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

California state parks include a broad range of climates, elevations, sizes, and activities. Anza-Borrego is the lowest, hottest and driest state park in the state and Mount San Jacinto is the coldest.

From the top of Mount Diablo, you can see more of the earth's surface than any other place in the world, except Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro. Other California state parks preserve historic spots and rare creatures. Among the other 270-plus parks, there's bound to be something for almost anyone.

Most California state parks charge a day use fee for parking, but if you walk or bicycle in there's no charge. If you plan to visit frequently, you can buy an annual pass, but OHV 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: One of the state's earliest European settlements is popular for dining, shopping, and historical tours.

Hearst Castle: The most popular of all California state parks gives a fascinating look into what happens when one of the world's richest men decides to build "a little something."

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

State Railroad Museum: Everyone loves trains, and they've got plenty of 'em.

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: Actually a series of rugged beaches that boast some of the state's most beautiful coastal scenery.

Huntington Beach, Orange County: One of two locations that vie for honors as the cradle of surfing

Bolsa Chica, Orange County: A birdwatchers' paradise.

Seacliff, 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, San Diego County: This place is about as isolated as you can get along the coast between LA and San Diego, with lots of wide, sandy stretches.

Doheny, Orange County: Good for camping as well as beach play, with volleyball courts, surf fishing and picnic facilities.

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

Cardiff, San Diego: Some call it 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 in the middle of California Gold Country near the town or Sonora. In the state park, you can pan for gold, ride a stagecoach, get a drink in the saloon or stay in the hotel.
  • Fort Ross: Fort Ross is the southernmost Russian settlement in North America, situated on the coast in Sonoma County.
  • La Purisima Mission: Visit one of the best-preserved missions from the Spanish era, located north of Santa Barbara near the town of Lompoc.
  • San Juan Bautista: Things to see include an intact 19th-century town square and a well-preserved mission.

California State Parks for Camping

Snagging a camping spot in many California state parks requires almost superhuman organization and planning.

These California state parks are some of the best places to camp in the country, according to a visitor survey conducted by Reserve America.

  • Angel Island, San Francisco: The few camping spots on Angel Island offer panoramic San Francisco Bay views.
  • Humboldt Redwoods: In the old growth redwoods of the north.
  • Lake Oroville: On the shores of a large, human-made lake with lots of things to do.
  • San Luis Reservoir: A large lake surrounded by grassy hills, excellent for boating, sailboarding, and fishing.