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15 Best State Parks in California

Written by Brad Lane
Sep 20, 2019

With sea breezes, dramatic waterfalls, and prominent mountain peaks, state parks in California offer a lifetime of adventure. Outnumbering the best national parks in California, these public spaces are popular for activities like hiking, camping, fishing, and SCUBA diving—as well as simply staring in wonder at the stunning nature on display. Whether for weekend adventures or extended California road trips, California state parks provide a great contrast to the busy cities that surround them.

Some of the most visited state parks in California, like Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Henry Cowell Redwoods, receive international attention for good reason. Other natural spaces like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Bodie Historical State Park receive special designations for their unique landscapes. Whether it's Emerald Bay, Mendocino Headlands, or Castle Crags, nearly all state parks in California live up to their inspiring names.

Camping is available at most state parks in California, enabling the multi-day adventures required to see everything these special environments have to offer. From fanning waterfalls and magnificent rock features to elaborate castles and ghost towns in a state of "arrested decay," a vast array of treasures wait to be uncovered in the state parks of California. For California state parks to visit during the winter, places like Grover Hot Springs and Castle Crags State Park provide year-round attractions.

Start planning your outdoor adventures with our list of the top state parks in California.

1. Crystal Cove State Park

Crystal Cove State Park

Off the Pacific Coast Highway between Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park encompasses miles of sandy beach and a sprawling tract of inland wilderness. The access and enormity of natural space at Crystal Cove is rare in Southern California, and between the beachgoers and backcountry hikers, this state park is one of the most popular in the state. Weekend activities at Crystal Cove often include skin diving, surfing, and admiring sunsets from the bluff-side campground.

Address: 8471 N Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, California

Official site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=644

2. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur is a roughly 90-mile stretch of rugged coastline with numerous state parks and natural attractions. Perhaps best epitomizing the mountain slopes, redwood forests, and dramatic shorelines of Big Sur is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The 80-foot McWay Falls within Julia Pfeiffer Burns, plummeting from a rock slope into the ocean, is a must-see natural feature of the region.

Numerous other state parks surround Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, including Limekiln and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which also host some of the best campgrounds in the area. Other postcard-worthy examples of Big Sur beauty nearby include Pfeiffer Beach, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and the Bixby Bridge. Numerous turnoffs line Highway 1 through Big Sur, offering ample opportunity to enjoy the ocean views and occasional whale sighting.

Address: 52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, California

3. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Home to many of the best hiking trails of Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located less than five miles from the city. Alongside this proximity to Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean, Henry Cowell is an international destination thanks to the towering redwood trees within its borders. Encompassing over 4,600 acres including the day-use Fall Creek Unit, Henry Cowell provides endless ways to enjoy the giants that helped jumpstart a conservation movement in California.

For additional big tree attraction, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is located roughly twenty miles northwest of Henry Cowell. California's oldest state park, and home to several of the best campgrounds near Santa Cruz, Big Basin Redwoods State Park features redwood grove hiking trails and lush canyons full of life. While visiting, the Redwood Loop Trail is a must-do hike for the whole family.

Address: 101 N Big Trees Park Road, Felton, California

4. Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Hosting many of the best campgrounds at South Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay State Park encompasses its own special slice of California's most scenic lake. Named after the shallow blue-green waters on the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay provides stunning lakeside camping, hiking, and unique cultural features like the 38-room Vikingsholm castle. Designated as an underwater state park, California's first maritime heritage trail tours the sunken ships and vessels at the bottom of Emerald Bay.

Address: 138 Emerald Bay Road, South Lake Tahoe, California

5. Castle Crags State Park

Castle Crags State Park

Accessible from Redding with an hour's drive, the 6,000-foot granite spires of Castle Crags draw tourists from around the world to this state park in Northern California. Featuring over 25 miles of hiking trails that navigate the base of these dramatic mountain monuments, the park is also home to one of the best day hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through Castle Crags with great views of Castle Dome along the way.

The campground at Castle Crags is a popular home base for adventures, with over 75 sites available.

Address: 20022 Castle Creek Road, Castella, California

6. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in spring

California's largest state park, Anza-Borrego encompasses over 600,000 acres near the California/Mexico border. Visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park requires preparation to navigate the rugged terrain, which is heavily comprised of a pristine desert wilderness, including slot canyons, palm springs, and an abundance of wildflowers come spring. The nation-spanning Pacific Crest Trail passes through Anza-Borrego, and numerous interpretive trails provide other hiking opportunities.

Address: 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, California

7. Empire Mine State Historic Park

Historic building at Empire Mine State Historic Park

Displaying the rich history of the 19th-century California Gold Rush, Empire Mine State Historic Park preserves one the most prosperous gold mines in the state. At the heart of the park is a collection of preserved buildings dating back to when the mine was in operation, including a machine shop, clubhouse, and the entrance to the now-flooded shafts of the mine. Fourteen miles of hiking trails stem from the preserved village and are lined with interpretive information and artifacts.

