Must-See State Parks
If there was ever a box of chocolates—and all of them delicious—it’s the rich collection of natural treasures, fascinating historic sites, and one-of-a-kind destinations protected as part of California’s expansive state park system. The 280 units include an astounding mix—wild beaches, fascinating Gold Rush mines, lush forests, booming falls, and expansive deserts. Here’s a cherry-picked selection of state park must-sees.
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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The ½-mile round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet. The almost-flat stroll ends at an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favorite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. Let’s just say Julia had good taste. The plume of water drops some 80 feet from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public).
If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the 1-mile round-trip Partington Cove Trail. The steep but short hike leads over a wooden bridge down to a 60-foot tunnel. Walk through and emerge onto the rocky beach. A few of the trails at this picturesque state park are closed due to erosion—check the trails section of the park’s website for the latest information before traveling.
Empire Mine State Historic Park
Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to this remarkable site in Grass Valley, roughly 60 miles/92 kilometers northeast of Sacramento. First, spend time in the Visitor Center to learn about one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines, where, in the course of a century, 5.6 million ounces/159 million grams of gold were mined—enough to fill a box 7 feet/3 meters long, 7 feet/3 meters high, and 7 feet/3 meters deep by the time the mine shut down in 1956. To get a sense of the size of the mine, see the scale model representing the mine’s 5-square-mile/13-square-km network, then walk outside to visit the entrance of the actual shaft—a tiny peak into a staggering underground maze of 367 miles/591 kilometers.
Now shift gears—mentally and physically—with a walk through the grounds of William Bowers Bourn Jr., who took over management of the mine in 1879. Bourn Cottage—a humble name for this magnificent country estate, where no expense was spared to create a two-story stone citadel patterned after the noble estates of 19th century England, complete with redwood interiors, and leaded-glass windows.
Guided tours are offered May through September. The Mine Yard Tour sheds light on the rough lives of the miners who worked here. Get the flip side on the Cottage Grounds Tour, which includes a visit to the sumptuous Bourn Cottage.
Marshall Gold Discovery
Driving the sleepy stretch of winding Highway 49 between Auburn and Placerville, it’s hard to believe the region was the booming heart of one of the most significant events in California history. Here, in a stretch of the snowmelt-fed American River that slides past the don’t-blink town of Coloma, a sawmill employee named James Marshall first discovered glints of the precious metal in the river’s silt. The 1849 Gold Rush was on.
Coloma mushroomed into a town with some 10,000 people, and up went a schoolhouse, a general store, and a tin-roofed post office. These and other historic buildings are now protected as part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. There’s an interesting Gold Discovery Museum, and kids can give gold-panning a try. Follow leafy trails along the river to find a shady picnic spot. Stick around for supper; dinners at Café Mahjaic, housed in an 1855 brick building in the even tinier nearby town of Lotus, are a wonder, with local ingredients shining in dishes such as free-range chicken roasted with shallots, bacon, and crimini mushrooms.
Columbia State Historic Park
With throwback charm and a treaure trove of historic artifacts, this park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town—the state’s second largest city at the peak of the Gold Rush; they actually live and work here in a variety of period-appropriate shops and trades. Catch a ride on an authentic stagecoach, order a cold, locally made sarsaparilla soda in a Western-style saloon, or feel the heat in a working blacksmith's forge. There’s also a Wells Fargo express office and other relics of California's early mining days. The town even sounds authentic—no cars allowed here, though you will hear the clip-clop of horses.
Free historical tours of the park depart from the museum weekends at 11 a.m. (weekdays too, mid-June until Labor Day). Gold Rush Days take place on 2nd Saturday afternoons; costumed docents lead hands-on crafts and special tours, and kids can try gold-panning.
Insider's Tip: Summer can get hot and weekends become crowded, so aim for early mornings during the week if you can.
There's something eerily appropriate about bumping down the dusty desert road that winds the final few miles into Bodie State Historic Park. Round the final bend in the careworn road, drive by the lonely graveyard on the sagebrush-dotted hill on the southwest side of town, and look down upon the tattered remnants of a forgotten time, and a nearly forgotten town. Back in the late 1800s, Bodie was a booming mining community with nearly 10,000 residents. Over time, the townsfolk began to fade away with the gold, and roughly a half-century ago, the final residents packed up and left Bodie, leaving the buildings alone and at the mercy of the dry desert winds.
