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The 30 Best California State Parks

The 30 Best California State Parks

There are 280 state parks in California, but which are the best California State Parks that you definitely don’t want to miss?

As a lifelong California resident, I have traveled up and down the state, searching out state parks with an aim to visit them all. Each has something special to offer, but some California State Parks are certianly better than others. Here are my picks for the best California State Parks, from the redwood studded coastline in the north to the desert filled with life in the south.

The 30 Best California State Parks

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Prairie Creek Redwoods is one of the best California State Parks

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: Elk, redwoods, and a lush canyon lined with ferns.

Best Time to Visit: Summer and fall. Winter brings rains which can make the road to Fern Canyon impassible.

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes, but dogs are not allowed on trails in this park.

Where to Stay: Gold Bluffs Beach Campground if you are camper. Stay in one of the many charming VRBOs near the park if you prefer four walls and a bed.

Located in the northwestern corner of the state north of Eureka is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one of the four state parks that help make up the Redwood National and State Parks complex.

Prairie Creek is a special park not only for its towering trees, but also for its resident population of Roosevelt elk. In 1925, there were as few as 15 of these elk left in the California redwoods. Nearly 100 years later, the population has rebounded to 1,000.

The elk can be seen thoughout the park, but are most often seen on Elk Prairie near the park’s southern entrance, along Davidson Road west of Highway 101, and on Gold Bluffs Beach.

The road to Gold Bluff’s Beach is unpaved and there are a couple stream crossings, but it is usually quite easy to manage in the summer and fall, or when there haven’t been any recent rains.

After checking out the elk on the beach, head to Fern Canyon, one of the most beautiful places in the California State Parks system. Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World was filmed in this 50-foot fortress of walls, covered in ferns. It is lush and shady, with a creek running through.

It is only one mile in length, making it an easy hike where you will want to take your time and enjoy the spectacular scenery. During the summer months, wooden slats act as footbridges to help keep your shoes dry. 

Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Fern Canyon

After checking out the elk on the beach, head to Fern Canyon, one of the most beautiful places in the California State Parks system. Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World was filmed in this 50-foot fortress of walls, covered in ferns. It is lush and shady, with a creek running through.

It is only one mile in length, making it an easy hike where you will want to take your time and enjoy the spectacular scenery. During the summer months, wooden slats act as footbridges to help keep your shoes dry. 

Note: This park now requires Day Use Permits to access Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon from May 1st – September 30th. Permits for the 2023 season can be reserved by the public beginning April 15th.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is also one of our favorite Northern California weekend getaways.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It preserves old growth redwoods and offers great camping along the crystal-clear Smith River.

Best Time to Visit: Spring through fall

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes, but dogs are not allowed on trails in this park.

Where to Stay: Campers will love staying at the Jedediah Smith Redwoods Campground which sits along the tall trees alongside the Smith River. There are several hotel options in nearby Crescent City, including Oceanview Inn and Suites which has family suites with three beds!

The northernmost California State Park that protects old growth redwoods is Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. It located just 15 miles from the Oregon border, nine miles east of Crescent City. It is home to a lush rainforest and the crystal clear Smith River, the longest major free-flowing river in California.

Some of the trees that live in this park has been growing for over 1,000 years! Stout Grove is a great place to walk among these other-wordly trees. It is a one-mile loop trail through the towering trees which are hugged by the lush stands of ferns below. Fallen redwoods act as nursery trees for new life. You will see a variety of plants and even new redwood trees growing out of them.

Make time to enjoy the beauty of the Smith River. You can fish. kayak, and even snorkel in the river! Or, simply sit along its banks and enjoy a picnic surrounded by incredible scenery.

Did you know? California State Parks started a pilot program with a new FREE pass which allows access to 19 California State Parks to 4th graders and their families. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is one of those parks.

Año Nuevo State Park

Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects a massive colony of elephant seals that are incredibly entertaining to watch.

Best Time to Visit: December 15th through March. December is peak time to watch mating battles and see brand new elephant seal babies.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: Book an ocean-view cottage on VRBO or book an unforgettable stay in Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel.

Every December, up to 10,000 elephant seals come to breed on Año Nuevo Beach. Elephant seals spend most of their lives in the ocean, but they do come ashore every year to breed and give birth.

If you haven’t watched the raucous spectacle that is a colony of elephant seals before, you are really missing out! These creatures are endlessly entertaining as they grumble, argue, and waddle like a fibrating pile of blubber on the sand. Plus, the babies are adorable.

The elephant seals haven’t always lived at Año Nuevo. As a matter of fact, the first elephant seal wasn’t spotted on this beach until 1965 and the first pups weren’t born here until 1975. Clearly, the seals enjoyed their protected status at this beach because their impressive numbers continue to grow.

Accessing the viewing area for the sea lion colony involves a 3-4 mile walk over varied terrain, including sand dunes. From December 15 through March 31, you can only access the area via a 2½-hour, guided tour. You can begin booking reservations on October 20th each year.

CTL Tip: If a family member has a mobility disability, the park has an option to take an accessible version of the elephant seal tour.

