Top 10 California Parks You Must See Before You Die

You could call it your travel bucket list. We like “Life List” better. You know, scouring the world for rare birds or flowers instead of, well, getting ready to caw. Whichever term you choose – Bucket List, Life List or simply Travel To Do list – we all have that personal list of places we just have to see. Machu Picchu. The Silk Road. Kilimanjaro. But these places are remote and require passports and heavy expenses to get there. This summer, we suggest you focus on 10 Life List / Bucket List / Whatever List spots here in California. All are California State Parks. With giant trees, giant rocks and mysterious lakes, they stand out from any list of wonders of the world.

Angel Island State Park

Take a ferry to 1.18 square miles of paradise, then take in more spectacular city views than you get from the Millennium Tower (and without the incline) and hike from easy to hard . (For even greater ease, join a Segway or Tram tour.) Most memorable of all is the U.S. Immigration Station, a poignant reminder of the island’s role as a gateway to America for thousands of immigrants, mostly from China. the new environmental campsites require a 1-2 mile hike with your camping gear, but the views are worth it.

Vitals: Ferries from San Francisco and Tiburon: Angel Island SP; reserve campsites at

Calaveras Tall Trees State Park

This is probably where European Americans first encountered the wonder that is the giant sequoia – when, in 1852, Augustus T. Dowd followed a grizzly bear and bumped into a forest of huge trees. Today, Calaveras is one of the easiest places to see the redwood gigantea. A child-friendly 1.5-mile flat trail leads through youhe North Grove. (A famous specimen, the tunnel-dug Pioneer Cabin Tree, toppled over in 2017, but you won’t be disappointed by the trees still surrounding it.) For a longer hike, follow the 5-mile trail at through the South Grove. Passers-by have a choice of 120 campsites and four rental cabins.

Vitals: On Highway 4, 4 miles northeast of Arnold; Calaveras Big Trees SP; reserve campsites and cabins at

Castle Crags State Park

Shasta County’s Castle Crags seems easily worthy of national park status – for geological drama its gray granite boulders (formed 170 million years ago) are the equal of anything at Pinnacles or, dare we say it, Zion. Castle’s 30 miles of trails include a nice section of the Pacific Crest Trail. And the 82-site campgrounds are just steps from the Sacramento River, which runs through the park.

Vitals: On Interstate 5, 10 km south of Dunsmuir (Siskiyou County); Castle Crags SP; reserve campsites at

DL Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks

Adjacent parks surrounding Emerald Bay, these offer Tahoe’s most expansive views, beautiful beaches and the royal mansion, Vikingsholm. (One look and you wonder, hHow much does it cost on Zillow?) In Emerald, campers can pitch their tents at Eagle Point Campground or – if they’re the nautical type – at Emerald Bay Boat Camp accessible only by boat; at Bliss, Pines, Ridge or Beach campgrounds.

Vitals: On Highway 89, 17 miles south of Tahoe City; DL Bliss SP and Emerald Bay SP; reserve campsites at

Hearst San Simeon State Historic Landmark

Of course, Europe has its palaces – the Versailles of Marie Antoinette, the Palacio Real of Carlos III. But the Julia Morgan-designed castle of news mogul William Randolph Hearst on the coast of San Luis Obispo County is just as impressive and much more fun – did Marie Antoinette or Carlos play host to Hollywood stars? If you’ve already visited, consider a semi-private tour dedicated to the castle’s art collection or Hearst’s Hollywood connections; in the fall, the park adds an evening visit, which is magical. There is no camping, but you will find sites at San Simeon Creek Campground in nearby Hearst San Simeon State Park.

Vitals: On Highway 1, 12½ miles north of the intersection of Highway 1 and State 46; Hearst San Simeon SHM; book campsites at

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

You’ve seen the park’s McWay Falls on countless magazine covers. No matter. Seeing, in person, the falls flowing into the turquoise waters of McWay Cove is something every Californian must experience. Finding a campsite here is a challenge — the park has only two hiking sites that naturally book up quickly. The safest bets are the 130 sites in Pfeiffer Big Sur SP, about half an hour north on Highway1.

Vitals: On Highway 1, 37 miles south of Carmel; Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP; reserve campsites at

Marshall Gold Discovery Historical Park

Eureka! Here, in 1848, James W. Marshall spotted a glow in the American River, launching the gold- and fame-hungry state of California. Look at it this way: no James Marshall, no Kardashian. The park is small but charming, with good guided tours. If you want to add a bit of adventure to your visit, Coloma (El Dorado County) is also the starting point for companies offering rafting day trips on the American River. There is no camping, but you can sleep at the nearby resorts of Coloma and American River.

Emerald Bay State Park
Emerald Bay State ParkCalifornia State Parks, 2018

Vitals: On Highway 49, 81/2 miles north of Placerville; Marshall Gold Discovery HP;;

Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve

March is coming to eastern California, as strange tuff spiers rise from one of North America’s oldest lakes. The lake and its geology are so fascinating that you will make the most of it on one of the reserve’s summer guided walks. Mono and its surrounding wetlands are also a haven for grebes, gulls and other birds, and guided bird walks are also offered in the summer. There is no camping, but you will find good forest service sites in nearby Lundy and Lee Vining Canyons and the June Lake Loop.

Vitals: On Hwy 395, 1¾ miles north of Lee Vining. Mono Lake Tuff SNR; campsite information:

Prairie Creek Redwoods

state park

Calaveras Big Trees Park pays homage to the largest tree in the world, the giant sequoia; this Humboldt County park pays homage to the tallest tree in the world, the coast redwood, the redwood sempervirens. In addition to lofty trees, Prairie Creek offers 75 miles of trails and good beach camping. In short, it is paradise.

Vitals: On Highway 101, 50 miles north of Eureka. Prairie Creek Redwood SP; reserve campsites on

salted tip

state park

Sonoma vsoast is so beautiful for so many miles that it’s hard to choose a better park. But Salt Point could win the prize. It’s big – 6,000 acres – and covers 6 miles of coastline, including some of Northern California’s best tide pools. Hikers have 20 miles of trails to explore. Passers-by have a choice of two campgrounds, Gerstle Cove and Woodside, both slightly inland from the coast.

Vitals: On Highway 1, 19 miles north of Jenner; salt point SP; reserve campsites on

Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve
Mono Lake Tufa State Nature ReserveCalifornia State Parks, 2018

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