Best California State Parks for Family Fun

California’s State Parks help visitors connect with the state’s natural beauty and history. With 280 parks in the state, you can encounter anything from lakes to oceans and deserts to redwood forests. Read on for the best California state parks that we’ve experienced and those that are at the very top of our list of places to visit next. 

Whether you’re looking for a hike, a picnic, an amazing camping spot, or a unique activity like gold panning, you’ll find endless options in the list of California state parks below. 

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The Best State Parks in California

The Golden State has no shortage of spectacular landscapes and awesome outdoor experiences the whole family will love.

We’ve chosen the top 33 California state parks with family-friendly experiences in mind, and honestly, the list keeps growing. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to go near home or a unique weekend getaway, consider one of these special places for your next escape. 

In this article, the best California state parks are grouped by California region as follows: North Coast, the Shasta Cascades, Gold Country, Sacramento Valley, Wine Country, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sierra Nevada, Central Coast, San Joaquin Valley, the Desert, and Southern California. Use the map shown here to find the ones that are closest to home!

Let us know if we’ve missed your favorite California state park in the comments below!

Best California State Parks along the North Coast

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Car parked in a grove of redwood trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park

The 32-mile Avenue of the Giants is one of the best places to see old-growth redwoods in California. It runs through the eastern section of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Plan to stay awhile, as this park has too many awesome places to stop to fit in one trip. 

These amazing trees can grow up to 370 feet in height, the tallest on Earth.  Save the Redwoods League was formed in 1918 to protect them from logging. Over 100 memorial groves have been established since. 

JJ was starting to feel carsick just as we arrived at Avenue of the Giants. Not the experience I had in mind! We pulled over at a grove I’d never heard of and had the whole place to ourselves. It made for a magical picnic spot while the boys explored nearby, happy to be in the fresh air. We then wandered to a quiet spot on the Eel River where we skipped stones and enjoyed the sun. It’s tempting to visit every must-see grove in the guidebook, but there are many off-the-beaten-path wonders to explore here.

We continued to the Visitor Center. The Kellogg Travel Log is on display there, thought to be the country’s first RV made of a fallen redwood. And, of course, the boys were excited to earn another Jr. Ranger badge.

Our final stop was the amazing Founders Grove. We gaped up at the 346-foot Founders Tree and were awed by the splintering of the fallen Dyerville Giant. The trail’s information pamphlet serves as the perfect intro to any journey through redwood country.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Elks in the Prairie at Prairie Creek State Park

To be fair, every part of the Redwood National and State Park complex that we experienced was awesome. But if we had to pick just one favorite, it would be Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

One of the park’s most popular natural wonders is Fern Canyon, made famous as a set in Jurassic World. You can get to Fern Canyon by foot on a 9-mile round-trip hike along the beautiful James Irvine Trail. You can also park in the day-use lot to experience the highlights through an easy 1.1-mile loop. If you plan to drive, know that you’ll be following an unpaved road with several stream crossings. High clearance vehicles are recommended!

The chance to see the magnificent Roosevelt elk wandering along the prairie was another highlight. We camped here for several days and could always find them roaming on the prairie whenever we passed by.

Within the park, you’ll find a 19-mile bike loop, 75 miles of hiking trails, and three scenic drives. The gorgeous Newton B Drury Parkway closes to cars for Hike and Bike Day on the first Saturday of each month from October through April.

Camp in beautiful Elk Prairie Campground with wooded sites along the creek or in view of the ocean on Gold Bluffs Beach.

Best California State Parks in the Shasta Cascades

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

JJ playing on the rocks at the foot of Burney Falls

Growing up, my aunt lived in nearby Cassel, so we visited Burney at least once per year. Last year I brought my own family there for the first time. Though some places are grander in our memories than when we revisit them as adults, Burney Falls State Park was even more spectacular than I remembered.

Most visitors make a beeline from the parking lot to the main attraction, stunning 129-foot Burney Falls. The Falls Loop Trail descends to the base of the falls through a series of paved switchbacks. Visitors stop at the bottom to soak it all in and feel the mist on their faces. Many scramble onto the rocks to get a closer look at the pool at the base of the falls.

While the falls are the big highlight, there are also lovely hiking trails, including a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Make time to follow the Burney Creek Trail or the Rim Trail for one mile to the shores of Lake Britton. There are places to picnic and play here, with a sandy beach and a protected swim area. If you want to get out on the water, you can rent watercraft at the Lake Britton marina. 

Any road trip to nearby Lassen or the Shasta-Cascades deserves a stop at McArthur Burney Falls State Park. The waterfalls are full year-round, though travel through the entire region is easiest in summer and fall.

