The Best State Parks in the USA

As much as our family loves to visit national parks and NPS sites, we also enjoy exploring state parks. Some of the best state parks in the USA are those that provide scenic views and are a bit “under the radar”. As beautiful as some of the national parks are, many of them are often crowded at busy times of the year, which is when we usually visit. This is why we try to mix in visiting state parks on our family road trips. While we have visited many state parks across the county, we have not seen them all and asked some travel friends to help us out. Here is a list of 25 of the best state parks in the USA.

Best State Parks in the USA Smith Rock
Best state parks in the USA – Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

25 of the Best State Parks in the USA

While this list of the best state parks in the USA is not definitive by any means, it can be quite subjective. There are beautiful parks in every state and I wanted to highlight one from as many states as possible. The following state parks allow locals and tourists alike to enjoy the outdoors by hiking, biking, climbing, and even swimming. Here are 25 of the best state parks in the USA.

Arizona – Red Rock State Park

Red Rock State Park, located right outside Sedona, Arizona, is a fantastic place to hike or bike through the area’s iconic red sandstone canyons. Considered one of the best state parks in the USA, Red Rock receives many visitors looking to enjoy the outdoors amidst Sedona’s beautiful red rocks. Beyond red rock formations, the 286-acre nature preserve packs in a diverse array of flora and fauna, from rolling green meadows, arid fields full of desert plants, and abundant wildlife, like mule deer, bobcats, and javelin. Start your visit at the Miller Visitor’s Center, which offers informative exhibits about the Verde Valley and the history and culture of the indigenous people of the area. Right outside the visitor’s center, you’ll find a butterfly garden, where you’ll see beautiful flowers, monarchs, and if you’re lucky, even hummingbirds. 

The park has five miles of family-friendly trails, like the 1.53-mile Eagle’s Nest hike, with stunning views of Sedona’s most famous rock formations, including Cathedral Rock, Warriors Rock, and Three Sisters. If you’re looking for a longer hike, you can follow the 15-mile Lime Kiln Trail, a former wagon route, to the neighboring Dead Horse Ranch State Park. While no camping is allowed in the park, you can stay in a plethora of accommodations in the nearby funky Sedona, filled with bougie pottery shops, crystal stores, and yoga studios. While you’re in town, make sure to pick up some handmade tamales from Tamaliza Cafe, grab a beer at Oak Creek Brewery, and get your caffeine fix (and take in some epic views) at Creekside Coffee and Bakery.

Contributed by: Jessica from the Uprooted Traveler

Arkansas – Petit Jean State Park

Arkansas has some amazing state parks and Petit Jean is considered to be one of the best in the state. In fact, it was the beauty of Petit Jean Mountain that inspired Arkansas to establish this mountain as its first state park in 1923. Legend has it that the area was named after a young French woman who, in the 1700s, disguised herself as a cabin boy so that she could secretly accompany her fiancé to the New World. The explorers called her Petit Jean, or “Little John.” She became fatally ill while visiting the mountain and was buried there. 

Many of the structures in Petit Jean State Park were constructed by the CCC or Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930’s. They built many of the buildings, bridges, and trails that are still in use today. Mather Lodge, a 24 room guest facility is one of the most significant CCC structures in the state. It is a lovely, rustic, rock and wood building. Petit Jean is a flat-top mountain with a winding road to the top. Accommodations in the park include the rooms in the lodge, cabins, yurts, and campsites. The park has many amenities including a restaurant, meeting rooms, open-air pavilions, tennis courts, and softball fields, as well as 2 lakes where you can fish or kayak. 

The mountain is known for its unique rock formations. It has caves, springs, and is particularly famous for the 95 foot Cedar Falls. The 2.5 mile round trip hike to the falls is a must while you are in the park. There are plenty of other hiking trails. One of the most interesting is the Seven Hollows Trail. This is a 4.5 loop that will allow you to see many of the park’s unique rock formations including a natural bridge. Petit Jean State Park is not to be missed if you are visiting Arkansas.

