I’m a big proponent of exploring nature in your own backyard, which I think includes not just the space outside your home, but the larger neighborhood and city where you live. I believe that these local spots give you the best opportunity to make connections with nature every day – not just during the long, dreamy days of summer.
In California, we’re lucky enough to have a ton of protected land available to us for just this purpose.
The California State Parks system is the largest in the nation with some 270+ facilities containing the most diverse collection of natural, cultural and recreational resources within the state. These parks protect and preserve an unparalleled collection of culturally and environmentally sensitive structures and habitats, threatened plant and animal species, ancient Native American sites, historic structures and artifacts, and more.
How many have you visited?
The California State Parks are facing a financial crisis, with several parks threatened to face closure if new funding sources are not found. No time like the present to get out there and see these amazing places.
In an effort to encourage you to explore California State Parks with your family, I thought it was high time to put together a list of the spots we’ve visited. When I realized it wasn’t a very long list, I knew it was time for us to get out there and discover more, too.
If you don’t see a park listed here, it means we haven’t gotten to it yet. But no worries, you can find a complete list of all the California State Parks here.
Fort Tejon State Historic Park (Lebec)
Fort Tejon is found just off the Grapevine Canyon, the main route between California’s great central valley and Southern California. Here you can step back in time as you wander among restored adobes from the original fort, which operated between 1854 and 1864. The park’s museum features exhibits on army life and local history. The park also has a number of beautiful 400 year-old valley oak trees.
What kids will like: Unless you visit on the one Saturday a month when there are living history demonstrations, think of Fort Tejon as a great place for kids to stretch the legs and enjoy a picnic.
California State Mining and Mineral Museum (Mariposa)
The California State Mining and Mineral Museum houses the official mineral collection of the state of California. You’ll explore the variety of California’s mineral wealth, view breathtaking gems and minerals from around the world, and experience a bit of California’s mining history while you’re at it.
What kids will like: While the under 5 crowd may be a little bored, school-aged kids who have even a minor interest in rocks and minerals will be enthralled.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Natural Reserve (Lancaster)
Each spring, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve comes alive with the seasonal surprises of the Mojave Desert Grassland habitat. The 1,800-acre State Reserve was created to protect and perpetuate amazing displays of native wildflowers, particularly California’s state flower, the California poppy.
What kids will like: Start at the small interpretive center before heading out to the Antelope Loop Trail for amazing views of hillsides blanketed in orange.
Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area (Los Angeles)
Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area amenities include a fishing lake, stream, waterfalls, four playgrounds, a lotus pond, forested areas as well as open, grassy fields, plus five miles of trails.
What kids will like: There’s so much to see and do here that your biggest challenge may be deciding where to go first. Kids will especially love the lake, stream and waterfalls for their natural feel and abundance of wildlife.
Leo Carrillo State Park (Malibu)
Leo Carrillo State Park has 1.5 miles of beach with tide pools, coastal caves and reefs for exploring. The park also features backcountry hiking. Nature walks and campfire programs are offered and a small visitor center has interpretive displays.
What kids will like: The draw here for most kids is the beach. Visit during low tides to explore some of the best tide pools in the area.
Malibu Lagoon State Beach (Malibu)
The Malibu Lagoon State Beach area includes the premier surfing spot Surfrider Beach, the famous Malibu Pier, the Adamson House (a National Historic Site featuring Malibu historical artifacts) and the Malibu Lagoon Museum. The Lagoon itself features wetlands, flower gardens and a sandy beach.
What kids will like: The docent-led birding tours are a family favorite. Visit at low tide and you can do some tide pool exploring, too.
Santa Monica State Beach (Santa Monica)
Santa Monica State Beach stretches some three miles along the Santa Monica Bay. This iconic beach features a ton of attractions, including a well-traveled bike path, the Santa Monica Pier, six parks, the Annenberg Community Beach House and the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.
What kids will like: Santa Monica State Beach is littered with families just about any time of the year. And with reason – there’s a pint-sized aquarium, a pier complete with a carousel and carnival rides galore, a video arcade and more.
Will Rogers State Historic Park (Los Angeles)
The ranch that famed actor Will Rogers called home in Los Angeles became a state park in the 1940s. The aptly named Will Rogers State Historic Park offers ranch house tours, equestrian activities and miles of hiking trails.
What kids will like: We like to hike the 3-mile Inspiration Loop Trail, then enjoy a picnic on the enormous grassy lawn outside the ranch house.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Weott)
If you like trees even half as much as I do, this park is a must-see. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the third largest California State Park, encompassing nearly 53,000 acres – of which more than 17,000 are old-growth coast redwoods. The environment found within the park is unique to anywhere else on earth.
What kids will like: Stop in at the Visitor Center to see some cool exhibits on the trees and local wildlife. Then head out on any of the 100 miles of trails, where the trees are sure to be a big hit. Kids can also become a junior ranger.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
Año Nuevo State Park (Pascadero)
Año Nuevo State Park is the site of the largest mainland breeding colony in the world for the northern elephant seal, and the guided walks to see them during the winter is the main draw here. The park also contains sensitive native dunes and coastal terrace prairie habitats, plus a variety of inland plant communities.
What kids will like: Close-up views of hundreds of elephant seals engaging in all kinds of behavior – from mating and nursing to fighting and protecting pups.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park (Burney)
The centerpiece of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is the 129-foot Burney Falls, once proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Burney Falls isn’t the highest or largest waterfall in the state, but it’s arguably the most spectacular.
What kids will like: Stop in at the visitor center. Then head down to the base of Burney Falls and dip your toes in (if you dare!). Take part in the family-friendly “Discovery Quest,” which invites visitors on a park treasure hunt for a chance to earn a park patch.
Some helpful resources on California State Parks:
- California State Parks home page
- Information about the California State Parks junior ranger program
- A ton of invaluable resources about the financial crisis affecting the California State Parks from Michele at Fun Orange County Parks
- 3 filmmakers who highlight the plight of California State Parks from Fun Orange County Parks
- Don’t live in California? Find a list of your state parks on America’s State Parks page