There are elephant seals that can be viewed in this state park year round. If you visit April through November, you can pick a visitor permit at the Natural Preserve from 8:30 – 3:30pm daily. Your walk to the viewing area will be self-guided.

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands SP by Sharon Mollerus

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects the wild and dramatic Mendocino coast.

Best Time to Visit: Spring for wildflowers, fall for the best weather, and winter for gray whales.

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes

Where to Stay: You can camp at nearby Van Damme State Park or Russian Gulch State Park. There are several small inns and rentals in town. Headlands Inn Bed & Breakfast is a New England-style Victorian that serves up superb breakfasts and offers oceanview rooms.

Mendocino Headlands State Park wraps around three sides of the town of Mendocino on the remote, Northern California coast. The park has trails that follow the bluffs, giving visitors access to breathtaking views, that are especially breathaking during the golden hour near sunset when the cliffs of the headlands glow.

The 4.2-mile Mendocino Bluff Trail is an easy walk along the edge of the bluffs. You can take a spur trail down to Portuguese Beach which is riddled with ocean-tumbled logs.

Walk the entire trail along the bluffs or walk one way along the bluffs and then cut through town on the way back. There are brunch spots and a pub waiting for you.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Calaveras Big Trees by Phae

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects two groves of remarkable giant sequoia trees.

Best Time to Visit: Summer is the most popular but a spring and fall visit are equally enjoyable.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only in campgrounds an on fire roads.

Where to Stay: There is tent, RV, and even cabin camping inside this park. Make reservations early to secure your spot, especially in the summer and use those bear lockers! There are also several great VRBO cabins in the mountains surrounding the park.

As the name implies, Calaveras Big Trees State Park is home to some the largest giant sequoias in the world. The park is in Gold Country, east of Stockton up Highway 4, three miles from the little town of Arnold.

There are two groves of sequoias within the park- the aptly name North and South Groves- and the ancient trees here can grow over 300 feet high and 30 feet in diameter.

If you haven’t stood next to a sequoia, it is hard to believe just how gargantuan these trees are. Walk the 1.5-mile North Grove Trail to feel like an ant among giants. A five-mile hike will take you through the South Grove of giant sequoias left in their natural setting.

During the winter, snow is common as the park is close to 5,000 feet in elevation. This will close portions of the park, but open some areas to cross country skiing. In the summer, the weather warms up into the 80s and the Stanislaus River and Beaver Creek become popular places to cool off.

Portola Redwoods State Park

Portola Redwoods
Portola Redwoods by Shalaco

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects a lush redwood forest 30 miles outside of San Jose.

Best Time to Visit: Anytime outside of the winter rainy season when winter storms can fall trees and cause temporary closures.

Are Dogs Allowed? Not on trails. Only on campsites and paved roads.

Where to Stay: There are 50 campsites within the park. A cozy VRBO cottage in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a great options as well.

In 2020 Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, was largely destroyed by the CZU Lightning Complex fire. It is one of our treasured state parks but the damage sustained will take generations to recover. Thankfully Portola Redwoods State Park is nearby and undamaged.

This park is located in the Santa Cruz mountains and protects one of the southern stands of redwood trees that is easily accessible to the Silicon Valley. It sits on 2,800 acres of lush forest with 18 miles of trails that follow creeks and wind through the trees.

An easy option at just 1.6 miles is the Iverson Trail to Tiptoe Falls. Keep your eyes open for banana slugs on the shaded, 4.6-mile Slate Creek Trail.

Point Lobos State Reserve

China Cove in Point Lobos State Reserve

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: This park is home to tremendous coastal scenery and wildlife.

Best Time to Visit: Visit in spring to see baby animals or early fall to enjoy the most pleasant weather.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: The park is located just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a charming village known for its upscale and dog-friendly atmosphere. We love the Hyatt Carmel Highlands which is located on a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean.

Deemed “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world” by Australian landscape artist Francis McComas, Point Lobos State Marine Reserve is a meeting of turquoise waters, craggy cliffs, and sculptural cypress trees.

Considered by many to be the “crown jewel” of California’s State Park system, Point Lobos is a wonderful place for hiking, wildlife viewing, and enjoying the splendid scenery of the Central California coastline.

During the spring months, you can often spot baby sea otters in the kelp beds offshore. Bluefin Cove and Whalers Cove are prime spots for viewing baby seals laying on the tiny beaches below. You can view both of these coves from above on the North Shore Trail which leads hikers through the forest to ocean cliffs with panoramic views.

Here are the best places to see wild sea otters in California.

A hike south to China Cove is a a fun option for beachfront rock scrambling and admiration of the brilliantly aquamarine waters. Scuba diving is a popular activity in the rich marine waters offshore but proof of certification and reservations are required.

Humbolt Redwoods State Park

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It is home to one of the largest stands of redwoods in the world and the impressive Avenue of the Giants.

Best Time to Visit: Spring through fall. Winter can bring temporary closures due to winter storm damage.

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes, but dogs aren’t allowed on trails.

