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Best California State Parks for Family Fun
Fascinating Marshall Gold Discovery State Park shares the story of a key moment in California history.
By Kristy Esparza, April 14, 2021
California’s State Parks help visitors connect with the state’s natural beauty and history. With 280 parks in every region of the state, you can encounter anything from lakes to oceans and deserts to redwood forests. We’ve highlighted the best California state parks below based on those we’ve experienced ourselves and those that are at the very top of our list of places to visit next.
So, whether you’re looking for a hike and a picnic, an amazing camping spot, or want to try something new like gold panning, you’ll find endless activities and photo opportunities in our list of the top California state parks below.
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. 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: Southern California, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast, Sierra Nevada, Bay Area, Wine Country, Greater Sacramento, Gold Country, Shasta Cascades, and the North Coast. Use the map shown here to find the ones that are closest to you!
Best California State Parks in Southern California
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Of the 280 California State Parks, only 14 have the Natural Reserve designations. These parks have an outstanding or rare natural or scenic value (often both).
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!
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 over 100 of them scattered through 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
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.
Crystal Cove State Park
Located near Laguna Beach, visitors to Crystal Cove State Park soak in stunning ocean views as they surf or hike along the park’s nature trails. The park’s 3 miles of coastline, tide pools, and deeply wooded canyons combine to make this park feel a world apart from its urban surroundings. It stands as one of the largest open spaces and natural seashores in Orange County.
Families will enjoy Crystal Cove’s many interpretive programs and the chance to get close to sea creatures while exploring the park’s tide pools. If you feel like taking a break from the water, you can explore the park’s backcountry hills and canyons by foot, bike, or horseback.
Though Crystal Cove makes for a tempting beach stop on a California road trip, its accommodations will make you want to stay awhile. There’s a main campground with 28 sites, many of which look right onto the ocean. There are also renovated beachfront cottages, originally built in the 1930s and 1940s to rent in the park’s Historic District. They range from hostel-style dorms to multi-bedroom houses. If you want to book one of these coveted stays, make sure to plan well in advance!
California Citrus State Park
Thinking of California 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 1800’s, 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.
Best California State Parks in the San Joaquin Valley
Red Rock Canyon 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 have been found, 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.
After 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.
The gorgeous color of the cliffs at Red Rock Canyon are difficult to capture!
We didn’t want to leave the picnic grounds.
Best California State Parks on the Central Coast
Hearst San Simeon State Park and Historic Monument
Join the Foundation at Hearst Castle for a chance to swim at the estate’s famous Neptune Pool!
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!
Today anyone can explore the large visitor center and tour the estate which is reached by a long and winding bus ride. 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
Morro Bay Estuary is a great spot for beginning kayakers. (@hunabku2015)
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. Hundreds of species have been spotted here. In the park’s Heron Rookery Natural Preserve, visitors 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
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.
Unfortunately, the natural processes that shaped the park’s dramatic scenery have also made some popular areas unstable. Wildfires and landslides are common.
When I first arrived at McWay Falls, I expected to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene. Instead I was halted 0.25 miles into the trail by an “Area Closed” sign. A large group of visitors was crowded nearby seeking the same moment. Our collective attention was taken by a group of guys who jumped the fence to get closer and were being retrieved by park rangers. Beautiful? Yes. An escape? Not exactly.
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!
Visitors looking to escape the crowds may want to try Andrew Molera State Park, 16 miles north, where you can hike along the hills and down to the beach.
Beautiful McWay Falls has become an iconic Big Sur stop.
Don’t go to Big Sur without checking the status of roads and trails!
Garrapata State Park
An unforgettable spring day walking through Calla Lily Valley.
Just south of Carmel, Garrapata State Park’s 2,939 acres include 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 coastal waters which are protected by 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
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. This is a popular area for tidepools, and it even has a hidden beach which 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 education materials and a video of our favorite Point Lobos sites.
Point Lobos State Reserve has stunning views in every direction.
Best California State Parks in the Sierra Nevada
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
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 was created to protect and preserve 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, you might be surprised to 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
The hot springs are ready for mid-winter soakings at Grover Hot Springs State Park. (Friends of Grover Hot Springs)
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 had a bad back for years, so we’re always on the lookout for places to soak in warm water like this. It makes for the perfect end to a day of hiking or driving.
