When it comes to natural spaces across the United States, the National Parks get all of the glory. And while its true that they are some of the best spans of wilderness on Earth, they’re not the only outdoor places worth visiting. In fact, all 50 states have their own protected natural spaces you can make trips to throughout the year.
Each and every state in this great nation is home to dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of public parks. That being said, there are some that are perhaps a little more must-see than others. The good news is, no matter where you live in the nation, there’s one just a hop, skip, and jump away. From the icy shores of Alaska to the murky swamps of Louisiana and everywhere in-between, these are the 20 best State Parks in the USA.
Cathedral Caverns State Park
Thousands of people travel to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico every year. But it’s a pretty far trek for anyone that lives in, say, the South or on the Eastern Seaboard. Turns out, there’s a truly impressive stretch of caverns much closer – in Alabama, to be exact. Named for its church-like internal appearance, this system of caves (which used to be called Bat Cave – seriously) features one of the largest stalagmite rock formations in the world, named ‘Goliath’ and measuring up at 45 feet tall and 243 feet around. And that’s just the start of things worth seeing at this excellent state park.
Chugach State Park
Mostly contained within the municipality of Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, Chugach spans a marvelous 495,000 acres – making it one of the four largest state parks in the entire United States. And you’ll find all manner of terrain out there from mountain peaks to a glacier lagoon and everything in-between. As you might expect, this massive expanse of open land is also home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including eagles, moose, salmon, bears, owls, and much much more. You can also rent a number of cabins on the land, hike on a glacier, and even pick wild berries during the spring.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Just 12 miles south of Big Sur – an amazing park in and of itself – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is an odd mismatch of California landscapes, fauna, and flora. Not only will you find a gorgeous beach cove on the land – with palm trees and everything – but there’s also the 80-foot McWay Falls waterfall, looming cliffs, and (believe it or not) 300-foot tall redwoods that creep almost up to the edge of the cliffs. There are few, if any, places where you can find so many of California’s defining natural features all in one place, which is why this state park has definitely earned its spot on our list.
Eldorado Canyon State Park
Colorado is a bastion of Rocky Mountain natural beauty – and the Eldorado Canyon State Park is no exception to that rule. Just outside of Boulder, you’ll find this 885-acre hunk of land that boasts some of the best rock climbing in the whole world – both for its comprehensiveness and accessibility. In fact, there are over 1,000 routes across the park. It’s also a hotbed of geologic wonder, boasting rocky outcroppings that are estimated to be over 1.5 billion years old. It’s also popular for hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and – in the warmer months – is perfect for picnics.
Na Pali Coast State Park
On the northwest side of the island of Kauaʻi – Hawaii’s oldest inhabited island – this park spans a whopping 3,578 acres of gargantuan cliffs, rising as far as 4,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Of course, it’s a given that this entire tropical state is gorgeous, but this relatively untouched bit of land is some of the most serene and awe-inspiring out there. Just keep in mind that this isolated state park is entirely unaccessible by wheeled-vehicle, but you can get there by boat or helicopter – though the latter can get a bit pricy. You can also hike to the park on an 11-mile trail, which is the only way to get there by land, but the trek is long and arduous – so make sure you’re ready for the hardship.
Pikes Peak State Park
At the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, there’s a nearly 1,000-acre natural recreation area named Pikes Peak State Park. Though it is certainly not the most sprawling of parks, the fact that it occupies the space where the largest river in the U.S. meets one of its main tributaries under a 500-foot bluff (with a scenic overlook) is enough to make it worth visiting. The land also includes a number of hiking trails, campgrounds, mountain biking paths, and RV facilities.
Chicot State Park
Though it looks quite a bit like the gator-ridden swamps on the Gulf Coast, Chicot State Park actually sits much further north and, rather than snakes and turtles, is home to less reptilian creatures, such as raccoons, whitetail deer, and bobcats. It also has a wide variety of swimming critters – including bass, bluegill, and more – which you can fish for in either your own boat or a rental. It also features a sprawling trail system for hiking or mountain biking; has several campgrounds, lodges, and group-camping areas; and even houses a few playgrounds – making it the perfect place for families.
Mount Blue State Park
Maine is still one of the most gorgeous northeastern states in the U.S. – and perhaps nowhere is that better illustrated than at Mount Blue State Park. Spanning a massive 7,489 acres, this year-round park is home to both the titular Mount Blue and the beautiful Webb Lake, the latter of which offers a good deal of fishing and boating (both motorized and non-motorized). The land also features an impressive 136 different campsites, as well as hunting areas for those who are into the sport. There’s even an extensive trail system that’s friendly to hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, and even riding ATVs.
Boston Harbor Islands State Park
Interestingly enough, the Boston Harbor Islands State Park is actually encapsulated by the larger Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. The smaller park is comprised of 13 islands off the coast of the capital city of Massachusetts, which includes Gallops Island – a one-time home to a Civil War Union camp, WWII radio school, and a quarantine station. While this state park is certainly beautiful for its natural features, it’s also a great place for U.S. history buffs, due to the islands’ extensive and varying uses over the years.
