The Best California State Parks For Every Interest

The Best California State Parks For Every Interest

By Rachael Medina
August 13, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe. 

If you’re trying to find the best state parks in California but don’t know where to start, we’ve found the answers to all of your questions. With everything from dazzling teal waters to awe-inspiring arid deserts, the Golden State has something to satisfy every interest. So, gather up your favorite outdoor gear and get ready to take on your next adventure at one (or all) of the top state parks.

California's Best State Parks to Visit Now

There’s never a bad time to see the great outdoors, but with many of us realizing the beauty of wide-open spaces, the freedom of fresh air, and the healing powers of nature, now’s the perfect time to plan trips to some of the best California state parks

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The Golden State's Best Desert State Parks

The Golden State’s desert state parks feature vibrant flowers, towering rock formations, and Joshua trees, highlighting a unique California landscape that’s often forgotten. While there are so many interesting things to do in the state’s deserts, these parks ought to make your to-do list. 

The sprawling fields of Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve transform into a tapestry of colors in the spring.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve


Location:
15101 Lancaster Road, Lancaster

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

Fees: $10 per day per vehicle

Dogs allowed: No

I may be biased because I visited this spot every year growing up, but this is the most beautiful desert state park around. The sprawling fields come alive between March and May, when the landscape is blanketed with the brightest orange poppies you’ve ever seen. The oranges and greens stand in stark contrast to the tan colors and tumbleweeds that typically come to mind when imagining this area—which is perhaps half the reason this scene is so delightful. 

Spend an afternoon wandering around the grounds, taking care to stay on the extensive trails to preserve the flowers for the other visitors. With an impressive eight miles of pathways to explore at this state park, it’s easy to get lost in thought as you pass through the surreal environs that are more reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz than of Los Angeles County. As you wander, keep an eye out for the local wildlife, including lizards, gopher snakes, coyotes, bobcats, meadowlarks, kangaroo rats, scorpions, and beetles.

Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park is home to numerous groves of Joshua trees. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park


Location:
205th Street West, Lancaster

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

Fees: Free

Dogs allowed: Yes, dogs are allowed in the picnic area but not on the trails.

Located just a few miles away from Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park showcases the desert features you might expect—namely an abundance of Joshua trees complemented by dry dirt trails, blue sage, California buckwheat, and golden bush. This park is relatively new to the Golden State, having been donated in 1988 by the park’s namesake, Arthur "Archie" Ripley. While Joshua trees and junipers were once prevalent throughout the Antelope Valley, many of the woodland communities have been destroyed as the region has become more populated, so this a must-see state park. 

As you wander around the quarter-mile Ripley Nature Trail or the mile-long Rare Juniper Trail, soak in the beauty of your surroundings and look out for colorful wildflowers along the way. The Joshua trees—which are actually members of the agave family but not related to trees—even produce their own blooms in the springtime, making it an ideal time to visit. 

With scenic desert cliffs and spectacular rock formations, Red Rock Canyon State Park is a sight to behold. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

Red Rock Canyon State Park


Location:
37749 Abbott Drive, Cantil

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

Fees: Parking is available for $6 per vehicle per day; camping costs $25 per night per site and includes parking for one vehicle.

Dogs allowed: Yes, dogs are allowed in the campgrounds and picnic areas but not on the trails.

Nestled between the Angeles and Sequoia National Forests, Red Rock Canyon State Park offers sights you might expect to see in Arizona or Utah rather than in our own backyard. Complete with towering rock formations, desert cliffs, canyons, and badlands, this locale is a stunner. 

Hike around the sunny grounds to take in all the vistas. If you’re lucky, you might even get to spot a local roadrunner, hawk, or family of squirrels during your visit. Since it’s a desert landscape, however, it’s important to come prepared; pack at least double the amount of water you think you’ll need, wear sunscreen and a hat, and dress in layers to accommodate the quickly changing climatic conditions. 

The wild, striking landscape of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park features vibrant wildflowers, slot canyons, and cactus-studded slopes.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


Location:
200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

Fees: Parking is available for $10 per vehicle per day; camping costs $25 per night per site or $100 per group site.

Dogs allowed: Yes, dogs are allowed in the park’s campgrounds, on official park roads, and on the Visitor Center Trail.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the most underrated state parks and the largest state-run park in the contiguous United States, making it an absolute must-see. The park boasts 600,000 acres of land—including 500 miles of dirt roads spread across 12 wilderness areas—that feature palm groves and wildflowers, despite the expectation of a barren region.

