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Published on : Friday, July 29, 2016
If there was ever a box of chocolates—and all of them delicious—it’s the rich collection of natural treasures, fascinating historic sites, and one-of-a-kind destinations protected as part of California’s expansive state park system. The 280 units include an astounding mix—wild beaches, fascinating Gold Rush mines, lush forests, booming falls, and expansive deserts. Here’s a cherry-picked selection of state park must-sees.
EMPIRE MINE STATE HISTORIC PARK
Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to this remarkable site in Grass Valley, roughly 60 miles/92 kilometers northeast of Sacramento. First, spend time in the Visitor Center to learn about one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines, where, in the course of a century, 5.6 million ounces/159 million grams of gold were mined—enough to fill a box 7 feet/3 meters long, 7 feet/3 meters high, and 7 feet/3 meters deep by the time the mine shut down in 1956. To get a sense of the size of the mine, see the scale model representing the mine’s 5-square-mile/13-square-km network, then walk outside to visit the entrance of the actual shaft—a tiny peak into a staggering underground maze of 367 miles/591 kilometers.
Now shift gears—mentally and physically—with a walk through the grounds of William Bowers Bourn Jr., who took over management of the mine in 1879. Bourn Cottage—a humble name for this magnificent country estate, where no expense was spared to create a two-story stone citadel patterned after the noble estates of 19th century England, complete with redwood interiors, and leaded-glass windows.
Guided tours are offered May through September. The Mine Yard Tour sheds light on the rough lives of the miners who worked here. Get the flip side on the Cottage Grounds Tour, which includes a visit to the sumptuous Bourn Cottage.
There’s something eerily appropriate about bumping down the dusty desert road that winds the final few miles into Bodie State Historic Park. Round the final bend in the careworn road, drive by the lonely graveyard on the sagebrush-dotted hill on the southwest side of town, and look down upon the tattered remnants of a forgotten time, and a nearly forgotten town. Back in the late 1800s, Bodie was a booming mining community with nearly 10,000 residents. Over time, the townsfolk began to fade away with the gold, and roughly a half-century ago, the final residents packed up and left Bodie, leaving the buildings alone and at the mercy of the dry desert winds.
Today, you can walk the dusty, silent streets of this fascinating ghost town, with shops, hotels, and simple homes carefully preserved to look as they did when Bodie ceased to be. Look for period images on newspapers stuffed into the walls as makeshift insulation. Old trucks and gas pumps, a weathered wood church, and that lonely cemetery paint a picture of life—and death—in this remote corner of California’s high desert.
Be sure to bring food; there are no concessions in the park (though there is potable water). A bookstore is well stocked with interesting information, and the self-guided walking tour is well worth doing.
ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK
This park’s combo name, pairing the name of famed Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed this desert in 1774, and the Spanish word for sheep (“borrego”)—referring to the region’s native bighorn sheep, this desert preserve—California’s largest state park—protects more than 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-studded hills. A geology lesson in making, still being altered by erosion and flash floods, it’s a wild and remote place, with much of it accessed via primitive roads, or on foot. (Consider renting a 4WD with high clearance for best access.) But the payoff is stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty.
Start your trip just northwest of Borrego Springs at the park’s visitor center, built underground for cooling efficiency, to learn more about this fascinating park, and to get tips on where to go. Bighorn sheep are often spotted on nearby trails to Palm Canyon.
CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK
In 1912, an early Laguna Beach artist described finding a rugged coastline “with cove after cove and headland after headland, golden cliffs and deep blue and purple ocean and clear emerald pools, lazy sea and pounding surf.” More than 100 years later, that’s the world that you can still experience at this 2,400-acre coastal parkland. Head inland and upland on foot or mountain bike to explore trails winding into the foothills (especially pretty after winter rains encourage annual grasses). Walk along the park’s 3 miles of coastline to find your own perfect sandy crescent with family-friendly waves (also popular with surf-casting fishermen). Another find here: Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, order an ahi tuna burger at The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove, or a creamy shake from Ruby’s Shake Shack to take back to your beach blanket. There is also a charming collection of vintage seafront cottages, rustically restored and available for overnight stays. (Note: reserving one of the 21 extremely popular cabins takes patience and perseverance; check the website for details.)
EMERALD BAY STATE PARK
Look down on this astounding bay and you can see why Mark Twain dubbed Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” While the main lake is as blue as a topaz, a color created by Tahoe’s remarkable clarity and depth, this somewhat shallower bay on the lake’s west shore takes on a startling and beautiful blue-green, made all the more striking by the perfect dot of tiny Fannette Island—the only islet in Lake Tahoe—right in the middle of the bay. From large pullout areas off Highway 89, see if you can spot the ruins of a tiny stone teahouse perched on the top of the island. The teahouse, and the 38-room Scandinavian-style stone castle known as Vikingsholm that’s built on the nearby shore, were constructed by Lora Knight, an extraordinary woman who married into extreme wealth, then used her money to educate young people who could otherwise not afford it. Learn about her and tour her richly detailed, hand-built home, a replica of a 9th-century Scandinavian castle, on tours offered several times daily, late-May to Labor Day—it’s definitely worth the walk down from the parking lot.
You can also access Emerald Bay on the popular and easy Rubicon Trail, which follows the edge of the lake from D.L. Bliss State Park 4 miles/6 kilometers south to the bay. Another short hike with a big reward is the 1-mile/2-km trail that starts across the highway from Emerald Bay and leads up to the icy cascades of Eagle Falls and a panoramic view of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe. Cruises, such as the Tahoe Queen paddle wheeler, also visit Emerald Bay; you can also use it as a great destination if you rent a boat at South Shore. For a big splurge, book a private yacht cruise with Lake Tahoe Boat Rides; along the way, the captain sheds light on the region’s history.
BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK
This remarkable preserve, California’s oldest state park, is an emerald gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. With more than 80 miles/128 kilometers of trails winding through redwood groves and other lush habitats, Big Basin makes an appealing weekend getaway for people in the Silicon Valley, about an hour’s drive west. Moms and dads love letting the kids loose to dabble their toes in clear streams, or watching them conjure up enough courage to kiss a banana slug (ask a local; it’s a belt-notch experience for many a Northern Californian).
Big Basin offers a variety of campsites, including 38 walk-in sites—a short walk lets you pitch your tent in ultimate peace and quiet. Hike, mountain bike, or ride horses on designated routes. Trekkers love the 10.5-mile/17-km Skyline to the Sea Trail, which runs along Waddell Creek to the ocean and nearby Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve. There are also plenty of gentle, scenic rambles, such as the 4-mile/6-km Sequoia loop trail (complete with a small waterfall), and .5-mile/1-km Redwood loop trail that takes visitors to some of the park’s tallest trees. Pick up maps and hiking tips from rangers at park headquarters, and ask about guided twilight hikes and campfire programs.
JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The ½-mile/1-km round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet. The almost flat stroll ends an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favorite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. Let’s just say Julia had good taste. The plume of water drops some 80 feet/24 meters from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public).
If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the nearby Ewoldsen Trail, a 2-mile/3-km loop that dips and climbs through old-growth redwood and coastal chaparral, with the payoff of your 1,600-foot/488-meter elevation gain being nonstop oh-my-gosh views.
GROVER HOT SPRINGS STATE PARK
Nestled in a notch of the High Sierra about an hour’s drive southeast of Lake Tahoe, mineral springs bubble up from the earth, a testament to the geologic and geothermal forces that have shaped this landscape. This state park, just west of the quiet mountain town of Markleeville, may or may not have been discovered in 1844 by John C. Fremont, the explorer credited with first sighting Lake Tahoe. Historians haven’t settled that debate. But no one disagrees that since the 1850s, people have flocked to “take the cure” in these restorative waters.
The park’s pools are fed from six different springs containing low amounts of sulfur. That means you won’t notice the strong “rotten-egg” smell of many hot spring pools. The water emerges from underground at a scalding 148°F/64°C, but it’s cooled down before it’s piped into the park’s two concrete pools—one for soaking at a safe 103°F/39°C, the other a pleasant temperature for swimming and splashing.
The pools are open most of the year (hours may vary during the off-season/winter period, September through May, so call ahead; 530/694-2249). The state park also has a 76-site campground and hiking trails, some easy scrambles for the kids (don’t miss the walk to the waterfall along Hot Springs Creek), as well as longer treks into surrounding alpine regions.
SALT POINT STATE PARK
A wild and beautiful meeting of land and sea, Salt Point State Park encompasses 6,000 acres along the Sonoma coast, about 95 miles north of San Francisco. Grassy terraces crown wind-lashed headlands where sandstone cliffs drop abruptly to the Pacific. Tidepools and kelp beds teem with marine life; in fact, the park’s offshore waters are protected as one of California’s first underwater parks: Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area.
Bisected by Highway 1, this beautiful coastal park, 17 miles north of the mouth of the Russian River and the hamlet of Jenner, gives you plenty of reasons to pull over and start Instagramming. Better yet, get out and explore: choose from some 20 miles of trails leading to sights such as wind and water-carved tafoni, or honeycombed sandstone formations. Take the steep but short hike up to the park’s pygmy forest of stunted cypress and pine trees. Head north from the main park entrance to Fisk Mill Cove, popular for abalone diving, to follow a bluff-top trail. This level path meanders through a forest with rhododendrons and ferns to peek-a-boo views of rocky pocket beaches with crashing waves, playful seals, and abalone divers. Save energy to climb to the top of Sentinel Rock for a striking coastal overlook.
PRAIRIE CREEK REDWOODS STATE PARK
Visiting this 14,000-acre/5,666-hectare park is like walking through a portal into a world where everything is giant and green—a rainforest where ferns arc over mossy trails in a dappled world of light and shadow. Start with a hike among the ancient redwoods on the 3.2-mile/5.1-km Prairie Creek and Cathedral Tree loop, which begins at Prairie Creek Redwoods’ visitor center. From your first steps, “lush” is the operative word.
“Visiting this park is like walking through a portal into a world where everything is giant and green.”
Moss covers rocks, lichens hang from branches, clover-like redwood sorrel carpets the ground, and trees grow to gargantuan size. Be suitably awed and humbled, then step out of the bowers and head over to Elk Prairie, a grassy, golden meadow where you’ve got a great chance of seeing Roosevelt elk. These regal beasts are California’s largest land animals, weighing up to 1,100 pounds. Although they seem docile as they languidly munch on grass, it’s wise to give them some space, especially big males during the autumn rut. While at Elk Prairie, consider a walk on Trillium Falls Trail, a 2.5-mile/4-km loop through ancient redwoods.
Next, go for a drive. The paved, 10-mile/16-km Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, the scenic alternative to Highway 101, winds past silent groves that reach for the sky. Pull over for a quick walk to the aptly named Big Tree, and watch for more wild elk herds.
For the more adventurous driver, the unpaved Davison Road travels to Gold Bluffs Beach, a 10-mile stretch of waterfront where 1850s prospectors mined for gold dust in the sand. You can camp on the beach, but don’t forget to stake your tent—the wind can be fierce. Continue past Gold Bluffs to the end of the road and Fern Canyon trailhead. Here you have two options: a one-mile loop through spectacular Fern Canyon, or a longer walk on the Coastal Trail past three mini-waterfalls.