5 Historic State Parks in Northern California Worth Visiting in 2023

By John Metcalfe
From Bay Area News Group

Hankering for outdoor experiences that offer the wonder of the past? Try California, home to the largest state park system in the country, including about 50 that are designated as historic. Here are some historic state parks you might want to visit, all within striking distance of the Bay Area.

Columbia State Historic Park

For soaking in the old-timey vibes of the Gold Rush, there’s no better place than this large (and still vibrant) mining town from the 1850s. During its heyday, it was the second-biggest settlement in the state, pulling out more than $1 billion in today’s value in gold. Today, visitors can enjoy its restaurants and historic saloons, take stagecoach rides, dip candles and pan for gold and gemstones – and if you visit on the second Saturday of each month, you can chat up Gold Rush reenactors in full regalia.

Exhibits are open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (merchants usually until 5 p.m.) at 11259 Jackson St. in Columbia; parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552.

Pigeon Point Light Station

A lot of folks might not know that Pigeon Point in San Mateo County was named for a clipper ship, the Carrier Pigeon, which wrecked in dense fog in 1853. (Another vessel sent to save her also nearly sank.) Enter the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, meant to guide sailors along the Central Coast and formally lit in 1872 on, of all things, the power of the pig – its lamp burned lard oil. The park’s a great place to admire one of the finest lighthouses in America, as well as the keeper’s office and signal building with fog-horn trumpets. It’s a great place for birding and whale watching, too.

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (grounds open 8 a.m. to sunset) at 210 Pigeon Point Road, Pescadero; parks.ca.gov/?page_id=533

Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park

The centerpiece of this spot celebrating indigenous Miwok life is a massive rock whose indentations were used mortar-and-pestle style to pulverize acorns into grain that was then cooked into nutritious mush. The grinding rock, the largest in North America, is only one of two known to be decorated with petroglyphs – wavy lines and animal tracks that could date back 3,000 years. Visitors can walk through a reconstructed Native American village with a ceremonial roundhouse, camp inside bark houses and experience a nature trail where (according to the park) the “legendary coyote – the trickster of Miwok legend – can be heard singing on quiet summer nights.”

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 14881 Pine Grove-Volcano Road, Pine Grove; $8 vehicle-entry fee, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=553

San Juan Bautista State Historic Park

Want to see a mission that’s served mass since about 1800? It’s right next to this lovingly preserved town center and bustling crossroads that dates back to the Spanish and Mexican eras. The mission was designed for converting Native Americans – not a great look nowadays – but it has fun aspects like choir books penned by a famous priest-musician and a “cat door” to help eliminate food-stealing mice. At the park, you can see an old hotel and stables, a jail and blacksmith shop, the adobe home of an early Californian Comandante General and a horse-drawn “beer wagon” for hauling kegs of Wieland’s extra-pale lager.

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 19 Franklin St., San Juan Bautista; $3 admission fee, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=563

Jack London State Historic Park

Fans of Jack London or just nature in general will enjoy visiting lovely Sonoma Valley to see the author’s home and ranch (he had an interest in breeding prized livestock). He spent his final years writing here, and after being cremated in Oakland, his ashes were interred under a large rock. People can see that gravesite today as well as his wood-framed cottage and ruins of his larger house, which mysteriously burned down (perhaps from oil-soaked rags spontaneously combusting). On some weekends, volunteers tickle the ivories on the 1901 Steinway grand piano that belonged to London’s wife, Charmian.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen; $10 vehicle-entry fee, jacklondonpark.com

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