Makoshika State Park
Makoshika is a Lakota Native American term that roughly translates to “land of bad spirits.” But, don’t let that deter you from visiting this geologic and prehistoric bastion of wonder, because the badlands of this 11,000-acre park is one of the places across the U.S. where dinosaur fossils can be found. And that’s just the start of things to look for when visiting, as you’ll also find an 18-hole disc golf course, an archery range, an outdoor amphitheater, hiking trails, and a campground. There’s even a museum on the premises, where you can learn about the local geology and fossils.
Valley of Fire State Park
Named for the redness of the rock formations that stretch across this state park, the Valley of Fire is a 40,000 acre southwestern oasis of geological marvels – from windy high-walled canyons to jagged mountain overlooks. And while you might expect the land to be harsh and unpopulated, you’ll find there’s a surprising number of local animal species out and abound throughout the entire place. Oh, and for just $20 a night, you can camp there ($30 if you want utility hookups).
Franconia Notch State Park
Because New Hampshire is so comparatively small, we think it doesn’t get the credit it deserves as a travel locale. Case in point: the Franconia Notch State Park, nestled in the heart of White Mountain National Forest, is a virtual hotbed of gorgeous natural wonders and wildlife. From excellent hikes to the tops of the surrounding mountains to the 2-mile circular hike through The Flume – an 800-foot natural gorge at the base of Mount Liberty – this place is proof that New Hampshire is worth a trip.
Niagara Falls State Park
The oldest and arguably the most spectacular state park of all, Niagara is an absolute chart-topper when it comes to bucket lists everywhere. And it’s easy to see why: the falls are a legendary part of American history and continue to be one of the most astonishing natural wonders of all time. While you’ll have to head to the Canadian side to see the most iconic views of the falls, there’s plenty to enjoy on the American end, as well. Truly, if you are going to go out of your way to check out a state park, this one should be in top contention.
Ecola State Park
The Goonies was inarguably one of the greatest ’80s movies of all time. And, if you’ve seen it, you likely remember the rather rocky northern Pacific beach at the end of the film (no spoilers, don’t worry). Well, Ecola State Park is where you can find that very beach. In fact, this park stretches down the coastline for 9 beautiful miles – on which you can enjoy hiking, viewpoints of secluded coves, and – if you are brave enough to get in the often-freezing waters – some killer surfing. Interesting fact: this beach was discovered by renowned explorer William Clark (of Lewis & Clark).
Custer State Park
Heralded as one of the best places in the entire U.S. to see wildlife, Custer State Park is a haven for anyone who appreciates the wildness and untamable nature of beasts like the buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, mule deer, and more. In fact, all of those creatures and more are free-roaming all around the park – which you can enjoy either in the safety of your car or, if you’re brave enough, on foot on one of the many paved or gravel pathways around the park. If wildlife is at the top of your must-see list, this is the place for you.
Fall Creek Falls State Park
The largest and most visited state park in Tennessee, Fall Creek Falls stretches across 26,000 acres cross the northeastern portion of the state. And there’s no shortage of things to see, from mountains, to lakes, to the titular waterfalls from which the park gets its redundant name, and so much more. There are even lakeside cabins up for rent, 222 campsites, an inn with 145 rooms and a restaurant, and several different hiking trails – including two extensive overnight paths. And if you prefer your leisure to include some kind of sport, you can always play a round of golf at the local course.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Affectionately dubbed the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the United States – measuring 277 miles from end to end, up to 18 miles wide, and as deep as 6,000 feet. And that’s nothing to scoff at. The park itself is even larger, spanning an incredibly 28,182 acres in total, and has been a home to humans for over 12,000 years. Now, you’ll find activities such as hiking, horseback riding, trail races, back-packing, camping, and more. You can even rent out a trio of vintage stone cabins for your stay.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Some of the most impressive geologic wonders can be found in the state of Utah, no small number of which are within the borders of Dead Horse Point State Park. And while the park’s name is rather foreboding, there’s really nothing to fear on this handsome chunk of land – named for a lookout point 2,000 feet above a gooseneck in the Colorado River. Once a wild sprawl of desert in the old west, this park is now a year-round must-see for anyone who appreciates the natural and sometimes violent landscapes of the world.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
Though the state gets a bad rap for its down-home country lifestyle, West Virginia is actually an incredibly beautiful and lush state rife with wildlife and natural wonders. And one of the highlights of that can be found at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park – a stretch of land that features an 11-mile railroad through the hills of the state on which an old steam engine train takes passengers on the scenic journey. There aren’t too many places in the world on which old trains like this still operate, least of all over lands so beautiful.
Hot Springs State Park
Mineral hot springs can be very soothing and have big time health benefits for those looking to de-stress. And what better place to do it than at the largest naturally-occurring mineral hot springs in the world? At this state park in Wyoming, you’ll find a free bath house where you can relax in 104-degree water and contemplate the sheer vastness of a natural formation through which over 8,000 gallons of water flow through every 24 hours. On top of the springs, this park also features a herd of bison, a suspension bridge over the Bighorn River, 6.2 miles of hiking trails, and more.
15 Best Adventure Vehicles
If you’re going to hit up your local state park for a getaway, you’ll need a vehicle to get you there. And since some of these parks offer some off-roading, why not take the trip in one of the best adventure vehicles?
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