Don’t overlook these gems of America’s public lands
Each year, millions of travelers flock to America’s national parks. And for good reason. Parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite are home to some of the most splendid natural wonders found on this planet, as well as astonishing wildlife and landscapes that inspire pure awe.
But America’s state parks should not be overlooked. Sure, they are often smaller, less flashy and home to sparser accommodations than their more famous cousins. But within the more-modest boundaries of these parks, you can find astounding geologic oddities, an abundance of flora and fauna, fascinating history and natural beauty that’s every bit as breathtaking.
Plus, visiting a state park doesn’t entail paying the steeper price of admission, navigating the obligatory hordes of tourists or getting baited into spending too much at a kitschy gift shop or stately lodge.
So the next time you are planning a road trip to visit America’s public lands, consider one of the country’s 10,000 state parks. Here are 10 worth a visit.
1) Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park, California
What you’ll find: A mystical tract of dense redwood forest — including several groves of old-growth trees — just inland from Northern California’s craggy coastline and near the banks of the free-flowing Smith River. Step back in time as you walk through ferns and mist beneath these ancient, hulking giants, and experience the humbling majesty of standing at the base of an old-growth redwood.
Best for: Hiking, forest bathing, swimming in the Smith River.
Little-known fact: Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park contains seven percent of all the old-growth redwoods in the world.
Plan your trip: www.parks.ca.gov
2) Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
What you’ll find: Dead Horse Point, located just north of the outdoor destination of Moab just outside of Canyonlands National Park, is named for a rock prominence that juts out 2,000 feet above a twisting gooseneck in the Colorado River. But the view from Dead Horse Point contains much more than the river — from there, you can gaze upon a vast and otherworldly world where water and time have molded the red rock of the Colorado Plateau into a tableau of deep canyons, great fins of stone and soaring cliffs. Several miles of trails trace the mesa’s edge, offering many breathtaking vistas.
Best for: Hiking, photography.
Little-known fact: Legend goes that cowboys took advantage of the rock peninsula’s unique geography to corral wild mustangs.
Facilities: Campground, yurts.
Plan your trip: stateparks.utah.gov
3) Tettegouche State Park, Minnesota
What you’ll find: Perched on the rugged shore of Lake Superior, this North Woods gem is home to rocky beaches, serene inland lakes, hardwood forests, the Baptism River and several cascading waterfalls — including Minnesota’s tallest, the 60-foot High Falls. Along with more than 20 miles of hiking, Tettegouche also contains established climbing areas, a rarity in a Minnesota state park.
Best for: Hiking, climbing, Nordic skiing.
Little-known fact: Peregrine falcons nest and soar in the park’s cliffs.
Facilities: Campground, cabins.
Plan your trip: dnr.state.mn.us
4) City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico
What you’ll find: As its name implies, the geologic formation at the center of this park — which was formed by a volcanic eruption nearly 35 million years ago — resembles a city of stone columns, pinnacles, fins and domes, separated by pathways that look like streets. Lose yourself in the maze of rocks and the immensity of time as you wander through the “city,” marvel at the unique flora and incredible birdlife of the Chihuahan desert, or camp out under the dark desert skies for some killer stargazing. The park also offers fun mountain bike trails.
Best for: Hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, stargazing.
Little-known fact: Ornithologists may spot rare southern birds like curve-billed thrashers, cactus wrens or scaled quails at City of Rocks.
Plan your trip: emnrd.state.nm.us
5) Harris Beach State Park, Oregon
What you’ll find: This destination, located along the iconic Highway 101, is an oh-so Pacific Northwest coastal paradise. There, sandy beaches are divided by craggy cliffs, tide pools play host to surreal marine gardens, waves crash dramatically into sea stacks and marine life like seals swim off-shore. Along with the sea stacks scattered off the coast, you’ll find Bird Island, a National Wildlife Refuge where birds like puffins, Aleutian Canada geese and terns take roost. In the spring and fall, Harris Beach is a great place to watch for migrating gray whales.
Best for: Bird- and whale-watching, tide pool exploring, beach combing.
Little-known fact: Bird Island, also known as Goat Island, is the state’s largest off-shore island.
Facilities: Campground, yurts.