Plumas-Eureka State Park

If you like wilderness and fascinating stories, visit this hidden gem tucked away in a little-known section of the Sierra Nevada. 

In Plumas-Eureka State Park, you’ll find 4,424 acres of piney woods, glacier-gouged lakes, and rocky snow-capped mountains. Back in 1851 miners stumbled upon a quartz outcropping here that was filled with gold, silver, and lead. By the time operations ended in the 1940s, Sierra Buttes Mining Company had dug 65 miles of tunnels and extracted eight million dollars worth of gold. 

Even more interesting than what was dug from the mountains is what the miners did for fun. Local legend “Snowshoe” Thompson delivered skis on mail in the winter. The miners followed suit, strapping on their own versions of skis and racing down the base of Eureka Peak. They used a mining tram to get up the mountain, making the Plumas-Eureka bowl one of the nation’s first unofficial ski areas!

Plumas-Eureka’s location in the Lakes Basin wilderness makes it an awesome mountain escape for today’s visitors. This is a great spot for under-the-radar hiking, camping, fishing, and of course, skiing.  The Lakes Basin is located where the Sierra Nevada and Shasta-Cascades meet. It is a pristine glacial landscape with three dozen alpine lakes dotted with old-fashioned lakeside resorts.

Best California State Parks in Gold Country

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Calaveras Big Trees State Park is home to two groves of sequoias, the world’s largest trees. In addition to the park’s colossal sequoias, the Stanislaus River, Beaver Creek, ancient volcanic formations, and natural meadows make for wonderful recreation and wildlife-watching opportunities. 

This is a great park for family camping, splashing in swimming holes, hiking, and earning junior ranger badges. Check out the 0.13-mile Three Sense Trail, which encourages visitors to experience this special place through multiple senses. For more of a challenge, there’s the four-mile River Canyon Trail that runs between North Grove and the Stanislaus River. 

Marshall Gold Discovery State Park

Boys pointing out the sites while touring Marshall Discovery Site Historic State Park

In 1848 James W. Marshall discovered gold on the South Fork of the American River. This event changed the fate of California forever, causing the Western Hemisphere’s greatest mass movement of people in history.

Visitors experience the site and story of the fated encounter in Coloma, California.  Walk through the gold discovery site through a replica of James Marshall and John Sutter’s original sawmill. Explore the site’s many interpretive panels while enjoying a beautiful walk along the American River. 

Across the street from the discovery site, visitors can explore over 20 historic buildings and exhibits. Life-sized replicas help visitors comprehend how 19th-century mining equipment functioned and share the role that immigrants from China to Chile played in influencing how gold was found and processed. 

John’s favorite part of the experience was panning for gold alongside the American River. Bug was happy to splash in the warm water and JJ loved garnets more than gold, but John was hooked! He has seriously been watching Discovery’s “Gold Rush: Alaska” since our visit!

Other highlights are the Junior Ranger program and great picnic spots with plenty of open space to run around.

Columbia State Historic Park

Stagecoach rides at Columbia State Historic Park

Located in the heart of Gold Country, Columbia was once a bustling town known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines.” The Gold Rush-era business district was designated a State Park in 1945. Today, visiting the park is like visiting a thriving 1850s California city frozen in time. 

Visitors to Columbia will experience living history as they explore the largest collection of gold-rush-era structures in California. These buildings tell the stories of the town’s miners and merchants, who once made Columbia one of California’s largest cities. 

Costumed docents and staff host historical tours, run the town shops, and even serve customers at Columbia’s restaurants and saloons. Ride on a stagecoach, watch a blacksmith in action, slurp sarsaparilla, and try your hand at gold panning. 

During Gold Rush Day, the second Saturday of each month, visitors can participate in hands-on activities throughout the park. During Columbia Diggins, usually the weekend after Memorial Day, visit a replica of the original tent town of 1852. Check the park’s calendar, events like these are offered throughout the year.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Railtown's Famous Locomotive 3

Railtown 1897 is in Jamestown, 2 hours east of Sacramento and about 1 hour outside of Yosemite.

The park has been dubbed “The Movie Railroad” because several of its locomotives and railroad cars have been featured in more than 200 films, tv shows, and commercials. It is still a popular location site today. The Hollywood exhibition was pretty fascinating, and John was super excited to see the “Back to the Future Part III” train in person!

Another park highlight is the still-functioning locomotive repair and maintenance facility which has been operating since 1897. Regular tours by friendly and passionate volunteers are offered regularly throughout the day.

The park’s train rides are a highlight for the kids. The six-mile excursion winds through the scenic Sierra foothills from April to October.

