The West's Best State Parks

Near Sonora, California

In its heyday, Columbia was one of the elegant cities ofCalifornia’s Gold Rush. In Anybody’s Gold, Joseph Henry Jacksontells how the town burned down twice, “replacing wood and canvaswith fine brick buildings decorated with ironwork balconies andprotected 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 dressadd an aura of the 1800s, and you can ride a stagecoach, pan forgold, 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 Hotelfrom $105; (209) 532-1479.

FYI: A.N. Fisher & Co. Stage Line & Livery Stableoffers 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

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 andClark Interpretive Center can learn about their expedition, thenexplore the park’s beaches and old-growth forest–try the 3-milehike between the Cape Disappointment and North Head Lighthouses.Across the river at Oregon’s Fort Stevens State Park, tour anartillery battery commissioned by Abraham Lincoln, then ride 9miles 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 yurtsand cabins from $35; (888) 226-7688. Lighthouse keepers’ residencesfrom $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 Stevens: (503) 861-1671 or

Near Dillon, Montana

Few ghost towns have the unvarnished authenticity thatBannack has. Take the self-guided tour of streets lined with 60structures in various states of repair – including the jail, hotel,first governor’s mansion, and Methodist church – and it’s not hardto imagine this was once the Wild West, complete with gold minersand gunfighters. From 1862 until 1890, Bannack was a gold-miningcamp, a territorial capital, and one of the most violent places inMontana. Named for the Bannock Indians, this was home of SheriffHenry Plummer, who, with his gang of road agents, robbed andmurdered miners for their gold before town vigilantes strung him upon 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 aboutpioneer life.

CONTACT: (406) 834-3413 or

Near Cambria, California

It took time to build this castle on a hill along thecentral California coast – 28 years – and even then it wasn’tfinished. And it takes time to appreciate the place today. Fivedifferent tours are offered (including one nighttime trek) thatventure into various of the mansion’s 58 bedrooms, 18 sittingrooms, and 60 bathrooms. The fantastic dream of newspaper heirWilliam Randolph Hearst came into existence with the help ofarchitect Julia Morgan. The site, which Hearst called La Cuesta Encantada, hosted countless lavish parties withstars and politicos. Today, the wild parties are history, but avisit 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

Near Bernalillo, New Mexico

On a stark hillside, a signed walking trail leads 3/4 milepast a kiva and through the ruins of Giusewa, a 13th- to17th-century Native American pueblo, then to San José de losJemez, a stone-and-adobe mission church built in 1622. Out of thesehaunting, imposing ruins, the history of New Mexico’s culturesspeaks eloquently. The well-preserved church walls are testimony tothe Franciscan missionaries who supervised their construction.Descendants of the Native American builders still live in JemezPueblo, 12 miles south. – S.N.

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

WHEN: Year-round; closed Tue.

COST: $3 per person.

CONTACT: (505) 829-3530.

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