California’s National Parks may bring the big guns (Yosemite, Muir Woods, and Alcatraz, for example), but the Golden State’s vast network of state parks showcases its rich history, diverse ecosystems, and sublime scenery. With 280 separate parks, the California State Park system is the largest in the United States, and accommodates everyone from solo wilderness hunters to boisterous families.

If you’re looking to take it all in, these parks boast some of the state’s best and most accessible views.

view of the San Francisco Bay from Angel Island

Angel Island has stunning views. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman.

  • Take advantage of one of California’s most famous photo ops at Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. McWay Falls, with its ribbon of water hitting a white sand beach feet away from a rocky, aquamarine cove, is an easy stroll from the parking on Highway 1. Take any one of the trails climbing the hillsides east of the highway for grand views of Big Sur’s coastline plunging into the vast Pacific.
  • If the beauty of crystal-clear Lake Tahoe wasn’t revelatory enough, true inspiration can be found at Inspiration Point, overlooking the jewel-like waters of Emerald Bay State Park. Once you’ve caught your breath, follow the easy and scenic Rubicon Trail to Vikingsholm Castle for some added grandeur.
  • Catch diverse views of wild mountains, Marin’s waterfront, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s cityscape, and Alcatraz, while hiking around Angel Island State Park. The sights begin as soon as you board the ferry in either San Francisco or Tiberon, and keep on coming—even as you visit the Immigration Station, the poetry of which is sure to inspire a pause for reflection.

Wild California certainly means wild, and parks offer first row seats to some of California’s most charismatic creatures.

elephant seal winking

Año Nuevo is awash in elephant seals. Photo © Frank S. Valli.

  • Marvel at the sheer size and numbers of the elephant seals that congregate every year at Año Nuevo State Park to mate, breed, fight, and play. Join a tour January through March when the pups are at their cutest, or come in the quieter summer months and enjoy the rich ecological diversity.
  • Bring your binoculars and hunt for Eared Grebes among the two million nesting and migrating birds at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Thanks to the brine shrimp and alkali flies, nearly 100 different species of birds flock to California’s most stunning and unusual lake, making it a birder’s paradise.
  • Discover Roosevelt Elk, nestled in the sand dunes and meandering the trails in the Fern Canyon of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. As if the park’s windswept beach at the foot of an old growth redwood forest weren’t magical enough, these oversized ungulates add to the wonder.

Families traveling through California will find a friend in the State Parks. All are accessible, affordable, and come with a wealth of activities and attractions, but some truly stand out in terms of exciting the imagination and burning off restless energy.

blonde boy panning for gold

Panning for gold in Malakoff Diggins State Park. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman.

  • Undoubtedly the kids will beeline it to the old-fashioned candy store, but Columbia State Historic Park has more than just sticky sweets. This preserved Gold Rush town offers carriage rides, gold panning, and cheerful docents in period costume bringing the Wild West to life.
  • Set up camp like a real gold miner at Malakoff Diggins State Park. With huge, shaded camp sites, a preserved Gold Rush town, a creek for gold panning, and the biggest the hydraulic mine in the state, this laid back park will keep kids entertained for days.
  • All the ingredients for a classic California summer camping trip come together at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Swim in the Stanislaus River, bike the myriad of crisscrossing trails, and explore the giant sequoias at this family favorite.

So, no matter what your looking for—a wilderness adventure, a kid pleasing camping trip, or a snap shot of the state’s most beautiful sights—be sure to add one (or two) of California’s state parks to your itinerary.