California is a large state with plenty of outdoor activities to keep residents and visitors busy. The state is also home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, and its state parks are a big part of that. There are dozens of great California state parks, but I’ve narrowed it down to the 15 best. These parks offer a variety of activities and attractions, and they’re all worth a visit. So if you’re looking for some great places to spend time outdoors, check out my list of the Best State Parks in California.
1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive about visiting a desert. I’m more of a forest person myself. But because I had heard so much about It, I decided to give it a try.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California and one of the largest in the entire United States. The 600,000-acre park is located in the Colorado Desert, which occupies the southeastern portion of the state.
I was surprised to learn that the park is home to more than 50 species of animals, including bighorn sheep, kit foxes, golden eagles, and mountain lions. The park also contains more than 100 species of plant life, including the California fan palm, the only native palm in the western United States. I was even more surprised to see so many colorful flowers and plants in bloom.
The park also features hiking trails and scenic drives. I enjoyed taking a jeep tour of the desert, which gave me a chance to see some of the wildlife up close.
The best time to visit the park is springtime, when the temperatures are cooler and the wildflowers bloom. But even if you visit at another time of year, you’re sure to enjoy the wide-open spaces and dramatic landscapes.
2. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
During my research for the best state parks in California, I discovered that many people consider Big Basin Redwoods State Park to be a hidden gem. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, this state park is the oldest one in California, dating back to 1902.
The forests of tall redwoods here are some of the tallest trees in the world. The marine influence of nearby Monterey Bay creates a microclimate that supports an unusual variety of plant life, including ancient coast redwoods, giant sequoias, and rare species such as the marbled murrelet.
The park features more than 80 miles (130 kilometers) of hiking trails through magnificent old-growth forests. The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is a popular hike that descends from the ridge top to the forest floor, where it intersects with the Berry Creek Falls Loop. This 30-mile (48-kilometer) round-trip hike takes two to three days to complete.
Overnight camping is available at several sites in the park, including the popular Huckleberry Campground. Backcountry camping is also allowed with a permit.
3. Ano Nuevo State Park
Before planning my trip, I was not familiar with Ano Nuevo State Park, but it has now shot to the top of my list of state parks to visit in California. The park is best known as a reserve for the endangered Northern elephant seal, which can weigh up to 4,000 pounds (1,815 kilograms). These massive animals spend much of their lives in the water, but they come ashore to mate and give birth.
I took a self-guided tour of the park, which began at the Visitor Center. I highly recommend this option because it allows you to go at your own pace and learn as much or as little as you want about the seals. I was particularly interested in the various methods used to count the seals, which is important for conservation purposes.
The best time to see the seals is during their breeding season, which takes place between late December and early March. However, I was told that there are often seals present on the beach year-round. If you’re lucky, you might even see a seal pup being born.
4. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This state park is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a well-known pioneer woman, and rancher in Big Sur. The park features miles of coastline with dramatic views, towering redwoods, and waterfalls.
One of the top attractions at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is McWay Falls, an 80-foot (24-meter) waterfall that flows year-round from a ledge on granite cliffs into the ocean below. The falls are best seen from the overlook at the top of the cliff or from McWay Cove Beach. You can also view the falls from a short trail that leads to an ocean overlook.
The park has many miles of hiking trails through redwood and manzanita forests and along creeks. The trails wind through redwood forests, offering hikers stunning views of the ocean and mountains. Other top attractions at the park include the historic Partington Cove, where you can see the remains of an old whaling station, and the Pfeiffer Beach Day Use Area, which has a scenic cove with purple sand.
There are no overnight accommodations in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, but it’s easy to find a hotel or vacation rental in nearby Big Sur.
5. South Yuba River State Park
I have been to South Yuba River State Park many times, and it is definitely one of the top California state parks. The reason I like it so much is that it’s a great place to escape the summer heat.
The South Yuba River is one of the top places to go swimming in California. The water is always cool, even on the hottest days of summer. And there are plenty of rocks to sunbathe on. The river is also popular with kayakers and rafters. You can bring your own kayak or raft, or you can rent one from one of the many outfitters in the area.
In addition to the outdoor activities, the South Yuba River State Park is also home to the Bridgeport Covered Bridge, built in 1862 and one of the oldest covered bridges in California. This is definitely a great place to spend a day or even a weekend. There are plenty of things to do, and the scenery is simply gorgeous.
6. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is a protected area of old-growth redwood forests located along California’s North Coast. The 14,000-acre (5,700 ha) park is notable for its dense canopy of coast redwood, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock trees, creating an environment that is dim even in mid-day and eerily quiet except for the sounds of wind and rain.
There are over 60 miles (97 km) of trails in the park, including the popular 4.5-mile (7.2 km) James Irvine Trail, which passes through old-growth redwood forest and meadows. Other popular trails include the Prairie Creek Trail, which follows the creek through the forest, and the Fern Canyon Trail, which leads to a canyon with walls covered in ferns.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is a great option if you’re looking for things to do in California that will take you off the beaten path. The park is open all year round, but the best time to visit is from May to September, when the weather is mild.
7. Castle Crags State Park
If there is one of the best state parks in California that you shouldn’t miss, it’s Castle Crags State Park. This state park is located in Northern California, about an hour from Redding. It is known for its dramatic cliffs and rock formations that tower over the Sacramento River.
