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McArthur-Burney Falls
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 13 most beautiful California State Parks

Hike, swim and admire the beauty of nature at the best California State Parks

By Garrick Ramirez and Sarah Medina
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For outdoorsy types, the gorgeous network of California State Parks is like having a Disneyland for every corner of the state: They're full of thrilling attractions, cute animals and even some destination-worthy restaurants. The park system includes 280 properties—the largest and most diverse holding of any state agency in the U.S.—but we're here to narrow it down it for you to the most stunning state parks in the Golden State. Peruse this list, then find yourself 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. Oh, and don't forget about California's National Parks, too! There's a lot to see in this beautiful state. 

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Best California state parks

Emerald Bay
Emerald Bay
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay, a picturesque notch of Lake Tahoe’s southwestern shores, features beaches, Tahoe’s only island, and an unexpected, Scandinavian-style stone castle. Like the rest of Tahoe, outdoor recreation is the primary draw here with 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.

Big Sur
Big Sur
Photograph: Courtesy Derek Thomson

2. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

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 waterfall cascading from McWay Creek onto 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.

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3. Russian Gulch State Park

Russian Gulch 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; 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 leads to a 36-foot waterfall plunging into a forested grotto.

4. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Famed landscape painter Francis McComas nailed it when he referred to Point Lobos as the greatest meeting of land and water in the world. Ready to hike? Discover sheltered beach coves with aquamarine waters and resting seals on the Bird Island Trail or 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. 

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5. South Yuba River State Park

A popular mining spot throughout the Gold Rush, this 20-mile stretch of the majestic South Yuba River 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.

Avenue of the Giants
Avenue of the Giants
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Humboldt Redwoods State Park

California’s largest redwood state park is a worthy introduction to coastal redwoods, the tallest and oldest living organisms in the world. From the car you can marvel at the region’s skyscraping trees along the famed Avenue of the Giants, but, don’t stay behind the wheel for long. 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.

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McArthur-Burney Falls
McArthur-Burney Falls
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Every day, 100 million gallons of water gush over McArthur-Burney'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.

Crystal Cove
Crystal Cove
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Crystal Cove State Park

Open space is a rare premium in Orange County today, but the real draw at Crystal Cove is a 3.2-mile beach with turquoise waters that rival Hawaii’s. Come to explore the tide pools and canyons during the day, then stay for drinking hour (look for the raised flag) at The Beachcomber restaurant and Bootlegger Bar, which slings crowd-pleasing dishes and seafood-adorned Bloody Marys from a charming 1930s cottage with oceanfront deck. 

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9. Big Basin Redwoods State Park

California’s oldest state park, Big Basin is home to some of the largest and oldest living things in the world – 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. 

10. Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Park is 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-warped 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 offering rooms and cottages to stay the night.

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11. Año Nuevo State Park

This incredibly scenic former dairy farmland, today Año Nuevo serves as a breeding and battling ground for elephant sea lions. Distinct from the more common harbor seals and sea lions, northern elephant sea lions are ferocious beasts that weigh up to 5,000 pounds. 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.

12. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

While most of Humboldt County feature exceptional redwoods, Prairie Creek 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. But 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.

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13. Bodie State Historic Park

Like a Pompeii of the Gold Rush-era, the abandoned mining town inside Bodie park 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.

California has lots of parks

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