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What You Need to Know About California's State and National Parks

As the Golden State's wild places reopen, plan ahead for a safe and successful trip

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With the loosening of restrictions tied to the last year’s stay-at-home order, communities across California continue to open up. Provided certain benchmarks are met, plans for a statewide reopening are in place for June 15. Keep in mind, though, that for now, some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have protocols in place. 

California's state and national parks preserve some of the world's most celebrated scenery, and after months of closures due to COVID-19, their gates are open. If you're yearning for some nature time, you can finally reunite with the landscapes you love, whether it's Sierra granite, skyscraping redwoods, sun-drenched beaches, or maybe even the soul-stirring wonders of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

"In these challenging times, we all want to sit on top of a mountain for a while," says Kevin Sweeney, Lassen Volcanic’s chief of interpretation. "Lassen is a place of solace for people."

Lassen, about 45 minutes east of Redding, is known for its steaming geothermal marvels, volcanic peaks, and shimmering waterfalls. Like other parks, it reopened with new rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Visitors are asked to wear face coverings when they speak to rangers and follow the CDC's guidelines of maintaining six feet of distance from others," Sweeney says. "So far, it's been going great. People have been planning ahead and recreating responsibly."

Before leaving home to visit any national park, the federal government asks that visitors read the national parks' guidelines for Recreating Responsibly and the CDC's guide for visiting parks. And you should familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you visit.

Due to fire conditions, some national forests may be open but with varying degrees of restrictions still in place. Get info on specific locations here, and check National Forest websites and social media pages for the most up-to-date information.

Gloria Sandoval, spokesperson for California State Parks, says people venturing out to their favorite parks should be prepared for changes and modifications.

"With COVID-19, everything is very dynamic and fluid," Sandoval says. "The best tip for visiting parks is to plan before you go anywhere. Check each park's website; another resource for information is parks.ca.gov/FlattenTheCurve. Find out what's open, if parking is available, and what new visitor guidelines are in place."

Individual parks are managed according to county and local health guidelines. Modifications or limited services may be in effect, and sites that previously operated on a first-come, first-served basis may now require reservations. To ensure your spot, make advance camping reservations at Recreation.gov. For state park camps, you can reserve sites at Reserve California. Reservations are also available through the private reservation system Hipcamp.

For outdoor lovers, national parks are bucket-list destinations. But during the pandemic travelers will need to watch for policy changes. Yosemite National Park, famous for its sheer granite, plunging waterfalls, and iconic vistas, is open with limitationsfor example, the park is open for day-use only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no overnight stays are permitted).

As always, weather and seasonality are important considerations when visiting state and national parks. Research ahead of time to see which areas and activities are accessible during your travel window.

One thing that hasn't changed in California parks is the wealth of come-hither scenery. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, hike to the summit of Lassen Peak’s dormant volcano or explore such out-of-this-world volcanic features as steaming sulphur vents, mudpots, and boiling thermal pools. Marvel at 35-story-high trees at Redwood National Park, or feel dwarfed by the General Sherman, the world's largest tree by volume, at Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Hike or rock climb among the burnished cliffs, crags, and spires at Pinnacles, or watch for wildlife in Point Reyes' watery maze of beaches, lagoons, and estuaries. Cruise by boat from Ventura to Channel Islands National Park, five untamed islands where you can camp by the wild Pacific or paddle a kayak near soaring cliffs and sea caves.

Travelers yearning for the majesty of Sierra Nevada's mountains can head to Lake Tahoe's state parks, including Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point, and Emerald Bay. In California's northwest, watch massive Roosevelt elk graze at Prairie Creek Redwoods, or drive under a canopy of cathedral-like redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Or, if you're dreaming of gazing at the blue Pacific, immerse yourself in Montaña de Oro's craggy coastline and Caribbean-blue waters in San Luis Obispo, or steer south of Carmel to Andrew Molera State Park for long walks on driftwood-strewn beaches.

Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you visit and check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.

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