California has some of the most epic National Parks out there. But did you know it is also home to hundreds of beautiful state parks, each offering a unique blend of natural beauty, outdoor adventures, and cultural experiences? Add these 12 best California state parks to your travel bucket list to explore some magnificent landscapes!
And because I work up an appetite hiking and exploring nature, I’ve also included hand-picked recommendations for yummy local cuisines after your outdoor adventures. So pack your bags, bring your appetite, and get ready for an unforgettable journey through the Golden State!
1. Julia Pfeiffer Burns
- Best Time to Visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns: Spring, summer or fall – rainy winter days can cloud the impressive views!
- Things to Do: Hiking, nature viewing, birdwatching
- Hotels near Julia Pfeiffer Burns: There are some incredible (splurge-worthy) hotels in the area. Big Sur River Inn is on the affordable end of the spectrum. Rustic rooms and suites include patios or porches with scenic views. There’s a restaurant onsite serving three meals a day, a general store that offers pizzas and burritos, and a communal riverside deck for appreciating nature. A stay here puts you 6 miles from Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (not the same as this one!) has camping if you need a cheap place to stay in Big Sur.
- Best Restaurants Near Julia Pfeiffer Burns: Nepenthe is famous for a reason – this cliffside restaurant has yummy veggie burgers and epic ocean views of the Big Sur coastline. It’s a quintessential Northern California favorite. Slightly north of the park, the Big Sur Bakery is another great choice. They’re open all day and the pastries are delicious.
2. Jack London State Historic Park
- Best Time to Visit Jack London State Historic Park: Spring and fall for ideal weather good hiking, winter for fewer crowds
- Things to Do: Hiking, nature viewing, historic and cultural activities
- Hotels near Jack London State Historic Park: The LGBTQ-friendly Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is a splurge-worthy hotel noted for its sustainability commitment and amazing food.
- Best Restaurants Near Jack London State Historic Park: In nearby Glen Ellen, veg-friendly Taste of the Himalayas has incredible Himalayan food and outdoor patio seating. Their tandoori chicken is the best I’ve ever had! Or bring your own picnic supplies and picnic on the grounds.
Jack London State Historic Park offers a captivating glimpse into the life of American writer Jack London and his equally-adventurous wife Charmian London. Head to the House of Happy Walls Museum to learn more about the author best known for adventure stories like Call of the Wild and White Fang. The Londons seemed to have an egalitarian and mutually happy relationship, trekking off on a South Seas sailing adventure Charmian chronicled.
Walk around the ruins of the London home, which tragically burned in a fire.
Then explore Beauty Ranch, London’s farm. While London is better known as a writer, he devoted most of his time to farming. If he were alive today, he would no doubt be practicing regenerative farming.
The trails at Jack London State Historic Park are mostly level with slight elevation change. The park’s trails, wild landscapes, and historic buildings transport you to a different time, offering a unique blend of literary history and stunning nature. I wasn’t a Jack London fan when I went to the park, but I left with a better appreciation for the American writer.
3. Sonoma Coast State Park
- Best Time to Visit Sonoma Coast State Park: March and April for whale migration; spring or fall for hikes
- Things to Do: Hiking, horseback riding, camping, whale watching, nature viewing
- Hotels near Sonoma Coast State Park: Camp on the beach at Bodega Dunes or Wright’s Bar campgrounds. Reservations open 6 months in advance. Most hotels along the coast are going to be pricey. Bodega Harbor Inn offers cute vacation cottages with kitchenettes.
- Best Restaurants Near Sonoma Coast State Park: Cafe Aquatica in Jenner offers laid-back coffee drinks and plant-based food with outdoor seating and views to die for.
Stretching across 55 miles of rugged Sonoma County coastline, Sonoma Coast State Park is a can’t miss favorite for nature lovers.
Hikes meander the coastal bluffs, crossing grasslands and small hills before leading down to the rocky beaches, where you can hunt for shells and sea glass. It tends to get pretty windy on the hills so bring an extra layer – you’ll be glad to have it!
The dramatic cliffs, unique rock formations, and ever-changing coastal weather make Sonoma Coast State Park a paradise for photographers. It’s an excellent place to capture the natural beauty of Northern California – bonus points if you time your visit with the spring gray whale migration and happen to catch views of whales heading from Baja California north to their Arctic feeding grounds.
