California’s state parks are wonderful places to experience the Golden State’s scenic beauty and history. If you are planning a visit to the state, you’ll definitely want to look into weaving in a few of the best California state parks into your itinerary.
Scattered all over the state, and running the gamut from coasts and forests to lakes, deserts, and mountains, state parks in California are easily accessed when you want an escape into nature.
Some California state parks showcase the state’s history and culture. Bodie State Historic Park in the Eastern Sierra, for example, is an ode to the state’s gold rush era.
California state parks make for great stops on road trips through the state. They are also perfect for day trips, weekend getaways, and even longer trips. If you visit the Big Sur Coast, for example, you can spend a week (or more!) exploring the seven beautiful Big Sur state parks.
While hiking is a popular activity in almost every outdoor state park in California, you will also find parks where you can chase waterfalls, fish, go boating, look for birds and wildlife, or camp. Many state parks offer great photo ops as well.
The Best State Parks in California
While California’s national parks are justly renowned for their stunning landscapes and unparalleled opportunities to explore the outdoors, the Golden State’s state parks don’t lag too far behind.
With close to 300 state park units from which to pick, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to exploring California’s state parks. If you have the time and the opportunity, by all means visit as many of them as you can!
If you are a visitor to California with limited time, you will have the delicious dilemma of shortlisting just a few California state parks to visit. We’ve visited many state parks during our time in the Golden State, and we’ve created this list based on our experiences so far.
Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the must-visit state parks in California!
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
One of the best known state parks in California, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to the impossibly picturesque McWay Falls. The 80-foot waterfall tumbles from the cliffs onto a pristine beach below.
The park features a number of hiking trails of varying length and difficulty, some of them offering beautiful coastal views. Look for California condors roosting in the eucalyptus trees, and walk in the shade of tall redwoods.
Located along the Big Sur Coast, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park allows camping, but you’ll need to reserve well in advance. The park makes for a great stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, or when doing the Big Sur Coast drive.
When to visit: Year round, just avoid periods of heavy winter rain. Check for road closures if you visit in a wet winter.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
The 129-foot Burney Falls is likely the most beautiful waterfall in California. The fan-shaped waterfall is relatively full year-round, and drops into a beautiful plunge pool.
Burney Falls can be accessed via the one-mile Burney Falls Loop Trail in the park. The trail takes you around the gorgeous falls, and you can view them from an overlook above as well as up close.
Located in the Cascade mountains in northeastern California, the park features forest and streams, with a number of nature trails and hikes. The Pacific Crest Trail passes through the park.
McArthur-Burney State Park also includes a portion of beautiful Lake Britton. Aside from walks and hikes, you can fish and camp here.
When to visit: Spring through fall is best, though the park is open all year.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Located in the Colorado Desert in Southern California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the best day trips from Palm Springs you can do if you enjoy nature. It also makes for one of the easiest weekend getaways from San Diego, being less than 2 hours away by road!
Featuring dramatic desert scapes, a number of cool slot canyons, and beautiful palm oases, the park is criss-crossed by both paved and dirt roads as well as a network of trails. There are several campgrounds within the park if you want to spend a few days here.
For the best experience, explore the backcountry in a high clearance vehicle, in combination with hikes. And don’t miss Ricardo Breceda’s gigantic metal sculptures of prehistoric creatures, which make for fabulous photos.
Visit Anza-Borrego State Park in the spring of a good bloom year to enjoy the spectacular wildflowers that carpet the desert in shades of yellow, pink, white, and purple.
When to visit: Spring for wildflower bloom, fall through spring for pleasant weather.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Just a few miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsula is the strikingly beautiful Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, called the “crown jewel” of the California State Parks system.
With a fascinating history of whaling and abalone harvesting and the essence of California’s coastal beauty concentrated into a few square miles, Point Lobos State Park is an extremely popular destination, both for locals and for visitors.
Walk the many scenic oceanfront hiking trails at Point Lobos, observe the sea birds on Bird Island, and admire the ancient Monterey cypress trees (the native species only grows at Point Lobos and nearby Cypress Point in Pebble Beach).
The underwater part of Point Lobos State Reserve is just as mesmerizing, with kelp forests, numerous species of fish, and other marine creatures. Go snorkeling or scuba diving to explore the rich marine diversity of the region.
When to visit: Year round, just avoid periods of heavy winter rain. Spring brings wildflowers.