Contributed by: Karen and Emily from Somewhere Down South

petit jean state park AR

California – Point Lobos State Park

One of the most stunning state parks in California that stands above the others is Point Lobos State Marine Reserve in beloved Monterey County. The central California coastal region has stunning and rugged landscape that really shines in this region and Point Lobos has such beautiful coastal trails, rugged cliffs opening to small coves and soft white beaches filled with marine life to enjoy from above.

This conservation area hosts a variety of wildlife including 300 species of birds, sea lions, otters, and harbor seals that find comfortable and unspoiled sandy beaches away from prying eyes making this one of the safest sanctuaries for wildlife and marine life in the region and considered the crown jewel of all the state parks in California. You won’t go wrong with any of the coastal trails around the park with stunning views, gorgeous forests, and wildflower meadows that just blow your mind with all the California natives that come into bloom from Spring until Summer timeframe.

Check out my post here on visiting Point Lobos Marine Reserve for more images and inspiration to visiting this magical park right now and see why it is considered one of the best state parks in the USA.

Contributed by: Noel Morata from Travel Photo Discovery

best state parks in the USA California

Colorado – Eldorado Canyon State Park

Eldorado Canyon State Park is one of the most popular places for hiking and rock climbing less than one hour away from Denver. Located near the front range of the Rocky Mountains, this state park has four hiking trails of various difficulty. The shortest and easiest trail is the Streamside Trail that follows the creek is about 1 mile round trip. A more difficult but gorgeous trail is the Rattlesnake Gulch Trail that takes you to an incredible view of the Continental Divide; and the longest, Eldorado Canyon Trail is about 7 miles. 

There are no campgrounds inside the Eldorado Canyon State Park, however, there are several campgrounds in the area including Boulder County Fairground, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, St. Vrain State Park, and numerous U.S. Forest Service Campgrounds. Some of them require reservations and are only available during specific months.

What’s great about Eldorado State Park, is that you don’t need to drive away to enjoy it. The nearest town, Boulder has everything that an avid hiker might need: from stores to restaurants to hotels and campgrounds, Boulder has it all. For a better experience, visit on a weekday, as this state park is very popular and can fill up very quickly on weekends. Another important thing to note is that the entrance fee is $10 per person and has to be paid in cash before you enter the park. 

Contributed by: Daria from The Discovery Nut

Best State Parks in the USA Eldorado CO
Beautiful views from Eldorado Canyon State Park

Florida – Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is located on the southern edge of Key West – the last of the Florida Keys – and has one of the best beaches in the area. When you visit, there are tons of fun things you can do. First, you can visit Fort Zachary Taylor, the building that gives the park its name.  The fort is famous for having what is considered to be the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the United States. Later, you can go hiking, biking, or even bird watching – the park is part of The Great Florida Birding Trail!

The main attraction of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, however, is still its beautiful beach. Make sure to spend at least a few hours enjoying it when you visit. The water is crystal-clear and warm, which makes it one of the best places in Key West for snorkeling. You can also go swimming, do some water-sports or just lay under the sun and enjoy the gorgeous views. At last, head to the stone wall for one of the best sunsets you will ever see! If you feel hungry, there is a café called Cayo Hueso Café by the beach. There are also barbeque grills available to use for free.

Contributed by: Camila from Travel Cami 

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DINING AT KEY LARGO AND ISLAMORADA, MARATHON, AND KEY WEST

Georgia – Tallulah Gorge State Park

Tallulah Gorge State Park is a beautiful state park located in northeastern Georgia near the South Carolina border. This state park contains one of the most scenic canyons in the South that is about two miles long and almost 1,000 feet deep. Most people come to this state park in hopes of recieving a permit to hike down to the gorge floor. While the permit is freww, only 100 are given out daily, so be sure to arrive early.

When Hiking Tallulah Gorge, visitors can take rim trails to various overlooks or hike down to the gorge floor via the Hurricane Falls or Sliding Rock Trail. While the hike is only 2 miles out and back, it is a 1,000-foot elevation change. Depending on the hiker’s level of fitness, it could take about an hour. Once you reach the Hurricane Falls trailhead, there are 300 stairs that descend down into the canyon and lead to a suspension bridge across the gorge. This bridge sways 80 feet above the rocky bottom and provides spectacular views of the river and waterfalls. Then, you must hike another 200 steps down towards the viewing platform to Hurricane Falls at the bottom. The view at the base of these falls looking back up is breathtaking; however, save your breath because it is another 500 steps back up from where you came!

