Official “Wilderness” with a capital W is rare in our 280 state parks, which makes it all the more precious for the determined hiker who heeds the call of the wild and heads into the California State Parks Wilderness.

We delight in our California State Parks, both the well-known popular icons, as well as the little known and obscure. We learn of our state’s history from our State Historic Parks. We flock to our State Beaches and State Recreation areas to unwind.

But what of our California State Parks Wilderness?

Our state what?

Many ways to go in the Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness, long a favorite of The Trailmaster and family.
Many ways to go in the Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness, long a favorite of The Trailmaster and family.

By definition, a California State Parks Wilderness is an area managed to best preserve the primeval character of the land; they are treated much like federal wilderness areas. No permanent structures are permitted.

So far, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is the only one among our 280 or so California State Parks with Wilderness in its name. Other parks—such as Point Mugu State Park with its Boney Mountain Wilderness—have specially designated wilderness areas that are managed to preserve their pristine character.

While the California State Parks system has a relatively small number of capital W Wilderness areas, those that it does possess are of great symbolic value and offer visitors a very special experience.

Three of my favorite parks— Mount San Jacinto, Henry W. Coe and Sinkyone Wilderness—preserve some of the very best examples of wild California and give us the chance to see how State Wilderness areas are such a valuable part of our state park family.

All three are “hiker’s parks—that is to say, some effort is required to get to, and through, the wilderness. A little effort yields big rewards: pristine countryside and the peace and tranquility that comes with it.

California State Parks Wilderness areas lend themselves to backpacking and backcountry camping. Plot a course on the map, talk over your itinerary with park staff, and hit the trail to adventure.

Mount San Jacinto State Park

With its towering pines and incense cedar, great boulders and lively creeks, as well as steep trails and rugged peaks, the state park offers both a family-friendly introduction to the pleasures of the San Jacinto Mountains and challenges to the serious hiker.

The park’s 13,500-acre wilderness includes a magnificent forest preserve topped by stony ramparts and mighty Mt. San Jacinto. Bighorn sheep patrol the desert-facing high country, mule deer browse the verdant meadows, golden eagles soar over the high peaks.

Many hikers in the San Jacinto Mountains can’t resist comparing the range with the High Sierra. Certainly the peaks look a bit like those in the Range of Light when observed from the flatlands.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway makes it easy for hikers to enter Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness. Starting in Chino Canyon near Palm Springs, the tram takes passengers from the desert floor all way up to 8,516-foot Mountain Station at the edge of the wilderness.

The San Jacintos seem an island in the sky because of their incredibly rapid rise from the desert floor. Alpine and desert vegetation thrive in amazingly close proximity.

Enjoy a moderate day hike out to Round Valley or hike all the way to the peak. The view from the 10,804-foot summit (Southern California’s second-highest peak) takes in San Gorgonio Pass, the shimmering Pacific, the Colorado Desert and distant Mexico. John Muir found the view “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!”

Classic Day Hike: Take the tram to Mountain Station; from here, it’s a 4 mile round trip with 600-foot elevation gain to Round Valley and an 11 mile round trip with 2,300-foot gain to the top of Mt. San Jacinto. A wilderness permit is required.

Henry W. Coe State Park
It’s the Big Wild between the Silicon Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, a lightly traveled park in the Diablo Range. Henry Coe, Northern California’s largest state park, (and second-largest in the system behind Anza-Borrego) beckons adventurers with more than 89,000 acres. The park includes the sprawling, 22,000 Henry W. Coe State Wilderness, known locally as the Oristimba Wilderness.

Lovely Henry Coe State Park (Morgan Hill Times)
Lovely Henry Coe State Park (Morgan Hill Times)

Just about everybody comes to hike, particularly in the spring to enjoy magnificent wildflower displays and in the autumn to see the fall colors. A network of some 250 miles of old ranch roads and foot trails weaves through the park and allows for a variety of hiking experiences. Choose from easy family walks that begin from the park visitor center or challenging all-day adventures that loop 10 or 15 miles through the rugged backcountry.

Coe is big slice of quintessential California that shows off two classic landscapes: grassy hills dotted with antiquarian oaks, plus a chaparral community with its Mediterranean-style flora.

Some park visitors say Henry Coe looks more like the Old West than the New West. In fact, the state park was a working cattle ranch until 1930 and the nucleus of the state park was generously donated by the Coe family in 1952. Even today, most of the park is surrounded by cattle ranches.

Classic Day Hike: From the visitor center, take Monument, Middle Ridge or Fish Trails on a 6- or 9-mile loop.

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park
Sinkyone Wilderness State Park comprises about half of this Lost Coast, which is so rough—rougher even than Big Sur’s coast—that it even thwarted California’s highway engineers; much to their frustration, they were compelled by geography to route Coast Highway inland more than 20 miles. Thus the park remains isolated, accessible only by dirt roads.

Roosevelt elk roam the Lost Coast in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.
Roosevelt elk roam the Lost Coast in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.

The Sinkyone Wilderness is black sand beaches strewn with patterns of driftwood and the sea’s debris, mosaiced with small stones. On grassy blufftops, Roosevelt elk turn tail to winds blowing in from Siberia and the Bering Sea. Canyon mouths fill with fog, nourishing the redwoods within.

The land we call Sinkyone Wilderness State Park has long been recognized as something special. During the late 1960s, the great Catholic theologian Thomas Merton believed that the Needle Rock area would be an ideal place for a life of prayer and contemplation and talked of establishing a monastic community.

Classic Day Hike: Take a short hike or a long one on the Lost Coast Trail, which traverses the length of the park. Magnificent vistas and varied terrain, dense forests, prairies, coastal bluffs and beaches reward the hardy explorer.