California State Parks and California National Parks are vast sections of wilderness, with jaw-dropping scenery from volcanos to deserts, beautiful meadows to striking rock formations!
Abundant with a spectrum of energetic wildlife, the California State parks give visitors the opportunity to capture a rare glimpse of some of the most beautiful wildlife in the world! From owls to Whales! Californias States parks are lush habitats for a variety of species!
For recreational users California state parks give you a great opportunity to take a stroll, a hike and even camp out!
What is the difference between a National Park & State Park?
State parks are operated by state governments, whereas the federal government looks after national parks.
The state parks tend to be smaller in size but tend to have many more amenities. Whereas national parks tend to be more vast with less amenities. State parks are often located in closer proximity to urban locations than many national parks.
We still love Yosemite National Park, here at TownandTourist!!
Which are better State or National Parks?
While it is true that National Parks tend to be larger, have a greater variety of landscapes and thus greater popularity…there are some downsides and some real winning points for the underdog state parks!
State Parks have a certain charm there closer proximity to urban locations tends to make them really desirable & easy accessible places to get back into the great outdoors!
This makes them a really important and somewhat therapeutic part of American culture as people can come for a stroll after work to practice mindfulness and escape from the concrete jungle!
Here are three other reasons why I love State Parks!
Although National Parks take up a greater land mass in the United States at 84 million acres of land. Compared to a state parks 18 million acres of land. There is actually only around 400 national parks compared to over 10,000 state parks in the USA!
Thus, more variety and selection of state parks to choose from each with it’s own character and charm.
2. FREE to Enter!!
Everybody’s favourite word in the dictionary! The majority of state parks are either free entry or less than $5. Whereas parks such as Yellowstone National Park costs $30 per car.
Ok, I admit the National Parks do have some of the most breath taking sights in the world but $30 dollars can be a little steep especially if you wish to go on a regular basis.
National parks do offer an annual pass for all National Parks at just $80 which is pretty reasonable if you visit regularly.
Most state parks are usually always free on certain days of the year like Black Friday or New Years day. State Parks also offer an annual pass which is really cheap in comparison to others.
Lake Tahoe State Park California
3. Less Crowds
As state parks don’t have the “brand appeal” of a Yosemite or Yellowstone National Park, they attract less crowds thus making it great for some convenient get away from it all time!
Many of the Town and Tourist community have repeatedly said they have rarely encountered a busy state park and with over 10,000 across the U.S there are plenty of secret state parks to really get to grips with some adventuring.
15 BEST California State Parks - Custom Map
California State parks network has over 280 units of lush forests, scenic beaches, intriguing gold rush mines, cascading falls and wild deserts!
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15. Anza Borrego Desert State Park
As Californias largest State park, covering 600,000 acres! Anza Borrego State park is a real icon stepped with rich Colonial History. Named after the Spanish Explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who trekked across the desert back in 1774.
The word “Borrego” comes from the Spanish word for sheep the native large horned sheep of the region, which can usually be spotted on the trails close to Palm Canyon.
The landscape of Anza Borrego Desert State Park is full of variety & richness from Cactus ribbed hills to slotted canyons and acres of badlands.
Sunrise at Anza-Borrego-State-Park-Fonts-Point
Even today the Anza Borrego State Park, is natural & wild with very basic roads or footpaths as the only access methods.
Top Tip: Rent a 4x4, with high clearance to give you the best access to the area.
My advice is when you first arrive, head to the parks visitor center (Borrego Springsat), they are really helpful and will give you some insight into the parks history & some fantastic tips on routes.
The great news is the visitors centre is underground, so a cool place to get out of the Californian heat!
Below I have outlined some popular landmarks of the park & some MUST see features to check out!
i. BORREGO BADLANDS & FONT’S POINT
The Borrego Badlands offer the sweetest views at Sunrise and Sunset set, so prepare to be amazed. With millions of years of rivers and waters from the Gulf of California & Colorado River, forming deep ridges wrinkled with history.
This ridges cast majestic shadows across the plains, with sea fossils and the ancient bones of everything from fish to sharks embedded in the sculpted landscape.
