California has more state parks than any other state — 280 to be exact. California’s state parks also outnumber its national parks by about 30 to one, spanning 1.5 million acres of land and 320 miles of the West Coast. That means there’s a lot to see within the California Department of Parks and Recreation. But that also means it’s hard to know where to start.
To help you plan your next trip to the great outdoors, check out the list below of the most scenic, historic, and naturally beautiful state parks in California, from the Sonoran Desert to the Shasta Cascades.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Despite being the largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego is sometimes regarded as Joshua Tree National Park’s little sister. But it’s about three-quarters of the size of Joshua Tree at roughly 935 square miles, sees a fraction of the national park’s 2.5 million annual visitors, and sits about 100 miles south in the Sonoran Desert (Joshua Tree spans both the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts). So it’s pretty distinct. But one way in which they’re clearly related is obvious between late February and early March when wildflowers blanket the dusty expanses of both parks.
Badlands, slot canyons, and wind caves are just some of the geologic features that make Anza-Borrego so special. Font’s Point has some of the best views of the park and sunsets unlike those you’ll see anywhere else. And after the sun goes down, Anza-Borrego becomes a celestial wonderland — so much so that the park’s central town of Borrego Springs was named the second-ever International Dark Sky Community in 2009.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
American novelist Henry Miller once called Big Sur the place where he “first learned to say amen.” He’s not the only great writer to be captivated by the 90-mile stretch of Highway 1, home to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Mid-century culturalists like Kerouac, Steinbeck, and others also found inspiration on the rugged Central California coast south of Monterey. Winding roads, granite cliffs, hidden coves, and cool mists boxed in by the Santa Lucia Mountains all add to the allure.
Several state parks protect Big Sur country — Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns among them. But only the latter plays host to McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that plunges toward the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The beach below the falls is off-limits to visitors, but there’s a half-mile trail that leads to an overlook, and scuba divers can get a different perspective on this part of the park between McWay Creek and Partington Point.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns also extends into the mountains where millennia-old redwoods grow up to 300 feet tall and ridges behind them reach 10 times higher. One of the most popular trails, the Tan Bark trail, centers on what’s left of an isolated tin house overlooking the Pacific. It runs 6.5 miles out and back while the Tin House Road trail is a shorter option at 4.5 miles total.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
The “big trees” in question at this state park about two hours north of Yosemite are giant sequoias, which are, in fact, the tallest trees on the planet.
Calaveras has two sequoia groves: North and South. Some sources call North Grove the oldest continuously visited attraction in California; tourists have been coming since 1853 after a hunter named Augustus T. Dowd spread the word about the enormous Sierra redwood he encountered in what’s now the park. Today, Dowd’s “Discovery Tree” is just a stump, having been cut down shortly after he made its presence known. But it’s still a popular attraction.
There’s a fascinating museum about the area’s wildlife, trees, and Indigenous people who lived in the area long before Dowd “discovered” the species. Museum admission is free with the park’s $10 entrance fee. If you want to spend more time in one of the best California state parks, book one of the 129 campsites split between two campgrounds, where you can crash under the trees after exploring hundreds of miles of designated trails on foot (or Nordic skis, come winter).
Emerald Bay State Park
Picture Lake Tahoe. You’re probably picturing Emerald Bay. There’s a reason the natural wonder near South Lake Tahoe is one of the area’s most-photographed sites. The water is shallower here than elsewhere in the lake, making the bay glow greenish blue. Granite peaks frame the scene while the pines and aspens along the shoreline are like pinnacles in their own right. In the middle of it all is Fannette Island, the only island in the whole of Lake Tahoe.
Emerald Bay has multiple designations. It became a state park in 1953, was named a national natural landmark in 1969, and in 1994, the waters earned their own protected status. As of 2018, Emerald Bay has also hosted California’s first Maritime Heritage Underwater Trail where scuba divers can survey the sunken fishing boats, launches, recreational skiffs, and barges that sit beneath the surface.
Many of these watercraft were used to build Vikingsholm, a castle-like summer home at the head of Emerald Bay that was completed in 1928 and is now included on the National Register of Historic Places. Fannette Island has a mini-castle of its own, the Tea House, where the woman behind Vikingsholm sometimes hosted teatime for guests.
Today, kayakers and paddleboarders are fixtures of the bay. So is the popular M.S. Dixie II tourist paddlewheeler. On land, the 16-mile Rubicon Trail is an epic hike around the bay that connects Vikingsholm, the Eagle Point Campground, and even neighboring DL Bliss State Park. Get there early to find parking (like, before 8 AM).
Castle Rock State Park
For climbers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park is like Yosemite. There are routes for all types of climbing — sport, trad, and top rope — but it’s the bouldering problems that really put the park on the map. It helps that its Vaqueros sandstone formations, notably Castle Rock and Goat Rock, have grippy, Gaudí-esque pockets that make excellent handholds.
