Northern California’s Lesser-Known State Parks Are the Ideal COVID-19 Getaway

Hiking in, packing out and eliminating contact with non-plant lifeforms

July 2, 2020 10:29 am
grizzly creek redwoods state park
The Force is with you at Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park
urban explorer / Unsplash

Everybody’s outside. This is good news, generally: Outdoors, for now, is safer than inside. 

That said, it’s not without its challenges. If you’re a regular traveler on the Bay Area’s trails, you know that the past three months have seen an explosion in (foot) traffic along them. The result: congestion, questionable trail etiquette, the inevitable tsk-tsking and frayed tempers from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Sierras. (Our stance: Hike in Havaianas if you want to, but you better pack out those empty Nuun tubes.) 

What to do? 

We’re taking a break from our faves list — which not coincidentally mostly consists of trails that are closer-in to the city and/or easily accessible from public transportation. (We’ll see you post-vaccine, Tennessee Valley). 

Instead, we’re looking at typically (noting that we’re living in deeply atypical times) under-trafficked state parks — and eliminating (not just minimizing) our contact with anything that’s (a) a living thing and (b) not conducting photosynthesis: Trees, yes. Humans, no. That means gassing up close to home, packing meals, and heading out with everything we’ll need, from (offline) directions to first aid kits to rainy-day gear and maps. Mind that parking will be exceptionally limited. Single-site camping’s available at the parks below — as you can guess, the large group sites are closed for now.  

And of course we’re packing out our trash.  

Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park

Camping? Yes.
What to do? Even the official state park listing admits that Grizzly Creek is “off the beaten tourist track.” It’s small: under a square mile. But happily, that square mile is packed with redwood trees. And if you know any cooped-up Star Wars fans resistant to commune with nature, just tell them about Cheatham Grove: four miles from the (closed) visitor’s center is a patch of redwoods familiar to fans of the Ewok-centric scooter scene in Return of the Jedi. 

Fremont Peak State Park

Camping? Yes.
What to do? Get a little bit of altitude with a hike to the top of Fremont Peak. The path itself is short — just over a mile — but the views outperform the effort involved. Keep in mind that you’ll be fully exposed to the sun: Expect hot days, with summer nights often dropping down into the 50s (very suitable for star-gazing, if you’re so inclined). 

Van Damme State Park
Little River

Van Damme State Park (Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty)
LightRocket via Getty Images

Camping? Yes
What to do? How active do you want to get? If the answer is “as minimally as possible,” take the quarter-mile boardwalk trail to the pygmy forest (it’s perhaps not quite as pygmy as your true heart might want, but it’s still neat). Otherwise, set off on the Fern Canyon Lollapalooza, a nine-mile round-trip through the park’s highlights, including the Little River. You’ll also be within spitting distance of beautiful (and usually busier) Russian Gulch and Mendocino Headlands state parks. 

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
Nevada City

Camping? Yes (though unfortunately not the miners’ cabins), and the visitor’s center here is open for camper check-in, with curbside sales of firewood
What to do? Most of the visitors are typically coming to this park in the Sierra Nevada foothills for the Gold Rush attractions — including the state’s largest hydraulic gold mine, if that’s your sort of thing. Though some minimal services are provided at the visitor’s center, the historic attractions are closed — making it easier to focus your attention on fishing the South Yuba River, swimming at Blair Lake, and hiking through the chaparral. 

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