Trying to keep the family off the screens and into nature this summer? How does free entry to 200 California state parks sound? Check out a state park pass from your local library for up to three weeks and enjoy free entry to California’s stunning lakes, beaches and forests with your family. We’ve rounded up our favorite family outdoor adventures in participating state parks, so head to your local library, grab your California State Library Park Pass and have fun exploring the golden state this summer!
How to Get your Free California State Park Pass
All you need is a library card to check out a state park pass. First, you can find your nearest library and state park on this interactive map. Each library has a limited number of passes that can be checked out. Second, find out if one is available at your library by either calling up or type California State Library Park Pass into your library website’s search bar. You can make a reservation if one is not immediately available. In short, the pass gives one car free day use parking at participating state parks but is not valid for camping, boating or museum fees.
Set off on a Sierra Adventure
Head to Emerald Bay State Park and arrive early to park at Vikingsholm car park for a refreshing swim in the clear cool waters of Lake Tahoe. Display your pass on the dash and head down the mile-long gravel trail to the beach. Families with children aged four and over can rent a kayak and paddle out to Fannette Island, a tiny island located a short distance from the shoreline with a crumbling stone tea house to explore. Later, tour Vikingsholm, a Scandinavian-inspired castle, which is open to visitors in the summer (an extra fee applies).
Another great option is to walk among the tall trees in Calaveras Big Tree State Park, a two-hour drive from San Francisco. The forest has two groves of giant sequoias, which grow up to 325 feet high. There is a tree stump so large it was used as a dance floor after it was cut down during the gold rush. Just show your pass at the parking lot entrance for free admission.
Are your kids fascinated by the Wild West? Head to Coloma, the town where gold was first discovered in California, sparking the famous gold rush. Check out Marshall Gold Discovery State park, where you can pan for gold in the American River, go on a gold mining walking tour and enjoy the interactive exhibitions at the museum.
Discover the Sonoma Coast
Russian River Valley is only one hour north of San Francisco and has been a favorite vacation spot for generations of Bay Area families. Stay in the charming town of Guerneville and go for a shady hike in nearby Armstrong Nature State Reserve. Park at the visitor center car park and check out the Pioneer Nature Trail, an easy path with interpretive signs. Look out for the tree hugging platform, banana slugs and a huge 310-foot old-growth redwood tree.
In the afternoon, drive to Fort Ross State park, a restored Russian fort. Complete with towers, an armory and cannons to explore, California history will come alive for kids! Just outside the fort, down a short trail, is a beach. It’s a nice open space to run around, hunt for shells or dip your feet in the gulch that flows into the ocean.
On your way home, make a detour to Bodega Bay and spend some time on the beautiful beaches at Sonoma Coast State Park. Shell Beach is popular for tide pooling where kids can search for anemones, crabs and starfish hidden among the rocks. Watch out for sneaker waves along this part of the coast—stick to the sand for safety. After that, stop by Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay for a delicious clam chowder after your adventures!
Road Trip to the Redwoods
Use your pass to show your family California’s natural treasures: the ancient coastal redwood groves in Humboldt County. A six-hour drive north of San Francisco, these preserves are a bit of a trek from the Bay Area but if you break up the drive with an overnight stop at Mendocino, you can take a memorable redwoods road trip this summer.
Visit the Avenue of the Giants, one of the most scenic drives in the world, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Pause for a refreshing dip in the swimming holes at Richardson Grove State Park. Star Wars fans will love pretending to be a Jedi in Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, where some of the scenes from Star Wars were filmed.
Don’t miss the short hike through incredible Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park. This canyon, covered in emerald-green ferns, was used for scenes in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Hollywood loves this stunning part of California! Be sure to secure a permit in advance of your visit, these are free and available online.
Big Sur Break
Take the family to the Central Coast this summer, using your free pass to explore the beautiful state parks and beaches of Monterey County. Point Lobos Natural State Reserve, dubbed the “jewel in the crown” of California’s state parks, is included in the program. Just south of Carmel, the reserve is home to a wealth of wildlife both on land and under the water.
Continue down the coast to the wild and remote region of Big Sur, where you can explore miles of unspoiled beaches and forests. Similarly, both Andrew Molera State Park and Garrapata State Park have beautiful beaches you can hike to. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park features a spectacular waterfall which can be viewed after a short hike, perfect for families with young kids.
Southern California Escape
Many of Southern California’s best beaches and state parks are also included in the pass, so head south for some sunshine. In Los Angeles, relax on Malibu Lagoon State Beach, where modern surfing culture was born, or follow the oak-shaded trails into the hills at nearby Malibu Creek State Park. You might recognize some of the abandoned props from TV show M*A*S*H, which was filmed here.
Or head into the desert at California’s biggest state park, Anza-Borrego State Park. Adventurous kids can hike the Borrego Palm Canyon trail, which leads to a magical fan-palm oasis. Fed by an underground spring, this oasis will be a treat for their hard efforts!
Explore the Bay Area with a State Park Day Trip
Use your pass to explore the amazing state parks right here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hike through the forest at Henry Cowell Redwoods or Portola Redwoods. Hit the beach at Manresa, New Brighton, Natural Bridges, Seacliff, or Half Moon Bay. Learn about California’s Mission past at Santa Cruz Mission State Beach. Or see the entire Bay Area from the peak of Mount Diablo.