Where to Stay: You can camp at one the 250 family campsites across three different campgrounds or stay in the city of Eureka which is 30 miles north. The Inn at 2nd & C is located in the historic district of town.

Humbolt Redwoods State Park is massive. It is 53,000 acres in size, making it the third largest California State Park, and protects 17,00 of old-growth redwoods. This park is home to some of the densest and most impressive redwood stands in the state.

One standout of this park is the Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile scenic route with eight different stops to enjoy. There are over 100 miles of trails in the park. Highlights include the 1.3-mile Founders Trail which is home to the impressive Dyerville Giant is a 362-foot redwood that fell in 1991.

The Bull Creek Trail follows the namesake creek through old-growth redwood forest. Another nice hike is the north section of the River Trail which follows the South Fork Eel River 3.6 miles on a one-way route with a shuttle. Note: This trail is only accessible in the summer, when the bridges are installed.

Samuel P Taylor State Park

Samuel P Taylor State park
Samuel P Taylor State Park by Kevin Krejci

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: Easy access to nature and redwoods just 30 minutes north of San Francisco.

Best Time to Visit: I love visiting this park in the fall when the leaves are changing and falling onto the trails.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs are allowed in the picnic day-use area, campground, and on the Cross Marin Trail only.

Where to Stay: Samuel P Taylor Campground is very popular with families so book early. The Embassy Suites San Rafael is a nice option nearby with a great breakfast and complimentary evening cocktail reception.

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County and head for the forests of Samuel P. Taylor State Park. This North Bay gem sits just outside of San Rafael and whisks you away from the hustle of Bay Area life.

There are hiking and bike trails which meander through redwoods and mixed forest. Wildlife such as deer, raccoons and foxes call this lovely park home. A spring visit is greeted with rolling green hills and wildflowers. During the fall, the deciduous foliage turns brilliant yellow which contrasts against the conifer greens.

The South Creek Trail follows Lagunitas Creek for 1.5 miles and in the rainy season, you should keep your eyes out for spawning salmon. In the summer months you will want to splash about in the shallow portions of the creek.

The Barnabe Peak loop trail is a beautiful hike. The views from the top of this six-mile trek are among the best in all of Marin County on a clear day. The Cross Marin Bike Path cuts into the park for three miles. It is a good place to bike, run, bringing your jogging strollers, and the only trail that welcomes Fido inside the park.

Good to know: Given this park’s proximity to a large urban area, it is quite popular. Expect parking lots to fill up by mid-morning on weekends.

Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historic Park
Columbia State Historic Park by Jasperdo

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It is the best example of a California Gold Rush town.

Best Time to Visit: During the summer when there are daily town tours and more events occuring in town.

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes, but dogs are not allowed in the historic buildings.

Where to Stay: The Columbia City Hotel and the Fallon Hotel, are 19th-century country inns with Victorian touches that are located within the park.

45 minutes from Modesto, Columbia is a true Gold Rush town. It was founded in 1850 and quickly grew to be a boom town and became the second largest city in the state!

Much of the town has been preserved, and there are businesses where you can make candles, dress up for old fashioned photographs, grab an ice cream cone, and check out wooden toys. The most popular shop is the candy store where you find all sorts of sweet treats like homemade jelly candies and other old-fashioned treats.

There are also seasonal stage coach rides (complete with attempted stage coach robberies!) and a spot where you can pan for gold. Visit the school, cemetery, and jail.

Daily town tours take place June 15th through Labor Day but you should plan your visit during Gold Rush Days when special exhibits are open and docents dressed in period attire guide visitors through hands-on activities. Gold Rush Days are 1 – 4pm on the second Saturday of the month.

Gray Whale Cove State Beach

Gray Whale Cove State Beach Devil's Slide

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: The views of the rugged San Mateo coastline are stunning.

Best Time to Visit: September and October are typically fog free and bring the warmest weather. This time of year is known as “San Francisco summer”.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs are allowed on the trails east of Highway 1 only. They are not allowed on the beach. They are, however, allowed on neighboring Montara State Beach.

Where to Stay: Splurge on the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay which is perched on an oceanfront cliff and home to two championsip golf courses, a world-class spa , and a wine bar with 5,000 bottle of vino on site.

Gray Whale Cove is known to many as Devil’s Slide, an area notorious for landslides and road closures. As a matter of fact, the area had so many landslides that in 2013, Highway 1 was rerouted away from the cliffs and replaced with the Tom Lantos Tunnels.

The good news is the former Highway 1 route has been replaced the paved, 1.3-mile Devil’s Slide Trail which is open to pedestrians and bicyclists. The views of the rugged coastline from this location are outstanding.

Gray Whale Cove isn’t just a clever name. During gray whale migration season (December through March), whales are commonly seen just offshore. Accessing this beach does involve walking down a steep trail, but the scenic rewards are worth your efforts.

The parking lot shares access with neighboring McNee Ranch and Montara State Beach as well. Two-mile San Pedro Mountain Trail connects Montara SB with Gray Whale Cove SB.

Important note: Gray Whale Cove is one of the few California State Parks that does not accept the Annual Day Use Pass.

