The 12 Prettiest State Parks in California

Written by Jennifer Haase
Published: July 11, 2022
© iStock.com/CelsoDiniz
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There’s no shortage of beautiful places to explore in California. From the towering redwoods to the sunny beaches, the Golden State is home to some of the most stunning scenery in the country. But with so many different landscapes and attractions, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve compiled an exciting list of the 12 prettiest state parks in California, perfect for a weekend getaway or extended road trip.

So, whether you’re looking for magnificent waterfalls, towering rock formations, or serene desert landscapes, read on for our recommendations on the best places to enjoy the great outdoors in California.

1. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: Breathtaking Beauty

Rocky cliffs are a trademark of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

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Situated along California’s Central Coast, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. And it’s not hard to see why – the region is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. The park encompasses approximately 1,006 acres of land. It is known for its impressive coastline, which includes rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, and redwood forests.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is on the west side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. It was officially established as a park in 1933. Visitors to the park enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and picnicking. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is also home to Pfeiffer Beach, a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing.

Located in the heart of the park, Big Sur River Gorge is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area. The river gorge is home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, and California Condors. Visitors can also enjoy hiking, camping, and fishing along the river.

Hiking the Big Sur River Gorge Trail is an excellent way to experience the beauty of nature. The trailhead is near the Big Sur ranger station, and the trail winds through a scenic canyon before reaching the river itself. The trail is clearly marked, easy to navigate, and an excellent choice for hikers of all skill levels.

2. Crystal Cove State Park: Backcountry Wilderness

Enormous sequoia trees live in many of the prettiest state parks in California.

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Crystal Cove State Park is a very pretty and serene state park in California. The 3.2 miles of coastline and rolling hills offer stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, and the hiking trails through the park are perfect for a peaceful nature walk. The tide pools at Crystal Cove are also a popular spot for exploring marine life and relaxing in the sun.

Located south of Los Angeles, Crystal Cover State Park is accessible from the Pacific Coast Highway near Laguna Beach. The park was established in 1979 and has been a popular spot for recreation ever since. In its early days, the beach served as a film set for movies such as Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo. It remains a popular destination for photographers and filmmakers today.

Despite its popularity, the park still feels wild and natural. The Crystal Cove Conservancy works to protect the park’s fragile ecosystem.

Crystal Cove State Park has a large variety of trees and animals. The park’s giant sequoias are some of the tallest trees on the planet, and its redwoods are among the oldest trees on Earth.

You’ll see that the redwood tree appears quite a bit in this list of the prettiest state parks in California, as it’s the official state tree. And some of the largest trees in the world are redwoods and sequoias.

Crystal Cove is also home to rare and endangered species, including the California condor, the American peregrine falcon, and the American bald eagle.

The park’s diverse ecosystem provides a habitat for various animals, including black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and deer. Crystal Cove State Park is an important refuge for wildlife and a place where people can enjoy the beauty of nature.

3. Mount Diablo State Park: Majestic Views and Wildflower Watching

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Wildlife and wildflower watching are popular pastimes at Mount Diablo State Park.

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Mount Diablo State Park is in the Contra Costa region of California, east of San Francisco. The park is home to Mount Diablo (3,894 feet high), as well as a variety of hiking trails and scenic lookout points.

One of the best ways to enjoy Mount Diablo State Park is by taking a hike to the summit of Mount Diablo. The views from the top of the mountain are outstanding, and on a clear day, you can even see the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.

If you love wildflowers, Mount Diablo State Park won’t disappoint! With more than 90 wildflower species, the park is a veritable haven for flower lovers. In spring, the hillsides come alive with color as hundreds of different wildflowers bloom. You can see everything from delicate purple lupines to vibrant orange poppies. Also, watch for the Diablo Sunflower that grows exclusively at Mount Diablo State Park in the foothills. The Diablo Sunflower blooms between April and June.

There are several great trails for wildflower viewing at Mount Diablo State Park. One of the best is the 7-mile Grand Loop Trail. For a shorter hike, try the Mary Bowerman Trail. You can also see plenty of wildflowers along the Summit Trail and North Peak Trail.

4. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Enchanting Waterfalls

images of several of the waterfalls and streams of Whiskeytown
California parks have some of the prettiest waterfalls in the world.

©iStock.com/jim Schlett

Located in Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the 12 prettiest state parks in California. However, this is different from the Pfeiffer Big Sur park mentioned above. The namesake of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a pioneer woman who lived in the area in the early 1900s. It features a variety of beautiful hiking trails and scenic overlooks. But don’t miss out on the enchanting waterfalls!

One of the most popular attractions at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is McWay Falls. This 80-foot waterfall cascades into the ocean. Visitors view the falls from the overlook trail.

