As the most desirable state to visit, California sees a lot of tourists and recently, sites like Yosemite, Death Valley, Big Sur, and Kings Canyon have become almost Disneyland-like with crowds. If you want a quiet moment with nature to experience the cliff-lined beaches, redwood forest, towering mountains, and arid desert, there are still a few hidden gems left in the Golden State. With some of the most beautiful, varied terrain in the country, check out these smaller state parks to discover something new-to-you.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
This gem in the heart of the Mojave Desert is like something off the pages of the Wizard of Oz. Out of the stark, dry grasses comes an overwhelming display of poppies, which just so happen to be the state flower. Visitors can learn more about this phenomenon at the Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center, then enjoy hiking and a picnic. In addition to the obvious draw of the blooms, it’s not uncommon to see coyote or even bobcat roaming the area. To see the poppies in all their glory, you’ll want to come in early spring, but check the website for live-updates on the blooms.
Castle Crags State Park
Located in the far north of the state and easily accessible on the I-5, Castle Crags’ signature rock formations rise up over the mountainous landscape like, you guessed it, castle turrets. Impressive even from the interstate, the true beauty of Castle Crags is best enjoyed on foot. There are 28 miles of hiking trails (impressive for a state park) and a full campground to pitch tents along the Sacramento River. Take the Crags Trail to the base of "Castle Dome," where the views stretch across the Shasta-Cascade. While in the area, explore scenic Mt. Shasta or the Redding area and walk the suspension bridges along the water. The Pacific Crest Trail winds around here, as well.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
Want to visit the California coast without the crowds? It’s still possible. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is located just south of the Oregon-California border, and combines redwood forests with rugged shoreline. Visitors will find the eight-line length of coast relatively empty, as well as 45% of the Earth’s last remaining old-growth redwood forest. Day use areas and campgrounds are available, with summer the best time to visit for cool yet manageable temperatures.
Grover Hot Springs State Park
For adventurous spa lovers, Grover Hot Springs State Park is a rustic yet therapeutic place to soak. Located just a short drive from tourist haven Lake Tahoe, this natural hot spring features a full pool (with admission fee) and camping year round (yes, even in snowy winter). It's an ideal place to relax with the kids or solo, and you'll find a friendly community atmosphere. The mineral springs content keep the warm waters a sparkling green color, and unlike spas at the expensive hotels in nearby Tahoe and Reno, soaking here will only set you back $7.
Plumas Eureka State Park
Not far from Grover Hot Springs in rural Plumas County, Plumas Eureka State Park is tucked away in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Located in historic Johnsville (a boom-bust town during the California Gold Rush), Plumas Eureka features a historic stamp mill and other mining remnants leftover from the 1800s. The campground is scenic yet rustic, and area hikes include plenty of high alpine lakes and meadows. During peak season, be sure to stop in at the mining museum and check out the living history exhibits in the town of Johnsville, and in winter, look for seasonal events at the historic Plumas Ski Club, where they still hold annual longboard races.