The Railtown 1897 complex also has blacksmithing demonstrations, historic buildings, a large picnic area, and Interpretive Center. And, of course, a great gift shop.

Best California State Parks in Sacramento Valley

California State Railroad Museum

Excursion train at the California State Railroad Museum

Located on the Old Sacramento waterfront, the California State Railroad Museum tells the story of how the “iron horse” connected California to the rest of the country. 

The museum features 21 beautifully restored locomotives and train cars, with the earliest dating back to 1862.  Families love this place for the excursion trains that run from April through September. Climb aboard the Museum’s Sacramento Southern Railroad for a relaxing 45-minute, 6-mile ride along the Sacramento River. 

The California State Railroad Museum is part of a larger complex in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park. California State Parks owns and operates several of these original and reconstructed buildings. Take a wander through town to experience what life might have been like in California in the 19th century.

Lake Oroville State Recreation Area

The main draw at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area is the water. It’s a fun place for family-friendly outdoor activities like sailing, powerboating, water skiing, fishing, and swimming. 

In 1967, Lake Oroville was built as the tallest dam in the country. That’s right, even taller than Hoover Dam. When filled to its maximum elevation, Lake Oroville has 15,500 surface acres for recreation and 167 miles of shoreline. However, the lake levels fluctuate quite a bit each year. Check before you go, as it is a very different experience during a drought. 

Lake Oroville is also a well-known spot for camping. Options here go far beyond a spot on the lakeshore. You can actually boat to a floating campsite right in the middle of the lake!  Each floating campsite has a table, sink, BBQ grill, bathroom, living area, and a sun deck for tents. With camping options like these, I had to add it to our list of the best California lakes for family fun

Lake Oroville also offers boat-in campgrounds, equestrian campgrounds, and of course, standard campgrounds with easy access to park marinas. It’s also a popular location for house boating, should you prefer RV-style floating campsites.

When you need a break from the lake, Feather Falls on Fall River is a popular excursion. It’s particularly beautiful in the spring, as is the nearby North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve.

Best California State Parks in Wine Country

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

Bug posing in front of redwood roots, Armstrong Woods

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area neighbor each other in the Russian River town of Guerneville. That these two vastly different parks share a boundary shows the fascinating scope of California’s natural beauty. 

Armstrong Redwoods is a serene, 805-acre park shaded by ancient coastal redwoods. The giant trees have provided a cool summer escape for generations of visitors. Temperatures stay moderate, with fog all year round. Next door, Austin Creek’s 6,000 tree-studded acres provide a bright and sunny experience best enjoyed in spring and fall. Summer temps here can reach triple digits.

The natural beauty of these areas has inspired more than just outdoor recreation. The popular Redwood Forest Theater was built in 1934, establishing a unique performing arts venue surrounded by the redwood forest. 

Not far from the theater, but in the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, visitors can find “Pond Farm Pottery.” This was once the home of the Pond Farm Art School Colony and master potter, Marguerite Wildenhain. The school no longer offers courses, but the buildings have been entered into the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. It would be wonderful if the parks system could open up the studios for new generations of artists and art lovers to experience the connection between natural beauty and creativity.

Sadly, both parks were severely damaged during the 2020 wildfire season. Armstrong Woods has reopened some of its most popular trails but Austin Creek State Recreation Area remains closed as of 2023.

Sonoma Coast State Parks

Sonoma Coast State Park encompasses broad sandy beaches, secluded coves, rugged headlands, and natural bridges. It is a rough and rugged coastline dotted with tide pools and offshore reefs. When put together, these 16 miles make up some of the most beautiful natural scenery you can imagine. Visitors stroll the beaches, fish, sunbathe, and enjoy family picnics. 

Bodega Head is the headland that marks the entrance into Bodega Harbor. This area is popular for crabbing and hiking into the area’s small, sandy coves. The high cliffs are a great vantage point for observing migrating gray whales from December through April. 

Another well-loved spot is Goat Rock, located near the mouth of the popular Russian River. This area is known for its scenic shoreline and accessible picnic-friendly sandy beach. Goat Rock is a part of the Russian River State Marine Conservation Area. Visitors may spot an array of wildlife, including its home colony of harbor seals. 

Families will enjoy Shell Beach, a local favorite for beachcombing and tide pooling. Local schools use this area as an outdoor classroom for the study of tide pool marine life.

As with most Northern California beaches, these are not good swimming areas. Strong rip currents and sneaker waves are dangerous, especially for families with young children. If you’re looking for a good swimming spot, I recommend looking to the nearby Russian River beaches instead.