A favourite spot to capture a some memorable images of the sunset is Fonts Point. Otherwise known as the “Californias Grand Canyon” .
Beau Rogers | Wikimedia Commons
This is a coveted spot popular with photographers at Sunset & during full moons!
Up to Fonts point you will need a 4 wheel drive, to climb the 4 mile road up. So if you don’t have your own, your best best either renting one or take part in one of the one of the popular Jeep guided tours.
Another great spot on the south side of the badlands is the Carrizo Badlands Overlook, this is a great spot to check out a different perspective.
ii. BORREGO PALM CANYON
Borrego Palm Canyon, is another sweet spot of the Anza Borrego State Park. Here you will find you really great hiking spots, which will lead you to a leafy oasis of California Fan palms & a selection of natural springs.
The hike is not too long around (3 miles/5km) round trip but the experience is like no other, from desert to a more tropical climate as you ascend further. The landscape changes from Cacti to palms in a transformative fashion.
Kent Kanouse | Wikimedia Commons
Top Tip: Keep an eye out for Humming Birds they are popular the root. There are also over 70 species of migratory birds which use palm canyon as a watering stop.
As you walk further you will encounter a series of little waterfalls, surrounding the largest palm grove the Anza Borrego State Park.
Lush wild Palms at Borrego Palm Canyon - Anza Borrego State Park Californi
iii. BORREGO SPRINGS
Borrego Springs is a laid back desert town with a tiny population of just 3,429. As the only Californian town which is surrounded entirely by a state park, you can expect some real naturistic activities going on!
Such as “Red Grapefruit Season” which starts in late December & finishes when all the grapefruit has been eaten!!!
Star Gazing Hot spot:
Borrego Springs is a star gazing hot spot with backyard stargazing activities a regular occurrence. The international Dark Sky community, is based her. The only community in California dedicated to protecting the nights sky from light pollution!
This light pollution vigilantes make it their mission to protect our Skys! They believe giving off light pollution is like throwing trash in nature.
Thus in Borrego Springs the street lights are dimmed and even the local airport has tailored it’s beacon to angle in the downward position.
If you are interested in improving your knowledge of the stars, contact popular astronomer Dennis Mammana of Borrego Night Sky Tours.
There is also an RV resort close by called “Springs at Borrego” which houses a 11” telescope and has public viewings and lectures throughout the year.
As you head downtown expect to see a variety of quirky restaurants, ice cream shops and places to stay. With the local art scene a booming source of popularity due to famous sculptures by Ricardo Breceda.
iv. RICARDO BRECEDA SCULPTURES
As you head down Borrego Springs Road, you will encounter a series of fantastic & Gigantic rust coloured Sculptures from a T Rex Dinosaur to ancient elephants and even a saber tooth tiger!
These creatures are the work of the great artist Ricardo Breceda. Most of his creations represent animals which used to roam the plains of the Anza Borrego State Park.
Whereas some are exaggerated such as a 350 foot long snake which winds its way though the area! Breceda began his work in 2008 after a local philanthropist (Dennis Avery) commissioned him for his desert based property, Galleta Meadows. Since then the stunning sculptures seem to have popped up all over town!
Anza-Borrego State Park Sculptures Tre
Top Tip: To find all of the 130 odd, majestic metal sculptures. Head down to the Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association Book store.
There you will find a detailed GPS map with all the locations!
v. Can I camp at Borrego Springs?
If you wish to camp to Borrego Springs it is completely free! However, you must adhere to four conditions:
1) Your vehicle is not parked greater than one length off the road (You can walk further in to set up your camp spot)
2) You must setup camp at least 100 yards from a water source
3) Ground fires are forbidden but in a metal container is fine.
4) If Camping you must bring your own firewood
5) Leave" No Trace” when you leave.
There is also a variety of camp sites and RV spots in the vicinity.
Vi. Spring Time at Anza Borrego State Park
If here in the Spring be sure to check out, the booming wild flowers which seem like a miracle in the harsh desert climate!
The wildflower bloom contains over 200 species and occurs between February and April. March is usually the best time! As the wildflower bloom only lasts a couple of weeks , the state park has it’s own “Wildflower Hotline” to give you up to date info on the bloom! Number: (760/767-4684)
- Borrego Palm Canyon trail is a popular spot to catch a glimpse of desert lavender & saffron brush.