Another option for those wanting a gentle stroll or a bike ride is the paved Shortline Rail Trail. While you won’t see the gorge itself, it provides an easier alternative with some forested beauty as well. Before or after hiking, the Interpretive Center is a great place to learn about the geology and wildlife in the area. While small in size, Tallulah Gorge State Park offers some big scenery that many don’t expect from a Georgia state park and one that I consider one of the most underrated state parks in the country.

Best state park in the USA Georgia

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Maryland – Swallow Falls State Park

One of the best state parks in the USA is Maryland’s Swallow Falls State Park. It’s located in the western part of the state, near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia border, on the west bank of the Youghiogheny River, nine miles from Deep Creek. You can enter the park after paying a $5.00 entry fee at the trailhead before taking off on the 2.5-mile trail loop. The light hike offers visitors of any ability the chance to walk among the old-growth hemlock trees. After 300 years of climbing from the forest floor, they offer plenty of shade in the summer months and look beautiful with a blanket of snow in the winter months.

The park’s highlight is are a series of breathtaking waterfalls, including the 53-foot Muddy Creek Falls. There are camping sites available inside the park and campgrounds in the area. You can also find glamping huts in the area or if you prefer a luxury cabin you can book a Deep Creek Airbnb in nearby Oakland or McHenry.

Contributed by: Derek and Mike from Robe Trotting

state parks in the US Maryland

Michigan – Saugatuck Dunes State Park

Saugatuck Dunes State Park, located in southwest Michigan, is one of the many excellent state parks in Michigan. On the shores of Lake Michigan between the charming cities of Holland and Saugatuck, it is the perfect park to visit for the day. With 2.5 miles of sandy shoreline and several miles of forest trails to explore the park is a great mix of beach and woods. Even in the warmest months of the year, the lake water is still pretty chilly for summer. The pristine beach makes for nice, soft sand to walk along the water.

Within the park and the connected Patty Birkholz Natural Area, there are four different trails ranging from 2.5 – 5.5 miles roundtrip. The North Trail and the Beach Trail both lead to the beach, with the Beach Trail being the more direct route. As a result, it is the busiest and easiest trail. The beach trail connects with the other two trails. One of the most fun and hardest parts of visiting the park is the sand dunes! You can huff and puff as you climb up the multiple dunes for beautiful views of the lake. You may just work up enough of a sweat that you will want to run back down the dunes and go straight into the water to cool off. Climbing sand dunes is no easy feat! Since the park is only open for the day, I’d recommend that you stay in nearby Saugatuck. There are plenty of things to do and places to eat in Saugatuck so you can use it as a home base when visiting this state park.

Contributed by: Elizabeth from The Fearless Foreigner 

Saugatuck Dunes State Park

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Minnesota – Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Nestled on top of some of Minnesota’s most rugged landscapes, Split Rock Lighthouse is truly one of the best state parks in the United States. This yellow brick lighthouse was originally constructed to support sailors off the Minnesota coast as shipwrecks became prevalent during the 1800s. Completed by the US Lighthouse Service in 1910, Split Rock Light Station quickly became one of Minnesota’s most famous landmarks. Now, visitors from across the country head up to northern Minnesota to explore this beautiful and historic state park. As one of the top outdoor activities in Minnesota, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park offers five hiking trails for visitors to explore.

The Superior Hiking Trail is by far the best one offered, but make sure to pair it with the Gitchi-Gami Trail to create a Split Rock Lighthouse loop during your visit. Once at the lighthouse, you will have to pay around 10$ to enter (less for seniors, students, and kids), with the fees funding the park’s upkeep. The best place to stay in the area is Cove Point Lodge in Beaver Bay. This beautifully secluded lodge sits along Lake Superior’s rugged North Shore, offering panoramic views of the shoreline. Stop in at Northern Lights Roadhouse & Pub or the Splashing Rock Restaurant while you are in the area to enjoy some delicious northern Minnesota cuisine.

