Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park
Just below the California-Oregon border, Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park promises fairy-tale rainforest paths through towering redwood groves and secret rope swings over trickling creeks. Hunt for banana slugs, pitch a tent (dogs are allowed at campsites), and snorkel in the Smith River, the longest free-flowing river in California.
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Once home to the “crookedest railroad in the world,” Mount Tamalpais’s scenic drives and hiking trails just north of San Francisco still tempt travelers today with sweeping edge-of-the-world views and knee-buckling hairpin turns. Visit in May or June for the annual outdoor Mountain Play, performed in a stone amphitheater dating to the 1930s.
Yosemite National Park
There are more than a dozen dramatic waterfalls throughout Yosemite National Park, all best seen in spring when snowmelt and rainfall put on a spectacular show. The 2,425-foot-high Yosemite Falls is one of the world’s tallest waterfalls and one of the only places to witness a “moonbow,” a rainbow best glimpsed on a clear spring night under a full moon.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos is the ultimate nature reserve—a place where you can scuba dive with sea otters and gray whales in the morning, visit a historic Chinese fishermen’s cabin in the afternoon, and then sunbathe with seals beside a cobalt cove.
The evergreen-fringed gem of Sierra National Forest, Bass Lake sits just 30 minutes south of Yosemite’s south entrance. The lake averages a balmy 75°F during the summer—perfect for water sports, including jet skiing and paddleboarding. Angel Falls, located on the northern end, is a scenic spot for a dip.
Chico’s 3,670-acre Bidwell Park is one of the country’s largest city parks. Golden fishing holes dot Bidwell’s stretch of Big Chico Creek and an extra-large swimming pool dating to the 1930s offers free admission. Other popular activities include paragliding, disc golf, mountain biking, and observatory stargazing.
Portola Redwoods State Park
Redwood trees first set their roots down roughly 240 million years ago. Today they convert more carbon dioxide to oxygen than any other plant on Earth. Only 45 minutes from Silicon Valley, Portola Redwoods State Park is a 2,800-acre haven of waterfalls, lush glens, logging roads turned mountain bike paths, and old-growth redwoods—some more than 35 feet in circumference.
Shady hiking trails along Northern California’s Yuba River cross boardwalks and dogwood groves to an abundance of picturesque swimming holes, all against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevadas. Head out early to have Edward’s Crossing and Hoyt’s Crossing all to yourself.
Samuel P Taylor State Park
See coho salmon spawn, swim in Lagunitas Creek, or hike through quiet redwood forests to Barnabe Peak in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, just a few miles northwest of Lagunitas. In the summer, California State Parks and local collaborative One Tam host a “Zen of Weeding” event where volunteers work together to remove invasive species from the park—the perfect opportunity to help while you hike.
South of San Mateo County’s Halfmoon Bay, Martin’s Beach is punctuated by Pacific waves, dramatic bluffs, and Sharkfin Rock—an arched sea stack frequented by starfish, brown pelicans, and avid surfers. Far from city lights, the wide sandy beach is also a great location for stargazing.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley’s four-mile Mosaic Canyon makes for a family-friendly scramble. Just remember to check the weather and bring water—summer temperatures can reach 108°F, and unexpected flash floods are the very phenomenon that created the valley’s snaking slot canyons.
Bordered by Gold Rush towns and the snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains, Carpenter Valley is preserved and protected by the Truckee Donner Land Trust. Docents lead five-mile-long hikes through wetland, fen, and forest habitats, which are home to black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes.
Butano State Park
Forty miles of hiking trails cross the fern-floored forest of Butano State Park, founded in 1957 to protect second and third-growth redwoods from logging. Butano’s misty atmosphere refreshes resident newts, banana slugs, orchids, redwoods (which consume 30 percent of their water through fog), and intrepid mountain bikers riding the 12-mile Butano Rim.
Uvas Canyon County Park
On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Uvas Canyon County Park’s one-mile waterfall loop stretches through half a dozen rushing, moss-lined waterfalls. Uvas Canyon is native habitat for the flowering shrub yerba santa, long cultivated by Native California tribes for medicinal use. Today the plant is being studied as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
A subrange of the Klamath Mountains, the Trinity Alps Wilderness is the second largest wilderness area in California, with summits up to 9,000 feet. Hundred-year-old horseback riding trails, once used by miners and pioneers, wind past wildflower meadows, craggy mountain peaks, and willow-lined creeks.
Adjacent to Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is the birthplace of wet suits and a beloved, though challenging, surfing venue. The beach’s quirky history makes for unique sightseeing—from Sutro Baths to tombstone seawalls to the shipwrecked King Philip.
Salt Point State Park
Sonoma County’s Salt Point State Park protects underwater marine habitat, coastal meadows, and thick forests of Douglas firs, oaks, and Pacific madrones. The park is named for its coastal salt deposits, once scraped and harvested by Kashaya Pomo Native Americans. Explore the wave-worn tafoni rock formations in South Girstle Cove, where tide pools sparkle with red abalone, sea urchins, crabs, and starfish.
Hendy Woods State Park
At Hendy Woods State Park, 2.5 hours north of San Francisco, the 1.6-mile wheelchair-accessible Discovery Trail curves through gray fox habitat, spring-blooming irises, and thousand-year-old redwoods. The park’s pebbly Navarro River is a favorite for canoeing, kayaking, and swimming.
Pinnacles National Park
Formed by volcanic faults more than 20 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is a jungle gym for rock climbers, spelunkers, condors, cougars, and some 400 species of bees. Photographer Mason Trinca suggests a sunrise or sunset hike up Condor Gulch Trail or High Peaks trail for prime photo ops, but reminds visitors to “set the camera aside, enjoy the sunset, and soak up the views.”
First inhabited 8,000 years ago by the Calendaru people, Moss Landing’s marshy location along Elkhorn Slough makes it one of the best places in the country for birding. Pelicans, snowy plovers, nesting ducks, and more than a hundred other bird species can be spotted in a single day.
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