- Trek to Hellhole Canyon (3 miles) this is a great one with barrel cactus flowering proudly & even the majestic Mainden Hair Falls.
- For 4WD, take the popular Coyote Canyon Trail. Which is at the north end of Di Giorgio Road.
If you’ve got a 4WD, scope out the sand verbena and dune evening primrose along what’s commonly called Coyote Canyon Jeep Trail, a dirt road at the north end of DiGiorgio Road.
Anza Borrego State Park - Wildflowers
Vii. The Slot
The Anza Borrego Slot is a deep ridge which has been sliced down the middle of the rough terrain. Taking a trek through the narrow slot can be a really fun desert adventure.
Top Tip: The Entry to the “SLOT” isn’t marked very well so keep an eye out for the footprints as you descend down.
Viii. Native American Murals
The Native American which once lived in the Anza Borrego Desert were great expressive artists. This can been seen with there ancient designs left on the rocks & ridges. From sun, stars & animal characters you will find a range of expression drawings which will take you back in time.
With over 50 art murals dotted around the Anza Borrego State park, they are findable. However, due to the history & sensitivity the park does not “Officially” inform where all the sites are!
Top Tip: The best way to see the Ancient Mural sites is by taking a “Pictograph Trail” based in Little Blair Valley.
You can take a normal car through the dirt road up to the trail head, then take a pretty easy hike up a eye catching boulder with some fantastic crimson & yellow art murals painted bu the Kumeyaay Native Indians.
Many people dream of just packing up everything & going to live of the land! Getting back to the raw nature and the simple life. Well in the 1930’s that is what a artist & writer named Marshall South decided to do.
He and his wife built a home on top of the Mountain & lived there with there three children for a whopping 17 years! The amount of time they lasted surprised many, as they weren’t’ close to a water source, so collected rainfall used old Native American Techniques.
They had a vegetable patch which they grew food & lived of the land for a very long time. In the end, Souths wife finally gave up on the idea & in 1947 she left, the family split up and all that is left is the ruins of their old home. Which you can visit today! Many say it’s a lasting reminder of mans desire to “Get away from it all” and get back to nature.
14. JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK
Julian Pfeiffer Burns is probably the biggest bang for buck State park in California. After just a short 1/2 mile round trip along Waterfall Overlook trail, you will find a fantastic oceanfront views and jaw dropping views of the cascading McWay Falls. The water falls over 80 feet from the granite peak to the bottom.
Julia P | Wikimedia Common
Another popular trial is PARLINGTON COVE TRAil. This is a steeper 1 mile round trip which takes you over a wooden bridge and descends down into a 60 foot tunnel. As you head through you will come out onto the rock cladded beach.
Top Tip: Sometimes the state park closes some of the trails due to erosion, check with the state park website for up to date info.
Julia P | Wikimedia Commons
13. CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK
A great beach cove with majestic cliffs, deep ocean and a series of emerald pools surrounding it. Crystal cove is 2400 acres of spectacular coastal beauty.
With a series of trails great on foot or mountain bike, Crystal Cove is a real scenic sweetheart. Head along the 3 miles of coastline, to find the great waves perfect if your a surf casting fisherman.
Uknown | Wikimedia Commons
Great spots to eat nearby include "the Beachcomber” where they offer a great tuna burger, wash that down with a shake from Rubys Shake Shack. If you fancy staying overnight there are a series of quaint beach front cottages close by, which are pretty popular.
12. PFEIFFER BIG SUR STATE PARK
Back along the Big Sur, coast you will find Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. At 1000 acres this State reserver is bubbling with scenic beauty from natural rivers to the majestic, shaded Californian redwoods.
Julia P | Wikimedia Commons
This is a great spot to take a hike or bike though the lush greeny & towering Californian Redwoods.
You can also take a dip in the Big Sur river, to cool of from that Californian sun. With a variety of trails there is lot so see, but be aware there is no ocean/beach access from the park.
Unknown | Wikimedia Commons
For Campers & RV's it’s heaven with a variety of trails roads to really get your teeth into. There is a big campground in the park, which is great for everyone from hikers to bikers and of course RV’s.
