12 Prettiest California State Parks and Reserves

California has the largest number of state parks, beaches, and reserves in the country. Here are the most beautiful of them. You can visit these 12 California state parks during short day excursions or longer family weekend getaways.  

Last updated: May 14, 2024

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The 12 best California state parks and reserves

State Parks and Reserves in California

With 280 state parks, California renders unique natural beauty and a rich legacy of man-made structures often concealed from the majority of the Golden State’s visitors. While the latter ache to explore the immense wonders of national parks, locals and those who travel slowly immerse themselves into subtle charm and not rarely complete tranquility of smaller destinations. 

California state parks are diverse. Some are big, covering a few hundred thousand acres. Some are small like Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park, just a tiny corner in a large city. 

While we started our nature-infused adventures in California with national parks, slowly but surely we expanded this territory adding more state parks and reserves to our bucket list. Here are some of our favorite California state parks, in no particular order. 

Get a visual overview of the best California state parks and reserves


1. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

All state parks within the Big Sur area in Central California deserve admiration. In fact, due to its natural beauty and fame as one of the world’s most beautiful drives, the Central Coast sees more international visitors than California lesser-known national parks, such as Pinnacles National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

But there are several state parks and reserves in Big Sur that I feel inclined to give special attention to. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of them. The 400-acre scenic park sits in the northern corner of Big Sur, just 8.5 miles south of the scenic 17-Mile Drive in Monterey.

Bounded by high swell on one side and rolling hills on the other, the state reserve depicts the true character of California. Wild, bold, slightly dangerous, never predictable, and absolutely spectacular…

Several easy trails intersect the area, taking its visitors to lonely cliffs, at the bottom of which seals rest after months of foraging in the sea, or picturesque coves, including China Cove, with the views of bird-inhabited isles.

  • Location: Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Hours: 8:00 am – 7:00 pm. Last entry at 6:30 pm
  • Admission: $10 day-use parking fee
How to hike Bird Island Trail - Roads and Destinations
China Cove | The most beautiful California state parks
How to hike Bird Island Trail - Roads and Destinations
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve | California State Parks

2. McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Locals call it simply Burney Falls. And while the 129-foot waterfalls is not the only attraction in the park, it’s certainly the main one. Fearing that the natural site could become another victim of hydroelectric development projects, Scott McArthur purchased the land surrounding the waterfall in the early 20th century. In May 1920, the property was gifted to the State of California in memory of John and Catherine McArthur. 

Today, McArthur-Burney Falls is considered one the most beautiful state parks in California. A waterfall that never reaches the heights of famous Yosemite’s waterfalls, Burney Falls surpasses them with its predictability. Throughout the year, the roaring giant diligently transfers 100 million gallons of water into Burney Creek. 

  • Location: Shasta County
  • Hours: 8:00 am – 8:30 pm
  • Admission: $8 day-use parking fee
Visit Burney Falls - Roads and Destinations
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park | Scenic state parks in Northern California

3. Red Rock Canyon State Park

Red, white, and pinkish buttes rise over a California desert, roughly 120 miles south of Los Angeles. Like welcoming hosts, the peculiar pillars greet every traveler driving along Highway 14. And just like skillful entertainers, the lonely group of the desert formations arouses their curiosity at once. 

Red Rock Canyon State Park has allured locals and visitors of California for centuries. In the old days, the Kawaiisu Indians lived and traded near a dramatic gash at the western edge of the El Paso Mountains. Ancient petroglyphs that tell stories about courage, struggles, and desert life can still be found in the mountains.

Life in the desert has never been easy. Challenging is also a hike through the open terrain of California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park in summer. But the same barren desert turns into a vivid floral painting in spring. After a wet winter, wildflowers emerge in a small valley between the Visitor Center and Ricardo Campground, adding a short-lived but such a lovely pop of color. 

TIP: If you want to see what life in the desert may look like, check out our Death Valley experience during a dust storm.

  • Location: Cantil 
  • Admission: $6 day-use parking fee
Hiking in Red Rock Canyon State Park, California - Roads and Destinations
Red Rock Canyon State Park | The prettiest state parks in Southern California

4. Garrapata State Park

The wildflowers also pop up in Garrapata State Park, located in Big Sur along California Central Coast. The blooms spread along the entire hillsides, abruptly stopping by rocks and narrow sandy stretches of land. 

From mid-February through mid-April, the secluded Calla Lily Valley dominates the entire flower show. A hike to the hidden gully festooned with large white plants is a short walk from a roadside parking area. The trail terminates at a shallow gorge that faces the vast ocean. Providing constant water supply to the blooms, a winding brook runs through the valley and an adjacent beach until it empties into the Pacific.