For further insight into the California Gold Rush, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is the first-place visitors should go. At the location of the first gold discovery in California, about an hour east of present-day Sacramento, this historic site spawned the mass migration of fortune seekers who comprised the California Gold Rush. At the State Historic Park, visitors can learn more about the events at the Gold Discovery Museum, and see for themselves the land that changed the nation.

Address: 10791 E Empire Street, Grass Valley, California

8. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Trail through the redwoods in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Encompassing over 10,000 acres and a significant portion of the last remaining old-growth redwood forests in the world, this redwoods state park is laced with giants. No roads run through the central core of Jedediah Smith State Park, named after an early-19th-century explorer of the region, but 20 miles of hiking trails lead through the enormous and lush environment. Camping and cabins are available at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park for overnight visits.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is part of a cooperative management agreement between the National Park Service and California State Parks. Both Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks to the south are part of this agreement, as is Redwoods National Park. Together, Redwood National and State Parks host millions of visitors from across the world to marvel at the grandeur of these old-growth trees.

Address: Crescent City, California

9. Morro Bay State Park

Morro Bay State Park

Part of what makes Morro Bay one of the best small towns in California is Morro Bay State Park at its southern border. Offering generous views of Morro Rock and the surrounding bay, this state park also features a postcard marina, an 18-hole golf course, and a seaside Natural History Museum. The campground at Morro Bay State Park supports tent camping and RVs, and the park is also in proximity to other scenic areas, including Montaña de Oro State Park.

Address: 60 State Park Road, Morro Bay, California

10. McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Beautiful Burney Falls

On the banks of Lake Britton in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, this popular state park is often visited thanks to the spring-fed waterfall within its borders. Visitors can park at the visitor center or hike the backcountry Burney Creek Trail to see the 129-foot Burney Falls fanning down a cliffside. The Pacific Crest Trail makes a prominent stop next to the falls, and five miles of other hiking trails span the park.

Address: 24898 CA-89 Scenic, Burney, California

11. Mendocino Headlands State Park

Mendocino Headlands State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Surrounding the seaside village of Mendocino in Northern California, Mendocino Headlands State Park bounds the historic community to the everlasting waves of the Pacific Ocean. Providing multiple angles of the ocean environment, a scattering of trails leads throughout the bluff environment of the park and connects to the adjacent community. Visitors can access an estuary environment and tidal areas at the Big River Beach unit of the state park.

The entire Mendocino coastal area is lined with other great state parks worth a visit. North of the village, Russian Gulch State Park features unique tidal features including the Devil's Punchbowl, as well as a Fern Canyon hiking trail leading to a rushing waterfall. South of Mendocino, Van Damme State Park offers similar natural appeal and a campground, as well as an intriguing Pygmy Forest.

12. Bodie State Historic Park

Bodie State Historic Park

A ghost town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just outside of Yosemite National Park, Bodie State Historic Park has remained untouched since the last gold miners left in the 1940s. Numerous furnishings and artifacts remain within the public spaces of this well-preserved ghost town, providing visitors with a sense of stepping back into the city's Wild West past. Special Bodie Ghost Walks occur throughout the year, lending the opportunity to also see the star-studded night sky of this day-use state park.

Address: CA-270, Bridgeport, California

13. Salt Point State Park

Salt Point State Park

Ten miles north of the equally stunning Sonoma Coast State Park on Highway 1, Salt Point State Park offers dramatic ocean views and an abundance of inland trails to explore. Popular with beachcombers, abalone divers, and sunset photographers, the six miles of beachfront property at Salt Point is lined with sandstone rocks and pounding waves. Over 20 miles of trails span the rest of the park, connecting with inland features including two campgrounds and a visitor center.

Address: 25050 CA-1, Jenner, California

14. Grover Hot Springs State Park

Grover Hot Springs State Park | Ken Lund / photo modified

On the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the hot springs of this state park have been attracting visitors for thousands of years. Today, as one of the best hot springs in California, the state park collects the heated groundwater from six springs into a large swimming area for the public to enjoy. Special day-use fees apply when wanting to take a dip, and the state park hosts a campground nearby with more than 75 sites available.

Address: 3415 Hot Springs Road, Markleeville, California

15. Hearst San Simeon State Park

Hearst Castle at Hearst San Simeon State Park

Stretching for twenty miles along the California coast north of San Luis Obispo, this special state park offers unobstructed views of the rugged shoreline. Alongside generous views of the ocean and a great vantage point of an elephant seal rookery, the state park also lends access to the fantastic Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark and stunning piece of architecture. Guided tours of the grand rooms, pool areas, and zoo are available seven days a week.

Address: 500 San Simeon-Monterey Creek Road, Cambria, California

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