More than 10,000 state parks grace the United States, drawing over 750 million people to their varied splendors yearly. How to pick the best in the West? To be sure, all of the parks that follow are gorgeous, filled with fascinating things to see and do, and often less crowded than nearby national parks. In addition, each possesses an element that's emblematic of its state, something you won't find just anywhere. It's not easy to choose favorites, but these are Via's. You'll love a visit to any of them.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California
You could happily spend a lifetime delving into California's natural beauty and human history. Or you could visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for an exhilarating crash course.
Just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, this promontory of rocky fingers, hidden coves, and coastal woods alongside a powerful sea perfectly distills the state's essence in ways that other parks can't. From just offshore, you'll hear the barking of California sea lions—in Spanish called lobos marinos, or "sea wolves." Along 10 miles of easy trails, you'll find California golden poppies (the state flower), coveys of California quail (the state bird), and shell fragments left by the continent's first inhabitants. In early winter and spring, you might see migrating gray whales. In a wooden cabin built by Chinese fishermen in the 1850s, exhibits illuminate how people have used the land: a quarry for stone used in the old San Francisco Mint, an abalone cannery, a coal-shipping harbor, and, quintessentially Californian, a failed real estate scheme.
The park's soul has always been its grove of Monterey cypress trees, one of only two native stands left in the world. (The other is at Cypress Point, just across Carmel Bay.) Easily accessed by the 0.8-mile Cypress Grove Trail, the trees have been torqued into spectral shapes by the wind and salt spray, their roots clinging to rocks. They stand proud in a place of beauty and challenge, like those who call California home. —C.H.
Smart Tip: Check the park website before you go, because Point Lobos may soon institute a reservations system for day visitors.