Bodie State Historic Park

Bodie Ghost town is one of the best California State Parks

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It is an example of a Gold Rush Ghost town.

Best Time to Visit: Summer brings the nicest weather though you can visit all year long. You must use skis or snowmobiles to access the park in winter.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs allowed in park but are not allowed in any of the historic buildings.

Where to Stay: The Virginia Creek Settlement in Bridgeport has everything from cottages with kitchenettes to tens for rent.

Bodie State Historic Park is located in Northern California east of the Sierra Nevada range near the Nevada border. It is 13 miles from Highway 395, and the last three miles of the trek to this ghost town are on a dirt road. Since the park is 8,375 feet in elevation, snow is common in the cold season.

Bodie was a mining town founded by four prospectors, one being W.S. Bodey, who found gold in the surrounding mountains. At its peak, Bodie had 10,000 residents for 60 saloons and dance halls lining its streets. This was truly the Wild West!

The mines were depleted by 1886 and the population declined to 1,500 people. Six years later, a major fire destroyed portions of the town. By the 1940s it was officially a ghost town. Today the remains of the town are left in “arrested decay”, looking like they did when the last residents left town.

Take a docent-led walk of the town to get the most out of your visit. Tour several of the town’s building such as the church, homes, and stores with all their items left behind, as well as the Stamp Mill where mountain ore was pulverized and gold was separated out.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls is a California icon
McWay Falls by Jerry Kirkhart

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It is home to McWay Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country.

Best Time to Visit: Winter is likely to bring the worst weather and road closures along Highway 1 are more likely. Spring through fall are better bets. Afternoons are better than mornings because the fog is more likely to have burned off.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: The Ventana Campground offers traditional camping. Fernwood Resort offers tent camping, glamping tents, and forest cabins. Post Ranch Inn is a splurge-worthy luxury resort in Big Sur.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is named for an early pioneer of the Big Sur coast. It is most well known for McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall cascading onto a deserted beach.

The falls are visible from Highway 1, but it is safer to park inside the state park and take the short, 1/2-mile trail to the falls overlook.

You will also want to check out the Partington Creek Trail which heads through a canyon and 100-foot tunnel to Partington Cove Beach, a good spot to look sea otters in the kelp beds just offshore.

Hearst San Simeon State Historic Park

The pool at Hearst Castle
The Famous Hearst Castle Pool by Flickr/LostInTheRedwoods

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It preserves the extravagent and historic castle that belonged to publishing tycoon William Randolf Heart.

Best Time to Visit: Hearst Castle is a great destination any time of year.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill.

Where to Stay: There are several lovely beach homes to rent on VRBO in the nearby resort town of Cambria. Camping can be found at Hearst San Simeon State Park on the beach nearby.

Hearst Castle is located high atop a hill in San Simeon, along the Central Coast. The extravagant castle belonged to famed publishing tycoon William Randolf Hearst and played host to countless celebrities during the 1920s and 30s.

The main house is 68,500 square feet with 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, and 42 bathrooms. It is filled with art from all over the world, has a private theater, billiard room, library, and three guest houses. There are over 70,000 trees planted on the grounds. 

The Neptune Pool, filled with beautiful intricate tiles, took over 15 years to build. Why? Because it took three different attempts before Hearst was finally satisfied with the design!

Cars park at the bottom of the hill on Hearst Ranch property and then board a bus to take the winding road up the hill that Hearst Castle sits upon. Visitors can remain on the hilltop to enjoy the gardens, pools, and views until closing time, or they are ready to come down.

Tour tickets can be reserved online up to 60 days in advance. There are several different tours available, allowing you to see different portions of the sprawling mansion. The Grand Rooms Tour is the tour recommended for first timers. It is 70 minutes long and an guides are great about telling the stories of famous visitors to the castle, as well as about the historic artwork and furniture.

CTL Tip: Keep your eyes out for zebras on the hillsides near Hearst Castle. They are descendants of those who were once part of Hearst’s private zoo. 

Fort Tejon State Historic Park

Fort Tejon State Park
Fort Tejon by Calchux

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It preserves a part of California’s military and Native American history.

Best Time to Visit: Any time of year as long as winter weather hasn’t closed the road.

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes

Where to Stay: Most people visit Fort Tejon on their way to other destinations. There are, however, some small motels in Lebec and Gorman nearby.

Anyone who has driven up and down Interstate 5 from the Central Valley to Southern California is surely familiar with “the Grapevine”, a portion of the interstate that winds through the mountains and Tejon Pass. But did you know that there is a state park up there that is certainly worth your time?

Fort Tejon was established to protect and control Sebastian Indian Reservation and white settlers from raids by other Indian groups nearby. It was only occupied by the US Army for 10 years, from 1854 – 1864.

Today you can walk the 1/2-mile loop to check out the old adobe buildings and admire the 400-year-old Valley Oaks. During the loop you can visit the Captain’s quarters, barracks, and jail. A museum onsite houses exhibits on army life and local history.