The best time to visit McWay Falls is from late September to early October. The water flow is highest, and the falls are most spectacular. The weather is also usually mild and sunny during this time, making it perfect for hiking and enjoying nature.

5. Emerald Bay State Park: Glacial Waterfalls and Lake Tahoe Views

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of the main attractions of Emerald Bay State Park.

©topseller/Shutterstock.com

Emerald Bay State Park is another beloved state park in California, and it’s easy to see why. The park nestles against Lake Tahoe’s shores, offering stunning views of the water and the surrounding mountains.

Each year, over 3 million people visit Lake Tahoe, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. It’s also one of the biggest lakes in Northern California. Shimmering in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe is known for its clear blue waters and breathtaking scenery. Visitors enjoy many activities such as hiking, biking, skiing, and more.

Lake Tahoe is one of the largest freshwater lakes in North America, and at 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, it is also one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. Its deep blue waters are a sight to behold, as are its shores lined with sandy beaches and towering pines.

Another popular attraction at Emerald Bay State Park is Eagle Falls, a beautiful glacial waterfall that tumbles into the lake. The falls are visible from the trail that leads to the beach. Eagle Falls is especially spectacular in the spring when the snow is melting.

Emerald Bay has plenty of wildlife, including black bears, coyotes, deer, and mountain lions. Visitors to the park may also see birds such as eagles, hawks, and owls. In addition to its many animals, Emerald Bay State Park has all the impressive trees California is known for, including California redwoods.

6. McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park: Volcanic Rock Mystique

Volcanoes are part of the mystique of the California landscape.

©Zack Frank/Shutterstock.com

Located in Northern California, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is a popular destination for hikers and nature lovers. The park is home to Burney Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state, plus plenty of volcanic rock across the landscape.

The falls at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park get water from Burney Creek, which flows down from the nearby Cascades. Burney Falls is 129 feet tall and has a water flow of 100 million gallons per day.

Burney Falls formed over millions of years as the lava from nearby California volcanoes cooled and hardened. Over time, the lava flows slowly eroded, leaving behind the magnificent falls. Today, the black volcanic rock (called basalt) surrounding Burney Falls is part of the intrigue and appeal of the park.

In addition to the falls, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is also home to a variety of hiking trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds.

And if you’re into camping, check out our suggestions for the 5 best places to camp in California this summer.

7. Empire Mine State Park: A Living History of the California Gold Rush

The Empire Mine State Park rests in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

©Serj Malomuzh/Shutterstock.com

Empire Mine State Park is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills and is a popular destination for history buffs and nature lovers. The park is home to the Empire Mine, one of California’s largest and most productive gold mines.

The Empire Mine at Empire Mine State Park is one of North America’s oldest, largest, and deepest gold mines. The mine operated for over 100 years, from 1850 to 1956. During that time, it produced 5.8 million ounces of gold, making it one of the most productive gold mines in California history.

Today, the mine is a popular tourist attraction, and visitors take tours of the underground tunnels and learn the history of the California Gold Rush. The park also offers guided tours through historic buildings and structures, such as the Empire Mine Headframe and the Bourn Cottage.

Empire Mine State Park is one of the 12 prettiest state parks in California because of its many features. The park has multiple hiking trails and scenic viewpoints along its beautiful forests, meadows, and streams. Visitors can also enjoy views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from various points in the park.

8. Point Lobos State Reserve: A Marine Life Paradise

A Pacific white-sided dolphin leaps out of the water in Monterey Bay, California.
Dolphin watching in Monterey Bay is a popular reason to visit Point Lobos State Reserve.

©Chase Dekker/Shutterstock.com

Point Lobos State Reserve is one of the most beautiful parks in the area. So much so that many refer to the park as California’s crown jewel. The reserve is in Monterey, with remarkable views of the Pacific Ocean.

The reserve got its name from the Point Lobos, a group of offshore rocks that are popular with divers. The waters around Point Lobos are teeming with marine life, making it a popular spot for scuba diving and snorkeling.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a protected marine area located offshore of Point Lobos State Reserve. The sanctuary encompasses a large swath of Monterey Bay, from Marin County in the north to Cambria in the south. Within the park’s boundaries lie some of the most diverse and productive marine ecosystems on Earth. The marine sanctuary is home to numerous habitats like kelp forests, deep-sea canyons, and coral reefs. These diverse habitats support an array of marine life, from whales and dolphins to sea otters and penguins.

Point Lobos State Reserve also has a variety of hiking trails, which offer wonderful views of the coast.

9. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Rugged Desert Appeal

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has over 600,000 acres of beautiful desert landscape.

