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Favorite California parks and wilderness areas

February 01, 2009|Hugo Martin

Coming up with a list of California's ultimate parks and wild places is like being asked to choose your favorite family member. Each one is special in his own way, even that annoying brother who still owes you $100. How can you pick?

If you choose the most popular parks, you end up with a list of the state's most crowded and overdeveloped parks. (Old Town San Diego State Historic Park averages 5 million visitors a year but is more like a collection of historic buildings than a park.) Choose the wildest, most pristine spots and you will come up with a list of isolated areas that are virtually inaccessible.

The topography and geology of the Golden State make the choice even more difficult. California has 1,100 miles of coastline, a mountain range topped by the tallest peak in the lower 48 (Mt. Whitney), one of the nation's largest expanses of forest land, and the country's lowest point (Death Valley's Badwater Flat).

With so many criteria to choose from, I settled on an unscientific measure I call the "wow factor." On my assignments covering the outdoors, here are places that stopped me in my tracks, left me dumbfounded and had me fumbling for my camera. I have visited only a tiny fraction of the nation's third-largest state, so I'm sure I missed many other "wow" places. Send your nominees to

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

California's north-central coast is lush with redwoods, ferns and coastal live oaks, a heavenly stretch of shoreline that is home to great Big Sur and Point Lobos parks. But Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has a serene and rugged feel that sets it apart from other nearby enclaves. These 3,580 acres are in a redwood canyon that rises from the beach to about 1,500 feet. The cherry on top of this visual feast is the 80-foot McWay Waterfall, which crashes from a rocky cliff onto the sand in a wonderful, secluded cove. It's an iconic scene no one should miss. The park is 37 miles south of Carmel along California 1. Info: (831) 667-2315,

Yosemite National Park

No list of California parks would be complete without a mention of Yosemite. It can be crowded and noisy in the summer, but if you stay clear of the tourist-clogged Yosemite Village, you will see why John Muir, the father of America's environmental movement, said, "No temple made by hands can compare with Yosemite." The real magic happens in the late afternoon, when the setting sun casts a violet glow on the iconic Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. Yosemite is about 80 miles east of Merced, along California 140. Info: (209) 372-0200,

Point Reyes National Seashore

Once upon a time, while wandering along the beach at this national seashore, I came across a herd of cattle strolling on the sand. Who can blame them? These 70,000 acres on a peninsula north of San Francisco, shrouded in cool fog and blanketed by green grass, resemble a postcard of the rocky shores of Ireland. But it's the wildlife that sets Point Reyes apart: More than 1,000 species call the park home, including a menagerie of shorebirds and raptors. The park is about 30 miles from San Francisco along California 1. Info: (415) 464-5100,

Redwood National and State Parks

Want to put life and its annoying problems into perspective? Get lost in the land of the giants, home to some of the largest trees in the world. At Redwood National and State Parks, the union of three state parks and a national park near Orick, you'll feel you are a part of a bigger, more beautiful world inhabited by bear, elk, Steller's Jays and banana slugs. The stars of these parks are the coastal redwoods that soar more than 365 feet into the sky, span more than 22 feet in diameter and date back to the days of Christ. The parks are along U.S. 101, about 80 miles north of Eureka. Info: (707) 464-6101,

Joshua Tree National Park

Several California desert parks deserve inclusion in an ultimate list, particularly Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where spring wildflowers turn the parched badlands into a sea of color and life. But the surreal rock formations at Joshua Tree, east of Palm Springs, give it that added magical feel, particularly if you visit during a new moon, when the stars gleam like crushed diamonds on black velvet. And then you have the Joshua trees, which Mormon pioneers believed resembled the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land. For rock climbers and stargazers, Joshua Tree is the promised land. The park is 140 miles east of Los Angeles along Interstate 10. Info: (760) 367-5500,

John Muir Wilderness

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