Visit on a Saturday to catch the living history program or the 3rd Sunday of the month May to September for Civil War Re-enactments. During these programs you can talk with soldiers, visit craftsmen like the blacksmith and carpenter. There are also volunteers dressed cooks, servants, laborers and officers.

Leo Carillo State Park

Leo carillo state beach

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It offers a slice of Malibu to the masses.

Best Time to Visit: Enjoy a perfect beach day in the summer or early fall.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs are allowed only in day-use areas, North Beach, and the campgrounds.

Where to Stay: Camp at Leo Carrillo in one the Canyon Campground’s 135 sites. As you can imagine, reservations are necessary. Ready to feel like a star? Book a beachfront cottage in Malibu on VRBO.

Beaches, caves, tide pools, and hiking through the hills await visitors to Leo Carillo State Park. The park is located in Malibu, the scenic home of the rich and famous.

This stretch of coastline if the stuff dreams are made of, and tide pools are some of the best around. Plan for a low tide visit and you will spot sea anemones, sea stars, sea urchins, mussels, barnacles, and crabs. You can also surf, kayak, and windsurf in the waters offshore.

There is also a cool sea cave to explore. It is located at rocky point that separates North Beach from South Beach. It should be visited at low tide, and you should always be mindful of the tide as it begins to come in.

The cave at Leo Carillo is one of 25 caves in California you will want to visit.

Inland there are trails which lead you into the hills to locations with impressive views. The Yellow Hill Fire Trail leads to a viewpoint where you can see three islands that help make up Channel Islands National Park as well as up and down the coastline.

Crystal Cove State Park

Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: This park gives you a glimpse of what Southern California beaches were like long ago.

Best Time to Visit: This is a perfect destination year round.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: Camp at the RV campground or stay in one of the cottages onsite. Both will require reservations well in advance. The Resort at Pelican Hill is a five star resort just a stone’s throw away as well.

One of my favorite beaches in all of California happens to be close to home. Crystal Cove State Park is a throwback to the Orange County of yesteryear. Large cliffs block the views of the masses of luxury homes on the hills up above, allowing you to enjoy the beach without the masses.

The beach can be busy right next to the historic district and The Beachcomber restaurant, but if you walk a couple hundred yards away you can find a peaceful spot all to yourself. This beach usually has small waves, making it great for families, and the tide pools along the shore are fun to explore. Dolphins are frequently spotted splashing about in the water.

This park also has several great hiking trails which head back into the hills and canyons on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway. The No Dogs/Moro Canyon loop (~ 3 miles) is one of my favorites. It begins with a climb up the rolling hills with ocean views and ends with an easy stroll through beautiful Moro Canyon. From there, you can celebrate with some beach time.

Crystal Cove is home to a historic district which is filled with restored bungalows that were built to house crew during movie filming from the 1920s-1940s. These cottages are reasonably priced and right on the beach, so that means they are also very popular. Cottage reservations are released daily, six months in advance. Be on the website at 8am if you want to snag one.

Torrey Pines State Beach and Reserve

Torrey Pines State Beach and Reserve near San Diego

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It prefers the Torrey pines, the rarest pine trees in the world.

Best Time to Visit: This is a great destination year round.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: The Lodge at Torrey Pines is a luxury resort that sits on the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course. San Elijo State Beach in Encinitas is the closest park with camping.

Torrey Pine State Reserve is located on the bluffs of northern San Diego and protects the rarest pine trees in North America. These trees only grow in and around the reserve and on Santa Rosa Island , one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. The contrast between the forest on the bluffs and the sandy below is lovely.

The Guy Fleming Trail is the perfect introduction to what Torrey Pines has to offer. Its a one-mile, loop trail that takes allows you to walk amongst the pines and enjoy amazing views of the great blue yonder from bluffside viewpoints.

Its a place where you can watch birds having a blast surfing the updrafts while parasailers make their best attempts at being birds themselves.

After enjoying the trees head down the hill and spend time at Torrey Pines State Beach. The beach is a great place to enjoy a picnic and splash in the water.

Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay State Park Lake Tahoe

Why this park one of the best California State Parks:

Best Time to Visit: In the summer if you want to hike and spend time out on the water and in the winter if you want to enjoy the snowy landscape around the lake and world-class skiing nearby.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: Eagle Point Campground is located just above Emerald Bay within the state park. It is open during the summer and early fall. Reservations can be made six months in advance. Camp Richardson is a great place to stay on Lake Tahoe as well with a variety of camping and lodging options.

Emerald Bay State Park is located at Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful lakes on the planet. The Rubicon Trail is a moderate trail that allows you to hike between Emerald Bay and DL Bliss State Park, enjoying the tremendous lake views along the way.

The trail also leads visitors to Vikingsholm, a 38-room mansion built in 1928 by Mrs. Lora Josephine Knigh. It’s considered to be one the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the western hemisphere.

Out in the water of Emerald Bay is Fanette Island which has a stone tea house that was used by Mrs. Josephine and her guests. Boat tours can give you a different perscpective of Emerald Bay than hiking. I suggest you do both.

Lake Tahoe is one of our favorite California mountain towns. See what other special places made the list.

