While the national parks are the undeniable stars of the American nature conservation show, there are also quite a lot of state parks that are equally as—and sometimes even more—spectacular. These often-underrated gems are found all over the country, from the canyons of Utah to the hills of Virginia, from the Southern California deserts to the wilds of Maine. Below, you’ll find a selection of the absolute best state parks in America.
- 11 Best State Parks in America
- 1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
- 2. Baxter State Park, Maine
- 3. Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia
- 4. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
- 5. Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
- 6. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
- 7. Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
- 8. Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, Hawaii
- 9. Custer State Park, South Dakota
- 10. Chugach State Park, Alaska
- 11. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
11 Best State Parks in America
As of 2017, there are more than 10,000 state park areas. Just let that sink in for a second. And compare it with the meagre 59 national parks in America. Moreover, almost 800 million people visit state parks each year, which is more than double the visitation numbers of the entire National Park Service system, whose 2016 total stood at 330+ million visitors.
You all know that I absolutely love America’s national parks—I honestly think it’s the greatest and most varied collection of preservation areas on Earth—, but let’s not forget that there are also countless amazing state parks in America. And those places are exactly what I want to highlight in this post. Many of the best state parks in America lie surprisingly close to your home, near large cities and only a short drive from your vacation destination.
Although it’s the national parks that get all the spotlight, it’s often the state parks where families, friends and couples go for weekend outings. Whether it’s for a Saturday hike, a Sunday picnic or an overnight camping trip, the state parks in America might just be more closely interwoven with people’s everyday life than their national cousins
1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
The second-largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park encompasses no fewer than 600,000 acres (2,428 km2) of desert plains, washes and mountain ranges in Southern California.
It’s a designated International Dark Sky Park, a place that’s fantastic to explore on foot, bike or horseback during the day and truly phenomenal at night. The park lies less than two hours from San Diego and is best visited in spring, when an explosion of wildflowers colors the desert in all kinds of yellows, reds, oranges, purples and blues.
Combine with: Joshua Tree National Park
2. Baxter State Park, Maine
Located in the wild heart of Maine, Baxter State Park is where you’ll find Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest mountain and the legendary endpoint (or starting point) of the Appalachian Trail. Various mountains, pristine forests, and countless lakes, pond and rivers characterize the landscape of this remote park.
It’s an adventurer’s paradise, offering everything form fishing and boating to hiking, camping and wildlife watching. Speaking of the latter, many iconic North American animals call the park home, including black bears, moose, white-tailed deer, beavers, bobcats, raccoons, coyotes and eagles.
3. Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia
In my opinion one of the most underrated state parks in America and absolute best state parks in the Southeast, Grayson Highlands State Park lies in the southwestern corner of Virginia. Occupying a small part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the park is home to a large herd of feral ponies. Because of its several glorious trails, open rock-strewn meadows and sweeping mountain vistas, it’s a fantastic destination for a weekend of camping and hiking.
The park is adjacent to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area—their trails connect and intersect—, which is the location of the highest mountain in Virginia.
4. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park might as well as have been a national park because that’s how spectacular it is. Situated next to Canyonlands National Park and a quick drive from Moab, this park boasts one of the most photographed viewpoints in the U.S., overlooking the Colorado River and its canyons.
The park’s name dates from the turn of the 20th century when it was a corral for wild mustangs. At some point, the horses were left in the corral for reasons unknown, without water, and died of thirst. Nowadays, though, Dead Horse Point is a fantastic place for scenic hikes and world-class mountain biking.
5. Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon is about 120 miles (193 km) long, 6 miles (9.7 km) wide on average and around 820 feet (250 m) deep. This massive size makes it the second-biggest canyon in the U.S. after the one and only Grand Canyon. Boasting hoodoos, mesas, colorful rocks and caves, it’s a truly sensational place for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Besides immense natural beauty, Palo Duro Canyon State Park also has regular live music performances, plays and dances at its Pioneer Amphitheater, while sleeping in one of its three stone huts, constructed in the 1930s on the canyon rim by the Civil Conservation Corps, is an experience you’ll remember forever.
Combine with: Caprock Canyons State Park & Tramway and (a section of) Route 66
Suggested Blog Post: 16 Sensational Roads in America’s Finest National Parks
6. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Even though it lies less than an hour by car from Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park is a world away from the craziness of “Sin City”. This sensational desert park is ideal to escape the vices of Vegas and experience ultimate solitude.
The park’s Aztec Sandstone formations are what gives it its name, appearing to be lit on fire in the early-morning or late-afternoon sunlight. The Valley of Fire may be much less known than other desert parks in this part of the U.S. but it’s absolutely brilliant for outdoor adventures.
7. Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
Hidden deep in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Franconia Notch State Park lines eight miles of Interstate 93 through a mountain pass between the Franconia and Kinsman Ranges. With its thick forests, gorges, waterfalls, covered bridges and historic sites, it’s basically New England in a tiny nutshell.
For a park this small, it has more than its fair share of attractions. For example, you can go fishing in Echo Lake, walk the scenic boardwalks in the Flume Gorge and ride the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, which was North America’s very first passenger tramway.
8. Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, Hawaii
Without question one of the most spectacular places anywhere in America, Hawaii’s Na Pali coast is unlike any other shoreline on Earth. Its name means “high cliffs” and that is precisely the landscape that awaits you. Sheer coastal cliffs tower 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) above the Pacific Ocean while scenic waterfalls thunder down steep slopes.
This park is the only of the state parks in America in this list that’s inaccessible to vehicles. Instead, you can enjoy these marvelous landscapes on a helicopter ride, a challenging hike or from the ocean with a paddleboard or kayak. Hiking is arguably the best way to experience the park, its trails taking you to beautiful waterfalls, through tropical valleys and to remote beaches.
9. Custer State Park, South Dakota
In the legendary Black Hills of South Dakota lies Custer State Park. A 71,000-acre expanse of prairies, forested slopes and rock formations, this is the largest and oldest state park in the state. It’s also one of the state’s most mesmerizing regions.
Custer State Park is as close as you can get to the old American West nowadays, home to a famous herd of 1,500 wild bison as well as other iconic wildlife such as mountain lions and bighorn sheep. In addition to wildlife watching, you can also hit the trails, camp, go for scenic drives, fish, visit historic sites and join interpretive programs. Plenty to see and do in other words.
10. Chugach State Park, Alaska
Situated just south of Anchorage, in a region dotted with truly phenomenal national parks, Chugach State Park often find itself in the shadows of its more well-known neighbors. However, if you’re looking for solitude in some of America’s most awe-inspiring landscapes, this is the place for you.
The park covers about half a million acres of pristine wilderness and is one of the largest state parks in the U.S. Here, you’ll find epic coastlines, rugged mountains, still lakes, enormous glaciers and lots of wildlife. This is, quite simply, the quintessential Alaska.
11. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park lies just off California Highway 1 in Big Sur, one of the world’s greatest coastal drives. The park’s premier attraction is McWay Falls, an 80-foot (24-meter) waterfalls that drops straight onto the beach.
Besides that gorgeous natural feature, there are also towering redwood forests, oceanic rock formations, stunning beaches and palm tree-lined shores. It’s arguably the most iconic place on the entire California coast, which is a statement I don’t make lightly.
I encourage you to go and check out one or more of these best state parks in America. I guarantee you that you’ll be surprised by their beauty, wide range of activities on offer, facilities and—often—their accessibility.