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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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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, wildflower-dotted meadows, 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.

Gloria Sandoval, spokesperson for California State Parks, says people venturing out to their favorite parks this summer 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. 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. Sandoval says that across the state, visitor centers and museums are likely to remain closed and parking lots will have limited capacity throughout the summer. At press time, state-run campgrounds also remain closed, but she expects they will open gradually in coming months.

"California State Parks is definitely exploring reopening campgrounds," she says. "We are working with local officials on a phased and regionally driven approach."

Some federal- and county-owned campgrounds are already open. 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. When state park camps reopen, you'll be able to 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 this year travelers will need to watch for policy changes. Yosemite National Park, famous for its sheer granite, plunging waterfalls, and iconic vistas, has instituted major modifications for summer 2020. Yosemite travelers must have advance reservations whether they're coming to the park for the day or staying overnight. Day-use visitors will purchase digital entrance passes in advance, and the number of daily passes will be limited. Lodging can be reserved at The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Curry Village, and campsites can be reserved at Yosemite Valley's campgrounds.

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, Emerald Bay, and D.L. Bliss for hiking, biking, boating, and dipping your toes into Tahoe's cobalt-blue water. 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.

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