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The Most Underrated California State Parks: Ranked

The Most Underrated California State Parks: Ranked

Whether you are on a road trip or are looking for your next weekend adventure, you need to visit these five California state parks.


3 min read

March 17, 2024

Though the Golden State’s national parks tend to garner all the attention, there are nearly 300 state parks scattered throughout California, covering everything from mountains and forests to beaches and deserts. Stunning vistas, refreshing air, and endless possibilities await around every turn in California, thanks to the numerous state parks. 

The California State Parks to Visit Next

While all California state parks are worth seeing, there are a few that stand above the rest and don’t get the recognition they deserve. Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park have all certainly earned their popularity, but it’s time for other state parks to step into the spotlight. Whether you are on a Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) road trip or are looking for your next weekend adventure, these are the California state parks you need to add to your itinerary.

The striking Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest California state park, encompassing roughly 600,000 acres.

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza–Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest state park. Located just two hours from Palm Springs, Riverside, and San Diego, this desert oasis on the eastern edge of San Diego County is easily accessible. Explore a dozen wilderness areas and 500 miles of dirt roads to see the park’s wildflowers, palm groves, and rugged landscape. Look out for the Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers who pass through this state park on their way from Mexico to Canada. Also keep your eyes peeled for roadrunners, bighorn sheep, and golden eagles before the sun goes down. Then, check out the awe-inspiring stargazing at this International Dark Sky Park.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is best known for its stunning McWay Falls, an 80-foot-high waterfall that flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Home to the famous McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a popular spot for photographers but is an underrated road trip stop on the Big Sur coast. Settled along Highway 1, about 37 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, this state park offers a little bit of everything. But the main draw is the stunning 80-foot waterfall cascading down the tall granite cliffside and falling into the ocean, as towering redwood and tan oak trees dot the surrounding hillsides. Walk along the Overlook Trail for the best view; just remember to stay on the trail.

Nestled on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Grover Hot Springs State Park offers natural springs amid lush pine forest.

Grover Hot Springs State Park

Situated south of Lake Tahoe and four miles west of Markleeville, Grover Hot Springs State Park is the epitome of mountain escapes. Complete with alpine meadows, pine forests, jagged peaks, and hot mineral pools, this state park is almost too good to believe. Plan a weekend of camping, hiking, picnicking in one of California’s most scenic destinations, and soaking in the pools to take advantage of the lush environs.

Featuring 1.5 miles of pristine shoreline and bright blue waters, Leo Carrillo State Park is a prime spot for surfing, swimming, and kayaking.

Leo Carrillo State Park

Nestled along the PCH, northwest of Santa Monica, Leo Carrillo State Park is a local favorite that’s left undiscovered by many tourists. Along with stunning tidepools, beachside caves, and reefs, the mile-and-a-half stretch of coastline is an ideal spot for swimming and surfing in Southern California

With ample scenic hiking trails through undulating hills, the East Bay's Mount Diablo State Park should not be missed.

Mount Diablo State Park

Accessible through five quaint cities in the East Bay—Walnut Creek, Danville, Clayton, Concord, and Alamo—Mount Diablo State Park offers unparalleled vistas. On a clear day, you can see 40 of California’s 58 counties across 8,539 square miles; it’s the best vantage point in the entire state. Make the most of your visit and pack a picnic, plan a hike, or head to the Juniper Campground for views of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Which California state park is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.

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