Hikers looking out over the ocean and skyline at Topanga State Park, one of the best California State Parks

13 California State Parks You’ll Love (According a Local)

Did you know there are nearly 300 California state parks? Far less traveled than the state’s wildly popular national parks, California state parks offer remote wilderness and wondrous geologic features.

I’m a California local and have explored many California state parks myself. The state parks offer some of the best hiking trails in California as well as other outdoorsy activities. Here are my picks for the top California state parks.

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13 Best California State Parks

Crystal Cove State Park

A popular Southern California destination with hilltop campsites overlooking the coast

People enjoying their day at the Crystal Cove State Park
A quiet cove of the state park

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Crystal Cove State Park Website

Crystal Cove is unrivaled by most other coastal California state parks and is one of the best things to do in Orange County. Crystal Cove State Park exceeds state park expectations with private beaches, crystal clear water, and rock arches right on the beach. 

Even California locals who live by the beach make the day trip to Crystal Cove State Park. This Southern California destination is not only popular for beautiful sandy beaches, but also for its 2,400 acres of undeveloped land, of which hundreds of hiking trails carve into the hills. 

Crystal Cove is best experienced as an overnight excursion. I recommend staying at the blufftop Moro Campground for unreal views of the Pacific Ocean. Four-legged friends are allowed in the state park but only on the 3-mile paved buff trail and not the beach.

Russian Gulch State Park

One of the best blended Northern California state parks with both forest and beach environments

The Russian Gulch State Park under the clear blue sky in California
Forest and coast ecosystems collide at Russian Gulch

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Russian Gulch State Park Website

Do you love both the beach and the forest? If so, then Russian Gulch State Park is the place for you. Hike through dense pine trees then cool off with a dip in the state park’s Pacific Ocean beach.

Russian Gulch has 15 miles of coastal hiking trails, private coves, and tide pools for the whole family to enjoy. One of the most popular park activities is the easy Headlands Trail which has various viewpoints of the ocean and a stop at Devil’s Punchbowl along the way; a notorious sinkhole.

The Fern Canyon Loop Trail is another great state park activity that takes adventurous visitors up-close and personal with a mist-ifying waterfall. There are 26 campsites in the park, available for reservation up to six months in advance.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The biggest state park in California right on the Mexican border that has ocotillo groves and luminous starry skies

The author on her tent in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Me, caught off-guard near my tent in Anza-Borrego

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Website

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is my favorite out of all California state parks. The mesmerizing night sky glittering with stars is reason enough to visit this California state park – but the unique desert scenery is another main draw. 

Located 3 hours southeast of Los Angeles, Anza-Borrego is the biggest California state park. Primitive California campsites are scattered throughout the cacti and ocotillo-laden landscape and hiking trails blend in perfectly throughout the park.

Anza-Borrego also houses the largest concentration of bighorn sheep in California, so be sure to bring binoculars when you visit and always maintain a safe distance from the wildlife.

You are sure to enjoy this desert park, rich with native history, flora, and fauna. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the top things to do in San Diego County.

👉 Pro Tip: You will need sturdy shoes for visiting Anza-Borrego due to the number of cacti in the park. I recommend Blundstones for non-strenuous activities and Salomons for more elaborate exploring.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Explore ancient redwood forests in this Santa Cruz state park

Overlooking view of the Berry Creek Falls in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Berry Creek Falls in the midst of thick redwood foliage

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Big Basin Redwoods State Park Website

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is one of the coolest California state parks and a premiere stop on an epic California road trip. This California state park was established over a century ago to protect the ancient coast redwoods. 

Just outside one of California’s best beach towns, Santa Cruz, Big Basin Redwoods is a nature lovers’ paradise. Visitors can enjoy 18,000 acres of park vegetation with scenic hikes, backcountry camping, cycling down fire roads, and learning redwood history at the visitor center. 