If you’re not lucky enough to see whales, you can still look off the coast of Bodega Head for California sea lions and northern elephant seals. Bring binoculars or a zoom lens and scan the rocks for animals!
4. Morro Bay State Park
- Best Time to Visit Morro Bay State Park: Year round
- Things to Do: Hiking, camping, nature viewing
- Hotels near Morro Bay State Park: Many people visit Morro Bay as part of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip or a day trip from San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara. But if you want to stay the night, the Inn at Morro Bay has renovated rooms with sea views. Morro Bay State Park offers camping for RVs and tents if you prefer a cheaper option.
- Best Restaurants Near Morro Bay State Park: Be sure to try some seafood at the Great American Fish Company or the Harbor Hut where you can sit outside and watch the sea otters float by as you eat.
Morro Bay State Park is found in Morro Bay, California. The area features a prominent rock on a beach in the bay, aptly named Morro Rock. You can find the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History inside the state park. Another attraction here is the Morro Bay Harbor. It is common to seals, sea lions, and sea otters off of the T-shaped piers in the harbor.
Contribution by Taylor at Taytrum Travels
5. Castle Crags State Park
- Best Time to Visit Castle Crags State Park: Summer and fall offer the best weather for hiking
- Things to Do: Hiking
- Hotels near Castle Crags State Park: Stay in the nearby town of Mount Shasta, which offers a variety of accommodations to stay in. Strawberry Valley Inn offers historic rooms and perks, like a free glass of wine each afternoon. The McCloud Hotel is a Mt. Shasta bed and breakfast that dishes up a hearty feast every morning.
- Best Restaurants Near Castle Crags State Park: Mount Shasta Brewing Company crafts up its very own delicious beer and stick-to-your-ribs pub food, perfect for refueling after a long trek. Alternatively, the Garden Tap offers wood-fired pizzas in a beautiful garden slash plant shop setting.
Castle Crags State Park, located in the teeny town of Castella in Northern California, is one of the state’s best hidden gems. The park is so-named due to its crags, which are 6,000-foot tall spires and domes that were carved out of massive glaciers 12,000 years ago.
The best time to visit the park is in the early summertime or fall, when the high elevation trails are snow- and ice-free and the temperature is warm, but not oppressively hot.
During this time, be sure to explore the challenging Castle Dome Trail, the only hike in the park that will actually take you up to the jaw-dropping crags themselves. For something a bit easier, the Vista Point Overlook is a short trail that leads to incredible views of Mount Shasta and the crags.
6. Emerald Bay State Park
- Best time of the year to visit Emerald Bay State Park: Spring and Summer
- Things to Do: Hiking, boating, and camping
- Hotels near Emerald Bay State Park: Hilton Vacation Club Lake Tahoe Resort
- Best Restaurants Near Emerald Bay State Park: Bert’s Cafe and Scusa Italian Ristorante
Tucked away on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe is the gorgeous scenic park of Emerald Bay State Park. Getting its name from the emerald and turquoise green water of Emerald Bay, the park boasts incredible views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
While Lake Tahoe is a year-round destination, with many people making their way to Tahoe in the winter for many activities, including skiing, Emerald Bay State Park is best enjoyed during the warmer months. During spring and summer, adventurers can enjoy scenic hiking trails through the park where they will encounter wildlife and foliage. Many of the hiking trails, such as Eagle Falls Vista Point, will have incredible panoramic views of the lake. The views are unlike any other destination in California, making this state park one of a kind.
You can stay in the comfort of a hotel outside of the park, or on the gorgeous forest floor in the campsite of Emerald Point Campground. As Lake Tahoe is a perfect lake for boating, the state park has many lake access points to get your boat in the water. With the close proximity of the park to the North Shore and the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, there is so much to do for both adventurers and home-bodies alike!
7. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve
- Best time of year to visit: Year round
- Things to Do: Hiking, nature photography
- Hotels near Armstrong Redwoods: Mine + Farm is a super-cute bed and breakfast near Korbel, which has a surprisingly decent vineyard tour. I highly recommend it even if you’re not a Korbel fan – you learn A TON about the process of making sparkling wine. Plus LGBTQ-friendly Guerneville has lots of inclusive stays, including Russian River cabin rentals, perfect for LGBTQ family travel.
- Best Restaurants Near Armstrong Redwoods: Grab sandwiches and salads from Big Bottom Market in Guerneville and picnic under the redwood canopy. Or visit Guerneville’s El Barrio Bar for mezcal drinks, tacos and snacks.
