While national parks seem to get all of the fame, state parks seem to be left in the dust. But they shouldn’t be! The oldest state park, Niagara Falls State Park in New York, was founded in 1885—just thirteen years after the founding of the first national park at Yellowstone! As long-standing contributors to the national efforts toward environmental conservation, state parks are home to some of the most spectacular sights in the United States, from towering waterfalls to stalactite-filled caverns. Not to mention these parks have amazing camping opportunities, hiking trails, and are steeped in history. With thousands of stunning state park areas across the country, you’ll want to visit them all. However when it comes time to whittle down your bucket list, here are our picks for 20 of the best state parks in the country to help you make the choice.
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Jump to a State Park Near You:
- Custer State Park – Custer, SD
- Chimney Rock State Park – Chimney Rock, NC
- Hot Springs State Park – Thermopolis, WY
- Makoshika State Park – Glendive, MT
- Ha Ha Tonka State Park – Camdenton, MO
- Gillette Castle State Park – East Haddam, CT
- Fall Creek Falls State Park – Spencer, TN
- Niagara Falls State Park – Niagara Falls, NY
- Ecola State Park – Near Seaside, OR
- Starved Rock State Park – Oglesby, IL
- Devil’s Lake State Park – Baraboo WI
- Letchworth State Park – Castile, NY
- Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – Ontonagon, MI
- Lime Kiln Point State Park – Friday Harbor, WA
- Slide Rock State Park – Sedona, AZ
- Popham Beach State Park – Phippsburg, ME
- City of Rocks State Park – Faywood, NM
- Thousand Springs State Park – Hagerman, ID
- Florida Caverns State Park – Marianna, FL
- Red Rock Canyon State Park – Cantil, CA
1. Custer State Park – Custer, SD
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
16. Popham Beach State Park – Phippsburg, ME
With over 185,000 visitors in 2021, Popham Beach State Park is easily one of the most popular state parks in Maine, and for good reason. The park’s 529 acres include beautiful coastline, hiking trails, sand dunes, and picnic areas with charcoal grills for beach-goers. Unlike many beaches, Popham is open to pets October 1st through March 31st, so you can bring your furry friend to play in the waves. Remember to be mindful, however, when frolicking in the sand—parts of the beach are permanently closed due to erosion and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry asks that visitors stay on designated trails to preserve the remaining dunes.
17. City of Rocks State Park – Faywood, NM
You may not be able to find your typical urban accommodations in this city, but there’s still plenty to do as visitors wind their way through the pillars and street-like pathways created by these towering rock formations. Sitting at over 5,000 feet above sea level, City of Rocks State Park was formed by an initial volcanic eruption and subsequent 34 million years of erosion. Enjoy a hike or bike ride on the Hydra or Table Mountain trails or catch a glimpse of a cactus wren while birding in the desert botanical garden.
18. Thousand Springs State Park – Hagerman, ID
The seven units of Thousands Springs State Park—Malad Gorge, Kelton Trail, Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve, Billingsley Creek, Ritter Island, Crystal Springs, and Niagara Springs—offer endless natural wonders to explore. Check out the 250-foot Devil’s Washbowl waterfall in Malad Gorge or see the impressions of wagon-wheels long past on the Kelton Trail, previously an important leg of the Oregon Trail.
19. Florida Caverns State Park – Marianna, FL
Formed millions of years ago by declining sea levels steadily forming and eating away at the limestone bedrock, these caves are a geological wonder as well an important piece of American history. Visitors can explore the caverns with ease today due to the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps—a public relief program formed by President Roosevelt to provide job opportunities in environmental conservation projects to the unemployed during the Great Depression—who expanded the caves and developed infrastructure in the rest of the park. Cavern tours are offered five days a week for a nominal fee, and visitors can also camp, bicycle, paddle, boat, and more on park grounds.
20. Red Rock Canyon State Park – Cantil, CA
Located at the convergence of the Sierra Nevada and El Paso mountain ranges, Red Rock Canyon State Park is a stunning mixture of soaring cliffs and craggy gorges. Pitch an old-fashioned tent (sorry, no RV hookups here) and spend the night under the stars at the Ricardo Campground. When you wake up, be ready to hit one of the twenty-six hiking trails throughout the park. You may catch sight of a desert bighorn sheep shambling around the rocks or a desert cottontail peeking from beneath the brush. Pro tip: visit in early spring when the flowers are in bloom for a colorful show.
Carol McPherson contributed to this story.
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