The hot soaking pool is kept at 102 to 104˚ F. The 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.
D.L Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks
D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks can be found on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, 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 likely understand why Emerald Bay has been named 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-1990’s, the park system established an underwater shipwreck preserve in Emerald Bay. In addition to the the marine life that make Lake Tahoe their home, divers can explore at least eight vessels reported to be lost in the area.
Those not ready to dive, can swim at D.L. Bliss State Park’s Lester and Calawee Cove beaches, and 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 ahead to grab a spot in this spectacular area.
Lake Tahoe boat cruises are a popular way to enter Emerald Bay. (tahoesouth.com)
D.L. Bliss State Park offers unbelievable beach views. (Susanne Neumann from Getty Images via Canva)
Best California State Parks in the Bay Area
Natural Bridges State Beach
Located 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 can be found spotting sea stars, shore crabs, sea anemones, and more.
Natural Bridges is also home to one of the largest monarch butterfly over-wintering sites in California. The butterflies arrive on the coast from the Rocky Mountains to seek sanctuary from the winter cold.
Año Nuevo State Park
Rocky, windswept Point Año Nuevo juts into the crashing blue of the Pacific about an hour south of San Francisco.
Visitors might spot 300 species of birds, bobcats, deer, sea lion, sea otters, and of course 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 with a permit.
Being the cheesy theme-obsessed traveler that I am, we took a walk along the Atkinson Bluff Trail to Franklin Point on New Year’s Day. It was sunny and pretty warm for January. We couldn’t tour the protected area due to COVID, but all of us were thrilled to spot elephant seals on the beaches near Whitehouse Creek and just past Franklin Point. A stop for Strawberry Shortcake at nearby Swanton Berry Farm made for a perfect start to the new year.
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.
The boys were happy to pose in front of Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
Mount Diablo State Park
John checking out the valley below on a rainy morning in Mount Diablo.
Rock City’s wind caves won’t disappoint adventurous families.
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, so 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 have even use 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.
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. For many locals, it’s like a 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 5.5mile 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!
Boats docking on Angel Island State Park in the San Francisco Bay. (kcbermingham from Getty Images via Canva)
Mount Tamalpais State Park
There’s nothing like the view from Mount Tamalpais at sunrise. (Chris LaBasco from Getty Images via Canva)
Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, or Mount Tam as it’s known locally, 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 fighting to preserve this land 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 preserve 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 you can get into 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
Tomales Bay State Park’s peaceful afternoons. (David Akers from Getty Images via Canva)
A bioluminescence kayking tour makes for an exciting night on Tomales Bay. (Blue Waters Kayaking)
Located 40 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Tomales Bay State Park is set 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 paddle board.
Visitors love the east-facing slopes which are protected from the otherwise windy 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. Pebble, Shell, and Indian Beaches can be accessed 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 a number of 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 in Wine Country
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area neighbor each other in Sonoma County’s quirky town of Guerneville. That these two vastly different parks share a boundary illustrates the fascinating scope of California’s varied 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 that is best enjoyed in spring and fall. Summer temps here can reach triple digits.
The natural beauty of these areas have 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 too far from the theater, but in the boundaries of the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, visitors can find wood outbuildings and a simple sign reading “Pond Farm Pottery.” This was once the home of the Pond Farm Art School Colony and a master potter named Marguerite Wildenhain. Today the school is no longer offering courses, but the buildings have been entered onto 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 be inspired by the natural beauty of this special place.
Sadly, both parks were severely damaged in last fall’s wildfires. We’re keeping them on the list anyway as we anxiously await news of their reopening.
It’s not easy to photograph the impressive redwoods in Armstrong Woods.
Sonoma Coast State Park
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.
This is a park where you can wander, breathe in the ocean air, and create unforgettable memories. Visitors can be found strolling the beaches, fishing, sunbathing, or enjoying a family picnic.
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 known and 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, so 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 known to be 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.