👉 Pro Tip: Horses are allowed on the fire roads but dogs aren’t allowed anywhere in the state park except for the parking lot. It’s best to leave your four-legged friend at home when visiting Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Mount San Jacinto State Park

A slice of outdoor recreation heaven in Idyllwild, Southern California

The author posing for a photo at the Mt. San Jacinto peak during winter season
Me, snowshoeing to the highest point in the state park

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Mount San Jacinto State Park Website

I may be a bit biased because Mount San Jacinto State Park houses one of my favorite mountains, but this park is arguably one of the most scenic California state parks. 

Located in Idyllwild, one of the hippest mountain towns in California, San Jacinto is a hotspot for hiking trails, bird-watching, wildlife spotting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and more. Because the park sits at a high elevation of around 6,000 feet, the winters are long and snow-filled.

Stop by the visitor center to go on a guided nature walk with a ranger or take the initiative of finding the top of Tahquitz Peak yourself. There are several primitive campgrounds in the park, all of which permit dogs.

Castle Crags State Park 

Wonder at unique, geologic rock formations in NorCal, not seen anywhere else in the state

Scenic view of the Castle Crags State Park during sunset
A postcard photo of Castle Crag at sunset

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Castle Crags State Park Website

Castle Crag is a dramatic rock formation in Northern California. Located 4 hours north of San Francisco, Castle Crags is one of the less-visited California state parks but should be at the top due to its remote beauty and easy accessibility.

The Castle Crags rock formations are over 170 million years old, a true geologic masterpiece. They inspire myths, evoke emotion, and draw curious visitors to its granite spires. 

You will find a variety of hiking, camping, fishing, and other outdoor recreation activities at the state park. The Sacramento River also flows through the park, a natural swimming area in the summer months. 

🛎️ Need a Hotel? River Oak Retreat is the highest-rated boutique close to the state park entrance.

Morro Bay State Park

Witness the famous Morro Rock in person at this San Luis Obispo County state park

View of the Morro Rock from a boardwalk in Morro Bay State Park
The state park boardwalk has pristine views of Morro Rock the whole way

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Morro Bay State Park Website

When you think of Morro Bay, you probably think of the giant, protruding Morro Rock. The massive landmark is actually a part of the Morro Bay State Park, protected by the national park service. This state park is one of my favorite things to do in Morro Bay.

Visit the park’s museum to learn about the history and cultural resources of the area or put on your bathing suit and hit the waves. My favorite activity in the park is hiking along the scenic boardwalk trail or lounging beachside listening to the harmonizing waves crash.

The park is also an oasis for sailing, fishing, and bird-watching. Camping at the tent or RV campsites in the park offers a serene experience and is completely affordable at only $35 a night for tents and $50 for full RV hookups.

👉 Don’t Forget: Make sure you bring your golf clubs to play at the state park’s 18-hole golf course with views of the rugged coastline.

Malibu Creek State Park

Hikers, rock climbers, and equestrians favor this LA state park’s canyons and perfect granite slabs

Overlooking view of the Malibu Creek State Park in California

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Malibu Creek State Park Website

This huge, 8,215-acre state park is an outdoor playground for hikers and rock climbers alike. Explore the Santa Monica Mountains in depth with a trip to one of the most favored California state parks.

Only 25 miles from downtown LA, this is one of the best day trips from Los Angeles. This favorite tourist destination offers horseback riding through the canyons and rolling hills, mountain biking trails, and fishing from Malibu Creek.

One of the park’s main points of interest is the Sepulveda Adobe, an 1863 Chumash construction that was made with cultural resources. The California state parks foundation highlights its rich Native American history with such features.

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

The 129-foot Burney Falls waterfall is sure to make a lasting impact at this Cascade Mountains park

Scenic view of a waterfalls in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park Website

The second oldest of the California state parks, McArthur-Burney Falls is a beautiful nature destination with incredible waterfalls as its main attraction. The jagged Cascade Mountains surrounding the park add to its mystique and status as one of the best California state parks.

The 129-foot Burney Falls and its mist-filled basin are the highlights of the park. The park is accessible year-round but summer is the best time to visit the park for the best weather. Keep in mind that no vehicle over 32 feet is allowed inside, so you may have to unhitch your sedan from the back of your RV before visiting the park.

