California State Parks

An expedition through the California State Parks.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, also known as California State Parks, manages the California State parks system. The system administers 280 separate park units on 1.4 million acres, with over 280 miles of coastline. 

Aerial View of Sacramento (1960) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Center for Sacramento History, Frank Christy Collection

Headquartered in Sacramento, the California State Parks system is the largest state park system in the United States.

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Standing 115 feet tall, some 50 miles south of San Francisco, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is among the tallest lighthouses in the United States.  Active since November 1872, both the lighthouse and its location were named after the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon, which was wrecked afters its first voyage in June 1853.

A victim of the area’s frequent fog and rocky reefs, the ship and much of its cargo were lost, but its captain and crew were saved.

Lighthouses have been used to aid navigation at sea since ancient times. They help mariners identify their location and also warn of hazards along the coast. To serve these functions, a lighthouse must be not only visible, but also distinct.

Each lighthouse flashes light in its own characteristic pattern. Since its first lamp was lit, Pigeon Point Lighthouse has identified itself with the same pattern of 1 flash every 10 seconds.

The rocky shore at Pigeon Point is home to an abundance of wildlife, including barnacles, snails, starfish, sea anemones, sea urchins, mussels, abalones, and crabs. Observe these creatures for yourself in the tide pools left behind at low tide.

Torrey Pines Park Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a 2,000-acre patch of coastal wilderness located between La Jolla and Del Mar, just north of San Diego. Despite being part of the California State Park system, it is not a park, but a natural reserve.

This status indicates that special care is needed to protect and conserve the landscape and the inhabiting organisms. Among the many endangered and protected native plants in the reserve are the rare and unique Torrey pines.

Once plentiful on the coast of southern California, Torrey pines now occur in only 2 populations: one on Santa Rosa Island off the coast near Santa Barbara, and one in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

Famous Torrey Pines (1928) by Jessie Tarbox BealsThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Exposed to wind at the shore, the trees grow in bent and twisted forms. Despite the dry climate, the Torrey pines have adapted to these conditions. It is actually air pollution from nearby, urban areas that threatens the trees.

Several miles of trails wind through the wooded reserve toward scenic overlooks, highlighting the ocean and the park itself. In order to preserve the fragile landscape, anything you bring in must be taken out.

The sandstone bluffs at the reserve were formed over millions of years by erosion. In the winter and spring months, look for gray whales passing close to the shore in their annual migration to and from Baja California.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Covering more than 18,000 acres, Big Basin Redwoods State Park represents California’s diverse wildlife. The most obvious example is the ancient coast redwoods, some taller than 300 feet and with trunks about 50 feet in circumference.

These formidable trees once grew on about 2 million acres of the coast of California. As the result of commercial logging and the California Gold Rush of 1849, now only 5% of the old growth remains on what is now protected land.

Big Basin is the oldest park in the California State Park system. Established in 1902, the purpose of the park has shifted from preservation to recreation. Today, conversation predominates, though the park is also open for camping, hiking, and picnicking.

Coastal redwoods, or Sequoia sempervirens, may grow hundreds of feet tall, but their roots grow only about 6 feet deep into the soil. Instead, the roots extend outward, becoming enmeshed with the roots of nearby trees.

Young trees grow up to 1 foot or more annually, but do not reach maturity until they are 400 to 500 years old. The trees in the old-growth forest are estimated to be 1,000 to 2,000 years old.

You can walk among the redwoods along 80 miles of trails. Depending on the season, you may see vivid mosses and lichen, or delicate wildflowers. Creatures like banana slugs, newts, lizards, and frogs thrive in the damp climate.

Angel Island State Park

The largest natural island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island has been used for many different purposes. Starting some 2,000 years ago, the Coast Miwok people used the island for fishing and hunting.

In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala anchored in one of the island’s coves, now called Ayala Cove, and mapped San Francisco Bay. Later, the island was used as a cattle ranch, a site for U.S. military installations, and a processing station for immigrants.

Although, Angel Island was most likely uninhabited in 1839 when Antonio Maria Osio established a cattle ranch, by 1846 about 500 cattle called the island home. According to a Supreme Court ruling, the island became federal government property in 1860.

The U.S. Army established Camp Reynolds in 1863 to protect San Francisco Bay from Confederate Forces. After the Civil War, the army remained on the island and thousands of troops and military personnel passed through the camp.

From 1910 to 1940, the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island, also known as the Guardian of the Western Gate, was mainly intended to keep Chinese immigrants from entering the country with the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882.

During World War II, the Immigration Station held Japanese, German, and Italian prisoners of war. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a few hundred Japanese immigrants were arrested and taken from Hawaii and the mainland to Angel Island.

Huntington State Beach

Incorporated in 1909, the city of Huntington Beach saw an oil boom in the 1920s, after Standard Oil Company struck the largest known oil deposit in California.

Within a month, the population more than tripled. Swimmers and sunbathers enjoyed the beach with man-made groves of oil derricks looming in the near distance. When most of the wells were capped in 1963, 121 acres of the shore at the southern end of the city became a California state beach.

Huntington Beach waves are ideal for surfing. In 1925 at the Huntington Beach Pier, Duke Kahanamoku, a gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer from Hawaii, sparked the popularization of surfing in California. By the 1960s, Huntington Beach was known as Surf City USA.

Litter and marine debris threaten to spoil the beauty of the Huntington State Beach. Marine debris is any trash that ends up in our waterways and on our beaches. Fortunately, volunteers frequently give their time to keep the beach beautiful.

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