California is home to 279 state parks, which cover more than a million acres combined and stretch from 230 feet below sea level at the Salton Sea to more than 10,000 feet above at the snowy San Jacinto Peak. 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 of California’s state parks from your local library.
See elephant seals
Roughly 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo State Park is one of the few places in North America where you can see elephant seals up close. The massive animals, each about the size of an S.U.V., can be viewed at the park year-round, but winter tends to be the busiest and most exciting season, as it’s when the pups are born.
From December through March, the seals come ashore to mate, give birth and nurse their young. Park docents offer guided walks starting on Dec. 15 and continuing every day until March 31, with the exception of Dec. 25. Read more about reserving a tour.
Experience a gold rush town
About 90 miles southeast of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the city of Columbia was once the second largest in California. Between 1850 and 1880, more than a billion dollars’ worth of gold was mined in the area. And in 1945, the State Legislature designated the site the Columbia State Historic Park so that a typical gold rush town could be preserved.
During the holiday season, visitors to the park can watch confectioners make giant handmade candy canes and can enjoy special events, including a Los Posadas Nativity procession and a Christmas equestrian parade.
Explore the desert
Though spring is typically the best time to catch its 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, excellent stargazing and “an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California desert,” said Jorge Moreno, a state parks department spokesman.
More on California
- Jaywalking Law: California has had one of the strictest jaywalking laws in the nation. Starting Jan. 1, that will no longer be the case.
- Remaking a River: Taming the Los Angeles River helped Los Angeles emerge as a global megalopolis, but it also left a gaping scar across the territory. Imagining the river’s future poses new challenges.
- A Piece of Black History Destroyed: Lincoln Heights — a historically Black community in a predominantly white, rural county in Northern California — endured for decades. Then came the Mill fire.
- Employee Strike: In one of the nation’s biggest strikes in recent years, teaching assistants, researchers and other workers across the University of California system walked off the job to demand higher pay.
Go cross-country skiing
Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park is 2,000 acres of dense pine, fir, aspen and cedar forest along the quiet western shores of Lake Tahoe. Winter visitors to Sugar Pine Point can camp in the snow and explore miles of marked cross-country skiing trails.
Learn about California history
Thirty miles south of Redding, William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park is a memorial to William B. Ide, a leader of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican control of California. The park features an old adobe home, blacksmith shop and other historic sites, which can be toured on the weekends. The park’s annual Pioneer Christmas Party, which recreates the settlers’ earliest holiday celebrations, will take place this year on Dec. 17.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Lyn Allred, who recommends the town of Cambria on the Central Coast:
“Right on the ocean, the peaceful wooden path has gorgeous vistas and benches on which to contemplate life. Hotels line the street across from the ocean and the quaint Old Cambria is a quick drive east. Be sure to stop by Linn’s for some yummy treats. Many hotels will welcome your dog, too.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
Have you visited any of the travel destinations that we’ve recommended in the newsletter? Send us a few lines about your trip, and a photo!
We’d like to share them in upcoming editions of the newsletter. Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com. Please include your name and the city in which you live
And before you go, some good news
The Times recently asked readers to tell us what they were thankful for this year, in fewer than 100 words. The responses touched on large moments of gratitude, like a lifesaving drug or the birth of a child, as well as the mundane joys of life, like ice cream and exercise.
Here’s a sweet one from Annalisa McMorrow, 53, who lives in Point Reyes Station:
“A tiny record store opened up in our tiny Northern California town. I am a vinyl junkie and immediately became a regular. Now, one of the owners knows my tastes so well, he’ll text me randomly: “Mule Variations and Swordfishtrombones. Interested?” I’m the round-the-clock caregiver for my disabled husband. The owners hold the LPs for me until I can make it in. Their store is a bright spot of promise and nostalgia in a life that can be sad.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.