Top Tip: Book you camp spot well in advance as they can sometimes fill up, 6 months in advance! As an alternative there are some cottages at the Big Sur Lodge.
Other great highlights here include the Santa Lucia Mountains which theatrically ascend from the Big Sur River Gorge.
Keep your eyes open, as you head along the Big Sur River Gorge banks, it is popular with a variety of wildlife from harmless wild turkeys to deers, raccoons, skunks and more dangerous bobcats!
11. EMERALD BAY STATE PARK
Lake Tahoe is a real picturesque bay, in the word of Mark Twain “the fairest picture the whole earth affords”. With it’s rich blue clarity, this lake is a perfect place to explore by boat or on foot. The small Fannette island in the centre, adds a certain charm to the bay and is home to the ruins of stone built teahouse.
Emerald State Park
The teahouse and nearby castle are of Scandinavian influence and built Lora Knight. A remarkable woman who married into riches & used them to help younger people whom were less fortunate.
There are some great tours of the 9th Century Castle, offered daily from the end of may up until Labor Day.
Rubicon Trail is a popular trail which follows the lake from DL Bliss state park around 4 miles to the south side of the bay. Another great hike is from Emerald Bay up to the Icy cascades of Eagle Falls offering a spectacular view of Emerald Bay & Lake Tahoe.
There are a few cruises nearby such as the Tahoe Queen Paddle wheeler which visit the Emerald Bay. If your after something really special there is a private yacht cruise available from Lake Tahoe Boat rides.
10. LIMEKILN STATE PARK
Another fantastic stop on Pacific coast highway 1. Check out the historic coastal hiking trails surrounded by an army of towering Redwoods.
Just two miles to the south of Lucia, Big Sur Park is a great spot for swimming such as down by Limekiln Creek or at the beach. With an abundance of marine life a popular attraction.
History of Limekiln State Park:
As you may have guessed from the name Limekiln state park was once the location of an industrious limekiln setup in the 1880s. The Limestone was extracted from the slopes then fed into gigantic kilns which powered by redwoods had huge fires which roared to extracted the pure lime. This was then used in cement for the construction in buildings from San Francisco to Monterey.
Pamela Link | Wikimedia Commons
These days you can visit the old lime kiln ruins, the big four are striking moments which are a reminder of a bygone era.
Limekiln State Park is a popular spots for camping with 29 campsites scattered between the beach front, creek and forest. Spots can be reserved up to 6 months ahead of time.
Warning: RV camping is not suitable, no hook ups etc.
9. GROVER HOT SPRINGS STATE PARK
You may think hiking through state parks take it’s toll on your body but not at Grover Hot Springs State Park! These are equip with the most wonderful warm natural mineral pools! Which are a great place to take swim or relax.
Located approximately one hours drive south of Lake Tahoe, the natural pools are geo thermally warmed from the earth. They are fed from Six different springs which have low quantities of sulphur so you avoid that horrible “Rotten egg” smell of many natural hot springs.
Ken Lund | Wikimedia Commons
The water actually bursts out an intense (148’F/64’C), then it is piped safely through the parks concrete pools. One is for relaxing at a safe & comfortable 103’F/39’C, while the other is slightly cooler and better for swimming.
The hot springs are a great place to take a dip after sampling the vast selection of hiking trails & many people swear by the waters natural restorative properties. There is a great waterfall you have to see, along hot springs creek.
For camping you won’t be disappointed either with a large number of camp sites dotted around the area.
The perfect place to unwind at Grover Hot Springs
8. PRAIRIE CREEK REDWOODS STATE PARK
Welcome to gigantic Land! With whopping Redwoods, humongeous elks and 14,000 acres of rainforest style ferns shadow over lush and moss ridden trails. When I was there it really reminded of a set scene from Jurassic park…I was just expected a T rex to come strolling between the redwoods.
Sarah Morris | Wikimedia Commons
A great hike is along the 3.2 mile Prairie Creek/Catherdral Tree circle. Start at the Prairie Creek visitors centre to get some tips before taking a walk into another world.