Getting up close to redwood trees is awe-inspiring. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve happens to be near some of the best wineries in Sonoma, making it a perfect state park to add to your California wine country vacation itinerary.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve has a few small trails, which you can wind into a loop that takes you from the forest floor up into the canopy, gaining a new perspective on these incredible trees. Hiking and walking the shaded trails is a must, offering a chance to marvel at the towering giants and explore the lush undergrowth and huge mushrooms. Find solace in the majestic redwoods, which include the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong tree!
The park is smaller than many of the other state parks but it usually doesn’t have a lot of other people visiting. Go here to feel like you’re alone in nature and have a redwood forest all to yourself.
8. Hearst San Simeon State Park
- Best Time to Visit Hearst San Simeon: January, April, or October for elephant seal viewing
- Things to Do: Hiking, nature viewing, wildlife photography, boating, fishing
- Hotels near Hearst San Simeon State Park: Cambria Landing Inn & Suite
- Best Restaurants Near Hearst San Simeon State Park: Sea Chest Oyster Bar
Located along the southern edge of Big Sur, Hearst San Simeon State Park features one of California’s most beautiful stretches of coastline in the San Simeon and Cambria area. Popular activities include walking on the California Coastal Trail, viewing a very active elephant seal rookery, visiting Piedras Blancas Light Station, and enjoying beach activities like picnicking or fishing from the pier at William Hearst Memorial Beach in San Simeon. The park also features two campgrounds.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss visiting Hearst Castle. This massive estate, which was dreamt up and built by national newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, is now managed by California State Parks. Start your visit at the visitor center where you can enjoy exhibits and a film, then take the shuttle bus to the hilltop mansion to explore Hearst’s opulent creation.
Hearst San Simeon State Park is a beautiful park to visit year-round, however the park does limit some of its beaches’ watersport activities from mid-December until the end of April. If viewing the elephant seal rookery is a big reason for your visit, consider coming in January, April, or October when the seals are most active.
Nearby Moonstone Beach offers lots of lodging options, but only a couple restaurants. Cambria Landing Inn & Suite is a cozy spot to turn in for the night. For dinner, consider the nearby Sea Chest Oyster Bar for an excellent seafood dinner or head into Cambria’s quaint downtown.
9. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- Best Time to Visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: March to May for wildflower bloom, or fall to escape the heat
- Things to Do: Hiking, nature viewing, wildlife photography, birdwatching, horseback riding
- Hotels near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Borrego Valley Inn or La Casa del Zorro Resort and Spa offer a cozy retreat after a day of exploration
- Best Restaurants Near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Red Ocotillo and Kesling’s Kitchen are local favorites, serving up delicious cuisine that complements your desert getaway.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, nestled in the heart of Southern California, is undoubtedly one of the best California state parks. This sprawling desert wilderness offers a unique and awe-inspiring experience. The park’s rugged beauty, with its stunning badlands, slot canyons, and vast open spaces, makes it a must-visit destination.
The best time to explore Anza-Borrego is during the spring (March to May) when the desert wildflowers are in full bloom, painting the landscape with vibrant colors. The cool, crisp fall months are also an excellent time to visit to escape the summer heat.
As you venture into the park, you’ll find an array of activities to enjoy. From hiking and horseback riding to birdwatching and stargazing, Anza-Borrego offers something for everyone. The park’s extensive network of trails allows for adventures of all levels, whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a leisurely stroller.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers a remarkable escape into the wilderness, making it one of the best and cheapest places to visit in California. Its natural beauty, diverse activities, and nearby amenities provide an unforgettable experience for anyone seeking to explore the Golden State’s wild side.
Recommended by: Trijit Mallick from Cheap Travel Trail
10. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- Best Time to Visit Torrey Pines: Year round – just avoid rainy winter days since paths can get slippery
- Things to Do: Hiking, nature viewing
- Hotels near Torrey Pines: If you are up for a splurge, The Lodge at Torrey Pines offers 5-star luxury in a building reminiscent of a National Park Lodge. Winners Circle Resort is a bit more modest but well-located in trendy Solana Beach.
- Best Restaurants Near Torrey Pines: Monarch Ocean Pub in Del Mar has a cool California surfer vibe, tasty food, and an unbeatable view!