Contributed by: Ellie from Ellie’s Travel Tips

Split-Rock-Ligthouse Best State Parks in the USA
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Montana – Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park

The first and best-known state park in Montana is Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, featuring the largest known limestone caverns in the Northwest. Located in Whitehall, just a couple of hours outside of Yellowstone National Park, the caverns make for a great day trip or the perfect stop when driving from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park

While the park is named for Lewis and Clark, the famous explorers never actually laid eyes on the caverns. They simply passed by the area once or twice during their travels. The caverns were actually discovered by hunters at the turn of the 20th century and then developed and publicized by Dan Morrison. When he passed in 1932, the land was then transferred to the state park system. The main attraction of the park is of course the impressive caverns. To visit them, you will need to take a guided tour, but it’s a great way to learn more about the caverns and their history. The tours last right around 2 hours as you hike 2 miles through the caverns admiring impressive stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites. You’ll find the caves are electronically lit providing great views.  

If you have more time, take a hike around Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. With over 10 miles of trails, ranging from easy to challenging, it’s perfect to explore on foot. Just be aware that there is wildlife in the area, including black bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes, so hike safely!

Contributed by: Julia from the Cure for Curiosity

Cavern-State Park Montana

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Nevada – Valley of Fire State Park

Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada is a fascinating place to explore on a day trip from Las Vegas, which is only about a one-hour drive from the park. The park is best known for its fiery red Aztec sandstone formations, but other natural and historic treasures you’ll find here are petrified trees and ancient petroglyphs that were created 2,500 years ago. Valley of Fire’s interesting geology can easily be enjoyed on a scenic drive through the park. Don’t miss out on stopping at Elephant Rock and Balancing Rock, two of the park’s most notable (and aptly named) rock formations.

Quickly gaining in popularity as one of the best parks in the USA, Valley of Fire State Park is perfect for those wanting to see some unique red rock formations. Active travelers can venture out on some of the park’s hiking trails for a more immersive experience. There are several scenic trails of various lengths and difficulties, but even the short ones have plenty to offer. A few popular short hikes that showcase the park’s best features include Fire Wave, White Domes, and Mouse’s Tank. If you’d like to spend the night in the park, there are two campgrounds you can stay at. All campsites are first-come, first-served, and have shaded picnic tables and grills. Power and water hookups are available. The weather can get very hot here so bring sun protection and plenty of water or plan to visit in the winter.

Contributed by: Rhonda Krause of Travel? Yes Please!

Valley of Fire State Park NV
One of the best state parks in the USA – Valley of Fire

New Hampshire – Franconia Notch State Park

Franconia Notch State Park is one of the best state parks in the USA and is arguably the most beautiful and diverse state park in New Hampshire. It offers hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic views, and something to do in every season. There is a campground and town nearby if you are looking to make your Franconia Notch State Park trip a weekend getaway. Lincoln is only a short drive from Franconia Notch State Park and offers everything you need, including hotels, restaurants, and shops.

One of the best ways to explore Franconia Notch State Park is to hike. Here are some of the best hikes:

  • Flume Gorge: an easy and scenic 2-mile trail that brings you past stunning waterfalls in a 90-foot gorge
  • Cannon Mountain and Lonesome Lake Loop: a moderately difficult 5.5-mile trail that provides beautiful views of Franconia Notch
  • Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette Loop: a strenuous 9-mile hike, which is considered one of the most beautiful hikes in the White Mountains

If you don’t want to hike, here are other fun things to do in the area:

  • Ride the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway to the summit of Cannon Mountain
  • Rent a boat on Echo Lake, which is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains
  • Drive the Kancamagus Highway, which is one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the Northeast
  • Explore the Ice Castles in the winter

No matter how you want to experience Franconia Notch State Park, you will be in awe of its stunning views!

Contributed by: Nichole from Nichole the Nomad

best state parks in the US NH
Fall in Franconia Notch State Park

New Mexico – Villanueva State Park

Located just an hour’s drive from the beautiful Santa Fe, the stunning Villanueva State Park in New Mexico is truly a hidden gem off the beaten path. One of the quieter parks found in New Mexico, there is a bit of something for everyone there. From stunning canyons to high sandstone bluffs, you could spend a day hiking in the park or a couple of days staying at the on-site campground.