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Burney Falls are some of the beautiful waterfalls in California
Burney Falls | Photo by Flickr/Wenjieqiao

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects Burney Falls, one of the most scenic falls in the country.

Best Time to Visit: Summer is the best time to enjoy the falls and Lake Britton nearby. Just arrive early to secure parking.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only in the parking lot and campground. Not on the trails or near the falls.

Where to Stay: There are campsites as well as rental cabins located within the park.

Burney Falls is not the tallest waterfall in California (that honor goes to Yosemite Falls) but it is definintely one of the most beautiful. It is located southeastern Cascade Mountain range in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park about 65 miles east of Redding. 

The 129-foot waterfall is fed by underground springs, resulting in a weeping wall of water. It is a site so scenic that President Theodore Roosevelt once called it the “eighth wonder of the world”. 

The Burney Falls Loop Trail is a great way to see the falls at different angles and also enjoy some of the surrounding forest. FIshing is popular in Burney Creek, especially during the October trout season and boating is a fun activity on Lake Britton. Boat and kayak rentals are available at the store and marina.

Love waterfalls? Here are 21 Northern California waterfalls to add to your bucket list.

Castle Crags State Park

Castle Crags is a beautiful California State Park

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects the wilderness around the impressive Castle Crags State Park.

Best Time to Visit: Late spring through fall. Snow can limit activities in the winter.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only in the parking lot and campground. Not on trails.

Where to Stay: Camping is available inside the park. It is first come, first served October through April but reservations are required in the summer. If you are looking something unique, stay at the Railroad Park Resort. There are over a couple dozen cabooses that have been converted into quaint lodging with private bathrooms, mini fridges, and microwaves.

If you have driven Interstate 5 as it passes by Mount Shasta you have surely noticed the towering granite pillars on the opposite side of the highway. Castle Crags State Park is the home of steep, rocky spires that are 170 million years old and soar 6,000 feet in elevation.

Drive the winding, one-lane road up to the Vista Point and taking in the fantastic views of Castle Crags and Mount Shasta. More than 30 miles of trails wind through the park, including a portion of the famed Pacific Crest Trail.

If you are looking for a true challenge, take the 5.5-mile round-trip journey up to Castle Dome via the Crags Trail. It gains 2,000 feet in elevation in a relatively short distance but the scenery and views are worth it. You can climb Castle Dome but it is not recommended unless you have climbing gear.

Swimming in the Sacramento River is a fun option during the summer months. The river is much smaller here than it is down in Sacramento.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Wildflowers at Anza-Boorego Desert State Park

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It is a great place to witness a desert wildflower bloom.

Best Time to Visit: Early spring during the wildflower bloom

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs allowed in the campgrounds, on designated park roads, and the Visitor Center/Campground Trail. They are not allowed on other trails in the park.

Where to Stay: If you visit during the cool season, camping inside the park is a good option. Reservations are available October 1st through April 30th. There are several different resorts and inns in Borrego Springs, including the Borrego Springs Resort and Spa.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the biggest state park in the United States, located in eastern San Diego County. With 600,000 acres of desert ranging in elevation from sea level to over 6,000 feet, this is a diverse landscape full of life.

Begin your visit at the visitor center which is built into a hillside. It is a great place to learn about the flora and fauna within the park, watch the park video, and get trail conditions and recommendations.

The biggest attraction at this park is the spring wildflower bloom. Some years are certainly more impressive than others, but during heavy rain years sections of the desert are dotted with all sorts of wildflowers.

Favorite hikes inside the park include the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail, a three-mile round-trip hike which leads to a large palm oasis inside of a gorge. The Pygmy Trail is a quick, one-mile jaunt that to fifty short palm trees.

The Slot hike is accessed by driving a two-mile dirt road to the trailhead. It’s a short hike over the hill and then into the slot canyon. The further into the canyon you hike, the narrower it gets.

The budding geologist in your group will enjoy the Narrows Earth nature trail where you can learn about igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock as well as earthquake faults in this geologically active portion of the state.

If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, head out to Blair Valley to see Marshal South’s home where engaged in “primitive living” on his homestead at Ghost Mountain. The trail to the home is a steep mile but the views are amazing and exploring the homestead is fun. There are pictographs on a rock nearby as well.

Other park highlights include the Box Canyon Historical Monument, Coyote Canyon, the Culp Valley Overlook, the Elephant Tree Discovery Trail, the Mason Valley Cactus Garden, and the Vallecita Stagecoach Station.

Montaña de Oro State Park

Montana de Oro is one of the best California State Parks on the Central Coast
Photo by Sharlene Earnshaw

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: Incredible protected coastline and geotectonic evidence on display.

Best Time to Visit: Spring for wildflowers and summer and fall for warmer temps.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs allowed only in campgrounds, on roads, and Spooners Beach.

Where to Stay: Camp at Montaña de Oro State Park or stay in a nearby VRBO cottage with water views.

One of my favorite California State Parks that might be off the radar of those traveling up and down the central coast is Montaña de Oro State Park. This dramatic stretch of coastline is in Los Osos, a small town west of San Louis Obispo.

