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Letchworth State Park, New York
Zack Frank | Adobe Stock

The 15 Best State Parks in the U.S.

SmarterTravel

While national parks seem to get all of the fame, state parks seem to be left in the dust. But they shouldn’t be! State parks are home to some of the most spectacular sights in the country, not to mention they have amazing camping opportunities, hiking trails, and are steeped in history. Here are 15 of the best state parks in the country. 

1. Custer State Park – Custer, SD

Buffalo in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Jesse Kunerth | Adobe Stock

If you have ever wanted to see a buffalo herd, a trip to Custer, South Dakota may be in your future. Named for the famed general, Custer State Park is home to over 1,000 buffalo. There are 9 campgrounds, or if camping isn’t for you,  you can stay in a cabin in the Custer State Park Resort. The resort offers restaurants, guided wildlife activities, and more. With 15 hiking and biking trails, 5 horse trails, picnic areas, fishing areas, swimming, and magnificent birdwatching, you will love exploring this historic park. You can visit nearby Mount Rushmore, and both Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks. 

2. Chimney Rock State Park – Chimney Rock, NC

Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina
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Getting its namesake from the 535-million-year-old monolith at the center of the park, Chimney Rock is a 315-foot rock formation offering stunning views of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. To access the top of the rock, you can take the Outcroppings Trail and climb the 500 steps, or, for those with limited mobility, take the elevator part way up, and walk just 44 steps to the top. Those who opt to hike to the top may want to check out the nearly 200-foot tunnel that takes you to the elevator from the gift shop, as it is pretty spectacular. Besides Chimney Rock, there is rock climbing, a family-friendly adventure trail, an animal discovery den, hiking trails, and picnicking. 

3. Hot Springs State Park – Thermopolis, WY

Thermopolis Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming
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When you think about exploring state parks, you probably rarely think about it being a relaxing experience. However, at Hot Springs State Park, you can take a break in the free bath house, where the water is maintained at 104 degrees. Before you relax, however, there is plenty of exploring to do. Hike or walk along the 6.2 miles of trails, view bison from your car, or stroll along the suspension bridge (dubbed the “swinging bridge”). 

4. Makoshika State Park – Glendive, MT

Makoshika State Park, Montana
Zack Frank | Adobe Stock

You can sleep where the dinosaurs roamed at Makoshika State Park, when you stay at one of its 28 camping sites. If setting up a tent is not for you, they have cabins, yurts, and tipis available to stay in. The visitors center has T-Rex and Triceratops fossils, and you can see the K-T Boundary line, which is the point in between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, and dates to 65.5 million years ago. Hike one of the 11 hiking trails, try your hand at disc golf, and even take in some Shakespeare— Makoshika hosts Shakespeare in the Park every summer! 

5. Ha Ha Tonka State Park – Camdenton, MO

Castle ruins in Ha Ha Tonka State Park. Missouri
Eifel Kreutz | Adobe Stock

Ozark folklore says Ha Ha Tonka is derived from the Osage Native American phrase meaning “laughing waters.” If the name isn’t enough to entice you, Ha Ha Tonka not only provides amazing nature, but you can also visit a turn of the 20th-century ruin. In 1905, Robert Snyder started construction on his 60 room castle, but construction was delayed by his death. His sons finished the castle in 1922, but unfortunately was ruined by fires in the 1940s and 1970s. Take a hike on one of the 14 trails, and visit sites such as the Natural Bridge, 60 foot long, 100 feet high rock bridge. Explore the caverns and sinkholes, a natural spring, and take in the oak woodlands surrounding it. 

6. Gillette Castle State Park – East Haddam, CT

Gillette Castle State Park, Connecticut
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Built by famed actor William Gillette between 1914 and 1919, Gillette Castle is a sight to behold: with built-in couches, a table trackway, and wood carvings,  Gillette spared no expense for his dream home, which will be evident when you tour it. Although the castle is at the center of the park, the park offers hiking, picnicking, and camping along the scenic Connecticut River. 

7. Fall Creek Falls State Park – Spencer, TN

Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee
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Sitting on 29,800 acres of land upon the Cumberland Plateau, Fall Creek Falls State Park is more than just a waterfall. Besides the usual hiking trails, Fall Creek Falls also has a Canopy Challenge Course, which includes “over 75 wobbly bridges, rope swings, cargo nets, balance beams and zip lines of varying difficulty.” Fall Creek Falls itself is a 256-foot waterfall, and one of the highest in the eastern US.  There is a golf course, 5 campgrounds, backcountry camping, cabins, and, opening in late 2021, Lodge Fall Creek Falls, an 85 room hotel and resort. 

