California State Parks

Guide to California State Parks and Campgrounds

Milky Way over Anza-Borrego State Park
slworking2 at Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

If you're looking for the best California state park to visit, you have plenty of places to choose from. Among the other 270-plus parks, there's bound to be something for almost anyone

You could go to Anza-Borrego, the lowest, hottest and driest state park in the state or bundle up and visit Mount San Jacinto which is the coldest.

You can't beat the views from the top of Mount Diablo, where you can see more of the earth's surface than any other place in the world, except Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro. In other California state parks, you can see where history happened or get a look at rare creatures.

This guide rounds up some of the best, most fun and unique California state parks for you to visit.

Most California state parks charge a day use fee for parking, but you can walk or bicycle in for free. If you plan to visit frequently, you can buy an annual pass, but know that Off-Highway Vehicle parks and several other locations will not accept them, so think about where you'll be going before you buy one.

California's Most Popular State Parks

Old Town San Diego is the place to go for history. It preserves of the state's earliest European settlements. It's also is popular for dining and shopping.

Hearst Castle is the most popular of all California state parks. Tour of William Randolph Hearst's former home give a fascinating look into what happens when one of the world's richest men decides to build "a little something."

Marshall Gold Discovery Park is the site of the first gold discovery. It gets lots of visitors, but these days you'll find more school kids there than there were prospectors back in the day.

At the State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, you can see lots of antique trains and explore how they shaped the history of California.

California's Busiest State Park Beaches

According to the California State Parks department, these beaches are the most-visited in the state:

Sonoma Coast State Beach is actually a series of dramatic, rugged beaches that boast some of the state's most beautiful coastal scenery.

Huntington State Beach in Orange County is well known for surfing, but the beachside trail is good for bicycling, skating or just walking. You can also take a walk on the pier. People also play volleyball on the beach, and it's a good place to fly a kite.

Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County has 1.5 miles of shoreline and a 350-acre marine estuary. It's also a major stopover for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Top to that off, it's one of the best places to surf on the Orange County coast, especially for beginning surfers.

Seacliff State Beach near Santa Cruz: The sunken cement ship off the end of the fishing pier is fascinating, and there's a snack bar in case you get hungry.

San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County is about as isolated as you can get along the coast between LA and San Diego, with lots of wide, sandy stretches.

Doheny State Beach, Orange County is good for camping as well as beach play, with volleyball courts, surf, fishing, and picnic facilities.

Oceano Dunes in Pismo Beach is the only beach in the state parks system that you can drive your car on. It's also popular for off-roading in the sand dunes.

Cardiff State Beach, San Diego is sometimes called the Riviera of the West, with gently sloping sand and warm water.

Explore Fascinating History at California State Parks

California state parks include some of the state's most historic and fascinating places. 

Bodie Ghost Town: The mother lode of ghost towns is in eastern California. What makes it so unique is how many buildings are still standing, kept in a state of "arrested decay."

Columbia Gold Rush Town: Columbia is in the middle of California Gold Country near the town of Sonora. In the state park, you can pan for gold, ride a stagecoach, get a drink in the saloon, or stay in the hotel.

La Purisima Mission is one of the best-preserved missions from the Spanish era, located north of Santa Barbara near the town of Lompoc.

San Juan Bautista The state park includes an intact 19th-century town square and a well-preserved mission.

Best California State Parks for Camping

Before you get all excited and start packing up the tent, you need to know that nagging a camping spot in many California state parks requires almost superhuman organization and planning. The system is complicated, and you will need to use all of the tips in the guide to making state park reservations to get the one you want.

All of the parks listed below are highly rated by people who have stayed in them.

Northern California state parks offer some of the places to camp in the states. Try Jedediah Smith Redwoods for super-clean campsites and a drive on the scenic Howland Hill Road. Go to Prairie Creek Redwoods to watch Roosevelt elk graze and mate in the meadows, camp on the beach or take a hike through a fern-filled canyon that looks like a scene straight out of "Jurrasic Park" (because it is). Or cruse between trees as tall as 15-story buildings before you camp under the tallest redwood trees at Humboldt Redwoods.

Elsewhere in Northern California, McArthur Burney Falls State Park north of Redding is near the waterfalls that President Teddy Roosevelt once described as the “eighth wonder of the world.” At the coast, take in the natural beauty at Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino.

In the San Francisco Bay area, you can pitch your tent among the big trees at Big Basin Redwoods near Santa Cruz or on top of Mount Tamalpais where you can enjoy views of the Farallon Islands, the Marin County hills, the San Francisco Bay, and Mount Diablo. 

In the Sierra foothills, you can set up camp among a different kind of redwood tree, the giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Near Lake Tahoe, try Emerald Bay State Park which also has a boat-in campground.

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