Best California State Parks in the San Francisco Bay Area

Año Nuevo State Park

Sunny Año Nuevo hike overlooking the Pacific Ocean

Rocky, windswept Point Año Nuevo juts into the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco. 

Visitors spot 300 species of birds, bobcats, deer, sea lions, sea otters here, but the highlight is the park’s elephant seals. Twice per year, hundreds of elephant seals come to Año Nuevo to mate, have pups, and shed their pelts in the park’s protected areas. From December to March, rangers offer 2.5 hour guided hikes so visitors can safely view them during mating and pupping season. During molting season, roughly April through August, visitors can proceed to the protected area on their own with a permit. 

We took a walk along the Atkinson Bluff Trail to Franklin Point on New Year’s Day. We couldn’t tour the protected area due to COVID but were thrilled to spot elephant seals on beaches near Whitehouse Creek and Franklin Point.

A stop for Strawberry Shortcake at nearby Swanton Berry Farm made for a perfect start to the new year.

Natural Bridges State Beach

On the northern edge of Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Beach is a popular 65-acre park known for its namesake wave-carved sea arches and family-friendly recreation opportunities. 

The park’s namesake natural bridges were once part of a large cliff that extended out into the sea. The bridges formed as waves eroded the mudstone, deepening the cliff’s depressions until they formed a cave, and eventually, the bridges that you’ll find today. 

Visitors can view the bridges from the beach, along with birds, migrating whales, seals, and otters. Further along the shore, tide pools offer a chance for close study and exploration. During low tide, children spot sea stars, shore crabs, sea anemones, and more. 

Natural Bridges is also home to one of the largest monarch butterfly overwintering sites in California.  The butterflies arrive on the coast from the Rocky Mountains to seek sanctuary from the winter cold. 

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Full disclosure: I don’t know why, but I’ve never been drawn to lighthouse tourism. Our boys, on the other hand, LOVE Pigeon Point. We even have a stuffed lighthouse at home which holds some of their coastal stuffies. Since it’s a big hit with the kids, I had to include it here.

Perched on a cliff about 50 miles south of San Francisco, 115-foot Pigeon Point is the tallest lighthouse on the California coast. The five-wick lard oil lamp began guiding mariners in 1872. Although the original 16-foot tall lens is no longer in use, the lighthouse is still an active U.S. Coast Guard navigation aid. Today it is operated using an automated LED beacon. 

Pigeon Point itself was named for a clipper ship named Carrier Pigeon, which ship-wrecked in the fog off of what was then known then as Whale Point. It’s been known as Pigeon Point ever since. Today the Pigeon Point Light Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It serves as a reminder of the day when whalers and Gold Rush-era clippers fought gusty gales, the region’s notorious fog, and jagged coastal rocks to reach the California shore. 

If you’re traveling up the California Coast and are looking for a unique stay, four of the Light Station buildings have been converted into lodging. Wake up to the park’s beautiful panoramic ocean views. Kids will love the on-site tide pools, harbor seals, and beach. The Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel is currently operated by Hostelling International.  

Angel Island State Park

Angel Island State Park is the largest natural island in San Francisco Bay. It offers jaw-dropping views of the city and plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities.

Like many Bay Area residents, I’ve thought about visiting Angel Island many times but have yet to go. It’s a local gem hidden in plain sight. 

After taking a ferry or private boat from San Francisco or Tiburon, visitors have several options for exploring. An open-air tram or segway tour will take you to the park’s highlights and best photo opportunities, sharing the island’s cultural and natural history along the way. 

The most popular hiking route is the Perimeter Trail which offers views of the entire San Francisco Bay along a 5.5-mile loop around the island. Many visitors also enjoy hiking to the 788-foot summit of Mount Livermore. This hike is challenging, but it offers payoff panorama views of the bay. Picnic tables at the summit make it the perfect spot to rest and have lunch before heading back down. 

The island’s Immigration Station Trail is a chance to explore the outdoors while learning about the island’s complex history. This two-mile hike leads to a former US Immigration Station. Upon arrival, you can tour the grounds, read the interpretive displays, and experience the restored detention areas with Chinese poetry engraved on the walls. 

Visitors can also camp on the island for a very unique San Francisco lodging experience!

Mount Diablo State Park

Looking out through the wind caves at Rock City

Located in the East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek, about an hour across the Bay from San Francisco, Mount Diablo State Park protects 20,000 acres of the gorgeous Mount Diablo Range. 

Most visitors head straight to Mount Diablo’s Summit to enjoy the park’s famous views. On a clear day, visitors can see for hundreds of miles from the peak. Mount Diablo is only 3,849 feet high but it is surrounded by much lower rolling hills and valleys. The views are incredible. 