Today, you can walk the dusty, silent streets of this fascinating ghost town, with shops, hotels, and simple homes carefully preserved to look as they did when Bodie ceased to be. Look for period images on newspapers stuffed into the walls as makeshift insulation. Old trucks and gas pumps, a weathered wood church, and that lonely cemetery paint a picture of life—and death—in this remote corner of California’s high desert.
Be sure to bring food; there are no concessions in the park (though there is potable water). A bookstore is well stocked with interesting information, and the self-guided walking tour is well worth doing.
Crystal Cove State Park
In 1912, an early Laguna Beach artist described finding a rugged coastline “with cove after cove and headland after headland, golden cliffs and deep blue and purple ocean and clear emerald pools, lazy sea and pounding surf.” More than 100 years later, that’s the world that you can still experience at this 2,400-acre/971-hectare coastal parkland. Head inland and upland on foot or mountain bike to explore trails winding into the foothills (especially pretty after winter rains encourage annual grasses). Walk along the park’s 3 miles/5 kilometres of coastline to find your own perfect sandy crescent with family-friendly waves (also popular with surf-casting fishermen). Another find here: Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, order an ahi tuna burger at The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove, or pick up a creamy shake from Ruby’s Shake Shack to take back to your beach blanket. There is also a charming collection of vintage beachfront cottages, rustically restored and available for overnight stays. (Note: reserving one of the 21 extremely popular cabins takes patience and perseverance; check the website for details.)
Emerald Bay State Park
Look down on the astounding bay at Emerald Bay State Park and you can see why Mark Twain, in his 1871 travel book Roughing It, dubbed Lake Tahoe "the fairest picture the whole earth affords." The park does indeed offer some of the best Lake Tahoe views, but fast forward nearly a century and a half and you’ll find the area offers a lot more than just a picture. What better place to hike, tour a stone castle, Instagram from the deck of a boat cruise, or simply dive in? You can do it all at Emerald Bay State Park.
While Lake Tahoe’s main lake is as blue as a topaz, a color created by the waters’ remarkable clarity and depth, this somewhat shallower bay on the lake’s west shore takes on a startling and beautiful blue-green. It’s made all the more striking by the perfect dot of tiny Fannette Island—the only islet in Lake Tahoe—right in the middle of the bay.
From large pullout areas off Highway 89, see if you can spot the ruins of a tiny stone teahouse perched on the top of the island. The teahouse, and the 38-room stone castle known as Vikingsholm that’s built on the nearby shore, were constructed by Lora Knight, an extraordinary woman who married into extreme wealth, then used her money to educate young people who could otherwise not afford it. Learn about her and walk through her richly detailed, hand-built home, the design of which was inspired by buildings in Scandinavia dating as far back as the 11th century, on tours offered several times daily, late-May through Labor Day. It’s about a one-mile (and fairly steep) walk down from the parking lot to get there, but it’s definitely worth it.
"Look down on this astounding bay and you can see why Mark Twain dubbed Lake Tahoe 'the fairest picture the whole earth affords.'"
You can also access Emerald Bay on the popular and easy Rubicon Trail, which follows the edge of the lake from D.L. Bliss State Park four miles south to the bay. Another short hike with a big reward is the one-mile trail that starts across the highway from Emerald Bay and leads up to the icy cascades of Eagle Falls and a panoramic view of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe.
Cruises on paddle wheelers such as the M.S. Dixie II visit Emerald Bay; you can also simply use the bay as a great destination if you rent a boat at South Shore. For a big splurge, book a private yacht cruise with Lake Tahoe Boat Rides; along the way, the captain sheds light on the region’s history.
If you’d like to have a truly unique experience—and one that’s the first of its kind in California—the underwater Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail will scratch that itch. Using scuba or snorkeling gear (there are several dive shops nearby where you can rent gear), visitors can follow an underwater “trail” of watery graves of fishing boats, recreational skiffs, and barges from the early part of the 20th century. Waterproof cards are issued with information about the scuttled boats and the history behind them, which make up the largest and most diverse group of small sunken watercraft in their original location in the country.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
California’s coast redwoods meet their southernmost habitat along the Big Sur coast, and this gem of a park, located 26 miles south of Carmel, is a great way to sample their deep shade and cathedral-like beauty. Hiking, biking, and riding RVs along the trails and roads, swimming in the Big Sur River, camping—the number of outdoor activities one can enjoy here in the midst of stunning surroundings make it one of the most popular parks along Highway 1.