Emerald Bay State Park
You’ll find Emerald Bay State Park on the scenic west shore of Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful lakes in California. Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada border, and Emerald Bay is on the California side.
Emerald Bay is designated a National Natural Landmark. Accessed via Highway 89, the road that runs around the lake, the park is a few minutes’ drive from the community of South Lake Tahoe.
Take in the views of the beautiful bay from the Inspiration Point overlook along Highway 89. Look for Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only island, and admire the green evergreen forests that frame the water.
Hike down to Vikingsholm Castle, known as one of the best examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States. Tours of the historic mansion are offered in the summer. Go stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking in Emerald Bay or take a scenic cruise across the lake to visit.
When to visit: Summer for tours of Vikingsholm, year round otherwise. But watch for snow and ice in winter.
Bodie State Historic Park
Bodie State Historic Park is located off the scenic Highway 395 corridor, northeast of Yosemite National Park. The park preserves the remnants of a gold boom-and-bust town, with structures left in a state of “arrested decay.”
Gold was discovered in the area towards the last quarter of the 19th century. When a mine caved in, large deposits were revealed and Bodie became a boom town. But the town gradually went into decline and was officially described as a “ghost town” by 1915.
Designated a National Historic Landmark, Bodie is worth visiting to view the ghost town that looks exactly like it did over 50 years ago, when the last residents fled the dying town. You can walk the streets and peer into the interiors of structures.
Visit Bodie as part of a Highway 395 road trip, or as a side trip when you visit Yosemite National Park, or even as a stop on a great California road trip itinerary. It’s a fascinating peek into California’s gold rush past!
When to visit: Spring through fall. In winter, you can only access the park with snowshoes, skis or snowmobiles.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Our favorite among the redwoods parks in California, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park contains a wealth of old-growth redwoods, some of the largest (by trunk size) you’ll find anywhere.
Walking along a misty trail under the shade of the giant old trees in the park is a bucket list experience you will not want to miss. Not only are the trees in the park spectacular, the vegetation below is rich and diverse, allowing for great photos.
Drive the Howland Hill Drive through the park, under the canopy of the redwoods. There are several walking trails that enable you to get up close to the giants. The short Stout Grove Trail is a must-do, as is the Simpson-Reed Trail, just under a mile long.
When to visit: Summer is best from weather perspective but expect crowds. Late spring or early fall are also good options.
Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, at 115 feet, is one of the tallest light stations in the United States. The light was first lit in 1872, and the station continues to function as an active lighthouse today.
Pigeon Point Light Station Historic Park is located in Pescadero, about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. If you enjoy photographing sunsets, plan to be at the park around that time: the lighthouse looks stunning against a backdrop of colorful skies.
Aside from the historic lighthouse, the area is famed for its rich marine life and birding opportunities. Look for whales and other sea mammals from the shore, and bring your binoculars or spotting scope to view the many seabirds. Enjoy wildflowers in the spring and early summer.
When to visit: Year round, just avoid periods of winter rain.
Año Nuevo State Park
Located a little over an hour’s drive south of San Francisco along the coast, Año Nuevo State Park is famous for its pinniped rookeries. Guided tours are offered from mid December until the end of March, breeding time for the elephant seals.
For much of the rest of the year, you can visit on a self-guided tour, by permit. Seals can be seen year round. The hike to Año Nuevo Point (where you can view the seals) is roughly 3 to 4 miles round trip.
You may hear the northern elephant seals before you see them! And when you do come to the viewing area, the sight of hundreds of seals lying on the shore is quite breathtaking.
The trail is both historic and beautiful. Along the way, you’ll find a pond where you may spot the endangered American red-legged frog. Follow the little path by the pond down to Cove Beach, where you can see seabirds and shore birds.
When to visit: December 15 through end of March for guided tours during seal breeding season, year round otherwise. The park is generally closed December 1-14.
Columbia State Historic Park
Located in the heart of Gold Country, a little over an hour’s drive from Sacramento, Columbia State Historic Park preserves the California gold rush town of Columbia, where huge amounts of gold were mined between 1850 and 1860.
The town declined in subsequent years, with buildings torn down and many people leaving, but unlike most of the other gold rush era boom towns, Columbia was never completely deserted. In 1945, the park was created to preserve what was left.