Depending on the weather, you might see all the way to the Farallon Islands past the Golden Gate Bridge, east to the Sierra Nevada, south to Mount Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and north all the way to Lassen Peak! All in all, you might see parts of 40 California counties from the Mount Diablo Summit.

Though you can hike or bike to the Summit on the park’s popular trails, you can also drive to the Summit Visitor Center.  Given its reputation for amazing views, it should come as no surprise that visitors can also enjoy an Observation Deck and its mounted telescopes. 

If you’re visiting with kids, you should definitely make time to explore Rock City. Located by the South Gate Entrance, this section of the park includes a fascinating collection of wind caves and massive rocks. Visitors can explore the rocks and caves inside and out. My boys even used some of them as slides! 

The area’s many picnic tables are interspersed among the large rocks, making it an awesome place to stop for lunch. 

Mount Tamalpais State Park

Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais rises majestically above Marin County.

Throughout its deep canyons and hillsides, you’ll find redwood forests, oak woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral. Its slopes plunge steeply into the San Francisco Bay on the one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, creating a dramatic effect that has intrigued generations of visitors. 

In 1912, the Tamalpais Conservation Club began trying to convert this land into a park for hikers and naturalists. In 1928, 692 acres were set aside for a state park. Today the park’s 6,200 acres are joined by the Muir Woods National Monument, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the Marin Municipal Water District to basically cover the whole mountain.

From East Peak, visitors can view the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Take the 0.5 mile Plank Trail to a fire tower for 360-degree views of the bay, the city of San Francisco, and the Pacific Ocean. Relax and take in your surroundings, or head-on for a 0.75-mile stroll around the peak on the Verna Dunshee Trail. 

Off the trails, families wonder at the Gravity Car Barn and its stories of the Old Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway. Gravity cars once allowed people to coast down the mountain after taking the train up. This small museum on East Peak has a replica gravity car and plenty of great photos to take you back in time. 

For an unforgettable experience unique to the park, see a play on Mount Tam’s Mountain Theater which hosts an annual musical set in a natural bowl above the bay.

Tomales Bay State Park

Located 40 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Tomales Bay State Park is on the eastern edge of the Point Reyes Peninsula near Inverness, Point Reyes Station, and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

This area has its own unique character that combines rustic rural life with laid-back coastal living.  The blue waters and sheltered coves found in the narrow, finger-like Tomales Bay make this a popular destination for picnicking, swimming, hiking, or getting out on the water on a kayak or paddleboard.

Visitors love the east-facing slopes which are protected from the otherwise windy coastal area by the tall backbone of Point Reyes Peninsula.  Heart’s Desire Beach is the most developed of Tomales Bay’s surf-free beaches, with barbecues, dressing rooms, and restrooms. Access Pebble, Shell, and Indian Beaches by an easy trail network. Shores are shallow and good for wading and water play with well-marked swimming areas. 

One of the most exciting experiences in Tomales Bay is the bioluminescence evening tours offered by several local outfitters. On dark moonless nights in the Bay, bluish-white flickers become visible in the water. This comes from bioluminescent dinoflagellates which emit short flashes of light when disturbed. If you time it right, it can be quite a magical show!

Best California State Parks on the Central Coast

Hearst San Simeon State Park and Historic Monument

Hearst Castle

Located 35 miles north of San Luis Obispo, Hearst San Simeon State Park is a stunning and special place. One of the oldest parks in the California State Park system, it encompasses over 20 miles of the Central California coastline.

 Hearst Castle itself looms large in the park. The former home of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, the hilltop estate overlooks the Pacific Ocean and includes the main house, guesthouses, gardens, and pools. You might even glimpse the zebras who are the descendants of Hearst’s private zoo animals. I’ve seen them causing quite a stir along the Highway 1 roadside! 

Take a bus ride up the long and winding road from the visitor center to tour the estate. In December, the Estate is decked out for the holidays. From large wreaths to towering trees, visitors can imagine what it would have been like to have been a guest at the estate in the 1920s and 1930s.  

On the other side of the park, visitors enjoy a visit to the Coastal Discovery Center. The center offers interactive exhibits and education programs that call attention to the cultural and natural history of the region. Public programs include beachcombing with a marine biologist and becoming a plankton citizen scientist. 

Visitors to Hearst San Simeon State Park also enjoy exploring the tide pools, whale watching, and observing elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery. From December to March, you can observe thousands of seals resting, having pups, and battling along the coast just off Highway 1. 