Plan your trip: oregonstateparks.org
6) Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming
What you’ll find: This yawning canyon of granite, sandstone and limestone is a marvel of geography, a Mecca for climbers and a gateway to Wyoming’s breathtaking Wind River Mountains. It’s named after the “Sinks,” an anomaly of nature where the Popo Agie River vanishes into an underground complex of limestone caves and seams, only to reappear a quarter-mile downstream at the “Rise.” A hike up the canyon leads to the Popo Agie Falls, mountain bike trails follow the river and soaring cliffs that ring the canyon draw climbers from around the world.
Best for: Hiking, climbing, biking, geology.
Little-known fact: Scientists still aren’t sure exactly where the river goes when it vanishes into the Sinks, but dye tests have confirmed that it takes two hours before the water re-emerges.
Facilities: Campground, yurts.
Plan your trip: www.sinkscanyonstatepark.org
7) Natural Bridge State Resort Park, Kentucky
What you’ll find: This 2,445-acre forested park and nature preserve is home to 2 miles of trails, a 60-acre lake and the park’s namesake — a dramatic sandstone arch that spans nearly 80 feet in length. And Natural Bridge is not the only geologic highlight; hikers can also view landmarks like Balanced Rock, Lover’s Leap and Fat Man’s Squeeze in the park, which is surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest and adjacent to the climbing hotspot Red River Gorge.
Little-known fact: The park hosts weekly hoedowns during the summer season, where participants practice traditional Appalachian square dances.
Best for: Hiking, canoeing, bird watching.
Facilities: Campgrounds, lodge, cottages, restaurant.
Plan your trip: parks.ky.gov
8) Chugach State Park, Alaska
What you’ll find: A vast expanse of classic Alaska wilderness located just minutes from Anchorage. This nearly half-million-acre park is home to rugged mountains, wild shorelines, massive glaciers and ice fields. Bound by three mountain ranges as well as Prince William Sound, the park is a playground for hiking, rafting, kayaking, biking and wildlife spotting — critters like moose, bears and waterfowl inhabit it. Options for enjoying this outdoor playground run the gamut — from berry picking to hiking to glaciers and braving a swim in one of its icy glacier-fed lakes.
Little-known fact: Chugach State Park is one of the largest state parks in the U.S.
Best for: Hiking, biking, wildlife watching.
Plan your trip: dnr.alaska.gov
9) Custer State Park, South Dakota
What you’ll find: Custer State Park, nearly 100,000 acres of rolling South Dakota plains interspersed with granite cliffs and clear lakes, is populated by an incredible array of wildlife. Check out herds of bison, antelope or elk, or spot bighorn sheep or mountain goats in the park, which is considered one of the country’s top wildlife destinations. Along with offering panoramic views of the Black Hills and vantage points of Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park’s lakes are great for water recreation.
Little-known fact: Each fall the park holds a buffalo auction as a tool in herd management.
Best for: Wildlife watching, stand-up paddleboarding.
Plan your trip: gfp.sd.gov
10) Fort Clinch State Park, Florida
What you’ll find: The remnants of a nearly 200-year-old fort perched at the tip of a peninsula of white-sand beaches. Fort Clinch is a place where you can combine a lesson in American history with a trip to the beach. Take a tour of the fort’s galleries and grounds, peer into its cannons and learn about the life of a Union soldier. And the actual fort only occupies a small part of the 1,400-acre park — which is home to hiking and biking trails, beaches that stretch for miles, a lighthouse and opportunities to collect shells, splash in the surf, hunt for shark teeth or watch for wildlife like gopher tortoises.
Best for: Beach combing, history, pier fishing.
Little-known fact: Construction of Fort Clinch began in 1847; the fort served as a military post during three U.S. engagements.
Plan your trip: www.floridastateparks.org
Photos: City of Rocks State Park – John Fowler/Flickr – Creative Commons 2.0; State Park – California State Parks; Dead Horse Point State Park – Logan Bockrath; Tettegouche State Park – Kablammo/WikiCommons; City of Rocks State Park – John Fowler/Flickr – Creative Commons 2.0; Harris Beach State Park – Scott Catron/Flickr – Creative Commons 2.0; Sinks Canyon State Park – WikiCommons; Natural Bridge State Resort Park – Natural Bridge Staff; Chugach State Park – Paxson Woelber/Flickr – Creative Commons 2.0; Custer State Park – WikiCommons; Fort Clinch State Park – Ebyabe/WikiCommons Creative Commons 3.0