Today Columbia is a living town that preserves more than two dozen structures built during the gold rush era. You can pan for gold, ride the stagecoach, watch a blacksmith in action, and take a guided tour of the town.
If you enjoy historical state parks, definitely put Columbia Historic State Park on your California itinerary!
When to visit: Any time of year.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
In our opinion the most unique lake in California, Mono Lake is a must-visit if you are planning a trip through the Eastern Sierra, or if you plan to visit Yosemite National Park for a few days. The Mono Lake tufa towers are gorgeous!
Mono Lake Tufa Natural State Reserve protects the beautiful tufa towers that you can see in the lake and along its shores. Mono Lake is an ancient saltwater lake, and provides a habitat for millions of birds.
Walk the beautiful boardwalk trail to a viewpoint from where you can see the lake. You will pass by some of the tufa formations, so you can see them up close.
Drive to the shore at South Tufa, to view the tufas. This is an especially beautiful spot at sunset, and there is a nature trail here as well. You can hike, birdwatch, swim, and go boating at Mono Lake.
When to visit: Year round, but watch driving conditions in winter.
Crystal Cove State Park
Located near Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park is a gorgeous oceanfront park with more than 3 miles of coastline, an offshore underwater area, and several acres of wilderness. If you enjoy nature, Crystal Cove State Park is one of the best day trips from Los Angeles you can do!
You’ll love walking the sandy beaches in the park. Go swimming or surfing, enjoy tidepooling, and look for seabirds and shore birds. The coastal fog rolls in most mornings, but burns off by mid day. It’s fun to walk in the misty mornings though, with the mist swirling about you.
Away from the water, enjoy the backcountry on foot, on horseback, or on a mountain bike. There are trails that go up into the hills, as well as along the canyons.
Explore the Crystal Cove Historic District, which features over three dozen seaside cottages built in the 1930s and 1940s. You can even stay in one of the cottages, but reserve well in advance!
When to visit: Year round, just avoid winter rain storms.
Mount Diablo State Park
Located in Clayton, about a 90-minute drive across the bay from San Francisco, Mount Diablo State Park preserves the beautiful Mount Diablo Range and its foothills, covering an area of 20,000 acres. Mount Diablo State Park makes for one of the most exciting day trips from San Francisco you can do, if you enjoy nature and the outdoors.
Drive to the Visitor Center at the summit of Mt. Diablo, close to 4,000 feet above sea level. You can also hike to the top, or bike to the top of Mt. Diablo, if you are up for the challenge.
The views from the top on a clear day are fantastic, and you can pose for a photo by the actual summit, which peeks through the floor at the visitor center!
There are numerous hiking trails in the park, some along the route to the top. If you visit in the spring, the walks around Mitchell Canyon feature lots of wildflowers. You can also go horseback riding in the park. There are campgrounds for overnight stays.
When to visit: Year round, but views from the summit tend to be better on clear winter days. Avoid winter rain storms.
Montaña de Oro State Park
Montaña de Oro means Mountain of Gold, and if you visit in the spring and see the hillsides in the park covered with wildflowers in shades of yellow, gold, and orange, you’ll see how the park got its name!
Located on the Central California Coast just a few miles south of Morro Bay and a 15-minute drive from San Luis Obispo, Montana de Oro features dramatic coastal landscapes and diverse flora and fauna.
Hike the easy and scenic Bluff Trail at Montana de Oro to take in the beautiful water views and unique rock formations along the shore. Go tidepooling, or enjoy some time on the pristine sandy coves and beaches. For a more challenging hike, try the trail to the top of Valencia Peak.
You can also go mountain biking and horseback riding in the park. Primitive campsites are available inside the park.
When to visit: Year round, except on rainy days in the winter.
Empire Mine State Historic Park
You can’t visit the Golden State and not learn more about its gold rush history! Located in Grass Valley, about a 3-hour drive from San Francisco and about a one-hour drive from Sacramento, Empire Mine State Historic Park is the site of one of the richest gold mines in California.
Over a period of about 100 years, the mine produced close to 6 million ounces of gold! In the park, you can see some of the structures from days past, including the fully restored home and gardens of the mine’s owner.
You can also see a model of the underground layout of the mine in the Visitor Center, and, most exciting of all, you can actually go down a mine shaft and check out what it looks like underground!
The park contains lots of hiking trails, many of them forested, if you have more time to spend. You can also go mountain biking and horseback riding on trails.
