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Ten not-to-miss State Parks and Preserves in California.

Updated on September 15, 2015
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Go see, explore, take photos, and write it up! I love exploring places that I see on the Rand McNally Road Atlas or by serendipity.

Another view of Palm Canyon.
Another view of Palm Canyon. | Source
The stylized Visitor Center at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
The stylized Visitor Center at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. | Source
The Palm Canyon Trailhead.
The Palm Canyon Trailhead. | Source
Looking towards the town of Borrego Springs from above the campground.
Looking towards the town of Borrego Springs from above the campground. | Source
Mitchell Caverns.
Mitchell Caverns. | Source
The Providence Mountains.
The Providence Mountains. | Source

Southern California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California and west of the Mississippi and the second largest state park in the United States after New York’s Adirondack Park. Sprawled across 600,000 acres mostly in San Diego County (it covers one-fifth of the county) elevations in the park range from near sea level to over 6,000 feet at at San Ysidro Mountain. Named after the Spanish explorer, Juan Batista de Anza, who travelled through the area, and borrego, meaning Bighorn sheep, the state park preserves a unique desert environment that is home to the Desert Bighorn Sheep and groves of the Washingtonia palm trees, the only palm tree native to California. It preserves the southwest extremes of the Colorado Desert. Summertime temperatures make the park inhospitable during that time of year: 107° F is the average daily high. Some hotels aren’t even open during the summer but if you can find a place during that time of year the rates will be lower. Originally a winter home to the Kumeyaay Indians the Americans established the Butterfield Overland Mail Route from Missouri, which is marked by a monument in the park. Gold prospectors also found their way into the area during the mid nineteenth century Gold Rush and the Peg Leg Smith Monument is an interesting side trip and a reminder of their presence. Borrego Palm Canyon is a fee area ($8.00, adult, as of October 2010) and probably the most popular destination in the park. A 1.5 mile hike (one way) takes you up 600 or so vertical feet past sheer canyon walls to the palm oasis that harbors the enormous Washington Palms. It is close to the Visitor center and there is a campground here as well. Another hike that is well worth it is the one up Hellhole Canyon located on S22. After three miles it will come to Maidenhair Falls, a seasonal waterfall, along a stream (seasonal) that has a string of palm oasis. Pictographs can be found in the park as well and represent the archaeological crown jewel of the park and were etched into the rock by the ancestors of the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay Indians. This unique primitive rock art can be viewed in the Blair Valley, accessible by four wheel drive off S2. Box Canyon is a good place to appreciate the human history of the park. Here the pioneer-driven Southern Emigrant Trail, which was utilized by the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War and the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach Road, are on display. Southeast of Borrego Springs is an area known as Borrego Badlands which can be viewed from Font’s Point. Font’s Point is accessible via a four mile dirt road south of S22. The view is nothing short of spectacular. f you go six miles south of Ocotillo Wells on Highway 78, the Split Mountain cuts rights between canyon walls that are a sheer 600 feet. The two mile long section is worth the extra effort but a four wheel drive or off road vehicle is most suitable (off Split Mountain Road). In the same area you can view the rare Elephant Trees, something that you would think only exists in Africa or more exotic, tropical climates. These were only discovered here in 1937. Wind Caves are another noteworthy point of interest off Split Mountain Road. A steep trail leads to these caves which were formed by wind action on soft sandstone. Off Highway 78 at the junction of Yaqui Pass Road, which leads to Borrego Springs, you’ll come to Tamarisk Grove: this area which has a few trails that exhibit native plants on the Cactus Loop Trail (1 mile), and the Yaqui Well Trail (1.6 miles). There is also a trail that walks through a fault zone, the Narrows Earth Trail, off Highway 78, about 4.5 miles eastbound from Tamarisk Grove. Tamarisk Grove has camping facilities and great views of the mountains. Yaqui Pass is also a scenic winding mountain road. While not part of the park, the Salton Sea is an interesting side trip and curious geological phenomena. Its surface elevation is 232 feet below sea level. The saline lake was accidentally formed in 1905 when a canal wall was breached from the overflowing Colorado River. Before then it was an evaporated salt pan.

Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. Isolated and in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve, the Providence Mountains offer a stark alternative to the otherwise leafy greenery closer to the coast. The crown jewel of this state land is the Mitchell Caverns a series of chambers of classic drip-stone formations in the mountain's limestone walls best known for its speleothems. Typical of desert mountains in southern California is the sky-island ecosystem created by higher elevations which trap moisture better than the hotter, dryer lower elevations. This phenomena is noticeably in the Providence Mountains, a mixture of granite and limestone peaks, above 4,500 feet where more plants and trees are found contrasting starkly with the lower slopes of the mountains. Desert Bighorn sheep also roam these mountains. The visitor center is housed in a former resort of the Mitchells, Jack and Ida. Currently, this park remains closed for renovations but it is planned to reopen in 2015.

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. | Source
Rockefeller Forest, Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Rockefeller Forest, Humboldt Redwoods State Park. | Source
China Cove, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
China Cove, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. | Source
Looking across the Plaza towards the Plaza Hotel, San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.
Looking across the Plaza towards the Plaza Hotel, San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. | Source

Coastal California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. About mid way down the famous 95 mile Big Sur Drive is the 964 acre Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park wrapped tightly around a step canyon which spills into the ocean. The distinguishing feature of this park is the beautiful waterfall, McWay Falls, which plummets 80 feet from a seaside cliff into the ocean, the only of of its kind in the state. The setting is idyllic framed beautifully by woods many towering redwoods. Parking can be tight on weekends and holidays so plan accordingly. Just up the coast eleven miles is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with ample facilities and campgrounds.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Considered to be the largest stand of redwoods in the state the 53,00 acre park contains old growth redwoods which tower overhead. Start at the visitors center and museum before heading to the Rockefeller Forest and size-up the supine Dyerville Giant, a 370 foot tree which was toppled in 1991 by another falling tree. For further exploration hike among the parks 100 miles of trails which pass through the Founders Grove. The Drury-Chaney Loop is better for beginners while the Grasshopper Peak Trail is more advanced taking you to a fire lookout tower atop a mountain.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Just down the road from Monterey, on the other side of the bay, is a spectacular state natural reserve that protects the rugged coastline, the islets, coves, and forest and marks the beginning of the Big Sur coast which stretches 100 miles to the south. A favorite for artists and photographers Point Lobos is criss-crossed by hiking paths which take one to the various lookouts overlooking the churning ocean and calm coves with waters with remarkable clarity. No wonder scuba diving is a favorite here in these cold but clear waters. On the landward side is a beautiful forest of Monterey Cypress and stunted trees containing black-tailed deer and other fauna. On the islands, nesting birds make their colonies. Arguably the most scenic of the inlets is China Cove but plan to stay no less than half a day.

San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. San Juan Bautista is a sleepy little town near a busier corridor between the Monterey Bay and the larger conglomerate of the Bay Area. The railroad never made it to this town which contributes to its sleepy character even today. The town is well known for the Mission San Juan Bautista although the mission is not part of the park. Instead it sits adjacent to the historic sites. A number of colonial buildings surround a centralized plaza, apparently the only original one in the state, in this town which was found in 1797 with the building of the Mission of the same name. The Juan Bautista de Anza House, the Plaza Hotel, the Jose Castro House, and the Plaza are the main attractions of the park. The Plaza Hotel, founded in 1814, is adjacent to the Castro House. The other attraction, somewhat dubious, is the conspicuous trough which drops abruptly from the east side of the plaza. That's the San Andreas Fault. Observe the speed limits in the town carefully as the streets leading to the park are often crossed by the resident roosters, officially recognized by the town.

