Many of California’s National Parks are well known — Yosemite, Death Valley, Sequoia, Joshua Tree. Yet California also has over 270 state parks — where to start? Here are some highlights to get you deeper into the diverse natural environments of California as well as its history.
Angel Island is the largest island in San Francisco bay and is easy to visit from either San Francisco or Tiburon in Marin County via a ferry trip with great views. The island was the port of entry for many Asian immigrants to the United States, and is layered with this history as well as that of native American inhabitants. Once on the island you can enjoy a swim or hike on trails circling the island. Rent a bike there from the Angel Island Company in the summer or bring your own. There’s a cafe and occasionally live music events on the island. If you’re coming from Tiburon, Guaymas is a great spot for a pre- or post- trip margarita.
A thriving 1800’s mining boom town, Bodie State Historic Park is now a well-preserved ghost town. Northeast of Yosemite and south of Bridgeport, Bodie is easily accessible during the summer, not so much in the winter. Make sure to take a tour of the Stamp Mill, where you can learn how gold was extracted from quartz and more about the history of the town. There’s definitely an eerie feeling here when the wind gets going. Bridgeport is the closest spot with living services — the High Sierra Bakery and 1881 Coffee Cake are both good for pastries and coffee.
That Russian seal traders once roamed the California coast is a lesser-known fact. Check out one of their well-preserved outposts at Fort Ross, complete with onion domes. Salt Point State Park is about twenty miles further north along Highway 1 and is a great place to camp, popular with abalone divers. In the spring the trails are full of rhododendrons, and in the fall with mushrooms. If you’re driving north, stop in Jenner for a snack or meal at Cafe Aquatica or the Cape Fear Cafe.
One of several Big Sur area state parks well worth a visit, Julia Pfeiffer Burns stands out for its easily accessible half-mile hike to the McWay waterfall overlook. The falls drop from the cliff onto the beach below. The overlook is a great place for whale watching in December and January. There are other hikes in the park if you want a longer leg-stretch — try the Ewoldsen trail, just two miles, which takes you through redwoods to spectacular ocean views. Good places to eat are Cafe Kevah, with its great views, the Big Sur Taphouse for its patio, beer, and good sandwiches, or the Big Sur Deli.
On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Mono Lake is a shallow saline lake home to many migratory and nesting birds. Among the most ancient lakes in North America, “tufa towers” rise from the water, the product of the interaction between alkaline lake water and freshwater springs. Californians of a certain age will recall the “Save Mono Lake” bumper stickers — water from the lake was diverted for many years to Los Angeles but has in recent years won protections and the water level has begun to rise. Fall is a great time to visit, though the lake is also a great place year-round for birders and photographers. Stop for a snack at the Whoa Nellie Deli, in Lee Vining, strangely delicious food at a gas station (seriously!).
North of Eureka, near the small town of Trinidad, Patrick’s Point is a quiet, lush park with great tidepooling at Agate Beach and mesmerizing views of the coast. Great camping among sitka spruce and a good stopping point for a short hike if you’re headed north on 101. The Trinidad Eatery and Gallery or the Larrupin Cafe are good places for meals.
Another park in the northern reaches of the state, Prairie Creek is home to deep groves of redwoods; its uniqueness is recognized as both a World Heritage State and an International Biosphere Reserve. Don’t miss the Fern Trail, a lush path which takes you to rugged Golds Bluff beach. If you like your scenery from the comfort of a car, or if you’re visiting in the winter and don’t want to get wet, Prairie Creek has three different scenic drives through different parts of the park. This park also offers a few cabins in addition to camping.