When to visit: Year round, but it gets cold in the winter. Watch driving conditions in winter.
Angel Island State Park
The largest natural island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island offers 360-degree views of the bay, and views of the city of San Francisco and landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge.
The island has a rich history, starting from the times when Native Americans lived here, to the time when Spanish explorers arrived in San Francisco, to becoming a military location into the middle of the 20th century. In the 1960s, Angel Island finally became a park for visitors to enjoy.
You can arrive at Angel Island via ferry (or private boat). Ferries run from San Francisco and Tiburon. If you plan to visit in the winter, note that ferry service may be limited, so call ahead.
You can walk or bike to take in the views: the 5.5-mile Perimeter Trail goes all around the island. Look for birds and wildlife. You can also take a tram tour. History buffs will enjoy touring the US Immigration Station Barracks Museum.
When to visit: Year round, but ferry services are limited in winter.
Officially the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, Hearst Castle is the stunning former estate of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Located on scenic Highway One, Hearst castle makes for a great stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary.
Designed by famous San Francisco architect Julia Morgan and built over a period of several years in the first half of the 20th century, the hilltop estate overlooks the Pacific Ocean and includes the gorgeous main house as well as guesthouses and beautiful gardens.
You can only visit the Hearst Castle interiors on guided tours: several daytime tours are offered, as well as an evening tour. You can linger after your tour to wander the gardens and gape at the beautiful pools: the Neptune Pool and the Roman Pool.
Keep an eye out as you drive through the grounds: you may see zebras, bison or elk! Hearst maintained a zoo on the property, with several species roaming free.
When to visit: Any time of year, but avoid winter storm days.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Located in Gold Country, north of the Sierra Nevada national parks in California, is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, featuring two gorgeous groves of giant sequoias, the largest trees on the planet.
The park is also home to stands of mixed species of conifer trees. The stunningly scenic Stanislaus River flows through the park, as well as the beautiful Beaver Creek. Swim in the picturesque swimming holes, fish, go kayaking, and hike.
Walking through the North Grove of giant sequoias is a popular activity in the park. The trail is 1.4 miles long, and relatively easy. The South Grove Trail is longer, at five miles, but also takes you through giant sequoias and other evergreens.
Visit in the spring to see dogwoods in bloom: an amazing sight! Or in the fall for pretty leaf colors. Look for birds and wildlife: you may see kingfishers or turkey vultures, and deer, rabbit or fox. In the winter you can do guided snowshoe hikes or go cross-country skiing.
When to visit: Any time of year, but check for road closures in winter.
Garrapata State Park
A lesser known Big Sur gem, Garrapata State Park features wild landscapes and that inexplicable Big Sur beauty that makes you want to return again and again once you’ve discovered it. It is one of our favorite haunts when we want to really “get away.”
Just a short drive south from Carmel-by-the-Sea, Garrapata State Park’s hiking trails traverse both the coast and the hillsides across the Pacific Coast Highway. From the higher elevations, you get magnificent views of the water.
Garrapata State Park offers numerous gorgeous photo spots, including Soberanes Point, the Garrapata Beach Overlook, and Garrapata Beach. In the spring, you will see lots of beautiful wildflowers along the trails, and the Calla Lily Valley is in bloom then as well.
Garrapata Beach makes for a nice stroll, but the trails allow you to get a good feel for the wildness of the Big Sur coastline and observe the local flora.
When to visit: Any time of year, but avoid winter storm days.
Mount San Jacinto State Park
High above the Sonoran Desert, in the upper reaches of Mount San Jacinto, you will find a beautiful state park where you can escape. You can drive into the park via the pretty town of Idyllwild, or you can take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
You will find many hiking trails at the top, varying in length and difficulty. You can even hike to the summit of Mount San Jacinto! But there are shorter, easier trails as well. Walk the Discovery Nature Trail, a flat 0.6-mile loop suitable for most visitors to the park, or the slightly more difficult 1.5-mile Desert View Trail.
Admire the spectacular panoramas from the scenic overlooks in the park. You can look right down into the desert below, as well as at the granite mountain faces around, sometimes covered with snow. It is an amazing contrast!
In the winter, you may encounter snow at the top, in which case you can go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
When to visit: Any time of year, watch driving conditions in winter.
