree is near Palm Springs, a popular LGBT summer destination, and close to the site of the Coachella music festival. Must-visit natural attractions nearby include the Thousand Palms Oasis and the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Still more parks to consider include Death Valley, Redwood and Pinnacles, as well as other national recreation areas, historic sites and any state parks nearby. Pick one, two or a dozen for a memorable socially distanced escape.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card