Goat Rock Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park is a local favorite. (sonomacounty.com)
Best California State Parks in Greater Sacramento
California State Railroad Museum
Located in the Old Sacramento waterfront, the California State Railroad Museum is the California park system’s tribute to the role the “iron horse” played in connecting 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.
In addition to the museum itself, the California State Railroad Museum is actually one part of a larger complex in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park that together has been designated a National Landmark. 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.
An excursion train leaves the station in downtown Sacramento. (California State Railroad Museum)
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 and power boating, 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 comes with a table, sink, propane BBQ grill, bathroom, covered living area, and a sun deck space for tents. With 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.
Who needs dry land when you can enjoy a floating campsite at Lake Oroville? (Tom Owen via Active Norcal)
Best California State Parks in Gold Country
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Awe-inspiring giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. (haveseen from Getty Images via Canva)
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is home to two groves of giant 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. Trails range from the 0.13-mile Three Sense Trail, which encourages visitors to experience this special place through multiple senses, to the fairly strenuous four mile River Canyon Trail that runs between the North Grove and the Stanislaus River.
The park’s history follows many stories of forest conservation in California. On the one hand, there is the fight to preserve and protect these phenomenal natural wonders from destruction by the logging industry. On the other is the destruction of native homes and communities in the name of both industry and conservation. Visitors will notice large granite boulders with holes created by the Miwok method of grinding seeds and acorns. Approximately 3,500 Miwok descendants still live in the area today.
Columbia State Historic Park
Located in the heart of the California Mother Lode, about an hour from Sacramento, Columbia was once a bustling, brawling town known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines.”
The town’s Gold Rush-era business district was designated a State Park in 1945. Today, visiting the park is like visiting a thriving 1850s California city that’s been 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 enterprising miners and merchants, who once made Columbia one of California’s largest cities.
Costumed docents and staff host historical tours, run the town shoppes, and even serve customers at Columbia’s restaurants and saloons. Catch a ride on a stagecoach, watch a blacksmith in action, slurp a sarsaparilla soda or beer, and try your hand at gold panning.
During Columbia’s Gold Rush Days on the second Saturday of each month, visitors can participate in hands-on activities throughout the park. On Columbia Diggins, usually hosted the weekend after Memorial Day, visitors can visit a replica of the original tent town of 1852, and meet miners, businessmen and artisans. Check the park’s calendar, as events like these are offered throughout the year.
Ride a stagecoach and slurp some sarsparilla at the Columbia State Historic Park (Alex Silgalis from californiahighsierra.com)
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
Railtown 1897 is located in Jamestown, the heart of California Gold Country, about 2 hours east of Sacramento and 1 hour outside of Yosemite.
Visitors will enjoy visiting the Historic Jamestown Shops and Roundhouse, a still-functioning steam locomotive repair and maintenance facility with portions of the operation dating back to 1897.
The Railtown 1897 complex also includes blacksmithing demonstrations, a belt-driven machine shop, historic structures, and the park’s large picnic area and Interpretive Center.
History lovers will be drawn by the park’s exhibitions, while the park’s excursion train rides will be a highlight for the kids. The six-mile ride winds through the scenic Sierra foothills from April to October.
If some of the trains look familiar to you, it may be because Railtown 1897 has been dubbed “The Movie Railroad.” The park as it exists today has largely been made possible thanks to the film industry. You might have seen the park’s historic locomotives and railroad cars in over 200 films, tv shows, and commercials, and it is still a popular location site today. John is most excited by the railroad sequences in one of his all time favorites, “Back to the Future Part III.”
Enjoy excursion trains that wind through the Sierras at Railtown 1897 (visittuolumnecounty.com).
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park
JJ preferred garnets to gold nuggets.
The boys loved exploring the park trail with replicas of Gold Rush mining machines.
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.
The site and story of the fated encounter can be seen today in Coloma, California. Experience the gold discovery site through a replica of the original sawmill James Marshall was building in partnership with John Sutter. Explore the site’s many interpretive panels while enjoying a beautiful walk along the American River.
Across the street from the discovery site, visitors explore over 20 historic buildings and exhibits. Life-sized replicas help visitors comprehend how 19th century mining equipment functioned and recognize 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 water, and JJ loved the garnets more than the gold, but John was hooked! He has seriously been watching Discovery’s “Gold Rush: Alaska” since our trip!
