Eleven Superb State Park Destinations


Step Back In Time & Out Into Nature

A Love Your Parks Tour Story by Lisa D. Smith and Nancy J. Reid

From California’s beautiful beaches and gold rush history to Arkansas’s ancient Toltec Mounds and swampy bayous. Louisiana’s scenic lake country and Civil War sites to the wild west history and vast desert landscape of the great southwest. Abraham Lincoln’s ancestral heritage in Kentucky to the recreational playground of northeast Colorado. To date, we have visited and explored over 150 parks and public lands on the Love Your Parks Tour, and more than 30 of them are State Parks. Each of them a unique regional treasure, these parks not only interpret local and regional history, but they also provide and protect natural habitat, are a place of leisure, and a quiet respite from the hustle-bustle of daily life.

Follows is our list of 11 unique park destinations, many of them near national parks and forests, and part of national historic trails and scenic highways.

Northern California Nature Escapes
North of the Golden Gate Bridge, Tomales Bay and Trione-Annadel State Parks make for a peaceful nature escape from the city.

Tomales Bay is nestled within Point Reyes National Seashore, near the town of Inverness and the Tule Elk Preserve. Enjoy a picnic overlooking the bay while watching the birds that range from woodpeckers and hawks to goldfinches. The park has hiking trails and four beach areas including the popular Heart’s Desire Beach, as well as a virgin grove of Bishop pine. It’s a lovely place to relax and bask in the tranquility.

Located in Santa Rosa, Trione-Annadel State Park offers miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horse riding. It’s a wonderful spring and summer wildflower destination, and a great place to go picnicking, bird and wildlife watching. Park highlights include Lake Ilsanjo, Ledson Marsh and Vista Point, along with an Environmental Learning Visitor Center, interpretive exhibits, programs, and guided tours.

California Gold Rush Towns & Trains  
Located in the heart of California’s Yosemite Gold Country, Tuolumne County is home to Yosemite National Park, Stanislaus National Forest, Columbia State Historic Park, and Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.

Also known as Columbia Historic District, Columbia State Historic Park is a National Historic Landmark District that preserves historic downtown Columbia.  Between the years 1850-1870, over one billion dollars of gold was mined here, putting Columbia on the map as the “Gem of the Southern Mines.” For a while, it prospered as the second-largest city in California. Columbia became a State Historic Park in 1945 and is recognized as the state’s best-preserved Gold Rush town. 

Located in the historic gold rush town of Jamestown, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is home to the historic Jamestown Shops & Roundhouse of the Sierra Railway. Known as “The Movie Railroad” and for being “the most photographed railroad in the world,” this unique park features industrial heritage and railroad history, along with a piece of Hollywood’s film industry. Railtown 1897 and its on-site historic locomotives and railroad cars have been in over 300 films, TV productions, and commercials, including “Petticoat Junction,” “The Wild, Wild West,” “High Noon,” “The Virginian,” “Unforgiven.” and “Back to the Future Part III.”


Steve Schneickert Recalls the Hollywood History of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in the historic California gold rush town of Jamestown, on Big Blend Radio.





San Juan Bautista “The City of History”
Known as “The City of History,” San Juan Bautista is located on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail in San Benito County, near the city of Hollister and about a 45-minute drive to the eastern entrance of Pinnacles National Park. Surrounded by organic farms and vineyards, this charming historic village is home to the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park and the Old Mission San Juan Bautista, as well as Fremont Peak State Park.

San Juan Bautista State Historic Park represents the blend of cultures and events during the Mexican period when San Juan Bautista served as the military and commercial center of the San Benito Valley.  Adjacent to the park is Old Mission San Juan Bautista, which was built in 1797 and is the fifteenth and largest mission church in California, and along with the park, has not changed much since the town’s early history. The park and its Plaza represent what was once the largest town in central California, an important crossroads between northern and southern California.

In 1846, General John C. Fremont and Kit Carson planted the first U.S. flag over California on Gavilan Peak (now Fremont Peak). General Castro demanded that Fremont’s group leave Mexico’s territory, which they did after three tense days. Today this site is part of Fremont State Park, a beautiful 162-acre park that encompasses the summit of 3,169-foot Fremont Peak in the Gabilan Range, and is known for its spectacular views of Monterey Bay, San Benito Valley, Salinas Valley, and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The park’s pine and oak woodlands are an ideal habitat for numerous birds and mammals. Along with hiking and biking trails, there are camping and picnic facilities, plus, an astronomical observatory with a 30-inch telescope which is open for public programs.