The main attraction at Castle Crags State Park is the towering rock formations. The rocks are made of granite and rise about 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) above the river. They are a popular destination for rock climbers.
If you’re not into rock climbing, there are plenty of other things to do at Castle Crags State Park. You can go hiking, camping, picnicking, and backpacking. There are also several scenic viewpoints where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the Sacramento River. The park also has a campground with 75 sites for tents and RVs.
8. Empire Mine State Historic Park
Empire Mine State Historic Park is a former gold mine in Grass Valley, California, which has operated for more than 100 years. The park features the mine’s former buildings and machinery, as well as a museum with exhibits about the history of gold mining in California.
You can take a self-guided tour of the mine’s tunnels and see how the miners worked underground. The tours are fairly easy to follow and provide a lot of information about the gold mining process. The park also has a number of hiking trails, which are a great way to explore the surrounding area.
9. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
My plan was to spend only an hour at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, but I ended up staying for two. This state park is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. It is well known for its old-growth coast redwoods, some of which are more than 350 feet (107 meters) tall.
These beautiful trees are only part of the attraction at Henry Cowell. The park also has a fascinating history. It was once the site of a logging operation, and you can still see the remains of an old steam-powered sawmill. Nowadays, visitors can enjoy hiking and biking trails, horseback riding, fishing, and picnicking in the park. There are also several camping sites.
I highly recommend Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, especially if you love nature and being outdoors. It is one of the best state parks in California and definitely worth a visit.
10. Angel Island State Park
Angel Island State Park is one of the best state parks to visit in California for outdoor lovers and adventure seekers. The island, which is only accessible by ferry, is located in San Francisco Bay and offers breathtaking views of the city skyline.
This island is a great place for hiking, biking, and picnicking. There are also a variety of historical sites to explore, including the remains of a military fort and an Immigration Station where Chinese immigrants were detained in the 19th century.
While Angel Island State Park is a great place to visit any time of year, it’s especially beautiful in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom. Be sure to check the ferry schedule in advance and pack a lunch to enjoy on the island.
11. Morro Bay State Park
I continue my list of the best California state parks with Morro Bay State Park, located on the central coast. The state park encompasses much of the town of Morro Bay and offers visitors a chance to experience the California coast in a more natural setting.
The centerpiece of the state park is Morro Rock, a 581-foot-tall volcanic plug that juts out of the water. The rock is home to a variety of birds, including peregrine falcons, and it’s fun to watch the birds flying around the rock. Morro Bay State Park also has a nice beach where you can swim, sunbathe, or go fishing.
There are several hiking trails in the park, and you can also rent bicycles to explore the area. If you want to stay in the park overnight, there are several campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park your RV.
12. Grover Hot Springs State Park
Of all the top-rated state parks in California, Grover Hot Springs State Park was my favorite. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Lake Tahoe, the park features beautiful hiking trails, scenic views, and hot springs.
The centerpiece of Grover Hot Springs State Park is the large swimming pool, which is fed by about six natural hot springs and ranges in temperature from 100 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit. The springs are open to the public at a small fee, and the pool is open year-round.
I enjoyed soaking in the spring-fed pool, which was a perfect way to relax. After the dip, I explored some of the hiking trails in the park. The trailheads are well-marked, and the trails are suitable for all levels of hikers. And if you wish to extend your stay, the park also offers camping facilities.
Overall, I had an excellent experience at Grover Hot Springs State Park and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a relaxing and enjoyable experience in California.
13. Bodie State Historic Park
Bodie State Historic Park is a preserved ghost town in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The town was once a thriving mining community, but it was abandoned in the early 20th century when the gold ran out. Today, Bodie is a popular tourist destination, and it’s one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the United States.
When you visit this place, you can explore the town’s abandoned buildings and see what life was like for the miners who lived there. The town is open to the public, and there are a number of guided tours available. You can also go on a self-guided tour and explore at your own pace.
Be sure to stop by the Bodie Museum, where you can learn more about the history of this unique place. And don’t forget to pick up a souvenir at one of the gift shops in town!
14. McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
Next on my list of the best state parks in California is McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state.
The 129-foot (39-meter) Burney Falls may not be the highest or widest waterfall in California. But in my opinion, it’s one of the loveliest waterfalls, especially in terms of the volume of water that tumbles over the edge. You’ll need to hike down the Burney Falls Loop Trail, which is about a mile (1.6 kilometers) long, to reach the viewing platform at the base of the falls.
The best time to see Burney Falls is in late spring, when the snowmelt from Mt. Shasta feeds the falls. The powerful stream of water creates a continuous mist that rises high into the air, providing a cooling effect on hot days.
15. Russian Gulch State Park
Just north of the town of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park is a top destination for beachcombing, hiking, and diving. The park’s centerpiece is a 38-foot (11.6-meter) waterfall that tumbles down into a pool of water surrounded by ferns and redwoods.
The 1,162-acre (469-hectare) park also features five miles (eight kilometers) of ocean coastline, tidepools, and the Devil’s Punchbowl, a top diving spot. Visitors can explore more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) of hiking trails that wind through the redwood forest and along the coast.
I spent most of my time in the park beachcombing and looking for agates, which are semiprecious stones that come in a range of colors. I also enjoyed hiking the Headlands Trail, which offers stunning views of the ocean and coastline.
These are just a few of the best state parks in California. I could easily list many more, but I think this is a good start. And I hope that you will enjoy exploring these state parks as much as I did. Thanks for reading.