From prehistoric redwood trees to crystalline seas, California is cherished by nature lovers for its beautifully diverse biomes. While national parks like Yosemite and Death Valley receive most of the attention, state parks offer scenic beauty with the added bonuses of lower (and sometimes free) admission prices and fewer tourists.
For adventure-seekers who prefer to avoid crowded national parks, read on to discover five of the most enchanting California state parks, along with an essential gear guide for hiking and/or camping in them. Be sure to check the California State Parks website before you make plans, as some areas may be closed or have new regulations in place because of Covid-19 concerns. Also, check out our guide to safer camping during a pandemic for additional expert advice on what to pack. However, to be as far away from other people as possible while still at a managed campsite, backcountry camping might be the perfect vacation for summer 2020.
5 of the best California state parks
Located in Carmel, Point Lobos is not only a state park but also a nature reserve. With several rare plant species, endangered archaeological sites, eye-catching geological formations and an abundance of both land and sea life, Point Lobos attracts locals, visitors, educators, scuba divers and scientists. A perfect place to jog, jaunt, paint, picnic and spy on playful sea otters, Point Lobos is a tranquil and low-key place to interact with nature.
Waterfalls and beaches are two iconically magical features — combine them to get a truly enchanting paradise. Big Sur’s famed Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on California’s central coast and is named after a well-respected rancher who lived in the Big Sur region in the early 20th century. With swaths of rock formations, coastal flora, 2,500-year-old redwood trees towering 300 feet above, and McWay Falls, which drops over an 80-foot cliff into the Pacific Ocean, this intimate beach is a pristine locale to find solitude or enjoy nature with loved ones. Unfortunately, people are not allowed at the beach at McWay Falls at the moment. Please check park websites for the most current information.
Nestled along the glistening Eel River, Humboldt Redwoods State Park includes Rockefeller Forest, which is the world’s largest remaining contiguous old-growth forest of coastal redwoods. Whether you’re camping, swimming in the clear river, or hiking through a cathedral of ancient redwoods, this stunning state park offers myriad activities for every type of adventurer. Or drive the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants, making stops along the way to explore what lies beyond the road. With campsites peppered throughout the region, such as Richardson Grove State Park in Garberville, there are several to choose from, as well as the option to just make a day trip of it.
Who doesn’t love a mystical, whooshing waterfall? McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, the second oldest state park in the California State Parks system, offers an array of outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, swimming, horseback riding and, of course, camping. Located far from the coast in northern California’s Shasta County, the park is situated in the Cascade Range and Modoc Plateau, a place where the wilderness is alive and well.
To some, the desert is their sanctuary. Though it may seem hostile to life, it holds an infinitude of wonder. Its pastel landscapes and star-filled night skies frequently attract mystic revelers and artists. In the springtime, Anza-Borrego’s short-lived super-bloom of wildflowers draws large crowds who come to see this rare and natural marvel before it disappears. Including one-fifth of San Diego County, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California.
Essential California Camping Gear Guide
Eno Hammock (starting at $49.95; amazon.com)
Lightweight and available in multiple colorways, the Eno hammock has become a staple for campers and hikers. An Eno takes up very little space in a backpack, so you can take it anywhere. Whether you’re camping in a shaded forest on a warm summer night or simply taking a break from a long hike, it sets up and breaks down in a flash. There are several add-ons available, like a bug net, rainfly or freestanding hammock stand, that allow an Eno to thrive in various settings.
Petzl Headlamp (starting at $29.95; amazon.com)
With many brands of headlamps on the market, Petzl is one of the most popular among outdoor enthusiasts. Its single button design makes it easy for users to adjust brightness and color while on the go. It’s important to carry a headlamp while hiking, as one wrong turn can unexpectedly extend a hike, which could mean navigating in the dark. Stay prepared and get a Petzl.
Turkish Towel ($16.95, originally $29; amazon.com)
As absorbent as a terry-cloth towel but a quarter of the thickness, a Turkish towel is a multifunctional item that campers, hikers and travelers should keep in their arsenal. Not only do they pack light, they can be used to dry off, as a picnic blanket, or as a head wrap to protect the face from the sun. And because they are beautifully designed and come in a rainbow of colors, they also look dashing as a shawl or scarf.
CamelBak Hydration Backpack (starting at $37.50, originally $50; amazon.com)
Ideal for a day hike, CamelBak backpacks are versatile and make staying hydrated while on the trail very convenient. The hose-drinking system makes carrying a large water bottle seem clumsy. Depending on the model, there is often space to add other items like snacks and sunscreen. To truly hit the trails in comfort, snag a pair of the ultimate hiking shoes as well.
Osprey Talon 22 Hiking Pack (starting at $119.95; amazon.com)
One of the most popular and versatile hiking backpacks on the market, the Osprey Talon 22 offers stable support with its sturdy harnesses and wrap hipbelt, while its breathable back panel keeps a hiker cool. It features side stretch mesh pockets, an external water bottle sleeve, top panel zippered pocket, a helmet attachment, and a “stow-on-the-go” trekking pole attachment. It’s lightweight and compact, making it a great travel pack.
Leatherman Wingman Multitool ($49.95, originally $59.95; amazon.com)
As the old adage goes, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Whether it’s used to slice avocados for a picnic or to yank tent stakes out of hard-packed soil, the Leatherman is a trusted tool for all those moments when hikers suddenly discover they need it.
Jetboil Flash Camping and Backpacking Stove Cooking System ($109.97; amazon.com)
One of the handiest camping devices ever created, the Jetboil is compact and easy to pack, and it boils water in just over two minutes. Great for backpacking trips, it can be used to boil water for tea or dehydrated food, while its many attachment offerings make it possible to cook an entire gourmet meal at your campsite. Be sure to grab a 230-gram can of Jetboil Jetpower Fuel ($18.50, amazon.com) that will boil up to 24 liters of water. To stay satiated throughout a long hike, check out these 13 energizing foods that can be tucked into a backpack.
Adventure Medical Kit Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit ($24.99; amazon.com)
Adventurers know better than anyone that accidents happen. Sometimes it’s as serious as a sprained ankle and other times as annoying as a blister, which is why having a first-aid kit on hand is a no-brainer — especially when camping or hiking with kids. This kit is the recommended for two people who are hiking for two days. These handy kits come in a variety of additional configuration to fit your scenario.
Thinksport Sunscreen SPF 50+ ($21.21; amazon.com)
Sunscreen may seem too obvious to mention, but this particular brand is especially trusted by hikers and campers. It’s free of biologically harmful chemicals and can withstand sweat, swims and the general rigors of hiking. Plus, it’s long-lasting and needn’t be constantly reapplied.
The Siesta4 Tent (starting at $399; outbacklogic.com)
Ideal for desert camping, this spacey-looking tent reflects the heat of the sun so you won’t wake up in an oven. It also insulates during those frigid desert nights and can withstand thunderstorms, freezing temperatures and blazing heat, all while looking cool. And it comes with two fans.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.