Opinion: Californians love the state's parks. We just don't know they're state parks (2024)

When Dos Rios Ranch opens to visitors next month in the San Joaquin Valley, California will have 280 state parks — making it one of the nation’s largest systems, as well as one of its most popular, with about 70 million visitors a year.

Who knew?

The short answer is: hardly anyone.


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Over the past 20 years I’ve asked several thousand Californians to name five state parks. Fewer than 5% can do so. And most of these baffled respondents are outdoorsy folks — the kind of people I meet on the trail or at my talks about hiking.

This lack of awareness is more than surprising right now. It’s dangerous.

If Californians can’t name a handful of state parks, they won’t recognize the threat when Sacramento defers investment in the system or — as is inevitably happening again — attempts to cut funding.


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Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed $291.5 billion budget for the upcoming year would eliminate a $3 million line item for a well-used program that lets (primarily low-income) library card holders check out free passes to state parks. But how many lawmakers or voters are likely to object, when most don’t even remember the state’s hundreds of parks?

The disconnect comes down to name recognition. Many Californians actually know and love these sites but forget that they are state parks: Perhaps you’ve marveled at the giant sequoias in the western Sierra Nevada, but did you know you were in Calaveras Big Trees State Park? Or if you saw coast redwoods near the Oregon border, did you realize you were in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, home of the tallest trees on Earth? And that when you visited palm oases way down south between San Diego and the Salton Sea, you were in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park?

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As I’ve quizzed Californians, I find over and over that people remember the good times and even a lot of information about nature and history, but not the names of the parks: where the Gold Rush began (Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park), where a famed writer found inspiration (Jack London State Historic Park), where an immigrant community lived and worked (China Camp State Historic Park).

That wonderful weekend in Big Sur? It was really in Pfeiffer Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Limekiln, Andrew Molera and Garrapata state parks. We miss parks hiding in plain sight in the heart of cities, such as Watts Towers in Los Angeles and Old Town San Diego. Perhaps you’ve stopped at Hearst Castle halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco — another memorable site that people forget is a state park.

These treasures also get short shrift when disaster strikes. Wildfires are reported as “burning the hills near Malibu” not “raging through Malibu Creek, Leo Carrillo and Point Mugu state parks” and as “burning in the mountains near Santa Cruz” not as “devastating iconic Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s first state park.”

State parks need many things — more campsites, better outreach, funding commensurate with the size and scope of the system — but what they need first and most of all is to be noticed: by the governor, legislators and the public. The lack of awareness leads to missed opportunities for all Californians to enjoy the parks and a shortage of the kind of financial support and strong stewardship commitment state parks need to thrive.


Such support has never been assured. A century ago, ultra-conservative Gov. Friend William Richardson was hostile to the formation of a state park system, vetoed park legislation and ranted about the waste of taxpayer money. Pro-park forces prevailed. A state park system was established in 1927 and, in a move dripping with irony, included a lovely redwood retreat named “Richardson Grove State Park.”

Flash forward to today, when the library program offering state park passes is under threat. Newsom’s proposal to trim $3 million — to help close a budget deficit of $37.9 billion — continues a history of unfortunate priorities.

The fiscal 2024-25 allocation for the Department of Parks and Recreation is set at $807 million plus a mere $1.1 million for all capital improvement projects across the 280 state park sites. Meanwhile Caltrans, which manages state highways, is slated for a billion-dollar increase, to $17.5 billion.

State parks need and deserve more respect and revenue. Let’s start small — don’t cut the library park pass program, for heaven’s sake — and then think bigger. Rather than increasing Caltrans’ generous (some would say bloated) budget, how about a one-time grant to state parks to address their $1 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and improvement projects?

If more Californians, particularly our policymakers, would notice that the sites they love are state parks, the funding would follow.

John McKinney, author of “Hike California’s State Parks” and two dozen other hiking-themed books, has visited all 280 state parks.

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Opinion: Californians love the state's parks. We just don't know they're state parks (2024)


What state has the most beautiful state parks? ›

The most beautiful state parks in the USA
  • Bear Lake State Park, Utah/Idaho.
  • Letchworth State Park, New York.
  • Custer State Park, South Dakota.
  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas.
  • Ecola State Park, Oregon.
  • Nā Pali Coast State Park, Hawaii.
  • Emerald Bay State Park, California.
  • Blue Spring State Park, Florida.

What is the most popular state park in California? ›

Sonoma Coast State Park

How many state parks does California have? ›

From epic beach days to the magic of ancient redwood forests, there is so much to see, do, and experience in California's incredible 280 state parks. We encourage everyone to visit a state park and try something new.

What is the mission of California State Parks? ›

The mission of California State Parks is to provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation.

What is the number 1 most beautiful state? ›

1. California

The state boasts beaches in the south along its coast, deserts as you move inland, vineyards in wine country, mountains, and national parks. California's most beautiful place to see is the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur.

What state has the least state parks? ›

Which States Have the Most State Parks? California has the most state parks in the country, with 270. There are a total of 3,729 state parks in the United States, with 11 states having more than 100 state parks each. Rhode Island comes in last with just 15 state parks.

What is the oldest state park in California? ›

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California's oldest State Park, established in 1902. Home to the largest continuous stand of Ancient Coast Redwoods south of San Francisco, the park consists of Old Growth and recovering Redwood Forest, with mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats.

What is the smallest state park in California? ›

Smallest California State Park

Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park – 0.11 acres.

What is California's largest state park? ›

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California Desert.

Why are there so many missions in California? ›

The Spanish crown wanted more power, and they ordered other people to do the empire-building for them. California's missions were first and foremost religious institutions, but they grew to encompass every aspect of life.

What is the most famous mission in California? ›

Mission San Juan Capistrano, shown in these photographs, is one of the best-known of California's missions, due in large part to its world-famous population of American cliff swallows that migrate to the region each year for the summer.

Who pays for local, state, and national parks? ›

The National Park Service is primarily funded by Congress through both the annual appropriations cycle as well as some mandatory funds. The National Park System also receives funding through park entrance and user fees, as well as private philanthropy.

What state has the most beautiful outdoors? ›

No state will leave you in complete awe of nature like Alaska. Whether it's Kenai Fjords and the glaciers of the inside passage, Denali's vast expanse of snow-capped peaks, or the sprawling tundra that makes up the interior, the state boasts the kind of rugged wilderness that just doesn't exist in the rest of America.

Which state has the best park system? ›

These are the 10 Cities With the Best Park Systems in the U.S.
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Irvine, California.
  • Arlington, Virginia.
  • Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • San Francisco, California.
  • Seattle, Washington.
  • Portland, Oregon.
  • ( tie) New York, New York.

What state ranked by the most national parks? ›

The state with the most national parks is California with nine, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five, and Colorado with four.

What is the hottest state park? ›

Hottest, Driest and Lowest National Park

Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life thrives in Death Valley.

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