San Diego’s Beaches, Mountains & Desert
Boasting a mild year-round climate, over 70 miles of coastline along with country, mountain and desert areas, numerous historic sites, attractions, parks, and outdoor activities, San Diego County is a popular travel destination.

Heading north up historic Coast Highway 101 you can visit five different State Beaches namely San Elijo, Cardiff, Moonlight, Leucadia, South Carlsbad, and Carlsbad. Here you can enjoy beautiful ocean views along with sculpted bluffs covered with coastal flora, bird and  marine wildlife watching, and all kinds of recreational activities including volleyball, surfing, diving, swimming, boogie boarding. Of course, there are also those romantic sunset walks along the beach, sunbathing, picnic parties, and sandcastle building contests.  Some of the parks also offer camping opportunities.

Northeast San Diego County features Palomar Mountain State Park and Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. High up on the west side of Palomar Mountain, the 1,862-acre Palomar Mountain State Park offers nature walks, hiking trails, picnic spots, a fishing pond, as well as a campground. From squirrels and deer to herons, blue jays and woodpeckers, there’s a variety of bird and wildlife to experience as well as a diverse array of plant life that ranges from wild roses, dogwoods, and thimbleberries to white alder, California black oak and incense cedar trees. Located near the mountain town of Julian, Lake Cuyamaca is a beautiful 110-acre lake surrounded by Cuyamaca Rancho State Park where you can enjoy hiking and nature trails, fishing and boating, camping and picnicking.

Located just south of Palm Desert and Joshua Tree National Park, and east of Julian, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park spans 600,000 vast desert acres. The park features spring wildflowers, palm grove oases, a variety of cactus and desert birds and wildlife. The largest state park in California, Anza-Borrego is an anchor in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve, along with being part of the route for the De Anza Expedition, Butterfield Overland Mail, Mormon Battalion, and California Gold Rush. The Park’s Visitor Center is on the outskirts of the small village of Borrego Springs, and along with informative exhibits, features a nature trail through the desert garden, complete with desert pupfish.

Southwest History & Outdoor Fun Along the Lower Colorado River
Dubbed ‘The Gateway to the Great Southwest,’ Yuma, Arizona is home to the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and is on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. The Yuma Crossing NHA runs along the lower Colorado River and encompasses the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, Colorado River State Historic Park, the restored East and West Wetlands, and historic downtown district.  The first inhabitants in the greater Yuma area were the Quechans, Cocopahs, and Mohaves, who gathered along the banks of the lower Colorado River. They used the river as a focal point for farming and trade, and the Yuma Crossing area became a central point for all trade routes.

Set in the backdrop of the old Quartermaster’s Depot, the Colorado River State Historic Park showcases the history of the Yuma Crossing from prehistoric times until the present. Through the eyes of the Native Americans, entrepreneurs, steamboat captains, fortune seekers, and the military, it answers the questions of how the early emigrants survived or failed, living in one of the most rugged and isolated places in the world.

Famed in movies, television, and literature, the Yuma Territorial Prison housed many of Arizona’s most dangerous and notorious criminals. Convicted of crimes ranging from polygamy to murder, 3069 desperados, including 29 women, were imprisoned in its rock and adobe cells from 1876 to 1909. Today you can take a self-guided tour of the historic penitentiary at the Yuma Prison Arizona State Historic Park.

An hour’s drive north of Yuma, Picacho State Recreation Area in Southern California offers a spectacular and dramatic, rugged landscape along with the lush haven of the Colorado River. The park is at the site of Picacho, once a gold mining town. There are trails interpreting the area’s mining history as well as a historic graveyard. It’s a popular park during the cooler winter and spring seasons, when visitors come out to enjoy the park’s kayaking and boating, fishing, hiking, bird and wildlife watching, and camping opportunities. In fact, a lot of the park’s visitors cruise in by boat.

Tucson & Southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert Region
Through the years, Picacho Peak was used as a landmark by Father Kino and the Mormon Battalion, the California forty-niners, and the Butterfield Overland Stage Route in the late 1850s. It’s also the site of the 1862 Battle of Picacho Pass, which was the largest Civil War clash to take place in Arizona.  Located just west of Tucson and featuring the prominent 1,500-foot Picacho Peak, Picacho Peak State Park is a beautiful hiking, bird watching, camping, and picnic destination with wildflowers in spring. There are historic markers in the park, as well as a LEED-certified visitors center with exhibits and a gift shop.

Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Catalina State Park is a nature lover’s paradise that’s home to a wide variety of desert flora and fauna including 150 bird species, spring wildflowers, cacti and 5,000 saguaros, known as “The Sentinels of the Desert.” The park encompasses 5,500 acres of rugged desert terrain with multi-use and nature trails that lead into the Coronado National Forest.  It’s a popular park for spring wildflowers, camping, hiking, biking, and horse riding, and is also host to special ranger programs and events throughout the year.

Located south of Tucson in the historic art village of Tubac near the Tumacacori National Historical Park, Tubac State Presidio State Historic Park is Arizona’s first state park. A prominent destination on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the Presidio features the ruins of Presidio San Ignacio de Tubac, the Presidio Museum, and an underground archaeological exhibit. The onsite 1885 furnished schoolhouse, Otero Hall, and Rojas House are all on the National Register of Historic Places. The park is host to numerous special events and programs.

Pony Express History in Northwest Nevada  
Fort Churchill and Buckland State Historic Parks are located between Yerington and Silver Springs. Fort Churchill was built as a U.S. Army fort in 1861. The ruins are a popular site for photographers. There’s also a museum and cemetery, picnic spot, and a 1.6-mile interpretive nature trail that runs from the Fort ruins, along the Carson River to historic Buckland Station. Some visitors have seen beaver, fox, mule deer, wild turkey, and Canadian geese while on the trail. Buckland Station is just down the road from Fort Churchill and was a supply center and boarding house. You can tour the house and picnic outside. Both sites are part of the Pony Express and California National Historic Trails, the Overland Stage Route, and, Fort Churchill is also part of the American Discovery Trail.

Lakes & Mountain Views in Colorado
The Centennial State is geographically diverse, encompassing most of the southern Rocky Mountains, the northeastern portion of the Colorado Plateau, and the western edge of the Great Plains.

Just a 45-minute drive from Greeley, Denver and Fort Collins, St. Vrain State Park (formerly Barbour Ponds) is a beautiful family-friendly destination boasting spectacular mountain views, over 600 acres of terrain, and over 150 acres of ponds. Popular park activities include camping and picnicking, hiking and bicycling, fishing and boating, bird watching and photography, as well as school and educational programs. Bird species range from migrating songbirds and waterfowl to raptors, including bald eagles during the winter months. Fish species include bluegill, black crappie, largemouth bass, red ear sunfish, yellow perch, saugeye, northern pike, channel catfish, and rainbow trout. A year-round park, it also offers ice fishing, snowmobiling and tent camping in the winter.

Beautiful Eleven Mile State Park is located near Lake George and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Colorado’s South Park National Heritage Area. Eleven Mile’s large reservoir is a popular fishing destination for catching rainbow, brown, cutthroat, kokanee and pike. There are five miles of scenic hiking and biking trails, bird watching, and camping opportunities.  It’s also a great park for kayaking and canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, and even winter iceboating.

Nature & History Runs Deep in Louisiana’s No Man’s Land

The Neutral Strip region, also known as No Man’s Land, hails from the area’s short time as an official buffer zone between Spain and the United States following the Louisiana Purchase. When the U.S. purchased the territory from France, Spain and the U.S. were conflicted over the boundary south of Natchitoches. In part, this confusion derived from the region’s long history, even before Spanish rule during the 1790s and 1800s, as a contested area with unclear boundaries. Spain generally governed the region with a blind eye, issuing land grants and allowing squatters and all manner of self-directed settlers, such as Native Americans who lost lands during the French-Indian War, to settle there to thwart American expansion. Instead of an armed clash to decide the new territory’s borders, both governments agreed to remove all troops from the disputed area until boundaries could be determined, and the official Neutral Strip was born.

The region’s use as an official buffer between Louisiana and Spanish Texas lasted roughly from 1806 until the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty that established the Sabine River as the territory’s western boundary. Today, by visiting the State Parks in No Man’s Land, you can dig deep into the region’s rich history, explore the natural beauty, and enjoy a plethora of recreational opportunities.

Boasting over 1,087 acres of natural paradise, Sam Houston Jones State Park in Lake Charles in the southwest portion of the state is a wonderful bird-watching destination boasting tree-filled lagoons and a mixed pine and hardwood forest. The park offers short nature trails, boating and disc golf, camping and cabin rentals. It’s a great picnic location too.