©eric laudonien/Shutterstock.com

A list of prettiest state parks in California wouldn’t be complete without this desert darling. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is not only beautiful — it’s the biggest state park in California. And it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular destination. The park covers more than 600,000 acres, making it a great place to explore and experience the unique beauty of the California desert.

Anze-Borrego Desert State Park’s namesake is Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who led the first European expedition through the area in 1769. The name Borrego comes from the Spanish word for sheep.

The park is home to many unique and exciting plants and animals, including the threatened desert bighorn sheep. The park also has a fascinating history, with human occupation dating back over 10,000 years.

There are many fun things to do in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, from hiking and biking to horseback riding and stargazing. In addition, the Anza-Borrego region is a hotspot for California bird watching, with over 300 bird species living in the area. And with over 500 miles of trails, there’s something for everyone at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to enjoy.

10. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: A Sanctuary for Wildlife

Longest Rivers in California - Eel River
California parks have many stunning redwood forests.

©Anna Westman/Shutterstock.com

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is home to some of the oldest redwoods in the world.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was established in 1954, named after American composer Henry Cowell. The park spans 4,650 acres of old-growth coast redwood forest. It includes several ecosystems such as prairies, oak woodlands, and chaparral.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park hosts a variety of wild animals, including black bears, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and squirrels. In addition, the park has many reptiles and amphibians, including snakes, lizards, and frogs.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park boasts one of the largest populations of marbled murrelets in California. The park works to protect the murrelets through conservation efforts, including habitat restoration, monitoring, and education. The marbled murrelet is a type of seabird that nests in the tall trees of old-growth forests along the Pacific coast. The species is labeled as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and protected by California state law.

11. Castle Crags State Park: A Scenic Destination for Climbers

Longest Rivers in California - Sacramento River
Sacramento River runs near Castle Crags State Park.

©Teri L Wertman/Shutterstock.com

Located in Northern California, Castle Crags State Park is a popular destination for both hikers and climbers. This pretty park with unique rocky terrain has impressive views of the Sacramento River.

The park’s name comes from the castle-like rock formations found throughout the area. These rocks are a popular destination for climbers, with trails that lead to the top of the formations.

The park has 28 miles worth of hiking trails in total. Craigs Trail is a challenging trail for experienced hikers that offers incredible views of the massive granite formations.

Castle Crags State Park is home to some of the tallest granite spires in North America. These towering rocks attract climbers worldwide who test their skills on the steep faces.

The park’s cliffs offer a variety of routes for climbers of all levels, from beginner to expert. In addition, several hiking trails lead to the base of the spires, providing breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

12. Samuel P. Taylor State Park: A Redwood Oasis

Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is near Samuel P. Taylor State Park in California.

©Xiu Yu Photography/Shutterstock.com

Located in Marin County, California, Samuel P. Taylor State Park has nearly 3,000 acres of gorgeous redwood trees to admire near San Francisco Bay. The park got its name from the man responsible for building the first sawmill in the area. Today, this pretty park is home to miles of hiking and biking trails and a variety of picnic areas.

One thing visitors love to do in Samuel P. Taylor State Park is to hike to the top of Barnabe Peak. The summit has incredible views of the surrounding tree groves and grasslands. It’s a strenuous hike up to Barnabe Peak, but experienced hikers say it’s worth every step.

Samuel P. Taylor State Park sits near Point Reyes National Seashore and Point Reyes Lighthouse. There are plenty of campsites and cabins at the park for vacation travelers to extend their stay and visit other nearby tourist favorites, like the many beautiful beaches along the coast.

Samuel P. Taylor State Park has many beautiful trees, including redwoods, Douglas firs, oaks, and acorns. Wildlife at the park includes lots of black-tailed deer, often seen grazing in the meadows or forest. Other animals in the park include coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

Visiting California State Parks

These pretty state parks are a great choice if you’re looking for a breathtaking nature experience! California has some of the most scenic state parks in the country, each offering something unique and special. From the towering redwoods of Samuel P. Taylor State Park to the stunning cliff faces of Castle Crags State Park, plus incredible waterfalls galore — there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Before traveling, be sure to check weather conditions, especially during fire season. Follow all park regulations and be safety conscious while enjoying all the 12 prettiest state parks of California have to offer!

And for more fascinating reading about state parks, take a look at our article on the 10 prettiest state parks in the United States.


The Featured Image

Lake Tahoe Sierra Nevada, California, USA
Lake Tahoe boasts amazing skiing, a lake monster, endless fishing options, and an array of other outdoor activities for the entire family
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About the Author

I've been a professional writer for over 12 years, specializing in nature themes, including plants and animals. My areas of interest include pets, sea animals, and flowers. Plus, I can't get enough of red pandas and hummingbirds! I also enjoy gardening, nutrition studies, and snuggling with my cats in my spare time.

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