Another great trail nearby is Trillium Falls Trail a 2..5 mile/4km loop through the shadowing redwoods.
Keep your eyes peeled as you head over to Elk Prairie where you can catch a Glimpse of Californias LARGEST LAND ANIMALS! The ROOSEVELT ELK! These beasts can weigh up to 1,100 pounds, although they seem chilled best to give the big guys some space!! I got a few angry looks while there.
Davey Nin | Wikimedia Commons
When your legs get tired, take a drive through the Newton Drury Scenic Parkway. This is a 10 mile stretch of paved roads and the scenic option compared to Highway 101. From there pull over and take a stroll the “Big tree” to watch the Elk herds.
If your looking for a more exciting drive, take Davison Road to Gold Bluffs Beach. The 10 mile long stretch which back in the 1850s many used to scour for gold dust in the sand.
7. BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK
As Californias OLDEST STATE PARK! Big Basin Redwoods is a real Mecca of ancient redwoods and the emerald star of the Santa Cruz Mountains. 80 miles of trails wind through the redwoods and lush groves, making it a popular scenic getaway for Silicon Valleys Egg heads.
With a variety of clear water streams, there is much fun to be had!
Fun Fact: Many Northern Californians have a test where you must kiss a “Banana Slug”….a humorous experience which definitely will add some notches to your belt. Ask a Northern Californian about it, let us know their stories in the comments below!
CArballo | Wikimedia Commons
Camping at Big Basin State Park:
Big Basin Redwoods State park has a variety of campsites with 38 walk ins. They are a great place to “get away from it all” .
There are a variety of trails at Big Basin State park, suitable for hiking, biking & even horse riding!
Skyline to Sea Trail (10.5m/17km)
Popular trails include the SKYLINE TO SEA TRAIL a 10.5 mile/17km trek which runs from Waddell Creek to the Ocean.
Sequoia Loop Trail
This is a scenic trail with the little waterfall, making a nice place for a photo.
Redwood Loop Trail (1km)
This route will take you through the most gigantic redwoods at the state park, a must see for anyone.
Top Tip: Collect maps & secret spot tips from rangers at the visitors centre.
6. SALT POINT STATE PARK
A great fusion between the land and sea, Salt Point State Park offers 6000 acres of wave carved cliffs & headlands stretching along the Sonoma Coast, 95 miles north of San Francisco.
The offshore waters are bubbling with a spectrum of wildlife and are even protected as the Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area. One of Californias first underwater parks.
A real “instragrammable” spot, it is a great reasons to pull over. With 20 miles of creative trails you can spot everything from honeycombed sandstone to the pygmy forest. Fish Mill Cove is a popular spot for the dangerous abalone diving or chasing the sea snail and watching the seals having fun below.
Camping at Salt Point State Park:
Salt Point State Park has two distinct camp areas. Which are both great for first time family campers. Gerstle Cove Campground on the ocean side of the highway has fantastic sea views while Woodside Campground offers more cover during windy days.
5. MONO LAKE TUFA STATE Park
MARS? Or California?
The wacky & striking rock formations which seem to rise out of the ground are unbelievable symbols of Mono Lake Tufa State Park. At the Tufta state National reserve you will come across a salty lake surrounded by these strange formations. Located on the east of Sierra the tufa towers are ancient remnants of the million year old lake.
Despite the desolate surroundings there are actually over a million sea birds which surround the area and make the rocks their home!
Trails at Mono Lake Tufa State Park
There are a variety of trails which are around the area, from ones near the Lee Vining Creek area where you check out the Cinder cones. To South Tufa Area, where you can catch a glimpse of the calcium carbonate spikes.
Fun Fact: The Calcium Spikes are created by the interaction between the freshwater springs and the uber salty water of the lake (2 and half times saltier than that of the Ocean!
To find out about the history of the Mono Basin & environmental challenges of the area, head over to the state parks interpretive center (located just of U.S 395 north Lee vining & Tioga Pass)
GOLD RUSH STATE PARKS:
4. EMPIRE MINE STATE HISTORIC PARK
The Gold Rush is one of the most historic events of California. At empire mine state historic park, you can really take a trip back in time by taking a tour of the famous gold rush mansion then head underground to the mine.