For hikers and backpackers, the Skyline to the Sea route is the pinnacle of the park’s 34-mile trail system. It alone spans 33 miles and connects Castle Rock to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Another highlight is the 75-foot Castle Rock Falls, and there’s also a backcountry wilderness camp with 20 first-come, first-served sites accessible via the Saratoga Gap Trail. It’s one of the best California state parks for climbers in the Golden State.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
This isn’t the only state park in California where you can see old-growth redwoods, but it is the one place on Earth where you can see the largest number of primeval redwoods — enough to cover 17,000 acres of the park’s 53,000 total acres. Strasophere Giant is the tallest among them at 371 feet, narrowly missing the 380-foot world record, while Bull Creek Giant is the park’s biggest and oldest redwood at 21 feet across and 1,763 years old.
More than any one tree, the star attraction at Humboldt Redwoods State Park is Avenue of the Giants, a 32-foot-long arboreal hall of fame. You can hike, bike, or drive along the route, or perhaps sign up for the supremely scenic marathon held in May each year.
Beyond the avenue, there’s over 100 miles of trails in the park. The South Fork and Main Stem of the Eel River cover about 30 miles of the park’s waterways, which spells good times for anglers and boaters. No matter your activity of choice, there’s plenty of room should you wish to camp out for a few days. Humboldt Redwoods State Park has three campgrounds and more than 250 sites reservable six months in advance. Though it’s remote, it’s one of the best California state parks for camping, so make your plans as early as possible.
Mount Diablo State Park
The California Department of Parks and Recreation named Mount Diablo State Park the “Best View of the World in the United States.” That’s a convoluted way of saying that Mount Diablo’s 3,849-foot summit yields amazing views of northern California. The state’s tallest peak, Mount Whitney, is nearly four times as tall, but Diablo is surrounded by low hills and broad valleys that leave room for wide-open views. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Lassen Peak (a few hours shy of Oregon) while standing in the Bay Area.
Dozens of trails crisscross Mount Diablo State Park’s 20,000 acres, but the most popular route beelines to the observation deck at the top. According to AllTrails, the seven-mile hike takes a little over four hours to finish. Mountain bikers and horseback riders are welcome on designated trails, and you can also drive your car straight up Mount Diablo if that’s more your speed. The park has two entrances: the North Gate in Walnut Creek and the South Gate in Blackhawk. Prepare to pay $10 per vehicle at either entrance.
Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove’s three-mile beach is the face this Orange County state park shows the world, but its boundaries also include 2,400 acres of woodsy backcountry and a 12-acre historic district that was once a seaside community. Forty-six cottages were built in Crystal Cove in the 1930s and 1940s, 21 of which can now be booked for overnight stays.
Surfing, scuba diving, and tidepooling are some of the most popular beach activities at Crystal Cove while hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are all possible inland. Park staff also give geology talks to teach visitors about the seashore and surrounding wilderness, from the reefs of Crystal Cove’s offshore park to shrubby chaparral canyons that skirt the shore. It’s one of the best California state parks for a family vacay if your brood includes a few budding scientists.
To reach the park, pull off about five miles north of Laguna Beach off the Pacific Coast Highway. Parking is $15 for the day, but you can also pitch a tent right above the beach at one of Moro Campground’s 57 sites. There are also three hike-in campgrounds with 29 sites total. They’re all around a three- or four-mile hike from the parking lot (make sure you have a permit secured in advance).
Red Rock Canyon State Park
If you’ve ever seen a western or sci-fi TV series from the mid-20th century, chances are you’ve seen Red Rock State Park on the big screen. Not to be confused with Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, this California state park was frequently used as a filming location during the Golden Age of Hollywood, probably because its otherworldly landscape is just a couple hours northeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert.
The snarled, craggy hoodoos and red-and-white-striped sandstone buttes rising over the park trace back three million years. The area’s early inhabitants, the Kawaiisu, left petroglyphs and pictographs that are still visible in the El Paso Mountains. Two of the most comprehensive hikes through the park are the 8.8-mile Nightmare Gulch Loop, which drops into exciting slot canyons, and the Burro Schmidt’s Tunnel trail, which climbs nearly 2,300 feet over 10.4 miles and is especially enjoyable when during wildflower blooms in early spring.
But one of park’s real highlights reveals itself after dark — really dark. Red Rock Canyon has one of the darkest skies in Southern California and is prime for stargazing. Grab a telescope, snag a spot at the first-come, first-served Ricardo Campground, and see for yourself.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Jedediah Smith is your last chance to see one of California’s famous redwood parks before you hit the Oregon border. The star attraction is the Grove of Titans where a 1,300-foot-long elevated boardwalk was recently completed. But that’s not the only update underway at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park — the three-mile Mill Creek Trail is also being restored as part of a $3.5 million renovation project slated to be completed summer of 2022. One mile of the trail is already open, from Howland Hill Road through the Grove of Titans, but the stretch leading to the Smith River is still under construction.
King salmon, steelhead trout, and cutthroat trout are three species you can fish in the Smith River if you have a license. If not, try kayaking, floating, boating, or hiking along the shore. Despite covering 10,000 acres of redwood groves, Jedediah Smith only has 20 miles of hiking trails, more than 95 percent of which are covered on the Little Bald Hills Trail to South Fork Road roundtrip trail. Bikes and horses are also permitted on the Little Bald Hills Trail.
For a real treat, spend the night. The Jedediah Smith Campground has 86 combined tent and RV sites and is one of few campgrounds that lets you sleep directly under the redwoods.