The wide range of activities this park offers include hiking, bird watching, fishing or simply relaxing by the Pecos River. For the best views of the sunrise or sunset, head to the upper campground which provides the highest views in the park. Be sure to watch where you are walking as there are dangerous critters, including rattlesnakes and scorpions, that could end up under your feet. And you can be sure that camping at this lovely park won’t break the bank at a mere $10/night.

For the best hike in the park, be sure to do Viewpoint Loop. This is an intermediate trail, and will take a few hours to complete. Be sure to pack tons of water, especially if going during the hotter months. There are also Spanish ruins that you can hike to which shouldn’t be missed. Need some food during your trip? You can grill on-site or head to Santa Fe nearby. This charming town is a fun stop on your trip and has a plethora of delicious Mexican restaurants to fill you up. You could also head south and meet up with I-40 and eat at a classic Route 66 diner.

Contributed by: Lina from Bucket List Places

NM State park

New York – Niagara Falls State Park

Covering an area of 430 acres, it’s no wonder Niagara Falls State Park is not to be missed. Landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead and the oldest state park in the United States of America, you can find out why almost 10 million tourists visit each year. The park itself contains America Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and a small portion of Horseshoe Falls (or Canadian Falls).

Although walking into the state park is free with views of the magnificent Niagara Gorge, there are several tours and attractions to help you experience it in different ways. This includes Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds, Goat Island, and the Prospect Observation Tower. Furthermore, you can save seeing several of these attractions by purchasing the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass.

Try your hand at hiking some of this beautiful park and easily plan out your day. There are 15 miles of trails to choose, taking from one hour to four hours to return. Some of the sites you can see are Whirlpool Rapids, Giant Rock, Gorge Overlook, and the Upper Gorge hike.

There are plenty of different food options to suit everyone’s budget in the town of Niagara Falls. Not only that, but you have kiosks, cafes, and takeaways available bordering the state park itself.  As for accommodations, there are high-rise hotels with views, bed and breakfasts, lodges, suites, and Airbnb’s to help rest your head at night. Niagara Falls State Park is one you will remember and surely should be considered one of the best state parks in the USA.

Contributed by: Chris Fry The Aquarius Traveller

Best State Parks in the USA Niagara

North Carolina – Jockey’s Ridge State Park

One of the most unique state parks in North Carolina is Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  Located in the Outer Banks, it is best known for being home to the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast.  This makes it quite the adventure to visit as there are some real “off the beaten path” activities available.

With towering sand dunes, a visit to Jockey’s Ridge State Park would not be complete without climbing to the top of the tallest sand dunes.  It will only take about 10 minutes, but it is hard work as every step forward is accompanied by sliding half a step backward. You’ll also find that there is a constant breeze in Jockey’s Ridge.  (This is the reason why the Wright Brothers came to this area to explore aviation!) Use that wind to try your hand at hang gliding or flying a kite. You can even take hang gliding lessons!

If sand-based activities aren’t really your thing, there is also a Soundside of the park where you will find a small beach with shallow, still water. This makes it the perfect place to paddleboard, kayak, or even let kids go swimming without the same riptide concerns as the ocean side of the Outer Banks. While you cannot stay overnight in the park, you will find a few picnic shelters scattered around to enjoy your lunch. And, it’s not of real concern as Jockey’s Ridge is located in the town of Nags Head in the Outer Banks and there are plenty of accommodations and restaurant options nearby. 

Contributed by: Julia from The Cure for Curiosity

Jockey's Ridge State Park NC
Jockeys Ridge State Park hang glide

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Ohio – Hocking Hills State Park

Hocking Hills State Park in southern Ohio encompasses over 2,000 acres of lush forests, sparkling waterfalls, scenic cliffs, and glacier-etched rock formations. There are 25 miles of hiking trails throughout the park ranging in difficulty, perfect for both families and more serious hikers. The unique landmarks are what make it the best state park in Ohio and one of the top attractions in the state.