Morro Bay State Park  

Playing on the muddy beach at Morro Bay State Park

Spectacular Morro Rock looms large over Morro Bay State Park. This 23-million-year-old volcanic plug is itself a nature preserve and home to peregrine falcons.  

Once you’re able to tear your eyes away from the namesake rock, you’ll find a fascinating park with both bay and lagoon habitats. The Morro Estuary Natural Preserve is an 800-acre wetland where freshwater mixes with the ocean tides, producing rich and nurturing habitats for wetland wildlife. 

Morro Bay State Park is a wonderful place for outdoor recreation opportunities, including sailing, fishing, hiking, and kayaking. Its calm waters, stunning scenery, and abundant wildlife make a perfect experience for those new to water sports like kayaking. 

This California State Park is also a prime spot for bird watching. On the bay’s northern end, a saltwater marsh supports a thriving bird population. The park’s Heron Rookery Natural Preserve was one of the coolest wildlife watching experiences we’ve had. Spot double-crested cormorants, great egrets, and great blue herons roosting in trees between February and June.

If you’d like to learn more about the natural and cultural history of the area, visit the park’s Museum of Natural History and Chumash garden. In addition to exhibits, you’ll find interactive activities for all ages, including nature walks, lectures, puppet shows, docent tours, and events. 

Visitors also enjoy the colorful marina, 18-hole public golf course, and 134-site campground.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park  

Bug Excited to see McWay Falls in Person

When the roads and trails are open, Big Sur makes for a truly awesome road trip, and McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most popular stops along the way. Bug saw a photo of the famous falls in our hotel room, and couldn’t believe it when I said we could drive to see the real one in person. This was his big stop on our way home from San Luis Obispo.

Unfortunately, the natural processes that shaped the park’s dramatic scenery have also made some popular areas unstable. Wildfires and landslides are common. 

If you’re lucky enough to snag one of the two walk-in spots behind McWay Falls, this park offers some of the best camping in California. Think amazing views of the Big Sur coastline from your tent! Without the crowds!

Visitors looking to escape crowds in the region may want to try Andrew Molera State Park, 16 miles north, where you can hike along the hills and down to the beach.

Garrapata State Park

Looking back into the ocean from Calla Lily Valley

Just south of Carmel, Garrapata State Park’s 2,939 acres include a rocky shoreline and a beautiful inland area with steep mountains and redwood canyons.

Epitomizing the rugged and wild beauty of the Big Sur region, the park’s two miles of beachfront are among its biggest draws.

Visitors find a diverse range of plants and animals on trails that run from the beach into dense redwood groves.  Encounter spectacular coastal headlands at Soberanes Point or meander through Calla Lily Valley on your way to the ocean.  

Sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters frequent the protected coastal waters, part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the California Sea Otter Game Refuge. 

There are many opportunities for Garrapata’s visitors to enjoy the views, but you don’t want to swim or wade on the shores here due to sneaker waves and strong rip currents. 

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Looking into Monterey Bay from the orange algae coated Cypress Trees on the Cypress Grove Trail at Point Lobos State Reserve

Just south of Carmel you’ll find the spectacular Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, known as the “Crown Jewel” of the California State Park system. Point Lobos may be one of my favorite places in all of California, and I couldn’t wait to introduce my family to it when we moved here. 

There are many gorgeous oceanfront hiking trails, but the Cypress Grove Trail is one of the best places to begin. It’s a fairly easy 0.8-mile loop that takes you to some spectacular ocean vistas and through the Reserve’s grove of rare Monterey cypress trees. The native species only grows here and nearby Cypress Point on 17 Mile Drive. Orange algae growing on some of the trees makes it feel otherworldly. 

If you continue past the Cypress Grove Trail to the South Shore Trail, you’ll end up at Weston Beach. The area is popular for its tidepools. It even has a hidden beach that can only be accessed at low tide. 

Point Lobos is also a popular diving and ocean kayaking spot. The Reserve continues into the ocean where it protects seals, otters, whales, and other marine life that thrives in the protected waters and kelp forests. 

As a parent, I appreciate the wide selection of interpretive materials offered by the Point Lobos Foundation. From observation checklists to coloring pages to cell phone tours, there’s plenty to help teach your kids all about this special place. Check out our full post on Point Lobos for links to educational materials and a video of our favorite Point Lobos sites.

Best California State Parks in the San Joaquin Valley

Red Rock Canyon State Park

Rock Formations at Red Rock State Park

We were blown away on our visit to Red Rock Canyon. While looking for a convenient place to stop and stretch our legs mid-road trip, we decided to check it out. I immediately wished we had more time to explore this spectacular location.