The park’s roots are in homesteading: John Pfeiffer settled on some 160 acres here (his 1884 cabin, originally perched high above the Big Sur River Gorge, has been reconstructed along the park’s Gorge Trail). In the 1930s, Pfeiffer’s land became the first nugget of this beautiful park after he spurned offers from developers and instead sold it to the state of California, a decision that prompted the State Park Commission to name its newest addition after him.
The peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains rise up dramatically from the Big Sur River Gorge; keep an eye out while walking along the banks for black-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, birds such as dippers, belted kingfishers, and wild turkeys, and even the occasional bobcat. A small but appealing network of well-marked trails wends through the 1,000-acre preserve; spectacular views of the Big Sur Valley, the Big Sur River Gorge, Pacific Ocean and shoreline abound, but be aware that there is no beach or ocean access.
The large campground located in the park can accommodate hikers, bikers, car campers, and RVers. Reservations tend to fill up six months in advance, even in winter, so be sure to plan ahead. Another option is to stay in one of the 62 rustic cottages at the park’s unpretentious Big Sur Lodge.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
This remarkable preserve, California’s oldest state park, is an emerald gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. With more than 80 miles/128 kilometers of trails winding through redwood groves and other lush habitats, Big Basin makes an appealing weekend getaway for people in the Silicon Valley, about an hour’s drive west. Moms and dads love letting the kids loose to dabble their toes in clear streams, or watching them conjure up enough courage to kiss a banana slug (ask a local; it’s a belt-notch experience for many a Northern Californian).
Big Basin offers a variety of campsites, including 38 walk-in sites—a short walk lets you pitch your tent in ultimate peace and quiet. Hike, mountain bike, or ride horses on designated routes. Trekkers love the 10.5-mile/17-km Skyline to the Sea Trail, which runs along Waddell Creek to the ocean and nearby Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve. There are also plenty of gentle, scenic rambles, such as the 4-mile/6-km Sequoia loop trail (complete with a small waterfall), and .5-mile/1-km Redwood loop trail that takes visitors to some of the park’s tallest trees. Pick up maps and hiking tips from rangers at park headquarters, and ask about guided twilight hikes and campfire programs.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Visiting this 14,000-acre/5,666-hectare park is like walking through a portal into a world where everything is giant and green—a rainforest where ferns arc over mossy trails in a dappled world of light and shadow. Start with a hike among the ancient redwoods on the 3.2-mile/5.1-km Prairie Creek and Cathedral Tree loop, which begins at Prairie Creek Redwoods’ visitor center. From your first steps, “lush” is the operative word.
"Visiting this park is like walking through a portal into a world where everything is giant and green."
Moss covers rocks, lichens hang from branches, clover-like redwood sorrel carpets the ground, and trees grow to gargantuan size. Be suitably awed and humbled, then step out of the bowers and head over to Elk Prairie, a grassy, golden meadow where you’ve got a great chance of seeing Roosevelt elk. These regal beasts are California’s largest land animals, weighing up to 1,100 pounds. Although they seem docile as they languidly munch on grass, it’s wise to give them some space, especially big males during the autumn rut. While at Elk Prairie, consider a walk on Trillium Falls Trail, a 2.5-mile/4-km loop through ancient redwoods.
Next, go for a drive. The paved, 10-mile/16-km Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, the scenic alternative to Highway 101, winds past silent groves that reach for the sky. Pull over for a quick walk to the aptly named Big Tree, and watch for more wild elk herds.
For the more adventurous driver, the unpaved Davison Road travels to Gold Bluffs Beach, a 10-mile stretch of waterfront where 1850s prospectors mined for gold dust in the sand. You can camp on the beach, but don’t forget to stake your tent—the wind can be fierce. Continue past Gold Bluffs to the end of the road and Fern Canyon trailhead. Here you have two options: a one-mile loop through spectacular Fern Canyon, or a longer walk on the Coastal Trail past three mini-waterfalls.
Limekiln State Park
Make a stop along Highway 1 to visit Limekiln State Park, where you’ll discover a piece of 19th-century history while hiking trails through towering coastal redwoods. At this Big Sur park two miles south of Lucia, camping, swimming (in Limekiln Creek and at a beach), and spotting marine life carries huge appeal, but it’s undoubtedly the historic kilns that are the park’s signature attraction.
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a booming limekiln operation (more on that below, if you’re scratching your head), and short walks let you not only explore the limekiln ruins but also visit the aforementioned beach and Limekiln Falls.
