by Rachel Norton, Executive Director
California has 280 state parks, and my long-term goal is to visit all of them. In 2017, my first year as Executive Director of the California State Parks Foundation, I was able to visit such far-flung state parks as Mitchell Caverns and Providence Mountain State Recreation Area, Topanga State Park, Mount Diablo State Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park.
My visit to Mitchell Caverns last year was almost a religious experience, because I can’t get enough of the spare, majestic beauty of the Mojave Desert. The visit stirred my wanderlust and sense of adventure as I started thinking about my 2018 adventures.
So, late one night this spring I started looking at the map with the goal of visiting more of the system’s most remote and spectacular parks. Soon I was mapping out an epic road trip, starting and ending in San Francisco, traveling almost 1,000 miles and visiting seven California state parks, one National Historic Site and one U.S. Forest Service site.
I am fortunate to be from a family with other adventurous spirits. As soon as I told my sister about my road trip plans, she wanted to go. And as soon as my sister was going, my mom wanted in too. So, we made our plans, rented an SUV and headed out one foggy morning in June. Four hours later, we were in warm, sunny South Lake Tahoe, enjoying Lake Tahoe’s clear water and sandy beaches.
The next morning we set off for Vikingsholm and Emerald Bay State Park, about 30 minutes north on highway 89. Vikingsholm is the former summer home of Lora Knight, located at the end of the stunningly beautiful Emerald Bay. The narrow, rock-lined channel reminded Mrs. Knight of Norwegian fjords when she bought the property, so she hired a Swedish architect and built a lovely castle retreat there in 1929. She and her guests enjoyed every summer at the property before her death in 1945. The property passed to the state of California in the 1950s, and thank goodness it did, as Emerald Bay might look very different today if it had not been protected from development (I was told by one Tahoe denizen that at one point the state planned to build a bridge over the mouth of Emerald Bay, routing Highway 89 right across the scenic channel). Many thanks to Heidi Doyle, Executive Director of the Sierra State Parks Foundation, for taking us on a very informative insider’s tour of the property and its surroundings (including the lovely D.L Bliss State Park and Eagle’s Point campgrounds).
We left Tahoe and drove southeast across the Sierra Nevada to Bridgeport, stopping for a picnic in Washoe Meadows State Park. The next morning we drove to Bodie State Historic Park, the deserted boomtown that the Department of Parks and Recreation has preserved in a fascinating and eerie state of “arrested decay.” At one time Bodie had a population of 10,000 people, and a reputation as a rough and tough frontier town. Eventually, however, the mining industry that fed the local economy collapsed, and the town was deserted. You can peek into homes and shops, left much as they might have been when the last residents left almost 100 years ago.
The next day, we headed to the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, established to preserve the striking and very delicate limestone towers, known as tufas, and important habitat for the estimated 2 million birds that use the site as a breeding ground and rest stop. My mom, a passionate birder, was in heaven – especially when we spotted an eagle’s nest.
We headed further south on Highway 395, enjoying the stunning views of the east side of the Sierra Nevada as we drove. We made a brief detour up to Mammoth Lakes to visit the Minaret Vista, a National Forest Service site that showcases a gorgeous view of these rugged peaks.
Then it was off to Manzanar, a National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of the camps where the Federal government imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was sobering to visit, and remember the injustices, humiliation and deprivation that these American citizens endured in the hysteria that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Manzanar, it was time to head back west, and we followed State Route 178 over Walker Pass and through the lovely Kern River canyon before stopping for the night in Bakersfield. We had saved the most interesting and least-known park for last: Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
The next morning, we drove north on Highway 99 for about an hour, eventually turning off on a little-traveled road to arrive at the park. Colonel Allen Allensworth was born a slave, eventually escaping and joining the Union Army during the Civil War. Self-educated, he eventually became a Navy chaplain before retiring with military honors. Dedicated to the idea of economic self-sufficiency for African-Americans, Col. Allensworth, his wife and four other African-American investors bought land to establish a town that would help former slaves and their descendants live in dignity and build wealth. Established in 1908, the town of Allensworth was for a time a beacon of hope and prosperity. Unfortunately, the project eventually failed due to dwindling water supplies and the loss of railroad business. Today, the site has been lovingly restored (with some maintenance help from our Park Champions volunteers), and represents an important chapter in the history of California’s African-American community. I highly recommend a visit!
Overall, this summer’s state park road trip was immensely rewarding – beautiful scenery, quality time with family and a great learning experience. It embodied everything that Californians and visitors want from our incredible state park system! My only question is: how am I going to top it next year?