Celebrating the Health and Wellness Benefits of Parks | Cal Parks

Celebrating the Health and Wellness Benefits of Parks

During this first-ever California State Parks Week, Californians will venture into their California state parks for the first time or the 500th time – enjoying recreation, time with family and friends, or simply a chance to be quiet in nature. When they do, they will find health and wellness benefits to improve their lives, as well as those of future generations. 

Anyone who spends time in California’s majestic state park system knows that these places confer almost immediate benefits to our mental and physical health, and overall sense of wellness. Vigorous activities like hiking and swimming help fight obesity and other chronic diseases, while picnicking, camping and other recreational pursuits in nature have been consistently shown to reduce stress and support mental health. To celebrate these incredible gifts from parks, Thursday, June 16 has been designated Health and Wellness Day during State Parks Week. 

Whether it’s a day at the beach, a hike in the redwoods, a camping trip in the mountains, or an excursion into California’s past at one of the system’s many state historic parks, healing, transformative experiences are in store for every visitor.  

That’s why, in partnership with California State Parks and California’s First Partner, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California State Parks Foundation has fought to expand access to parks. Together, we believe cost or transportation should never be a barrier to enjoying the benefits parks have to offer, and that every Californian deserves to feel welcomed and invited to enjoy those benefits.  

We launched our initiative for equitable park access, Pathways to Parks, in 2019. Pathways to Parks highlighted the clear nexus between equitable access to parks and community health. California is facing numerous severe challenges in promoting and achieving positive health outcomes and providing equitable access to the outdoors would help to improve health and wellness for all. 

To kick off the initiative we worked with a team of researchers from the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA to learn more about how state parks can improve health.  

We learned: 

  • 57 percent of all Californians live within a state parks visitorshed — which is the communities around each park accessible by a typical walk, bike trip or drive — clearly demonstrating the large opportunity for parks to serve as a resource for families. 

  • 59 percent of households within the visitorshed of California’s 280 state parks are disadvantaged, including 1 million youth below the poverty line. 

  • Parks accessible to disadvantaged communities are underutilized due to lack of awareness and access barriers such as cultural relevancy, language, and technology. 

Next, we focused on policy solutions benefitting children, youth and families, because getting young people into nature early in life will multiply the health and wellness benefits  over a lifetime. What’s more, early park experiences have been shown to foster a lifelong love of the outdoors. If we are to protect and preserve the state park system forever, it’s crucial that we begin to nurture the next generation of park stewards.   

We were thrilled when Governor Newsom proposed several pilot park access programs based on Pathways to Parks research and programming, as part of his historic $1 billion budget for California State Parks in 2021. Those programs, enacted as part the state’s 2021-22 budget, are providing free park access to many Californians who have not previously had it. 

The first pilot, the California State Park Adventure Pass, launched in September 2021, just in time for back to school. It allows fourth graders and their families to visit 19 parks up and down the state free of charge. Modeled on the National Park Service’s Every Kid Outdoors pass, the State Park Adventure Pass is targeted to fourth graders because California history is a part of the fourth grade curriculum, and because students this age generally visit state parks with their families – enabling access for all ages with one pass. The 19 parks accessible with this pass were chosen to provide a range of experiences in different geographic areas of the state – beaches, redwoods, mountains, deserts, and sites of varied cultural and historic importance. Parents or caregivers of eligible students may visit ReserveCalifornia.com to request a pass be emailed to them.  

A second program, the California State Library Parks Pass, launched this spring,  April 2022. It allows anyone with a California public library card to check out a day-use vehicle pass for the number of days allowed by their local library. Passes are available throughout the state, though there may be a waiting list in some areas. The Governor has proposed adding additional resources to the program for the 2022-23 budget year, so if his proposal survives negotiations with the Legislature, there will be additional passes available for library patrons to check out. California State Parks has created a short video with information on how to check out a pass.  

Finally, the state is piloting an annual Golden Bear parks pass to recipients of CalWORKs, a group that is very low-income. This pass allows these residents to visit over 200 parks free.  

So far, the public response to these efforts to make park visits accessible to all has been tremendous . Now, our job is to make sure these pilots are made permanent before they expire in 2024 – stay tuned for more information about this soon. In the meantime, check out the list of Health and Wellness Day events to find one near you – your body (and mind) will thank you!