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California State Parks offer some of the best hiking the state has to offer: Torrey Pines, Malibu Creek, Point Lobos, Calaveras Big Trees, Humboldt Redwoods and a hundred more. Watch my video Hike California State Parks and hiker on!

With the recent addition of Dos Rios Ranch State Park to the system, California now has 280 state parks!

Who knew?

Down the Dipsea Trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park.The short answer is hardly anyone. I’ve asked a thousand Californians or more to name five California State Parks. Fewer than 10 percent can do so. Surprising to me, a majority of these baffled respondents are outdoorsy Californians—the kind of people who come to my talks or I meet on the trail.

I confess to being a little obsessed by California state parks and am the only crazy enough to have hiked and written about all 280 of them.  At first my interest in the parks was professional. During a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, I noticed my readers enjoyed discovering SoCal’s state parklands. For nearly 20 years, I partnered with the California State Parks Foundation, helping to share stories about the wonders of our state parks. Then I started keeping a list of parks I visited, and you know how it is when you get compulsive about something…

Turns out you can take a hike in about half of California’s 280 state parks.  You can explore these “hiker parks” on 3,000(!) miles of trail.

Wine country wandering, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.The California State Park System is widely regarded as the nation’s finest—and the most popular, too, with nearly 70 million visitors a year. In terms of number of parks and number of visitors, it’s second only to the National Parks system.

Other states have high mountains, vast deserts, and scenic shorelines, but only California contains all of these natural features, and preserves examples of them in its park system.

Hiking Topanga State Park, one of the gems of the Santa Monica Mountains.The multitude of intriguing state park environments, and the many fine paths that explore them, add up to some world-class hiking adventures.

Ancient redwoods grow along the mist-covered edge of the continent. The alpine beauty of the Sierra Nevada towers above Emerald Bay and Sugar Pine Point state parks on the shores of world-famous Lake Tahoe. Warm, sandy state beaches from San Clemente to Refugio beckon visitors to Southern California.

State parks preserve a cross-section of California ecology from the bottom of the Central Valley at Caswell Memorial State Park to the top of alpine peaks at Mt. San Jacinto State Park; from uncommonly dry desert lands, where Joshua trees thrive, such as Saddleback Butte State Park to the near-rainforest environment of Del Norte Redwoods State Park.

Footpath amidst the ferns in Van Damme State ParkState parks showcase a fabulous array of Nature’s handiwork: giant Sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park; the rare Torrey pines making a last stand in a natural reserve near San Diego; palm oases in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park; some of the tallest trees on earth in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

State parks highlight California’s history and offer the opportunity to follow the trails of the forty-niners, Spanish missionaries, and Native Americans. Hike into history where the Gold Rush began (Marshall Gold State Historic Park), where a famed writer found inspiration (Jack London State Historic Park), where a lonely lighthouse-keeper lived and worked (Pt. Sur State Historic Park).

Park pathways are as varied as the parks themselves. Some trails are easy—a “walk in the park.” Leg-stretchers along the Sacramento River at Woodson Bridge and Colusa state recreation areas allow motorists a break from Interstate 5; beach walks from Border Field State Park to MacKerricher State Beach provide a similar break from Coast Highway 1.

Many state park hikes are suitable for the whole family—slow paced adventures with much to see on a short hike. These family hikes, by utilizing described options, can usually be extended to half- day or all-day outings. The avid hiker will find challenges aplenty in the parks, too—long day hikes that offer grand tours and great workouts.

Hike smart, reconnect with nature, and have a wonderful time on the trail.

Hike on.

—John McKinney