There were also some great picnic spots and plenty of open spaces for the boys to run around and burn off some road trip energy!
Best California State Parks in the Shasta Cascades
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
This park is an extra special one to me. When I was a kid, my aunt lived in the nearby town of Cassel, so we visited the Burney area at least once per year. Last year I brought my own family there for the first time. Though some parks are grander in our childhood memories than they are 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 in the pool at the base of the falls.
As wonderful as this area truly is, the park also has some lovely hiking trails, including a segement of the Pacific Crest Trail.
If you have extra time, 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 even 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 relatively full year-round, though travel through the entire region is best in summer and fall.
We were’t quite prepared for a day at the beach, but the boys still enjoyed playing on the shore of Lake Britton.
Plumas-Eureka State Park
Historic buildings help share the stories of Plumas-Euraka State Park’s unique mining history. (Plumas-Eureka State Park official site)
If you like pristine wilderness preserves and fascinating stories, you’ll want to 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. You wouldn’t know it today, but 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, the 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. Taking a cue from local legend “Snowshoe” Thompson, who delivered mail on skis in the winter, the miners would strap on their own versions of skis and race down the base of Eureka Peak. By catching a lift on the mining tram, usually used to haul ore down the slopes, they made Plumas-Eureka one of the nation’s first unofficial ski areas!
In addition to preserving the area’s unique mining history, 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 pristine alpine lakes and streams that are still dotted with old fashioned lakeside resorts.
Best California State Parks in the North Coast
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
The fallen Dyerville Giant at Humboldt Redwoods State Park once stood at 362 feet tall. (lucentius from Getty Images via Canva)
The 32-mile Avenue of the Giants is one of the best places to see old growth redwoods by car in California. It runs through the eastern section of Humboldt Redwoods State park.
These amazing trees are capable of growing up to 370 feet in height, the tallest on Earth. Beyond the auto-tour, this 53,000 acre park is home to the largest expanse of old growth redwoods on the planet.
In the 1900s, loggers came to the area to chop down the ancient redwoods for grape stakes and shingles. The horrified founders of the Save the Redwoods League formed in 1918 to protect this land, and have gone on to protect 189,000 acres of California’s redwood forests. Over 100 memorial groves have since been established with their help.
Popular areas include the Founder’s Grove and Julia Morgan’s Hearthstone monument in the Women’s Federation Grove. Federation Grove has a picnic area and popular swimming hole as well.
Visitors enjoy swimming or wading in the park’s thirty miles of the South Fork and Eel River as well as in several creeks. Catch-and-release fishing for salmon and steelhead is allowed on sections of the Eel River during fall and winter.
If you like quirky roadside attractions, stop by the Visitor Center to see the Kellogg Travel Log. Known as the world’s first RV, it was carved out of a fallen log and driven across the country four times.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
A World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and three other parks in the Redwood National and State Parks group protect 45% of California’s old growth coastal redwoods.
Visitors to Prairie Creek enjoy 10 miles of scenic sandy beach and open meadows inhabited by magnificent herds of Roosevelt elk. Where there are meadows, there are elk, and there is plenty of room for them to roam in this 14,000 acre park.
Explore the park through three scenic drives, a 19-mile bike loop, or by foot on 75 miles of hiking trails. Stately, and occasionally bizarre, groves of giant redwoods can be accessed by a short walk from the visitor center. Other stand out trails include the Revelation Trail, which was designed to emphasize experiencing the redwood forests through all five senses, and Fern Canyon, which was used as a set in Jurassic Park. Visit in May and June to see the western azalea and rhododendron blooming from the Rhododendron Trail.
On the first Saturday of each month from October through April the main Newton B Drury Parkway is closed to cars for the park’s Hike and Bike Day. It’s a wonderful chance to “skate, stroll, saunter, or skip your way through 10-miles of old-growth redwoods on a beautiful road.”
Elk Prairie has been called one of the top campgrounds for families in Northern California, and we are thrilled to finally get the chance to camp there this summer!
Meadows with ferns filled with roaming elk. (Kyle Kempf from Getty Images via Canva)