History explains how, in the late 1880s, limestone was harvested from a nearby slope, then fed into the hulking kilns. Intense heat—with kiln fires fueled by felled redwoods—extracted pure lime, a key ingredient in construction cement, which was used in buildings in San Francisco and Monterey.
Once all the nearby reserves of limestone and redwoods were used up, the kilns were abandoned. Slowly, the forest recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape (not to mention one with an interesting past). In the midst of this intensely naturalistic setting, the four iron-and-stone kilns rise, scarred and imposing, like monuments to some bygone civilization. It’s a dramatic contrast that’s likely to spark even the most seasoned sightseer’s imagination.
Pitch a tent—car and RV camping is not accommodated—in one of the 29 campsites located creekside, on the beachfront, and in the forest. You can reserve a site up to six months in advance.
Salt Point State Park
A wild and beautiful meeting of land and sea, Salt Point State Park encompasses 6,000 acres along the Sonoma coast, about 95 miles north of San Francisco. Grassy terraces crown wind-lashed headlands where sandstone cliffs drop abruptly to the Pacific. Tidepools and kelp beds teem with marine life; in fact, the park’s offshore waters are protected as one of California’s first underwater parks: Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area.
Bisected by Highway 1, this beautiful coastal park, 17 miles north of the mouth of the Russian River and the hamlet of Jenner, gives you plenty of reasons to pull over and start Instagramming. Better yet, get out and explore: choose from some 20 miles of trails leading to sights such as wind and water-carved tafoni, or honeycombed sandstone formations. Take the steep but short hike up to the park’s pygmy forest of stunted cypress and pine trees. Head north from the main park entrance to Fisk Mill Cove, popular for abalone diving, to follow a bluff-top trail. This level path meanders through a forest with rhododendrons and ferns to peek-a-boo views of rocky pocket beaches with crashing waves, playful seals, and abalone divers. Save energy to climb to the top of Sentinel Rock for a striking coastal overlook.
Insider tip: Salt Point State Park has two campgrounds—perfect for first time family campers. Best on calm days, Gerstle Cove Campground, on the ocean side of the highway, features exciting sea views, while pine-shaded Woodside Campground, on the more protected east side of the highway, offers better shelter on windy days.
Grover Hot Springs State Park
Nestled in a notch of the High Sierra about an hour’s drive southeast of Lake Tahoe, mineral springs bubble up from the earth, a testament to the geologic and geothermal forces that have shaped this landscape. This state park, just west of the quiet mountain town of Markleeville, may or may not have been discovered in 1844 by John C. Fremont, the explorer credited with first sighting Lake Tahoe. Historians haven’t settled that debate. But no one disagrees that since the 1850s, people have flocked to “take the cure” in these restorative waters.
The park’s pools are fed from six different springs containing low amounts of sulfur. That means you won’t notice the strong “rotten-egg” smell of many hot spring pools. The water emerges from underground at a scalding 148°F/64°C, but it’s cooled down before it’s piped into the park’s two concrete pools—one for soaking at a safe 103°F/39°C, the other a pleasant temperature for swimming and splashing.
The pools are open most of the year (hours may vary during the off-season/winter period, September through May, so call ahead; 530/694-2249). The state park also has a 76-site campground and hiking trails, some easy scrambles for the kids (don’t miss the walk to the waterfall along Hot Springs Creek), as well as longer treks into surrounding alpine regions.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
There are few places in California—and maybe on the planet—that can make you think you might just be on Mars. This is one of them. At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake, the salty remnant of an ancient inland sea. Over a million sea birds feed on the surface and swirl overhead—AN incredible show of life in this seemingly desolate setting.
Get yourself oriented with a visit to the excellent interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Inside, exhibits shed light on the natural and human history of the Mono Basin, including major environmental challenges caused by water diversions that almost killed the lake. (Huge efforts by the local Mono Lake Committee, with a gift-filled shop in Lee Vining, have successfully saved it.) Wraparound decks offer expansive views of the dramatic setting—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east, and views of the lake and its tiny Wizard Island, an important nesting site for Western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The Visitor Center is closed Dec-Mar.
Trails lace the area; you can explore rehabilitated Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat and the region’s cinder cones, blanketed with with obsidian and pumice, or walk in the South Tufa Area, with close-up views of the lake-trimming calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake water that’s 2½ times as salty as the ocean. Naturalists lead free tufa walks at the South Tufa Area three times daily from late June through Labor Day. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayaks.