With thrilling attractions that span an astounding diversity of natural landscapes (from the best beaches to the best National Parks), California State Parks are like having a Disneyland for every corner of the state. Explore the agency’s 280 properties—the largest and most diverse holding of any state agency in the U.S.—and you’ll soon be swimming in Laguna Beach’s crystalline waters, strutting the dusty main streets of preserved Gold Rush towns, and exploring otherworldly redwood groves that were home to the ewoks in Return of the Jedi. While each park features a unique landscape or historical site that’s worth a visit, the following 15 spots lend a good introduction to the state’s offerings. Hit tip: Invest in an annual pass if you anticipate visiting multiple California State Parks over the next 12 months.
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Best California state parks
What is it? A showcase for the spectacular natural splendor of the Monterey Peninsula.
Why go? Famed landscape painter Francis McComas nailed it when he referred to Point Lobos as the greatest meeting of land and water in the world. Discover sheltered beach covers with aquamarine waters and resting seals on the Bird Island Trail, and traverse thick cypress forests and dramatic coastal bluffs along the more rigorous North Coast Trail. The park is also popular with scuba divers who come to explore the equally striking underwater landscape of Monterey Bay whose deep valleys are often compared to the Grand Canyon.
What is it? A sparkling bay that’s regarded as the crown jewel of Lake Tahoe.
Why go? This picturesque notch of Lake Tahoe’s southwestern shores features beaches, Tahoe’s only island, and an unexpected, Scandinavian-style stone castle. Yet, like the rest of Tahoe, outdoor recreation is the primary draw with exceptional hiking along the Rubicon Trail, kayaking to Fannette Island, and scuba diving a collection of underwater boats and barges. Make it a weekend at the park’s Eagle Point Campground.
What is it? This especially scenic corner of Big Sur is home to the McWay Falls, one of the most photographed waterfalls in the state.
Why go? Big Sur is famed for its scenic coastline, but few coves are as stunning—or easily accessible—as the one found at Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Photographed thousands of times each day, the secluded beach cove is ringed by azure waters, and features a stream of water cascading from McWay Creek onto its golden sand. You’re not allowed on the actual beach—the local fire department has rescued their fair share of tourists from the cove’s perilous cliffs—but an adjoining trail lends the perfect vantage point for a requisite pic of the famous falls.
What is it? A seafront stunner along the wild Mendocino Coast
Why go? The park packs a ton of diverse scenery into its roughly 1,000-acres. Enjoy stirring vistas of the churning Pacific from numerous overlooks dotting the blufftop Headlands Trail. Along the way, keep an eye out for the Devil’s Punchbowl, a collapsed sea cave that reverberates with crashing waves. Seek out the Fern Canyon trail which follows a rippling creek through a lush, moss-shrouded redwood forest, and via the connecting Falls Loop trail, leads to a 36-foot waterfall plunging into a forested grotto.
What is it? Stellar swimming holes lend a modern-day reason to rush to California’s Gold Country.
Why go? A popular mining spot throughout the Gold Rush, this 20-mile stretch of the majestic South Yuba River today lures visitors with scenic swimming holes. On hot summer days, dip into deep, crystalline waters at favorite spots such as 49 Crossing and the more easily accessible Bridgeport, which also features the world’s longest, single-span covered bridge. Afterward, explore the park’s scenic wilderness along the Independence Trail which follows the path of former Gold Rush-era flumes.
What is it? California’s largest redwood state park is a worthy introduction to coastal redwoods, the tallest and oldest living organisms in the world.
Why go? Before stepping foot outside of your car, you’ll marvel at the region’s skyscraping trees along the famed Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile stretch of old Highway 101 which zigzags through ancient, atmospheric groves. But, don’t stay behind the wheel. Pull over at notable stops such as Founder’s Grove where a quick 1.3-mile loop trail will lead you to the downed Dyerville Giant, a 2,000-year old, 362-foot gargantuan that shook the Richter Scale when it fell in 1991.
What is it? A preserved Gold Rush town set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Why go? It’s your chance to stroll the type of Old West town you’ve seen depicted in countless movies. Never abandoned like its neighboring boomtown brethren, the time warp main street is lined with covered wooden sidewalks and iconic, false front facades that house 19th century mercantiles, restaurants, and old-timey saloons pouring whiskey, beer and sarsaparilla. Plus, a pair of hotels offer rooms and cottages to stay the night.
What is it? An oceanfront park in Laguna Beach where you can swim, surf, and sip Bloody Marys.
Why go? There are scenic trails that lead into the undisturbed woodlands of El Morro Canyon—open space is a rare premium in Orange County today—but the real draw here is a 3.2-mile beach with turquoise waters that rival Hawaii’s. Adding to the vacay vibes, The Beachcomber restaurant and Bootlegger Bar slings crowd-pleasing dishes and seafood-adorned Bloody Marys from a charming 1930s cottage with oceanfront deck (each night at 5pm, they raise a martini-emblazoned flag to signal the commencement of drinking hour). Overnight guests can try their luck at reserving one of 46 neighboring—and highly-coveted—historic beach cottages.
What is it? An incredibly scenic former dairy land situated south of Half Moon Bay features regular visits from breeding and battling elephant sea lions.
Why go? Distinct from the more common harbor seals and sea lions, northern elephant sea lions are ferocious beasts that weigh up to 5,000 pounds, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Star Wars set. Nearly driven to extinction in the 19th century, the blubbery creatures established a thriving colony at Ano Nuevo, returning each winter to breed and birth cute pups. Even if the sea lions aren’t present in vast numbers, Año Nuevo’s diverse landscape of meadows, beaches, and sand dunes is worth exploring.
What is it? An enchanting nature reserve whose redwood-filled landscape served as a backdrop for numerous blockbuster flicks.
Why go? While most Humboldt County parks feature exceptional redwoods, this state park hides a few surprises among its varied terrain. In addition to serving as a galaxy, far, far-away in Return of the Jedi, Prairie Creek also doubled as a velociraptor-inhabited island in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Yet, you needn’t be a sci-fi buff to appreciate exploring the park’s star attraction, Fern Canyon, a narrow, pebble-dotted creekbed bounded by towering cliffs dripping with lush, green ferns.
What is it? This Shasta County park is home to one of the most stunning waterfalls in the state.
Why go? Every day, 100 million gallons of water gush over the park’s namesake falls, a 129-foot curtain of water comprised of innumerable cascades. Fed by a confluence of Burney Creek and multiple underground springs, the year-round falls dazzle visitors who tread carefully into its mist-filled basin. In addition, the park features five miles of hiking trails—including a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail—that traverse the Cascade Range, as well as water recreation along the shores of Lake Britton.
What is it? A former coastal ranch in Santa Cruz that features historic buildings, oceanfront trails, and epic mountain biking.
Why go? 19th century Victorian homes, a working blacksmith shop, and fields of livestock offer a peek into one of the many coastal dairy farms that once proliferated south of San Francisco. On select weekends, docents dressed in period decor bring the ranch to life with demonstrations, horse-drawn carriage rides, and homemade cookies via a vintage wood-burning stove. Yet, you’re likely to find regular visitors enjoying the Old Cove Landing Trail which traverses dramatic coastal bluffs dotted with secluded beach coves and sea caves. Inland, the park’s hilly terrain is criss-crossed with miles of single-track trails that have made it a hub for the local mountain bike community.
What is it? A fascinating glimpse into the workings—and wealth—of a booming Sierra Nevada gold mine.
Why go? Home to one of California’s oldest and deepest mines, the park sits above 367 miles of underground shafts which are now closed due to flooding from spring water. Yet, visitors can tour historic buildings, view a secret model that was used to track the extensive shaft system, and peer down a steep, treacherous shaft which served as the entry point for groups of miners in railroad-style carts. Over its 100-year run, Empire Mine is thought to have produced nearly 6 million ounces of gold, and that wealth is apparent in the opulent, former home and gardens of the affluent owner.
What is it? California’s oldest state park is home to some of the largest and oldest living things in the world.
Why go? Situated in the Santa Cruz Mountains, roughly 75 miles south of San Francisco, the Big Basin is home to trees taller than the Statue of Liberty, and older than the Roman Empire. Discover how these ancient trees have persisted for millenia via a self-guided stroll and accompanying brochure along the Redwood Loop Trail. Other notable features include Berry Creek Falls—reached via a rewarding 9-mile trek—and Rancho del Oso, a coastal expanse named for the area’s former grizzly bear population, and home to a nature center housed in a historic home once owned by President Herbert Hoover’s brother.
What is it? An Old West ghost town offers a time-travel worthy glimpse of Gold Rush-era life.
Why go? Roughly 40 miles northeast of Yosemite, you can walk down the deserted streets of a former mining town that once bustled with over 10,000 residents. Like a Pompeii of the Gold Rush era, this abandoned town feels frozen in time with homes and businesses housed in weathered, wood-plank buildings, and stocked with their original goods. Plan your visit during select summer dates when the park stays open late into the night, and offers fun ghost tours under dark skies filled with scores of glowing stars.