Bodie State Historic Park.
Bodie State Historic Park. | Source
Cemetery, Bodie State Historic Park.
Cemetery, Bodie State Historic Park. | Source
Emerald Bay State Park.
Emerald Bay State Park. | Source
Storefront, Columbia State Historic Park.
Storefront, Columbia State Historic Park. | Source
Burney Falls, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
Burney Falls, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. | Source

Mountains of California

Bodie State Historic Park. High up in the dusty hills on the Nevada state line overlooking the Sierras is Bodie, the skeletal remains of a once vibrant gold mining town which boomed in the 1870s. Only accessible by dirt roads the summer traffic to this lonely outpost of nineteenth century civilization is impressive and for good reason. Authenticity is what frames this park. Every building you see is a time capsule down to the heavy layers of dust that occupy the now abandoned shelves, closets, beds, and tables. Gold brought settlers in in 1859 but only sporadically. Not until a lode bearing vein was discovered in the 1870s did the town reach its peak of 10,000 people and 65 saloons, many of them still standing. Today one can roam among the 200 or so buildings and cemeteries which occupy the margins of the sage covered hills. There is a visitor center and museum as well both in original buildings which served other original purposes. The best access to the park is off U.S. 395 and Rte 270. Bodie is one of two official ghost towns in the State of California.

Columbia State Historic Park. Set in the hills, Columbia was another gold mining town during the Gold Rush but it survived the boom and faced the bust with surprising historical integrity. The centerpiece of the town is the four blocks which comprise the state historic park but most visitors will tell you that the remainder of the town is equally nice. Guides dress in period costumes and circulate around the blacksmith's shop, theater, hotels, a saloon, and of course, a place reserved for gold panning. The rocks and boulders seen around town were washed out locally from the now extinct hydraulic sprays which jet-blasted the hillsides in search of gold. When the park closes at 5 pm it is peaceful and still accessible for the pedestrian. The town was the location for scenes shot in High Noon, starring Gary Cooper. If historic towns aren't your thing, try Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a sequoia grove in the Sierra foothills with some of the tallest reaching 325 feet.

Emerald Bay State Park. Set beautifully around a cove on south shore of Lake Tahoe this state park does not belie its name. A designated National Natural Landmark also includes Lake Tahoe's only island. Established in 1953 the park occupies just over 1,500 acres and since 1994 includes the waters within the cove making it the state's first underwater park on a lake. Changing hues of the water make this bay a photographer's dream and each hour brings a slightly different accent. The park also accesses a waterfall, Eagle Falls, but parking can be tight in summer so arrive early. The Vikingsholm mansion, a 38 room showpiece of Scandinavian architecture built in 1929, overlooks the bay.

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. There's nos shortage of waterfalls in California and they come in all shapes and sizes. Yosemite, for instance, has some of the tallest falls in the world. Others, such as McArthur-Burney Falls in northern California, while not has high, are no less beautiful. The falls are actually known as Burney Falls and they spill over a volcanic cliff dropping across a sheet 129 feet into a beautiful pool. The beauty was not lost on early settlers in the region and it's no wonder that this is California's second oldest state park. Five miles of hiking trails wind through the forested park where there is a chance to spot Steller's Jay. The falls have been used as a backdrop in the 1988 movie Willow.

California State Parks not-to-miss

Anza Borrego Desert State Park:
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, USA

get directions

Providence Mountains State Recreation Area:
Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, Mojave National Preserve, Essex, CA 92332, USA

get directions

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve:
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, 62 California 1, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93923, USA

get directions

San Juan Bautista State Historic Park:
San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, 19 Franklin Street, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045, USA

get directions

Bodie State Historic Park:
Bodie, CA, USA

get directions

Columbia State Historic Park:
Columbia State Historic Park, 11255 Jackson Street, Columbia, CA 95310, USA

get directions

Emerald Bay State Park:
Emerald Bay State Park, 11001 California 89, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150, USA

get directions

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park:
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 47555 California 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, USA

get directions

Humboldt Redwoods State Park:
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Avenue of the Giants, Weott, CA 95571, USA

get directions

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park:
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, 24898 California 89, Burney, CA 96013, USA

get directions


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