Mark E. Gibson/Photo 20-20
The West's Best State Parks

Near Sonora, California

In its heyday, Columbia was one of the elegant cities of California's Gold Rush. In Anybody's Gold, Joseph Henry Jackson tells how the town burned down twice, "replacing wood and canvas with fine brick buildings decorated with ironwork balconies and protected against the dishonest by tall iron doors and shutters." Today, with its brick saloons, stagecoach, and wooden sidewalks, Columbia looks like an Old West town in a Clint Eastwood movie (scenes from Unforgiven were filmed here). Docents in period dress add an aura of the 1800s, and you can ride a stagecoach, pan for gold, or wander inside the old shops. - Lora J. Finnegan

WHERE: 3 miles north of Sonora, off State 49.

WHEN: Year-round. COST: Free.

LODGING: Fallon Hotel from $70; (209) 532-1470. City Hotel from $105; (209) 532-1479.

FYI: A.N. Fisher & Co. Stage Line & Livery Stable offers stagecoach ($5) and horseback rides ($30); (209) 588-0808. Hidden Treasure Gold Mine has gold panning and mine tours; (209) 532-9693.

CONTACT: (209) 532-0150 or www.sierra.parks.state.ca.us.

Near Astoria, Oregon

The mouth of the Columbia River, bracketed by two old forts, runs deep with history. Lewis and Clark ended their journey here, on the Washington side, and visitors to Fort Canby's Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center can learn about their expedition, then explore the park's beaches and old-growth forest--try the 3-mile hike between the Cape Disappointment and North Head Lighthouses. Across the river at Oregon's Fort Stevens State Park, tour an artillery battery commissioned by Abraham Lincoln, then ride 9 miles of paved bike trails or walk miles of sand beach. - J.M.

WHERE: Fort Canby is 2 miles south of Ilwaco, Washington; Fort Stevens is 10 miles west of Astoria.

WHEN: Year-round.

COST: Fort Canby: free. Fort Stevens: $3 per car.

CAMPING/LODGING: Fort Canby: 333 sites from $14 and yurts and cabins from $35; (888) 226-7688. Lighthouse keepers' residences from $234; (800) 360-4240. Fort Stevens: 535 sites from $18; (800) 452-5687. Yurts from $27 or Officers Inn B&B from $79; (800) 377-2524.

CONTACT: Fort Canby: (360) 642-3078 or www.parks.wa.gov. Fort Stevens: (503) 861-1671 or www.oregonstateparks.org.

Near Dillon, Montana

Few ghost towns have the unvarnished authenticity that Bannack has. Take the self-guided tour of streets lined with 60 structures in various states of repair - including the jail, hotel, first governor's mansion, and Methodist church - and it's not hard to imagine this was once the Wild West, complete with gold miners and gunfighters. From 1862 until 1890, Bannack was a gold-mining camp, a territorial capital, and one of the most violent places in Montana. Named for the Bannock Indians, this was home of Sheriff Henry Plummer, who, with his gang of road agents, robbed and murdered miners for their gold before town vigilantes strung him up on January 10, 1864. - C.P.

WHERE: From Dillon, take I-15 south 3 miles, Secondary Rte. 278 west 20 miles, then follow signs 4 miles to the park.

WHEN: Year-round; ice-skating in winter.

COST: $2 per person.

CAMPING/LODGING: 40 sites from $8 and tepee rentals from $25.

FYI: Bannack Days (July 20-21) features activities about pioneer life.

CONTACT: (406) 834-3413 or www.fwp.state.mt.us.

Near Cambria, California

It took time to build this castle on a hill along the central California coast - 28 years - and even then it wasn't finished. And it takes time to appreciate the place today. Five different tours are offered (including one nighttime trek) that venture into various of the mansion's 58 bedrooms, 18 sitting rooms, and 60 bathrooms. The fantastic dream of newspaper heir William Randolph Hearst came into existence with the help of architect Julia Morgan. The site, which Hearst called La Cuesta Encantada, hosted countless lavish parties with stars and politicos. Today, the wild parties are history, but a visit is still like nothing else in the world. - L.T.

WHERE: 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo off State 1.

WHEN: Year-round; crowded in summer.

COST: Tours from $14; reservations required.

CONTACT: (800) 444-4445 or www.parks.ca.gov

Near Bernalillo, New Mexico

On a stark hillside, a signed walking trail leads 3/4 mile past a kiva and through the ruins of Giusewa, a 13th- to 17th-century Native American pueblo, then to San José de los Jemez, a stone-and-adobe mission church built in 1622. Out of these haunting, imposing ruins, the history of New Mexico's cultures speaks eloquently. The well-preserved church walls are testimony to the Franciscan missionaries who supervised their construction. Descendants of the Native American builders still live in Jemez Pueblo, 12 miles south. - S.N.

WHERE: From Bernalillo, take U.S. 550 west 22 miles, then take State 4 north 18 miles.

WHEN: Year-round; closed Tue.

COST: $3 per person.

CONTACT: (505) 829-3530.

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