Asilomar State Beach
Officially named Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds State Park, this beautiful coastal state park in Pacific Grove features a number of trails through sandy dunes, with gorgeous views of the rocky shoreline and the Pacific Ocean.
Asilomar State Beach is a long sandy beach where you can stroll. Enjoy surfing, kite flying, or kayaking. Sunset is a lovely time to visit, if the day is clear. Walk the coastal trail to admire the flora and look for seabirds: you may see Western gulls, cormorants, and pelicans.
The rocky areas contain numerous tidepools that you can explore at low tide. Bring your binoculars and look for sea otters, sea lions, and seals on the rocks off shore. In the spring, you will enjoy beautiful wildflowers along the walk.
Across the road you can also walk the boardwalk interpretive trail through the sandy dunes, to learn more about the coastal flora. You may spot birds here as well. A little distance along the coastal road you can visit Point Pinos Light Station.
When to visit: Any time of year, but avoid winter rain.
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Mount Tamalpais, at a little over 2,500 feet, is the tallest peak in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. A popular day trip from San Francisco and the Bay Area, Mt. Tam features spectacular views and stunning scenery.
You can drive to the top, or take the West Marin Stagecoach to the top, to enjoy the panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay, East Bay, Mount Diablo, and the hills of Marin County. You can also hike to the top!
With over 60 miles of trails, Mount Tamalpais State park offers spectacular hiking. The Verna Dunshee Trail at East Peak is accessible and about 0.75 mile long, and offers beautiful views. You can also go mountain biking on designated roads.
Enjoy wildflowers displays in the spring, and look for birds and wildlife as you explore. Bring your binoculars if you visit between late November and early May: you may spot migrating whales in the water!
When to visit: Any time of year.
Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park
Point Cabrillo Light Station is located on the Mendocino Coast in Northern California, between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. From the parking lot, it is about a 0.5-mile walk down to the Light Station.
Built in the early part of the 20th century, the Point Cabrillo Light Station is gorgeous. Today you can tour the complex, which includes the lighthouse, three lighthouse keeper residences, and the blacksmith and carpentry shop.
There are many hiking trails to explore at Point Cabrillo. They wind through the coastal flora, and offer spectacular views of the water. Look for seabirds and shore birds, and marine life. You may spot harbor seals or sea lions, or whales during their migration.
Just north of the light station is Frolic Cove, the scene of the shipwreck of the brig named Frolic. The lighthouse was built in response to several shipwrecks off the Mendocino Coast.
Morro Bay State Park
Located on the Central California Coast, Morro Bay State Park features spectacular scenery. The park includes the bay as well as lagoon habitat, and the enormous Morro Rock looms over the area.
At the northern end of the park is a saltwater marsh where you can see many species of birds: close to 250 different species have been spotted here. Fall and winter are prime birding seasons in Morro Bay. You can see birds from the water on a tour, or hike one of the estuary trails.
You can also go sailing, fish, canoe, or kayak, or go hiking or mountain biking. The marina is colorful, with its many boats, and makes for beautiful photo ops.
The Museum of Natural History in the park is a must-visit, along with the adjacent Chumash garden. Exhibits cover geology, cultural history, oceanography, and Native American history.
When to visit: Any time of year, avoid rainy days in winter.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Located in the southernmost reaches of the Sierra Nevada in the eastern part of the state, Red Rock Canyon State Park features stunning rock formations. The park is a must stop if you are planning a Highway 395 road trip from LA. It also makes for a great day trip from LA.
The rock cliffs are reminiscent of the national parks in Utah, with their towering size, gorgeous shapes, and blazing colors. Many movies have been filmed here, no surprises why: it is just a stunning place.
There are many miles of trails through the dramatic rock cliffs in the park. Come prepared for desert hiking and hit the trails to get up close to the beautiful red rock. You can also go biking or horse riding in the park, or off-road driving on the dirt roads.
If you visit in the spring following a wet winter, you will be treated to spectacular wildflower displays. Also look for birds and wildlife as you are out exploring.
When to visit: Fall through spring. Summer daytime temperatures can get into the triple digits, so explore early or late in the day.
Map of 25 Best State Parks in California
Planning to explore more of California’s natural beauty? Check out some of our other articles for inspiration!
- The Most Beautiful Lakes in California
- The Best Waterfalls in California
- An Overview of California’s National Parks
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