Red Rock Canyon State Park has gorgeous desert cliffs, buttes, and rock formations. Located where the Sierra Nevada and El Paso Range converge, each canyon is unique and features dramatic shapes and colors. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Utah rather than the California desert!

Once the home of the Kawaiisu people who carved petroglyphs in the cliffs, the park has been a gold mining site, a stagecoach stop, and a backdrop for many Hollywood westerns. Today, the park protects significant paleontology sites. Ninety species of fossilized plants and animals are found here, including three-toed horses, saber-tooth cats, and alligator lizards. 

Like many other desert parks, visiting in the spring offers a chance at witnessing stunning desert blooms. This is also a great time to spot birds and wildlife while you’re out exploring. 

Picnicking near the Ricardo Campground, we were jealous of the campers with sites tucked into the dramatic cliff sides. The campground can get full in the spring and fall, but it didn’t feel overcrowded at all during our visit on a sunny December day.  If you’re on a road trip from Death Valley or are planning a Highway 395 road trip from LA, definitely make time to stop here for a visit.

Best California State Parks in the Sierra Nevada

D.L Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks

D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks are on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, easily one of the best lakes in California for family fun.  

Together, the two parks include more than six miles of Lake Tahoe’s west shore, covering 1,830 acres. From Inspiration Point on Highway 89, you can see the spectacular panorama of Emerald Bay, Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe, and the distant Nevada shore. Taking in these gorgeous views, you will understand why Emerald Bay is one of the most photographed places in the United States!

One of Emerald Bay’s most unique features is actually below the surface of Lake Tahoe. In the mid-1990s, the park system established an underwater shipwreck preserve in Emerald Bay. Divers explore at least eight vessels that were lost in the area in addition to marine life. 

Those not ready to dive can swim at Lester and Calawee Cove beaches, Emerald Bay’s boat camp, and Vikingsholm Castle. Fishing for rainbow, brown, and Mackinaw trout or Kokanee salmon is also popular. 

The challenging Rubicon Trail spans both parks and crosses the beautiful lower cascades of Eagle Creek and Eagle Falls. Though together the two parks have more than 250 family campsites, both campgrounds fill up fast. Plan to grab a spot in this spectacular area.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Mono Lake tufa towerers at sunset
Photo: rabbit75_ist from Getty Images via Canva

Mono Lake is one of the most unique lakes in the Eastern Sierra. An ancient saline lake that formed nearly a million years ago, it is home to brine shrimp, millions of birds, and unusual rock formations known as tufa towers. 

The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve protects and preserves the fascinating tufa towers, which form by the interaction of freshwater springs and the lake’s unique water. It also protects the lake itself, and the surrounding wetlands which are home to over 1 million birds that make Mono Lake home each year. 

If you have a budding biologist or geologist in your group, join one of the free naturalist tours to learn the stories behind Mono Lake, one of California’s most unusual places.

Given the unique habitat formed by the lake, surprised visitors find that swimming in the lake is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. Mono Lake is surprisingly warm and 2.5 times as salty as the ocean. This means that you don’t have to go very far before you can float in the water effortlessly. If you’re one of those muscular types who sinks in the water, this is the place for you. Just make sure to bring some goggles or a snorkeling mask. You’ll want to watch the brine shrimp in action below the water’s surface and to keep the salt out of your eyes!

Grover Hot Springs State Park

About an hour south of Tahoe on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, you’ll find Grover Hot Springs State Park hidden in quiet Hot Springs Valley.

This park offers alpine vistas, wildflower meadows, and the namesake mineral pools fed from six nearby hot springs. John has a bad back, so we’re always on the lookout for places to soak in warm water. It makes for the perfect end to a day of hiking or driving.

The 102 to 104˚ F mineral water is drained and refilled daily. The pools close on Wednesdays from Labor Day until Memorial Day. 

In addition to the hot pool and a cool swimming pool, the park offers a forested 76-site campground, picnic area, hiking trails, and fishing streams. Visitors enjoy the Burnside Lake Trail, which runs the length of Hot Springs Valley. You’ll reach a splinter trail to a waterfall at 1.5 miles and Burnside Lake at 5.5 miles. 

As with many parks in the Sierras, come prepared for a range of weather conditions. Clear warm days can be followed by cold stormy nights, and high-speed winds can cause damage year-round. 

Best California State Parks in the Desert

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego State Park makes for a great day trip from Palm Springs and is only a quick 2-hour drive from San Diego. This sprawling 900 square miles of desert is a place where visitors can go to truly escape the routine of everyday life. 

