Wild, scenic and historic state parks, close to San Joaquin County, perfect for spring outings!

Mt. Diablo, Calaveras Big Trees, Columbia Historic Park, Railtown 1897 Park – close to Stockton, stunning in spring!

Mt. Diablo's flank, looking west from Northgate Road.

With the advent of spring, several glorious state parks close to San Joaquin county back in. Spring, with recent rain and breezes clearing the air, make a fine time to tour to places such as Mount Diablo State Park to our west and Calaveras Big Trees State Park to the east. If you’re into historic state parks, both Columbia Historic Park and Railtown 1897 are just an hour away in the Sierra foothills.

Mt. Diablo is a favorite, just 60 miles away – part of the fun is the scenic and wild East Bay that you’ll discover getting there. You’ll cross our scenic Delta on Hwy. 4, turn south to Byron and then west again towards Mt. Diablo. In route is Round Valley Regional Park, where you can hike or ride mountain bikes amidst creeks running strong, wildflowers and views of Mt. Diablo around each corner.

Wind Caves on Mt. Diablo are a kid’s climbing paradise!

You’re liable to see California ground squirrels, dear, desert cottontails, the San Joaquin red fox, pocket mouse, coyotes – even reclusive mountain lions in this beautiful country. Golden eagles and burrowing owls can also be spotted.

For best views, pick a day following a spring rain or strong breezes.  While Mt. Diablo is only 3,849 feet tall, it towers in the coastal range and views on clear days can extend for 200 miles, west past the Golden Gate to the Farallon Islands, north to Mt. Lassen and deep into the Sierra to the east.

In Mount Diablo, stop along the South Gate Rd. and explore Rock City. Otherworldly features include the Wind Caves, Elephant Rock, Artist Point and Fossil Ridge. Explorers will find Native American grinding rocks located near the Grotto, a fine place for a scenic picnic. The park offers three campgrounds (Juniper, at 3,000 feet, offers spectacular vistas and star gazing), numerous picnic areas and over 150 miles of hiking trails.

Continue on to the top of the twin Mt. Diablo peaks. The Summit Visitor Center is open daily, 10 AM to 4 PM, located in a 1930s historic stone building atop Diablo’s highest peak. An observation deck offers telescopes and explanations of some of the finest views in the west. From the top, rocky trails fan out in all directions, offering stunning vistas over 360 degrees.

Sledders amongst Calaveras Big Tree’s Giant Sequoias, taken just weeks ago!

Setting sights on nearby Sierra foothills attractions, Calaveras Big Trees, Columbia State Historic Park and Railtown 1897 Park are each just a bit more than an hour from Stockton. Each offers special allure and is surrounded by the green and scenic Sierra foothills, gorgeous in the spring.

Calaveras Big Trees features colossal stands of Giant Sequoias, while living history is the draw at both Columbia and  Railtown 1897 parks. Calaveras Big Trees presents a well-preserved example of mid-elevation forest in the western Sierra, dominated by Giant Sequoias and surrounded by Ponderosa Pine, Incense Cedar and White Fir.

Spring comes alive with Pacific Dogwood’s white blossoms, Crimson Columbine, Hartweg’s Iris, Monkey Flowers, Leopard Lily, Lupine and Wild Hyacinth. With the park situated at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 feet, spring can be late in coming. Just a month ago, we treated our five-year-old grandson Jack to his first snowboarding experience amidst the huge Sequoias. At this writing, snow has disappeared from the park – but, check weather forecasts before departing.

Kids pan for gold and agates at Columbia State Historic Park.

Columbia State historic Park is just 3 miles north of Sonora, while Railtown 1897 Park is located in Jamestown, just a few miles west of Sonora.

Both parks offer living history and could conceivably be visited in the same day; Sonora offers a host of motels if one seeks to spend the night.

Columbia Historic Park offers wonderfully preserved Gold Rush-era buildings that served as frequent movie and TV series backdrops, including the classic western High Noon, and TV’s Little House on the Prairie. Columbia’s Wilson/McConnell House is where Marshal Kane (Gary Cooper) recruits Sam Fuller (Henry Morgan, aka Colonel Sherman Potter in the Mash series) in High Noon.

Wells Fargo stagecoach carries families through Columbia’s streets.

Kids can ride the Wells Fargo stagecoach and pan for gold and agates for a small fee. Restaurants, ice cream shop, western backdrop and informative docents dressed in period costume make Columbia a fine place for strolling and soaking in our early California history.

Railtown 1897 denotes the year that the Sierra Railway, which began construction in Oakdale, reached Jamestown, later extending to Sonora, Angels Camp and Tuolumne City. It’s known as the “movie railroad”, hosting scores of movies and television shows since 1919. Kids can scramble around and over rail cars, admire the fleet of giant locomotives and see a real railroad roundhouse and turntable.

Engine #3 in Railtown’s roundhouse is part of extensive locomotive fleet.

Railtown’s spring opening is Saturday and Sunday, April 2 and 3, with extended hours and free rides. After opening weekend, the park is open 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM, with trains running Saturdays and Sundays and modest admission charges. Excursion train tickets add additional cost.

How to get there: Mt. Diablo– from Stockton, go west on CA Hwy. 4 just past Discovery Bay, take the Byron

Railtown's Engine #3 in the classic western 'High Noon'.

Highway south one mile to Byron, go west on Camino Diablo which connects with Marsh Creek Road.  Round Valley Preserve is right off Marsh Creek Road. For Calaveras Big Trees, go east on Hwy. 4 to the park.  For Railtown and Columbia parks, take Hwy. 108 to Jamestown for Railtown; for Columbia, continue on Hwy. 108 to Sonora, then north on Hwy. 49.

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good hiking shoes and chilly weather gear! To plan your visit: for Mt. Diablo State Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=517, (925) 837-2525; Calaveras Big Trees Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=551, (209) 795-2334; Columbia State Historic Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552, (209) 588–9128; Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, railtown1897.org, (209) 984-3953. For camping in Mt. Diablo State Park or Calaveras Big Trees, reserveamerican.com, (800) 444-7275.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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