Gold and silver run deep in the veins of California. This resource helped fuel the economy in the 1800’s. But as a consequence, this natural bounty of ore mined and lumber felled at an alarming rate cleared entire mountainsides. Many thought these resources would never end, but a few saw differently. This is when the idea of setting aside land for its natural value was born. And thus, the creation of the first state parks. Here’s 9 California State Parks in the High Sierra that represent a fine sampling of the most diverse natural landscape in the country.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
With how much fanfare there is about Yosemite, you would assume the 1st Giant Sequoia discovered by Europeans would be within its boundaries. You would be wrong. Rather, it was within this park’s boundaries. In 1852, Augustus T. Dowd stumbled upon the forest of Goliaths near Arnold that would become known as the Giant Sequoias. Immediately, it became a major tourist attraction making it the longest continuously operated tourist facility in California and quite possibly one of the best California State Parks. Within the Calaveras Big Trees’ boundaries, you’ll find the original “discovery” grove featuring 100 mature trees and the South Grove which contains more than 1,000 monoliths. Sadly, the Discovery Tree was toppled not long after and made into a dance floor that you can still stand on today. On a more uplifting note this event sparked the idea of environmentalism and importance of protecting natural wonders so future generations could enjoy.
D.L. Bliss State Park
Located on the western shores of Lake Tahoe and a few miles north of Emerald Bay, the park encompasses some of the most beautiful beaches in the Tahoe Basin. This park contains fantastic hiking opportunities as well as the iconic Rubicon Point Light, the highest elevation lighthouse in the United States. From its scenic overlook, you get a brilliant panorama of Emerald Bay, Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe, and the distant Nevada shore. Rubicon Point also gives you a close look at one of the lake’s deepest spots. You’ll see just how clear the waters truly are!
Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park
Don’t just stop at DL Bliss State Park. Keep heading north to the next California State Park in the necklace of protected lands surrounding these beautiful waters – Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. This is where the 1st permanent settler on record in 1860 built his cabin on General Creek which still can be seen today just north of Sugar Pine pier. It’s also home to two summer mansions built at the turn of the 20th century providing a close-up view into the lifestyles of the wealthy summer residents from a 100 years ago. Alongside the history, beautiful beaches beckon to summertime visitors and kayakers. While in the snowy months, cross-country skiers and snowshoers explore the many trails within the parks confines.
Donner Memorial State Park
Located just outside the historic town of Truckee, this state park offers ample amounts of history, outdoor recreation, and most of all fun. In the summer, visitors have access to beaches and the shore of Donner Lake to swim, fish, kayak, or boat. In the winter months, the hiking trails transition to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Named in honor and preserving the site of the ill-fated group of pioneers who perished here in 1846, the park has erected a pioneer monument not just for them but all who risked their lives to reach California during the 1840s.
California Mining & Mineral Museum
No matter how you look at it, the Gold Rush was influential in propelling California into statehood. Not just of gold either. The state’s mineral wealth runs MUCH deeper than that. To really get an idea of the geological diversity, you must visit the California Mining & Mineral Museum. Holding the state’s collection which began in 1880, over the years it has amassed more than 13,000 objects. This includes mining artifacts and rare specimens such as the 13.8 POUND Fricot Nugget. But don’t stop there. Be sure to mosey on into town and explore the Mariposa Museum & History Center. Within its four walls, you’ll find as the Smithsonian has stated, “the best little museum of its size West of the Mississippi.” Into rock climbing? Get a close look at the history that was made on the granite walls of Yosemite at the Yosemite Climbing Association Museum in the town of Mariposa as well.
Wassama Round House
The list of the best California State Parks in the High Sierra is a cornucopia of variety and unique things to see. It even includes a traditional meeting place for the Southern Sierra Miwok People – Wassama Round House State Park. Originally containing four roundhouses dating prior to the 1860’s, there is one left standing from 1903. To this day, the park plays host to events such as basket weaving, craft making, native dancing, and even a powwow in October. If you’re in the area, also be sure to explore the other local museums in the region including the largest fossil collections in the state!
Columbia State Historic Park
Feel like moseying your way back in time and experiencing the California Gold Rush Era? Then head three miles north of Sonora to the bustling historic town of Columbia. More than a century and a half ago, gold was discovered here and thousands flocked to get their share. The park system has restored and continued to preserve the brick buildings along Main Street built during its mining heyday. And that’s not all. You can catch a ride on an authentic stagecoach, pan for gold just like the original “49ers”, order a locally made sarsaparilla soda in a Western-style saloon, or even feel the heat in a working blacksmith’s forge. With no cars allowed, the only sounds you’ll hear are the clippety-clop of horses through the streets.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
Ancient… in fact, one of the oldest out there at over a million years old! Mono Lake is what you would imagine a body of water would look like on another planet. With no outlet, the salts and minerals from the Eastern Sierra streams have made its water 2 ½ times saltier and 80 times more alkaline than the oceans. It also has created spectacular “tufa towers,” which are calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. While you might imagine a place like this would be inhospitable, think again. It’s home to millions of the bizarre and hairy alkali fly. These insects help feed over a MILLION sea birds as they pick them up from the surface and swirl overhead as part of their annual pilgrimage to their southern habitats.
Grover Hot Springs State Park
Grover Hot Springs is a shining example of a hidden gem in the vast portfolio of California State Parks. Within its boundaries you’ll find campgrounds, wildflower meadows, soaring peaks, and as the name states hot springs to soak away your stresses. There’s even a waterfall you can take in off the Burnside Trail. And if visiting in the winter, it’s a great diversion after a day of skiing / snowboarding at Kirkwood Mountain.
Note: As of July 30th 2021, the park is temporarily closed due to the Tamarack Fire but based on the virtual tour most of the primary structures and campsites survived. Be sure to visit the California State Park’s website for the latest information.
The beauty and grandeur of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove captivated the world and helped create the first state park. This land grant from 1864 sparked what was to become the largest state park system in the United States. Come celebrate and help preserve California’s multitude of natural wonders and cultural heritage by visiting one of these three state parks in the High Sierra.
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex Silgalis is an outdoors travel writer who enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking, or having a cold one from a local mountain brewery. See more of Alex’s work at https://localfreshies.com
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