The park is named for its “mountains of gold”, referring to the coastal bluffs that are covered in wildflowers, like the California poppy, during the spring.

Montaña de Oro is a great place to witness the geologic ramifications of geotectonic action (aka: earthquakes), with tilted and exposed million-year-old rock formations and sea beds. You can see these exposed sea beds along the shore, many serving as tide pools filled with life.

Be sure to walk the Bluff Trail, an easy 3.4-mile out-and-back trail that hugs the coast. Admire the views and keep a look out for sea otters which float in the kelp beds just offshore. In the winter you may even see gray whales.

From the Bluff Trail take one of the spur paths that lead down to the water to explore the tide pools. Check the tide charts before you go and aim for a low tide visit.

Here is an awesome Central Coast Road Trip itinerary.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Mono Lake is a California icon
Mono Lake by Flickr/RonRiering

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It protects an ancient lake that is known for its tufas.

Best Time to Visit: Summer if you want to swim or get out on the lake.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs are allowed in most areas of the State Reserve, except for the State Reserve Boardwalk. There is also a county park along a portion of the lake where dogs are not allowed.

Where to Stay: Camp in the Lee Vining area or up in the Tioga Pass of Yosemite National Park. You will find traditional lodging in Bridgeport.

Mono Lake is one of the most unusual places in California. It is an ancient lake (one million years old!) that is twice as salty as the ocean and it has these large, other-wordly tufa formations sprouting out of its waters. The lake is also an important nesting area for gulls and ospreys.

Tufas are calcium-carbonate pillars and knobs of varying heights and sizes that protrude from the lake’s surface. They’re formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water.

The best way to experience the lake is to either take a free, guided tufa walk or a guided kayak tour. Both are led by naturalists which can answer all your questions about this unique spot, including those about the massive migratory bird population that calls the lake home seasonally.

You can swim in Mono Lake, but make sure to keep the water out of your eyes or any cuts because it is very salty. You will find yourself quite boyant in these waters. If you are looking to stretch your legs a bit, take the one-mile nature trail in the South Tufa Area which has great views of the tufas.

Mount San Jacinto State Park

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes you to San Jacinto State Park
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway | Photo by Flickr/GlendaAndKen

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: Going from 75 degrees in Palm Springs to snow atop San Jacinto in about 30 minutes is unforgettable.

Best Time to Visit: Winter for snow play, summer for hiking.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only in the Idyllwild and Stone Creek Campground. They aren’t allowed on the trails or the aerial tram.

Where to Stay: Camp or rent a VRBO if you are coming from Idyllwild. If you are taking the tram stay at one of the many luxury resorts in the Palm Springs area, like Omni Rancho Las Palmas.

You can visit Mount San Jacinto State Park two ways- via Highway 243 from the mountain town of Idyllwild or via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world’s largest rotating tramcar. It begins at the base of Chino Canyon at 2,643 feet and carries passengers up the steep mountainside to the Mountain Station at 8,561 feet in just 10 minutes! The views from the top are incredible!

The weather at the Mountain Station is 30-40 degrees cooler than on the valley floor, making it a really fun and unique experience. Where else can you trade sun-kissed palm trees for snow-blanketed white firs in just 10 minutes? 

During the winter and early spring months, snowshoes and cross country skis can be rented from the Adventure Center. You can also bring your own sleds, find a hill, and have at it.

In the summer, escape the desert heat and discover a wildly different environment complete with 50 miles of hiking trails including a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail and the hike to the top of San Jacinto Peak which rises 10,834 feet above sea level.

Palm Springs is one of our favorite weekend getaways in Southern California. See what else made the list.

Huntington State Beach

Huntington state beach is one of the best California State Parks

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It offers the classic Southern California beach experience.

Best Time to Visit: During the summer if you want to swim, and any other time of the year if you want most of the beach to yourself.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only on the bike path, not on the sand. Thankfully, the Huntington Dog Beach is just up the road.

Where to Stay: Camp at neighboring Bolsa Chica State Beach or stay in a beachfront hotel like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa.

When visitors come from other states and countries and ask for the classic Southern California Beach experience, we head to Huntington State Beach. There you will find wide sprawls of sand filled with umbrellas, mats, and families. Tourists ride on the bicycles path that runs along the cost and food shacks serve up hamburgers and shakes.

During the summer there are typicallly street performers gathering money from eager audience members to perform some sort of feat of athleticism or entertainment.

Huntington Beach is known as Surf City USA, and hosts the US Open of Surfing every year at the end of July and beginning of August. Throughout the year you will see surfers in the water, especially by the pier, and there are a few different surf schools teaching newbies as well.

Popular activities include swimming, sunbathing, playing beach volleyball, renting bikes or surreys and pedaling the bike path, and fishing off the Huntington Beach Pier. Sitting around one of the 200 firepits at the beach is a fun evening activity, but you better get there early in the day to claim one because they are very popular.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Park

Sutters Mills is the California Landmark to gold discovery
Sutter’s Mill Relpica by Flickr/Nick Ares

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It preserves the site that launched the California Gold Rush.

