With the new year come wonderful new opportunities to explore the Golden State.
California has 279 state parks, which cover more than a million acres in all, from 230 feet below sea level at the Salton Sea to more than 10,000 feet above at the snowy summit of Mount San Jacinto. The state park system, the biggest in the nation, preserves impressive waterfalls and wildlife reserves, some of the world’s largest trees and the state’s most stunning flowers.
Today, I have some recommendations for state parks to visit in the winter, no matter what sort of vacation you’re craving. And you can now check out free vehicle day-use passes for most state parks from your local library.
Learn more about the infamous Donner Party.
Donner Memorial State Park, a 10-minute drive west of Truckee, is a window into the travails of the 87 members of the Donner Party, settlers who were snowed in while trying to cross the Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47 and who resorted to cannibalism to survive. The park offers miles of hiking trails and ranger-led snowshoe walks, as well as gentle terrain for cross-country skiing.
Get up close to elephant seals.
Año Nuevo State Park is one of my favorite places to visit in winter. It’s one of the few spots in North America where you can see elephant seals, massive animals who have made a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction. They can be seen at the park year-round, but December through March is when they come ashore to mate, give birth and nurse their young. Park docents offer guided walks every day until March 31. Read more about reserving a spot on a tour.
Delight in an oasis for migratory birds.
Along the northeastern edge of one of the world’s largest inland seas, Salton Sea State Recreation Area is an important stop for birds traveling the Pacific Flyway, a migration route stretching from Alaska to the tip of South America. Birds begin arriving in October at the lake, 120 miles northeast of San Diego, and by January more than 400 species can be seen there.
Learn about a famed California author.
Perfect for a drizzly day, Jack London State Historic Park in the Sonoma Valley lets visitors learn all about London, the author of “The Call of the Wild,” who was born in San Francisco and attended U.C. Berkeley. There’s a museum about London’s life, and you can walk to his gravesite and see the cottage where he worked.
Explore a rugged desert landscape.
Though spring is typically the best time to catch the park’s famous wildflower blooms, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a lovely place to visit in the winter. The largest state park in California, it offers miles of hiking trails, sweeping vistas of the rugged Borrego Badlands and excellent stargazing. Visitors can also view wildlife including bighorn sheep, chuckwalla lizards and more than 100 species of birds, 30 of which are found only in deserts.
What are you looking forward to in 2024? Milestone birthdays, traveling to new places, picking up a new hobby?
Tell us your hopes for the new year at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city in which you live.
And before you go, some good news
San Francisco, where almost 20 percent of the city is parkland, is home to 37 mini parks, pocket-size bits of community green space built on otherwise unused parcels of land.
Many of the city’s mini parks were built in 1968, under an initiative led by Mayor Joe Alioto to put patches of vacant land to public use, especially in neighborhoods with limited amounts of green space. Sixteen mini parks were created that year alone.
Tessa McLean, an editor at SFGate, recently visited these mini parks and reviewed them. She gave top marks to some, like the Lake View and Ashton Mini Park, for their scenic views and serenity, while saying that others are not worth the trip.
McLean’s review of San Francisco’s mini parks includes a map guide.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Maia Coleman, Briana Scalia and Halina Bennet contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].