You are here

Jill Sanford | 04.03.2017

California has an expansive system of state parks that preserve gold rush history, alpine lakes, dramatic coastal features, incredible beaches, underwater landscapes, lush forests, and incredible waterfalls. With over 278 parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle down the possibilities. Adventurers really can’t go wrong by visiting a park that didn’t make it on this list, but here are 20 amazing state parks to explore.

  1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: The largest state park in California, this desert vista is known for it’s seasonal wildflowers. It features hundreds of miles of hiking trails and lots of opportunities to spot wildlife such as roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer and bighorn sheep as well as iguanas, chuckwallas and the red diamond rattlesnake.
  2. Marshall Gold Discovery State Park: Located at the site where gold was discovered along the banks of the South Fork of the American River, this state park offers homage to the Gold Rush and access to a popular whitewater rafting destination.
  3. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Recently reopened after 2017 mudslides closed access, this Big Sur area park features a breathtaking waterfall that cascades from a dramatic cliff onto a sandy beach.
  4. Bodie State Historic Park: This famous ghost town is intriguing and creepy, but it is also located in one of the most beautiful mountain valleys in California. The Eastern Sierra is stunning and offers tons of opportunities for outdoor recreation.
  5. Donner Memorial State Park: This forested mountain park sits at the edge of Donner Lake, the place where a group of pioneers were trapped during a long and harsh winter and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Today, it’s a year-round destination where visitors swim, boat and hike in the summer and ski and snowshoe in the winter.
  6. Crystal Cove State Park: Located in Newport Beach, Crystal Cove is a stunning stretch of coastline that features impressive cliffs that drop onto to sandy beaches.
  7. Emerald Bay State Park: This iconic Tahoe hotspot is where you will find a historic mansion called Vikingsholm, crystal clear water to swim in, and a stunning waterfall to hike too. It gets quite crowded in the summer, however, so try to visit on a weekday.
  8. Big Basin Redwood State Park: Established in 1902, this is California’s first state park, and it was established to preserve the redwoods from logging, a major industry in the area at the turn of the 19th century.
  9. Prairie Creek Redwood State Park: Another stunning state park that will take you through the impressive Northern California redwood forests, Prairie Creek also features a unique meadow where visitors can often spot Roosevelt elk.
  10. Salt Point State Park: This large coastal reserve covers 6,000 acres and features over 20 miles of hiking trails. There are several beaches with unusual rock formations, and the area is also California’s first underwater preserve.
  11. Grover Hot Springs State Park: This high alpine setting features natural hot springs fed by geothermal activity of the high Sierra. It’s located south of Tahoe.
  12. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve: This park was established to protect the spectacular limestone tufa tower formations at Mono Lake. The salt lake is a stunning and reflective body of water unlike anything else in California.
  13. Red Rock Canyon State Park: Scenic desert cliffs, buttes and spectacular rock formations are typical of this state park, which is located where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converges with the El Paso Mountains.
  14. Angel Island State Park: This park is historic and scenic. It is the location where millions of immigrants passed through inspections on their way into San Francisco. It also housed a military fort, and now visitors must access the island by ferry to camp and hike here.  
  15. Trinidad State Beach: Located in the seaside town of Trinidad, this beach features interesting offshore rock formations and plenty of tide pools to play in and explore.
  16. Calaveras Big Trees State Park: Considered one of the longest continually operating tourist destinations in the state, this park preserves two ancient groves of giant sequoias. People have traveled here to explore these groves since 1852.
  17. Sonoma Coast State Park: Sandy beaches and rocky shoreline as well as rock formations that make natural arches over the water are all typical of this state park. It encompasses approximately 4 miles of northern California coastline.
  18. McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park: This park features an iconic cascade, Burney Falls. It was once called the “eighth wonder of the world” by President Theodore Roosevelt.
  19. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park: Located just north of Santa Barbara is this fascinating park that preserves a small sandstone cave adorned with rock art attributed to the Chumash people.
  20. Natural Bridges State Beach: This popular spot in Santa Cruz is a great place to soak in the sounds and sights of the California coastline. Watch surfers from the beach or the cliffs above, seagulls playing in the wind, and pelicans roosting on the rocky remains of the bridges that were this park’s namesake.


Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.