With over 275 California state parks to choose from, sometimes it's the littlest parks that get overlooked. Honestly, that's OK with me, because it means more solitude when I hike. But low visitation numbers also equal a greater chance of that park being closed next time California has a budget crisis. That's why I'm devoting this entire post to showing you the giant beauty of tiny Harmony Headlands State Park. If enough of you get out there and go visit this park, it'll still be there for decades to come.
Harmony Headlands is the second-youngest California state park currently open to the public (only Fort Ord Dunes State Park on Monterey Bay opened more recently). At Harmony Headlands, you'll have a 4.5-mile round-trip hiking trail [map PDF] to the coast, across gently rolling former cattle and dairy ranch lands, almost to yourself, even on sunny summer weekends. Where Chumash tribespeople once camped and Chinese immigrants harvested kelp to send to San Francisco, today a wild beach remains unblighted by development. Sea otters and seals splash in the tidal waters, while brown pelicans soar on the winds. Black-bellied salamanders skitter and California king snakes slither along the trail beside grasslands.
To find this park, look for the Hwy 1 pull-off marked by a brown 'Coastal Access' sign pointing toward the ocean. There's only enough room in the parking lot for 10 cars, so you might have to park in a wide-open gravel turn-out immediately north, on the same (side of Hwy 1. The park is open from 6 a.m. until sunset daily. A day-use parking fee of $3 per car will eventually be charged, but it's free right now.
Harmony Headlands State Park is less than 3 miles south of Harmony (population 18), California's smallest town. Harmony is overshadowed by grandiose Hearst Castle, lording over California's Central Coast from a hilltop about 20 miles farther north up Hwy 1. The town is kept alive by artists' workshops and galleries. Inside a 19th-century creamery building are a historical post office, which townspeople keep trying to re-open, and a charmingly rustic Harmony Cafe run by an Italian expat - stop for espresso and homemade tiramisu.
What's your favorite California state park, big or small? Tell us by leaving a comment below.
Want more stories and travel advice like this?
Coastal California: The Anti-Hotel Top 10 List
Lovelorn Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur
Photos: Harmony Headlands State Park (Sara J. Benson) & Harmony, CA (Jonathan J. Hayes)