The longer Soberanes Point – Whale Peak Trail, with a few footbridges, loops the area, taking the hikers closer to the shore and then back to the scenic road. A section of the world-famous Big Sur Drive, Garrapata State Park attracts California road-trippers all the year round. 

  • Location: Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Hours: Open 24 hours
  • Admission: No entrance fees
How to Hike Soberanes Point, Whale Peak Trail in Garrapata State Park - Roads and Destinations
Garrapata State Park | The most beautiful state parks in Central California

5. Emerald Bay State Park

Often compared with Lake Bled in Slovenia, Emerald Bay State Park is located 12 miles north of South Lake Tahoe. As part of the California side of Lake Tahoe, the area inherits its rough beauty and boasts a number of alluring sites nearby. 

The signature feature of Emerald Bay State Park is Fannette Island. The dramatic isle looks like a small spot stranded in the lake. In reality, though, it’s big enough to shelter Vikingsholm, a 38-room mansion originally owned by Lora Josephine Knight. 

The historic structure was built between 1928 and 1929 in the best Scandinavian traditions. The state acquired the property in 1953. Today, the hidden castle is considered a National Historic Landmark. The mansion, however, is a seasonal attraction. It’s open for tours only in the summer months from June to September.

  • Location: South Lake Tahoe
  • Hours: open from sunrise to sunset
  • Admission: $8-10 day-use parking fee
California State Parks - Roads and Destinations
Emerald Bay State Park | The best California state parks

6. Point Mugu State Park

After living in California for more than a decade, I’ve heard about Point Mugu State Park. But somehow the area didn’t end up on my list of local adventures until recently. In fact, like for many other frequent visitors of the Malibu area, it felt more like a hidden gem than a popular, tourist destination. A few weeks ago, we were invited for a barbecue at Sycamore Cove Beach. 

Needless to say, the sandy stretch of land bounded by a rocky outcropping and a creek that runs through a tunnel under Highway 1 was all I needed to add Point Mugu State Park to my list of the best state parks in California. 

The park also includes two valleys, five miles of sandy beaches, and an extensive network of hiking trails.

  • Location: Malibu
  • Admission: $8-12 day-use parking fee
Sycamore Canyon - Roads and Destinations
Point Mugu State Park | The most beautiful California state park

7. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

A few natural sites set Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and its surroundings apart from the other coastal parks in Central California. First, it’s purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach. Pockets of colorful sand appear where a brook trickles through the beach to the ocean. The flowing water magically interferes with the sand that, in its turn, acquires purple shade. 

The rest of the beach features a predictable yellowish color. But that’s not the end of the miracles that allure Californians to this section of the Big Sur’s state parks. At sunrise and sunset, sunlight gets trapped in Keyhole Arch. Unable to rise over the rock formation, the golden rays, now formed into a star or a long beam, squeeze out of the hollow and spread out in different directions. 

Note: Pfeiffer Beach is located roughly 10 miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The most prominent site within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park that is famous not only in California but throughout the world is McWay Falls. The 80-foot waterfall drops from a sheer cliff on an empty beach. At high tide, the water stream empties directly into the ocean. 

The beach, however, is closed for visitors. Several years ago, a slide caused a permanent closure of the section of the trail that led to the beach. The stunning waterfall can still be observed from the 0.5-mile, round-trip McWay Falls Overlook Trail. 

TIP: Due to landslides that can occur any time of the year, the part of Big Sur may be closed. Check out road conditions before going to the state parks along the California coast.

  • Location: Big Sur
  • Admission: $10 day-use parking fee
How to visit McWay Falls, Big Sur - Roads and Destinations
McWay Falls | Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

8. Antelope Valley California Poppy State Reserve State Natural Reserve

Plain and barren most of the year, Antelope Valley California Poppy State Reserve transforms into vibrant orange seas at the end of winter. After heavy winter rainfalls, the desert ground gives birth to millions of orange California poppies. The flowers start blooming as early as mid-February and may last through late May. And these orange fields are a sight to behold.

Note: Not a seasonal splendor, but a permanent site, Artists Palette in Death Valley National Park also offers a stunning pop of color in the deserted hills of Southern California. It’s a sight you don’t want to miss.

  • Location: Lancaster
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset
  • Admission: $8 day-use parking fee
Antelope Valley - Roads and Destinations
Antelope Valley | The most vibrant state parks in Southern California

9. Mount San Jacinto State Park

Nestled about 6 miles northeast of Palm Springs along Tramway Road, Mount San Jacinto State Park offers a much-needed relief from the scorching Southern California sun. 