Located north of Lake Charles in Sabine Parish, Toledo Bend’s Lake Country is home to Toledo Bend Reservoir which is is one of the country’s largest man-made reservoirs, and nationally recognized as a destination for bass fishing tournaments. Both North Toledo Bend and South Toledo Bend State Parks hug the edges of the Reservoir, offering beautiful views of the lake and islands. While fishing takes center stage, other popular outdoor recreational activities include boating, cycling, hiking, and nature walks. It’s also a haven for wildlife and bird lovers, with species ranging from herons and shorebirds to woodpeckers, osprey, and bald eagles. Amenities include campgrounds and cabins, boat and canoe rentals, a swimming pool, boat launches, and fish cleaning stations.

Follow the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, once a royal road, east from Many to Natchitoches, the oldest settlement in Louisiana. Stop by and see Fort Jesup State Historic Site (open by appointment only) which was built in 1822 to protect the U.S. border with New Spain, and to return order to the Neutral Strip. Another historic stop is Los Adaes State Historic Site, which was the capital of Tejas (Texas) on the northeastern frontier of New Spain from 1729 -1770. Rich in archaeological finds, it included a mission, San Miguel de Cuellar de los Adaes, and a presidio, Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Los Adaes. Now operated by the Cane River National Heritage Area, Los Adaes has hiking and nature trails, as well as a museum. 

Located on Cane River Lake in Natchitoches, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Park is a replication of the original Fort, which was set up just a few hundred yards away, by founder Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis in 1714. Get a sense of the French Colonial life on a tour through the fort, museum, and historic buildings guided by costumed interpreters, and watch the park video sharing the history of the fort and region. The final destination on the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, this park is one of the many historic sites within the Cane River National Heritage Area.

Located south of Shreveport and north of Many and Natchitoches, Mansfield State Historic Site interprets the area’s Civil War history, especially the Mansfield-Pleasant Hill engagement. Highlights include living history events, exhibits, battle reenactments and musket demonstrations, candlelight tours of the battlefield, and more.  It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Ancient History & Natural Beauty in Little Rock, Arkansas
Boasting 52 State Parks all with free admission, the Natural State lives up to its name. Just a 30-minute scenic drive from downtown Little Rock, Pinnacle Mountain State Park and Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park each offer a completely different experience, and both rank high on natural beauty.

Pinnacle Mountain State Park is home to a diverse landscape that spans 2,351 acres, with a multitude of outdoor recreation opportunities. Standing at around 1,000 feet above elevation, Pinnacle Mountain is on the eastern edge of the Ouachita Mountain range, where the Arkansas, Big Maumelle, and Little Maumelle Rivers converge. It’s a beautiful park with 15 miles of hiking trails for all activity levels, 7 miles of mountain bike trails, water activities including fishing and boating, shaded picnic and barbecue spots, and interpretive programs and special events. Group facilities include a standard pavilion, visitor center meeting room, and scenic overlook. The park is a wonderful destination for nature enthusiasts, birders, school and educational groups. Destinations include the Visitor Center overlooking the Arkansas River, the Discovery Room showcasing nature displays and exhibits, an Environmental Education pond, Native Plant Gardens, and the Arkansas Arboretum. 

A National Historic Landmark, Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park is the largest and most complex mound site in Arkansas, and one of the most impressive in the Mississippi River Valley. Archaeologists believe these mounds were religious and social centers for the Plum Bayou culture, who occupied the area from around 650-1050 A.D.  You can see these mounds by following the Knapp and Plum Bayou self-guided trails, and if you are in luck, you may even see archaeologists doing their research. Other highlights of this unique park include taking a bird walk along the boardwalk over Mound Lake, visiting the museum and visitor center, and taking a stroll the Plum Bayou demonstration garden.

President Lincoln’s Ancestral History in Central Kentucky

President Abraham Lincoln’s family lived near historic Springfield, in central Kentucky for almost thirty years. The 1816 Courthouse on Main Street preserves the original marriage certificate of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, his parents. More of the President’s ancestral legacy can be experienced at Lincoln Homestead State Park. Spanning over 120 acres, this park features both historic buildings and reconstructions associated with Thomas Lincoln, as well as the original two-story Francis Berry House where Nancy Hanks lived and worked as a seamstress while being courted by Thomas. The buildings, including a gift shop and museum, are open Thursday through Sunday, May 1 – September 30. Along with picnic sites and a lake where visitors can go fishing, the park includes an 18-hole golf course on the land Mordecai Lincoln once farmed. On the other side of the road from the golf course is the Mordecai Lincoln House, built by Mordecai as an adult. Springfield is just 45 minutes from Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, the country’s first memorial to President Abraham Lincoln.

Here’s to planning your next State Park history, nature, or outdoor adventure!

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