California’s deserts reveal some of the state’s most fascinating flora and fauna. Visitors find dramatic desert landscapes, cool slot canyon hikes, and beautiful oases of native palm trees.  Rent an off-road vehicle to access areas like Coyote Canyon with its surprisingly lush vegetation. 

One of the best times to visit is spring before temperatures climb to over 100 degrees! Wildflower season runs from late February to April, usually peaking in mid-March. Rumor has it that you can write a self-addressed postcard saying, “The flowers are blooming,” stamp it, and mail it in an envelope to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004). Park staff will mail back the card two weeks before the expected peak bloom. 

Don’t miss Ricardo Breceda’s “Borrego Springs Sculptures”. There are more than 100 placed throughout the desert. Pick up a map at the bookstore in Borrego Springs to find the locations of prehistoric elephants, a 350-foot long serpent, a giant T-Rex, and more. 

Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo:  Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Arriving at Mount San Jacinto State Park by the aerial tramway is half the fun. The tramway’s rotating cars carry you 2.5 miles up the cliffs of Chino Canyon into the wilderness of Mt. San Jacinto State Park.

When you arrive, you’ll find granite peaks, sub-alpine forests, and mountain meadows that offer the best high-country experiences south of the Sierra Nevada range.

Visitors enjoy the park’s many hiking trails. A short walk from the tram station will take you to Long Valley. This area features a ranger station, picnic area, restrooms, a flat 0.6-mile nature trail loop, and the 1.5 mile Desert View Trail which overlooks Coachella Valley. 

Those looking for more of a challenge can summit Mount San Jacinto. At 10,834 feet, it’s the highest peak in the California State Park System.  With much of the park standing at more than 6,000 feet, it offers a cool escape from the desert summers below.

In the winter, Mount San Jacinto offers the rare combination of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding with desert views. 

Best California State Parks in Southern California

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Beautiful views while hiking through Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines is a fragile environment that is home to the nation’s rarest pine tree, Pinus torreyana, and rare Southern California salt marshes and waterfowl refuges.  Located next door to the University of California at San Diego, it is also one of the few Natural Reserves located within an urban environment.

Visitors enjoy the reserve’s spring wildflowers, high broken cliffs, and deep ravines on headlands overlooking the ocean. There are hikes for every level here. The popular Guy Fleming Trail is under a mile and winds toward gorgeous ocean views. Bring your binoculars to spot migrating whales through April. Trails lead to Torrey Pines State Beach below where you can picnic. Just make sure to time your visit with the tides!

If you have a daredevil in your group, consider paragliding over the ocean to Torrey Pines State Beach. The Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the largest tandem operators in the country, and all ages are welcome to fly!  

Malibu Creek State Park

Though known for its gorgeous beaches and beach houses, Malibu also offers outdoor family fun away from the oceans too. Just 25 miles from Downtown Los Angeles, Malibu Creek State Park boasts 8,000 acres of land where visitors can hike, fish, bird watch, mountain bike, horseback ride, and rock climb. You can find a trail for all levels, and even free guided hikes to introduce visitors to the park on weekend mornings.

Before it was a state park, this land was owned by 20th Century Fox. That means recreation here comes with a side of movie trivia. The outdoor scenes of M*A*S*H were filmed here, and the site still draws visitors 50 years after it first premiered. 

One of the most popular sections of the park is the swimming hole featured in Planet of the Apes. The secret’s out on this one and sunbathers and hikers flock here to cool off in the summertime. Reserve a campground to stay overnight, and try to go for a dip when it might be a bit less crowded.

California Citrus State Park

California Citrus State Park entrance is a giant orange
Photo: California State Parks

Thinking of California’s history, many likely think of gold and missions before the all-important agricultural sector. We pass fields, orchards, and groves on most road trips through the state, but it’s not often that we take the time to pause and consider the history behind them. 

This unique park interprets the role of the citrus industry in the history and development of California. It aims to help you imagine the complexities of the time when “Citrus was King” as it explores the significance of the industry to the state. 

After several promising harvests in the late 1800s, citrus baron hopefuls descended on Southern California for what became known as the state’s “second Gold Rush.” The growth of communities throughout Southern California followed, much of which was segregated by class and race.  Though the harsh realities of the agricultural sector would linger for generations, the lush citrus groves contributed to California’s reputation as the Golden State, a gorgeous land of sunshine and opportunity.  

The park grows over 70 varieties of oranges, lemons, limes, mandarins, grapefruit, and kumquats. Visitors enjoy fruit tastings and tasting tours of its 250 acres of groves on weekends. This is a great spot to explore interesting trails and enjoy a picnic among citrus groves and rose gardens.

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