Spend your days meandering around the park by foot, via bike, or on horseback to take advantage of the impressive viewpoints and remarkable natural wonders. Then, pitch a tent under the stars to understand everything that makes this spot among the best state parks in Southern California.

The Best Mountain State Parks

Home to over a dozen mountainous regions and ranges, the Golden State is unsurprisingly stuffed with state parks perched at high elevations. Whether you’re looking for an overnight stay in one of the best state parks for camping or are searching for the perfect daytime destination, these spots fit the bill.

From the 3,849-foot summit of Mount Diablo, you can see nearly 200 miles in every direction on clear days. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

Mount Diablo State Park


Location:
1300 North Gate Road, Walnut Creek

Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset

Fees: $10 per vehicle per day

Dogs allowed: Yes, dogs are allowed on paved roads, in campgrounds, and in the developed areas of the park. However, they aren’t permitted on trails, fire roads, or inside buildings.

Situated in the East Bay Area, Mount Diablo State Park is a local favorite and a hidden gem for out-of-towners. From hiking and biking to horseback riding and camping, this state park has it all. Plus, Mount Diablo is located just miles from a plethora of quaint suburbs and shopping districts, should you wish to escape the natural world for a bit. But with so much to see here—including cougars, coyotes, skunks, badgers, black-tailed deer, and bats—you’ll likely never want to leave. 

Spend the day trekking up to the summit to take in the incredible vistas and have a picnic before heading back to check out Rock City off South Gate Road. Even if you take it easy with a short hike, it’s nearly impossible not to fall for the sites at this park.

Mount San Jacinto State Park houses the second-highest peak in California. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

Mount San Jacinto State Park


Location:
25905 Highway 243, Idyllwild

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Fees: Day-use permits are free of charge; day-use campsites are $10; tent campsites are available for $25 per night; wilderness camping permits are available for $5 per person.

Dogs allowed: Yes, dogs are allowed at the Idyllwild and Stone Creek campgrounds, but not in the wilderness.

Mount San Jacinto State Park is located south of Big Bear and west of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The park is nestled at a high elevation and is home to a variety of plant species, but with the altitude comes a short growing season. Due to the fragile nature of the environment, this park has begun using a wilderness permit system that limits the number of visitors at any given time. 

This unique destination consists of subalpine forests, streams, fields of wildflowers, and granite crags that will take your breath away as you explore the park’s 14,000 acres. Venture out on the hiking or equestrian trails; spend a few days connecting with nature in the untamed wilderness; enjoy a picnic overlooking the desert; and hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to get to know the landscape even better

 

California's Best Coastal State Parks

With a seemingly endless coastline, the Golden State has some of the best coastal state parks in the country. Featuring stunning vistas of the teal waters and sunny shorelines, these are the undeniably Californian parks you won’t want to miss.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is most famous for its McWay Falls, which cascades over an 80-foot cliff into the Pacific Ocean.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park 


Location:
52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur

Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset

Fees: Free

Dogs allowed: No

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most popular coastal parks to photograph in California—and with a gorgeous 80-foot waterfall cascading into the Pacific Ocean, it’s easy to see why. Unlike most of the Golden State’s parks, this spot can make for a quick trip on your Big Sur weekend adventure, so there’s hardly any excuse not to stop by. 

Gaze at the tanoak trees, chaparral, and redwoods when you’re not captivated by the falls, and take a moment to breathe in the ocean breeze before carrying on with your Pacific Coast Highway road trip.

Mendocino Headlands State Park provides a unique blend of rugged coastline, easygoing trails, pristine beaches, and timeless history.

Mendocino Headlands State Park


Location:
Heeser Drive, Mendocino

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

Fees: Free

Dogs allowed: Yes

Tucked along the Pacific Coast, west of Mendocino National Forest, this state park is easily one of the most beautiful locales to spend a day. Featuring beaches with crashing waves, meandering pathways, spectacular views, and adrenaline-inducing cliffsides, Mendocino Headlands State Park has earned its reputation as the best state park in Northern California

Spend the afternoon learning about the town’s history, soaking in the sight of wildflowers, and searching for gray whales (or just relax on the sands for an incredible experience). Take it up a notch by surfing the waves at this underrated California surf spot or by going fishing—you really can’t go wrong.


Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…

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