8. Niagara Falls State Park – Niagara Falls, NY

Niagara Falls, New York
Anjelika Gretskaia | Adobe Stock

We couldn’t leave off one of the most famous sites in the country, not to mention the “Honeymoon Capital of the World.” Although Niagara Falls has been featured in movies and television shows, you may not have realized it is a state park. On the border with Canada, Niagara Falls is much more than just a stunning waterfall. With hiking trails, a Discovery Center, fireworks, and specialty tours of the falls, you’ll be amazed at all Niagara Falls has to offer. Try the Cave of the Winds, where you can walk close to the falls (ponchos are provided!), or take a ride on the famous Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you into the basin of Horseshoe Falls, and don’t worry – ponchos are also provided for the boat ride! 

9. Ecola State Park – Near Seaside, OR

Ecola State Park, Oregon
Lee Prince | Adobe Stock

Goonies never say die. And for diehard Goonie fans, Ecola State Park is a must-see state park. With beautiful views of Cannon Beach and the famous Haystack Rock, Ecola State park is filled with hiking, stunning views, and even a secluded beach. There is an 8-mile section of the Oregon Coast Trail, which provides stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The park also has perfect vantage points for whale watching, and you may spot elk or a bald eagle. Indian Beach is a picturesque beach that attracts surfers, and is a perfect spot for a little beach break. Ecola State Park is part of the  Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Park, commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition. 

10. Starved Rock State Park – Oglesby, IL

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
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Voted the #1 attraction in the state of Illinois, Starved Rock State Park, located 100 miles southwest of Chicago, is filled with natural beauty from waterfalls to towering trees. There are outdoor activities aplenty, including 13 miles of hiking trails, fishing, boating, and  paddleboat cruises along the Illinois River, and a trolley ride. For campers, there is a campground with 133 campsites. Starved Rock Lodge provides lodging and dining for those who prefer to eat and sleep indoors. 

11. Devil’s Lake State Park – Baraboo WI

Devil's Lake State Park, Wisconsin
Adventures On Wheels | Adobe Stock

The only question about visiting Devil’s Lake State Park is how to decide what to do. Part of the Baraboo Hills, this impressive park has 2 freshwater beaches, and offers 29 miles of hiking and mountain bike trails, backcountry hiking, rock climbing and bouldering. Hike among some of the oldest exposed rocks in North America. If it’s the water you’re after, take a swim from one of the two beaches, or you can rent a paddleboard, kayak, or canoe to take onto the lake. There are 3 campgrounds, all of which require reservations. 

12. Letchworth State Park – Castile, NY

Letchworth State Park, New York
Matt | Adobe Stock

Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park is a glorious haven tucked away in upstate New York. The Genesee River falls over 3 major waterfalls, up to 600 feet in some points. The gorge has exposed bedrock walls up to 550 feet, made up Devonian shales, limestone, and sandstone. As for activities: there are 66 miles of hiking trails, whitewater rafting, and kayaking. However, perhaps the most impressive way to view Letchworth is via hot air balloon. Balloons Over Letchworth offers 1 hour balloon rides over the park, and is sure to be an unforgettable experience for the whole family. There is camping available, or you can stay in the historic Glen Iris Inn, once home to William Letchworth, namesake to the park. 

13. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – Ontonagon, MI

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
Kristen | Adobe Stock

Sprawling across 60,000 acres, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is Michigan’s largest state park. Home to a 35,000 acre old-growth forest, waterfalls, 90 miles of hiking trails, and providing magnificent views of Lake Superior, Porcupine Mountains literally has something for everyone. Popular attractions include: the stunning Lake of the Clouds,  the Summit Peak observation tower, an 18 hole golf course, skiing on the Porcupine Mountains, biking, and paddlesports. Sleeping accommodations include modern campsites, rustic campsites, backcountry camping, yurts, a lodge, and even a tiny home you can rent! 

14. Lime Kiln Point State Park – Friday Harbor, WA

Lime Kiln Point State Park, Washington
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Considered one of the “best whale watching spots on earth,” Lime Kiln Point is a 41-acre day-use park located on the west end of San Juan Island. Although small in size, there is much to see and do when visiting. Start at the Lime Kiln Point Interpretive Center, where you can learn about the mining of lime, and take a tour of a 1919 historic lighthouse, which also provides an excellent spot for whale watching. Humpback and minke whale pods pass by May through September, so it is best to plan your trip around then. 

15. Slide Rock State Park – Sedona, AZ

Slide Rock State Park, Arizona
Siegfried Schnepf | Adobe Stock

Home to one of “America’s Top 10 Swimming Holes,” Slide Rock State Park is set upon 43-acres of a historic apple farm. Slide down the park’s namesake, surrounded by red rocks, this 80-foot long slide pours you into Oak Creek, where the less adventurous can wade or swim. There are 3 short hiking trails, and you may spot a white tailed deer, black bear, or Javelina (a pig-like animal). Once a year, the park hosts a Family Campout weekend, designed for families with little or no camping experience, a great way to dip your toe into the world of camping. 

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