🚗 Need a Ride? Discover Cars is the best way to get around in Northern California. This reliable rental service has sedans, trucks, and cars with 4WD to get you to rugged mountain locations.

Bodie State Historic Park

Visit an old gold mining town amid the Eastern Sierra Mountains, one of the most unique California state parks

An old rusted car in Bodie State Historic Park
Historic buildings and a rusted automobile at Bodie

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Bodie State Historic Park Website

Bodie is one of the coolest California state parks. This old ghost town is located in the Eastern Sierras and retains an old, American mining town charm.

There is an abandoned community of old Gold Rush mining homes at Bodie State Historic Park. Walk the silent streets of the once-booming town, capture a video of an ironic tumbleweed, or visit the old town museum for a cool afternoon in the Sierra Mountains.

There is an $8 entrance fee for adults, $5 for children, and admission is free for children under 3. Don’t miss your chance to explore one of the top activities in Northern California.

Topanga State Park

Explore nearly 40 miles of hiking trails throughout the Santa Monica Mountains

Hikers looking out over the ocean and skyline at Topanga State Park, one of the best California State Parks

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Salt Point State Park Website

Situated in the Santa Monica Mountains, this park is great for hiking in the hills of Los Angeles and has scenic views of the Pacific Ocean along most of the hikes. Topanga State Park is a great way to spend an afternoon outside of the big city.

Explore 36 miles of hiking trails through grasslands and live oaks in the state park or try out the single-track mountain biking trails. Visitors interested in geology can look for evidence of faults from earthquakes, fossils, volcanic intrusions, and a wide variety of sedimentary formations.

Topanga is one of the biggest California state parks outside of a major metropolitan city and is the perfect destination for a romantic weekend getaway in California.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

A Big Sur hotspot for hiking, swimming, and sightseeing among rugged California coastline

A relaxing view from a private beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
A private beach beckons at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Website

One of the most scenic coastal California state parks, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park houses private cove enclaves and crystal clear Pacific Ocean waters surrounded by rocky ocean cliffs.

The main attraction of this spectacular state park is McWay Falls, which drops into the Pacific Ocean from an 80-foot cliff. The park is also home to old growth coast redwoods, making it one of the top California state parks that you don’t want to miss.

This Big Sur County park is the highlight of any California vacation and is located in one of the best places to visit in California.

🛎️ Need a Hotel? Alila Ventana Big Sur is my favorite boutique hotel in the area and is only a short distance away from the state park. It sits on a hillside overlooking the beautiful coastline and offers a romantic getaway experience.

Point Lobos State Park

Scuba dive in one of Central California’s top state parks

A pathway going inside the forest in Point Lobos State Park
A walkway through a cypress forest at Point Lobos

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Point Lobos State Park Website

Point Lobos State Park is one of the most scenic California state parks by the sea. Located just outside of Carmel, one of the most adorable cities in California, the California department state park sits right on the coast and offers breathtaking views of the ocean.

This is a top destination for scuba diving in California, as well as photography, painting, and hiking. This unique park has rare plant species, endangered archaeological sites, unique geological formations, and rich wildlife.

Make sure to book a reservation at the park campsite or a nearby hotel because the majesty of the area will make you want to stay more than a day.

FAQs About State Parks in California

Orange sky during sunset over one of the California state parks

What is the most popular state park in California?

Crystal Cove State Park is the most popular state park in California. This Orange County state park sits right on the pacific ocean and its coastal beauty is unmatched by other parks in California.

How many state parks are in the state of California?

California has 279 protected state parks, the most in the nation. These, along with the 9 national parks, represent the most beautiful, raw ecosystems in California.

What is the largest state park in California?

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. It encompasses over 600,000 acres of prime California desert and fragile flora and fauna.

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Have fun hitting the hiking trails and sleeping under the stars in the top California state parks. Be sure to check out my picks for the best California National Parks to explore more nature oases in the golden state.

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