Palm Springs, a city popular for its lavish pool parties, was unbearable in early June a few years ago. Roshan planned a birthday surprise for me. But not being big fans of hanging out by the pool with large crowds of strangers, we also couldn’t stay in the city. It was too hot, too humid, and just too much to be outside…

Instead of sweating in the streets of Palm Springs or hiding inside air-conditioned cafes with large acai bowls, we jumped on an aerial tram and were transported to the coolness of Mount San Jacinto State Park.

Rising more than 8,500 feet above the Colorado Desert, the state park was about 25 degrees cooler than the popular Southern California desert city. We skipped a tour through the Natural History Museum and documentaries offered by two theaters at the Mountain Station and headed down a paved walking path. 

This part of the California state park can suit hikers of all walks of life. The trails are mostly paved, with an insignificant change in elevation. If you prefer a rougher environment, get off the paved paths and dive deeper into the forest. Here with fewer people to scare them, California wild animals appear more often. 

  • Location: Idyllwild-Pine Cove
  • Hours: 8:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • Admission: $10 day-use parking fee
Day Trips from Los Angeles | Roads and Destinations
State parks in Southern California
Mount San Jacinto State Park, California - Roads and Destinations
Mount San Jacinto State Park

10. Leo Carrillo State Park

A cozy beach with several natural arches perched right in the ocean, Leo Carrillo State Park is one of the most beautiful beaches in California. Sunbathers and landscape photographers flock to this idyllic location, rain or shine. Hidden from the sun under large beach umbrellas, locals can spend hours on end admiring a soothing game of swirling waves and watching seagulls hunting and foraging for food.

In early spring, the cliffs above the beach adorn themselves with yellow wildflowers. The ocean is not warm enough to swim. But the sand that is getting more pleasant to the bare feet day by day and significantly fewer visitors makes this California state park especially appealing. 

  • Location: Malibu
  • Hours: 8:00 am – 10:00 pm
  • Admission: $8-12 day-use parking fee
The least crowded beaches in Los Angeles - California State Parks - Roads and Destinations,
Leo Carrillo State Park | Iconic state parks in Southern California

11. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Neighboring bigger and, in some cases, even more beautiful lakes in the Mammoth Lakes region, Mono Lake would be just another charming lake known only to locals if not for one thing. Mono Lake is a saline soda lake. 

Lake water that never flows to the ocean periodically evaporates, leaving dissolved salt and other minerals on the surface. These minerals make Mono Lake 2.5 times saltier than the ocean. 

When the lake water mixes with underwater springs that are rich in calcium, the famous tufa towers form. In essence, these bizarre rock formations are limestone sediments composed of calcium carbonate. 

Some of the tufa formations rise above the surface a few feet away from the shore. The majority of them congregate by the lakeside. Climbing the tufa towers, however, is prohibited.  

  • Location: Lee Vining
  • Admission: $3 day-use parking fee
Visiting Mono Lake – South Tufa Area - California State Parks - Roads and Destinations
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve | The most beautiful California state parks

12. El Matador State Beach

Another secluded beach in Malibu, El Matador State Beach is also one of the most beautiful state-owned properties in California. Massive bluffs loom over the sandy stretch of coast and protect it from excessive attention and elements. Tiny alcoves inside the cliffs cover beachgoers, both human and feathered, from scorching California heat.

Cave-tunnels can also be found in the ocean, right near the state beach. More boulders and single rock-islands rise over the water, casting spectacular shadows during sunset. At the top of the rocks, seagulls, permanent sights on this California state beach, find a safe haven to build their colonies and rest after foraging on the land and in the ocean.

  • Location: Malibu
  • Admission: $8 day-use parking fee
El Matador State Beach | A Valuable Treasure in Malibu - Roads and Destinations
El Matador State Beach | Secluded California state parks and beaches

The Best California State Parks: Map

More State Parks to Visit in California

  • Malibu Creek State Park (Calabasas)
  • Topanga State Park (Topanga)
  • Watts Tower of Simon Rodia State Historic Park (Los Angeles)
  • Palomar Mountain State Park (Palomar Mountain)
  • Bodie State Historic Park (Bridgeport)
  • Redwood National and State Parks
  • Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (Borrego Springs)
  • Limekiln State Park (Big Sur)
  • Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument (San Simeon)
  • Morro Bay State Park (Morro Bay)
  • Old Sacramento State Historic Park (Sacramento)
  • California Citrus State Historic Park (Riverside)
  • Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park (Santa Barbara)
  • Chino Hills State Park (Chino Hills)
  • Point Dume State Beach and Natural Preserve (Malibu)
Sacramento, California State Parks - Roads and Destinations
Old Sacramento State Historic Park | Iconic California state parks

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