The most popular trail, Old Man Cave, takes hikers through a massive recess and into a half-mile-long gorge. Some of the coolest spots are found on this trail, including the Devil’s Bathtub. Imagine a waterfall spilling into a stone basin, then made into a whirlpool by the creek flowing by. Park legend claims the whirlpool swirls infinitely down into a dark abyss, but don’t worry, it’s really only a few feet deep. Other features not to miss include a 100-foot long natural rock bridge crossing over a deep ravine. The most challenging hike in the park is up the 150 tall Cantwell Cliffs, but it’s completely worth it for the overlook view over the forest.

To experience all of these sights, your best bet is to stay at least one night in the park for two full days of hiking. There is plenty of camping space, but if that’s not your thing Hocking Hill State Park has adorable rustic cabins, yurts, actual tree houses, and even a small inn complete with a day spa. Wherever you stay, these fun and unique accommodations are just one more reason Hocking Hills is the best state park in Ohio and one of the best state parks in the USA.

Contributed by: Hailey from America My Beautiful

Oklahoma – Gloss Mountain State Park

Gloss Mountain State Park is my favorite state park in Oklahoma and a true Oklahoma hidden gem. Situated in northwestern Oklahoma in a part of the state known as Red Carpet Country, the park is a series of red mesas rising out of the green Earth. There’s only one hiking trail, but it’s a stunner! You ascend the one hundred and eighty-three steps to the top of Cathedral Mesa. From here you can walk the top of the mesa to the edge for a view of Lone Mountain. The trail is about one-and-a-half miles altogether, so it’s an easy hike for anyone who can negotiate the nearly two-hundred steps.

The park is right outside of Fairview, Oklahoma. You can enjoy a meal here before or after. The park itself does not have concessions or services other than a vending machine and restrooms. However, they do have cook stands and picnic tables, so you can bring your own food and cook at the foot of the mesas. There’s no camping at the park as it closes and the gate is locked every evening. Three or four hours is the perfect amount of time to spend here, which makes it an easy day trip from Oklahoma City or Tulsa.

Contributed by: Stephanie from Oklahoma Wonders

Gloss Mountain State Park

Oregon – Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park is a small state park located in Terrebonne, Oregon, which is about 30 miles from Bend. This impressive state park is in Central Oregon’s high desert area and is famous for its rock-climbing trails and unique rock formations. Smith Rock State Park is over 650 acres and has numerous hiking and biking trails in addition to hundreds of climbing routes. For me, it is one of the best state parks in the USA.

The parking lot is small, so be sure to arrive early if you’re interested in visiting Smith Rock. The best hike in the park, and most scenic, is the Misery Ridge Trail. It is best to combine this hike with the River Trail, which makes the hike just under 4 miles. This combination allows for hikers to climb to the top known as Monkey Face and then take a gentle, flat walk right next to the Crooked River and provides spectacular scenery of the mountains and rock climbers nearby. 

Day use passes are only $5, and while it is a great state park to visit year-round, the summer temperatures can be brutal. If you do plan to visit in the summer, arrive early, wear hats, and bring plenty of water because there is not much shade provided. We visited Smith Rock State Park as one of our stops on our San Francisco to Seattle road trip. It was one of the highlights of our Oregon trip, in addition to exploring the Columbia River Gorge.

Pennsylvania – Cherry Springs State Park

One of the best state parks to visit is located in North-Central Pennsylvania. Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park is the darkest park in America on the East Coast of the Mississippi. Located in north-central Pennsylvania, you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye throughout most of the year. 

There are two observation areas within the park. The public viewing park is free to use and on one side of the road. Most of the white light from cars is blocked by a dirt dune, but there is still some white light in the park due to phones, backs of cameras, and some people using flashlights. Please be respectful of others. There are no fires allowed in the park, which is reserved for the campground nearby. You are also not allowed to spend overnight in this viewing area. 

Not only does Cherry Springs have incredible night viewing, but there are also plenty of things to see during the day as well. You can get incredible views at the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, located under an hour away from the park. Hikers can enjoy a variety of trails in the Susquehannock State Forest or at the numerous scenic stops along Route 44.  Enjoying snow-capped mountain ranges by day and Milky Way sightings by night makes Cherry Springs the perfect winter getaway.