Best known as one of the only places to see the country’s rarest pine tree, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve offers a chance to hike through undisturbed nature just minutes from the urban sprawl.
Getting to Torrey Pines is easy as can be: The reserve’s parking lot is right off Highway 101 and minutes from I-5. But once you have hiked up to the nature center, you leave modern civilization behind and have your choice of several different trails traversing over headlands with high broken cliffs and deep ravines covered by native vegetation.
Thanks to its location on the Southern California coast you can visit Torrey Pines pretty much all year. May/June are known for gloomy mornings so a visit in the afternoon is best. As the paths may get slippery, it is better to avoid rainy days, which are most likely during rainy season (from December to February).
Walking and hiking are the main activities at Torrey Pines. On weekends, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve offers guided hikes and on Sundays you can take part in a meditation walk.
There is a small nature center in a pueblo-style building dating from 1923 at the top of the hill with information about the local fauna and flora.
If you follow the Beach Trail you can even enjoy a short swim (the water is chilly though!) and walk back to your starting point along an unspoiled beach.
11. Angel Island State Park
- Best Time to Visit Angel Island: Skies are their clearest and temperatures mildest in April, May, September and October
- Things to Do: Camping, hiking, nature viewing
- Hotels near Angel Island: The only way to stay on Angel Island is to camp, and sites fill up quickly. If you’re not lucky enough to book a campsite on Angel Island, base yourself in Tiburon. The Lodge at Tiburon is more affordable and the Waters Edge Hotel is pricier. Both generally offer better prices than San Francisco hotels and are walkable to the Angel Island ferry!
- Best Restaurants Near Angel Island: Sam’s Anchor Café in Tiburon is an absolute classic. Luna Blu is also a nice upscale option.
Overlooking the San Francisco Bay — and therefore San Francisco itself and Alcatraz — Angel Island State Park is an incredibly multifaceted place rich with natural and human history. Since the park is so close to San Francisco, it’s sometimes overlooked by tourists and locals alike.
While Angel Island is a beautiful place, its history marks some of California’s more somber chapters. This island was used as a place of limbo for those immigrating via the Pacific, namely Chinese immigrants.
Stuck on Angel Island for months at a time, the Chinese immigrants carved poetry and calligraphy into the wooden walls of their barracks. These are now part of the park’s museum, a must-do activity when visiting Angel Island State Park.
Angel Island’s beaches offer great views and prime picnic spots with San Francisco views. Well-marked hiking trails, lead to the summit of Angel Island (not too difficult, as Angel Island isn’t that high) and around the park.
12. San Clemente State Park Beach
- Best Time to Visit San Clemente State Park Beach: Year round
- Things to Do: Surfing, swimming, mountain biking, hiking
- Hotels near San Clemente: If you are up for a splurge, North Beach Villa is a luxury Mediterranean-style boutique hotel with sweeping ocean views. Nomads Hotel San Clemente Pier is an affordable boutique hotel with quirky themed rooms and a lively onsite bar and restaurant.
- Best Restaurants Near San Clemente: Go for happy hour sunset drinks at the Fisherman’s Restaurant at the San Clemente pier. Nearby Vine Restaurant & Bar offers rustic wine bar vibes and kitchen garden meals loaded with fresh veggies and herbs, like sweet corn ravioli or fried green tomatoes with fresh burrata (and I can never turn down burrata!).
Called Spanish Village by the Sea for its unique architectural style, San Clemente State Park Beach is a quintessential southern California beach. This Orange County surfer’s paradise is most famous for its easy access to multiple amazing beaches. But San Clemente State Park and nearby San Onofre State Park are a great option for outdoor enthusiasts.
San Clemente State Park admission includes access to all neighboring state beaches. Check out this Guide to San Clemente for the scoop on each beach, so you can choose your fave.
Soak up the sun while shell hunting on the pristine beaches, or catch some waves on a surfboard. For those who get bored with sand between their toes, the Peaceful Valley trail system offers mountain biking and hiking trails through the California hills in town. The San Clemente State Park Visitor Center hosts educational displays about the local environment and history, enhancing your understanding of this beautiful location.
From towering redwood forests to stunning coastal cliffs and serene desert oases, these best California state parks offer something for everyone to enjoy. Whether you are an avid hiker, camper, birdwatcher, or nature newbie, these state parks provide endless opportunities for exploration and adventure.
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