Skip Yosemite for These 9 Scenic Parks in California

Yosemite National Park is a natural favorite, but when the summer temperatures hit, the park can get overcrowded. Anyone heading to the Golden State would do well to avail themselves of these nine scenic parks with their own unique beauty you won't want to miss.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

 Wildflowers in Anza-Borrego Desert Park in the Spring.
Credit: Vince Barnes/ iStock

With a name that honors both a Spanish explorer (Juan Bautista de Anza) and the humble sheep (borrego), Anza-Borrego Desert State Park covers one-fifth of San Diego County. Its 585,930 acres are enough to make it California's largest state park, and it's also among the most beautiful — as part of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve, the park is home to striking flora and fauna ranging from wildflowers and badlands to desert iguanas and the bighorn sheep for which it's named. There are also 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 designated wilderness areas, and 110 miles of hiking trails, making it a great place to visit for even semi-intrepid explorers.

Año Nuevo State Park

Elephant seals sleeping and sunbathing at Año Nuevo State Park.
Credit: MarkHatfield/ iStockphoto

Here’s one for animal lovers. Between December and April every year, Año Nuevo State Park welcomes home nearly 10,000 elephant seals who return to the beach to breed, have babies, and molt — meaning long-term visitors can watch an entire lifetime play out before their eyes. The park's coastal prairie landscape, dune fields, and wetland marshes are also home to endangered animals like the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog.

Limekiln State Park

The sun peaking through the trees at Limekiln State Park.
Credit: MarioGuti/ iStockphoto

If you visit California but don’t see any redwood trees, did you really visit California? Avoid that conundrum by checking out Limekiln State Park, which is home to an entire forest of the towering trunks. With 24 campsites, this park is the perfect place to spend a few days enjoying nature and taking in the beauty of the Big Sur coast, where you might even be lucky enough to spot an otter or some migrating whales.

Angel Island State Park

Landscape view from Angel Island State Park looking out onto the water.
Credit: Andrei Stanescu/ iStockphoto

If you’re looking for a little history in addition to spectacular ocean views, then Angel Island State Park is right up your alley. Referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” this park in San Francisco Bay saw the arrival of 175,000 Chinese and 60,000 Japanese immigrants between 1910 and 1940. Long before that, though, it was a hunting ground for Native Americans. During the Cold War, it was home to a missile base and radar control station. Now, the park holds overnight educational programs so children can learn about the island’s history and more.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

An aerial shot of a waterfall and ocean at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in California.
Credit: Hotaik Sung/ iStock

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park offers some truly amazing views. The high cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific, allowing visitors to walk among the giant redwoods, oak trees, sycamores, cottonwoods, alders, willows, conifers, and maple trees as they follow the winding Big Sur River. Campers who spend the night often see bobcats, raccoons, and several species of rare birds.

Morro Bay State Park

Boats docked at Morro Bay State Park on a clear blue day.
Credit: Ron_Thomas/ iStockphoto

Morro Bay State Park is an ideal spot to spend the afternoon. It has a preserve featuring a large lagoon and the impressive Morro Rock, a volcanic plug formed 23 million years ago by volcanoes that have long since disappeared. It also features a golf course, a museum and a marina, and is home to hundreds of species of birds you could spend all day watching. From November to February, visitors can also visit the butterfly grove to see a flock of monarchs in their roost.

Montaña de Oro State Park

The ocean water hitting the rocks during sunset at Montaña de Oro State Park.
Credit: Ron_Thomas/ iStockphoto

Montaña de Oro State Park is the rare spot that actually does have something for everyone. For aspiring cowboys and cowgirls, there are rugged cliffs, canyons, streams, and hills — all of which you can explore on horseback as you follow the park's winding trails. For those who prefer the beach, there are large coastal plains, secluded beaches, and tide pools. And for everyone else, there are rolling fields of wildflowers to marvel at nature's beauty.

Channel Islands National Park

The lighthouse on Anacapa Island at Channel Islands National Park in California.
Credit: benedek/ iStock

Five of the eight Channel Islands — San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz — offer their own form of wonderment and comprise this national park roughly 30 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. Anacapa and Santa Barbara were designated as national monuments in 1938, UNESCO made all eight islands a biosphere reserve in 1976, and the waters surrounding the park were established as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in 1980. Even with that in mind, it’s difficult to overstate how biologically significant the islands are. The variety of different species found here has given rise to the nickname “Galapagos of North America,” with 150 of its 2,000 plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. Until the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, there were even dwarf woolly mammoths!

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

China cove and spectacular rock formations at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
Credit: Ken Wolter/ Shutterstock

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is not only stunning to look at, with ocean views and scenic backdrops, but it’s also of great scientific importance. The reserve is home to several rare plant species as well as otters, seals, sea lions, and migrating whales. A number of endangered archaeological sites that can enlighten future generations about how our ancestors lived may be found here. This park, dubbed the “crown jewel of the state park system,” combines beach coves with rolling meadows and plant life from both the ocean and the land surrounding it, making it a wonderful place to explore.

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