Best Time to Visit: Fall and spring for the best weather. Summer if you want to add river rafting to your itinerary.

Are Dogs Allowed? Yes! Dogs are allowed on trails and in the river but not inside the buildings.

Where to Stay: Camp with OARS if you are going rafting or at the Coloma Resort which has cabins, tent sites, and RV sites.

One of the most important moments in California history was when James Marshall found some gold flecks in the tailrace of a sawmill he was building for himself and John Sutter. This discovery in the town of Coloma lead to the California Gold Rush which created a boom in the population and quick establishment of California as a state.

The original mill was destroyed by flooding but a replica now stands in it place along with over 20 historic buildings in the old mining town of Coloma. Take the Gold Discovery Tour (not offered when temps exceed 92 degrees) to learn about the fascinating history of this site and following it up with gold panning lessons.

There are several sites to visit including the blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, a miner’s cabin, nature center, jail ruins, the grange, and the beer garden.

Coloma is also the launching point for rafting trips down the South Fork of the American River. OARS offers half-day and one-day trips that are guided and include a tasty lunch. They even have two-day trips and a great campsite in Coloma that includes dinner and activities. I have done both the one day and two day trips and highly recommend them.

Mount Diablo State Park

Mount Diablo State park

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: Mount Diablo is a great place for natural recreation in the busy Bay Area.

Best Time to Visit: Spring is a beautiful time of year to visit when the mountain is covered in green.

Are Dogs Allowed? Dogs are not allowed on trails, buildings, or fire roads. They are allowed at the campground.

Where to Stay: There are 50 campsites at Mount Diablo State Park. There are lots of great hotels in nearby Walnut Creek, including Embassy Suites.

If you have ever been in Sacramento, Stockton, or the Bay Area you have surely seen it. Mount Diablo stands alone. An icon in its own right, taking up over 20,000 acres of valuable East Bay real estate. An island of wilderness in a sea of humanity.

At 3,849 feet, Mt Diablo offers hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, rock climbing, star gazing and wildlife viewing. There are 520 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails inside the park. My favorite spot on the mountain is Rock City, an area of the park with large sandstone formations and small caves.

No trip to Mt. Diablo is complete without a trip to the summit, which can be reached by car. There is a visitor center at the top and the views from the observation deck are amazing. Just below the summit is the 0.7-mile Mary Bowerman Trail, a great little family hike with plenty of views.

Mount Tamalpais State Park

Mount Tamalpais

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: This park protects important natural resources near an urban area, including redwoods and coastline.

Best Time to Visit: Late summer and early fall so the fog is less likely to impede your views.

Are Dogs Allowed? Only at the campsite.

Where to Stay: There are a few different reservable campgrounds within the park but they book up fast. There is lodging available in Mill Valley and the surrounding towns.

Mount Tamalpais, or as the locals call it- Mount Tam, is a 2,571-foot peak rising over Marin County that begging to be explored. From atop Mount Tam you can see San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Farollon Islands 25 miles offshore.

Mount Tam has been used by Californians for recreation ever since the Gold Rush. In 1896, the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railroad was built and billed as the “crookedest railroad in the world”. There were 281 curves on the ride from Mill Valley to the summit. Eventually cars replaced the railroad.

For generations, the redwood forests and coastal trails have provided a great escape from urban and suburban life. Bikiing is allowed on all roads, fire roads, and the Coast View Trail. There are 60 miles of hiking trails within the park, several of which connect to trails in neighboring Muir Woods National Monument and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Since this park is within a major metropolitan area, it can be very busy, especially on weekends and holidays. The early bird most certainly gets the worm when it comes to parking.

Antelope Valley California Poppy State Natural Reserve

Antelope Valley Cailifornia Poppy Reserve

Why this park one of the best California State Parks: It provides protection to wild fields of California poppies.

Best Time to Visit: During the spring wildflower bloom after a strong rainy season.

Are Dogs Allowed? No

Where to Stay: There are a number of hotels nearby in Lancaster like the Best Western Plus Desert Poppy Inn.

The California poppy is our state flower, and it also happens to be my favorite flower. Once you see it bloom in mass, it will take your breath away. I love poppies so much we named our dog, Poppy!

One of the best places to see acre upon acre of bright orange poppies is at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve during the spring bloom. The wildflower blooming season is dependent on rainfall, but typically take place mid-March through April.

Before you head out to the poppy fields, check out the small interpretive center, where kids can see taxidermied versions of the wildlife that call this area home. There are educational displays highlighting plants & wildlife, a short video, as well as a gift shop.

There are eight miles of trails to enjoy and several benches to stop at along the way. Besides poppies visitors can see lupines, goldfields, clover, and cream cups. Remember, look at but don’t touch these delicate flowers. Call the Poppy Hotline for flowering updates: (661) 724-1180.

CTL Tip: Arrive at the Reserve near opening in order to secure a parking spot, especially during big bloom years. Keep in mind the poppies will close if there is no sun. Though you are in the desert, the weather can often be windy and chilly.