Located in GRASS VALLEY, 60 miles north east of Sacramento. I suggest first checking out the visitor centre where you can learn the history of one of Californias oldest & largest gold mines where 159,000kg of gold were minded over a century! With an underground labyrinth of over 367 miles of tunnels!
Afterwards, check out the flip side by heading up to famous Mansion where William Bowers Bourn Jr resided, who managed the Mine. The actual name of this vast country estate is “Bourn Cottage”….a humble name for such an extravagent estate.
Top Tip: Its best to take a couple of tours to really understand the history. Such as the Mine Yard Tour and Cottage Grounds Tour two really opposite perspectives of what went on at the Empire Mine State park.
3. COLUMBIA STATE HISTORIC PARK
Another gem of the Gold rush era, Columbia State Historic park will send you back to the 1850’s with it’s many treasured artefacts and Costumed Characters roaming the grounds. The people who work there are really immersed into Characters of Gold Rush members of the town. They even live there for the most part and many jokes have been made about how they NEVER break character! With cars banned & just horses around. Hell, it reminded me of the AMISH!
Check out this great Article on the Amish for more. “Are the Amish Taking over America?? - Culture Guide/Population Boom!"
Unknown | Wikimedia Commons
Although comical this Is a great way to really get a feel for the Gold Rush era. Hop on stagecoach or even check out the local blacksmith hitting some hot coals!
Top Tip: Summer is sweltering and weekends can be very crowded so try to get there for early in the morning or even in the week.
FREE history tours depart daily till from 11AM. With Quirky Gold Rush Days starting on 2nd Saturday afternoons, with characters, arts, crafts and gold panning for kids.
2. MARSHALL GOLD DISCOVERY Park
It would be a GOLD RUSH extravaganza, without taking a trip to where the Gold Rush first began. As I drove down the chilled Highway 49 between Auburn & Placerville, I really found it hard to believe that this was the heart of one of the most iconic events in Californias History!
It was here that a saw mill Employee named James Marshall first saw the first sparkles of gold in 1849. From that point the boom began! With the nearby town of Coloma growing to 10,000 peoples and buildings popping up all over.
Stacey Lynn | Wikimedia Commons
Top Tip: Gold Discovery Museum is a great place where kids can have a go at gold panning.
1. HEARST CASTLE
Hearst castle is vastly different to the many other Mansions dotted all over California. This one is not celebrity owned but still just as lavish. Designed by Californias first female Architect (Julia Morgan) to be the private home of a publishing business man William Randolph Hearst it is a true symbol of 1940’s uber luxury & excess.
With 165 rooms, and 127 acres of gardens, fountains and luxurious pools its a truly fantastic spot, with so much to see and do.
ChevyChaser256 | Wikimedia Commons
I suggest taking a Grand Rooms Tour, to really get a feel for the place. Check out the social room previously graced by movie stars and notable members of society. Observe the pure silver candle sticks and luxury feel to the venue…some say it reminds them of the Great Gatsby.
GARDENS AT HEARST CASTLE
Head outside to Labyrinth of extravagant, royal gardens with beautiful wild flowers surrounding the lavish routes & pathways.
Top Tip: Ask the tour guides some secrets about the gardens history, they may even tell you the secret spots big Hollywood stars used to rendezvous.
POOLS AT HEARST CASTLE
Another fantastic highlight of the tours is the opulent pools Neptune and Nereid which have a old school oil burning system to heat up the waters. Surrounded by studded blue & gold tiles and a series of marble sculptures they are truly lavish spots.
Wonderful Architecture at Hearst
HEARST RANCH WINERY
When you get thirsty head down to the Ranch Winery & tasting room! This is a luxurious and lavish spot inside a 1852 store in San Simeon.
GUEST COTTAGES AT HEARST CASTLE
The Cottages surrounding the castle were guest residences for many famous world leaders such as Winston Churchill. Opulent interior throughout the ceiling of Casa del Monte is hand painted with 22-carat gold leaf highlights.
Top Tip: There are some special evening tours to Casa Del Monte which really take you back to the 1930s in an exquisite fashion. The docents are all dressed appropriately & there is a great Gatsby vibe to the building.
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