When mapping out a bucket list of outdoor destinations in the United States, National Parks get a lot of love: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain National Park…the list goes one. And while these are definitely must-see destinations, there’s one small catch — everyone else has them on their list, too.
Instead, why not head to a state park for your next getaway? These areas can be just as unique and stunning as their “national” neighbors but are often less crowded. And, with 8,565 state park areas comprising 18,694,570 acres in the United States, there’s a good chance that there’s one close to home. To help you create your own state park bucket list, here are 19 (plus one that might as well be a state park) that should sit at the top of your list.
There are plenty of state parks to explore in the northeast — New York alone has 1,416 state park sites, more than any other state. And while there are mountains to climb in the area’s state parks (Baxter State Park is home to Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and one end of the Appalachian Trail), many of the northeast’s state parks include plenty of water.
For example, Burton Island State Park in Vermont is accessible only by boat—no cars are allowed. Take the ferry from Kill Kare State Park (bonus points for hitting two in one day) and after a 10-minute ride you’ll arrive at this unspoiled spot in Lake Champlain. You can wander trails or the three miles of beach; there are also lots of inlets and coves to explore (boats are available for rent) and fish just waiting to be caught.
In New Hampshire, Odiorne Point State Park is situated on the coast which means plenty of opportunities to paddle, hike and bike in addition to sweeping ocean views. A visit to the Seacoast Science Center, located within the park, gives perspective on both the natural and human history of Odiorne and surrounding area; it also offers some free programming during the summer months.
There are tons of great state parks dotted throughout the Appalachian Mountains and you can hit a lot of them if you have the time and/or inclination to hike the aptly named Appalachian Trail. But if you’d prefer to hit a few of the highlights, head to Tennessee and West Virginia.
It’s in the name, but the 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee is known for its waterfalls, including the titular Fall Creek Falls: at 256 feet, it’s one of the highest vertical-drop waterfalls east of the Mississippi.
Want more waterfalls? Burgess Creek State Park (also in Tennessee) has four that fall more than 250 feet, making it another worthwhile destination in the Volunteer State.
John Denver immortalized West Virginia’s country roads and, on the state’s eastern panhandle, Lost River State Park is a quiet respite full of trails to explore by horseback, on foot or by bicycle. There are 3,712 acres of woods to explore, plus hot springs to visit; don’t miss the Cranny Crow overlook on top of Big Ridge Mountain: you’ll be rewarded with views of five counties.
There are only 12 state parks in Wyoming, but they comprise more than 100,000 acres of the state’s wide-open landscape. Though the state is also home to Yellowstone, you don’t have to hit this national park to enjoy natural thermal features. Instead, check out Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis. Here, more than 8,000 gallons flow over the colorful terrace every 24 hours at a constant temperature of 135 degrees. You can sample the waters at the free bath house — the water is maintained at 104 degrees, which is a bit more tolerable.
Utah’s known for the Big Five, but their 45 state parks are just as stunning — and much less crowded. After you’ve exhausted Arches and Canyonlands, head to Goblin Valley State Park and wander among the 170 million-year-old hoodoos, created by wind, water and time. Stay the night and enjoy the park’s Dark Sky-accreditation, which means you’ll be able to see an infinite number of stars with no light pollution. For great views of Canyonlands without the crowds, Dead Horse Point State Park gives you views for miles of both the park and the Colorado River.
Outside of Capitol Reef National Park, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park has a multitude of hikes that’ll take you past petrified forests (hence the name) and petroglyphs, past waterfalls, through slot canyons and down to rivers.
There are plenty of state parks to visit in Big Sky Country—54 to be exact—with most of them located in the western and central part of the state. Here you’ll find caves and dramatic overlooks, lakes and waterfalls. But at Makoshika State Park, you can play Jurassic Park for real. Many dinosaur fossils have been found throughout the park’s 11,000 acres (it’s Montana’s largest state park), so that’ worth a visit. But add in the many nature trails and interesting rock formations and you have a destination.
There’s no shortage of beautiful spots in Colorado, including several national parks. As a result, our 41 state parks seem to shine just bit brighter in comparison. As one friend said, “Eldorado Canyon and Roxborough would be National Parks if (they were located) anywhere but in Colorado.”
That being said, you can’t go wrong visiting one of Colorado’s state parks. Near Denver, Eldorado Canyon State Park is a hot spot for climbers along the canyon walls and also has great hiking trails. Golden Gate Canyon State Park is another close-to-Denver gem with quiet trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking through more than 12,000 acres. And just southwest of Denver, Roxborough State Park is both a Colorado Natural Area and a National Natural Landmark. Take your camera: Picturesque red-rock formations fill the close to 4000- acre park and there are lots of opportunities for wildlife photography, too.
California has the second most state park acreage in the United States (after Alaska) with 1.6 million acres. That’s a lot of territory to explore and 87 state parks to mark off your list. There are forests, mountains and deserts and 63 state beaches (which, for the purpose of this article, are remaining a separate entity).
For the best place to see redwoods by car, head to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This
park spans 53,000 acres, an area almost twice the size of San Francisco. About one third, or 17,000 acres, of the park is old-growth redwood forest—the largest expanse of ancient redwoods left on the planet. After cruising the 32-mile-long Avenue of Giants, you can also hike, bike and horseback ride on more than 100 miles of trail or fish in the South Fork Eel River.
If going primeval is more your style, Ahjumawi State Park, located in northeastern Shasta County, is your perfect destination: think brilliant aqua bays, tree studded islets and fairly recent lava flows (they’re only three to five thousand years old). You’ll see freshwater springs (the springs at the park are one of the largest fresh water spring systems in the country) flowing from the lava along shoreline and the wildlife is abundant.
Yes, the PNW does include Idaho, western Montana, northern California and parts of southwest Canada, but for the purpose of this list we’re keeping the PNW to Oregon and Washington. There are many gorgeous state parks in Oregon (and there’s only one national park for competition), but head to Cottonwood Canyon State Park to experience the Oregon’s newest and largest state park. There are 16,000 acres to tromp and 16 miles of the John Day River to explore and while parts are still in progress, there’s plenty of park to peruse.
In Washington, Cape Disappointment State Park gets marks for most misleading name. This park marks the end of the journey made by Lewis and Clark and is anything but a disappointment. There are eight miles of hiking trails to secluded coves, a chance to Pacific grey whales from December to March and not one but two lighthouses: the North Head and Cape Disappointment lighthouses. Built in 1856, the latter is the oldest functioning lighthouse on the west coast.
Technically, The Adirondack Park is not a state park so it didn’t feel exactly right including it below. HOWEVER — The Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. Bigger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon National Park combined, The Park is comprised of approximately 6 million acres with more than 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river and streams. Nearly half of this belongs to all of the people of New York State and is constitutionally protected to remain “forever wild” forest preserve, which was reason enough to include it as a bonus. You’re welcome.
Many of these destinations were recommendations from friends in the know on Facebook. What are your favorite state parks? Let us know in the comments below.