Contributed by: Pamela Drager from The Directionally Challenged Traveler

cherry springs state park PA
Jupiter, a shooting star, and the Milky Way as seen from Cherry Springs State Park

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South Dakota – Custer State Park

Custer State Park is one of the most diverse areas in the state of South Dakota and is considered one of the best state parks in the USA. It features grassy plains with bold and inquisitive wildlife, stunning lakes, and granite peaks. It’s over 70,000 acres in the Black Hills of western South Dakota and less than 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore. You’ll also enjoy scenic drives and dozens of hiking trails for all fitness levels. Some of the most popular are:

  • Sunday Gulch Trail — A hard 3.9-mile loop trail.
  • Cathedral Spires Trail — A moderate 1.6-mile out-and-back trail.
  • Sylvan Lake Shore Trail — A 1.1 easy walk around the picturesque Sylvan Lake.

There are five lodges to stay at in the park, and if you want a real treat, stay at the State Game Lodge. It’s an impressive structure dating back to 1920. There are also 10 campgrounds to choose from in a wide variety of areas around the park. Several are near the lodges, positioning you well for meals if you don’t feel like cooking. The town of Custer is just a few miles away, offering hotels and some great restaurants. Be prepared for the exquisite beauty of Custer State Park and plan to spend a day or more exploring the different regions. Consider going in late September for the Buffalo Roundup Festival—it’s a scene straight out of the Old West worth seeing or add a trip to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Contributed by: Sam at My Flying Leap

Best State Parks Custer
Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park

Texas – Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be listed as one of the best state parks in the USA. It contains the country’s second-largest canyon and is located only 30 minutes from Amarillo, Texas. Palo Duro Canyon covers 30,000 acres and boasts over 30 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. While there are quite a few great hiking trails, our favorite was the Lighthouse Trail. At just under 6 miles, this trail takes you to the popular Lighthouse rock formation. It provides beautiful views of the high canyon walls as you hike through a relatively flat desert trail. There is only one climbing section at the end, but the kids found it fun.

In addition to hiking and biking trails, the park has a Zip Line Adventure Park and an outdoor musical drama each summer. You can even stay inside the park and go glamping inside one of the cabins at the canyon rim. There are even ranger programs for kids and adults at the visitor center. Overall, it is a gem of a state park and a must-do if you are in the Texas panhandle.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park
One of the best state parks in the USA – Palo Duro Canyon

Utah – Goblin Valley State Park

Utah is full of great landscapes and while most people flock to the national parks, you shouldn’t overlook the state parks! Located towards the center of Utah is Goblin Valley State Park is a unique place to see filled with otherworldly formations. It is not located close to any major towns, although the closest town to this state park is Moab, Utah, though it’s still about an hour and a half away. It makes for a good day trip from Moab or a great stop along the way if you happen to be driving through the state.

Goblin Valley is full of rock formations that are nicknamed ‘goblins’ because of their shape. The desert floor is full of little ‘goblins’ and creates a really otherworldly-looking place. There are 3 main trails you can take within the park and 3 valleys of ‘goblins’ as well. The trails will take you along the brim of the valleys and through different formations along the way. This one of the best hikes in Southern Utah beyond the national parks.

If you don’t have time to take a longer hike, you can opt for the overlook with access right into the first valley. One of the best parts about this state park is that you are able to climb all over the rocks while exploring. There is a campground here if you wish to stay the night but the park itself is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, so you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of supplies with you. They also have two yurts for rent – check it out here. It’s a great spot to explore and a lot less crowded than some of the other great places in Utah.

Contributed by: Ashley Jansen from Jetset Jansen

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Vermont – Niquette Bay State Park

Niquette Bay State Park in Vermont has varied scenery from lakefront beaches to views from up high on the hills. This magnificent state park is an easy 20-minute drive from Burlington so it makes a fine day trip to get out of the city for some hiking. The park is the gateway to the gorgeous Lake Champlain Islands with its bucolic scenery and agrotourism.

The park is located on Lake Champlain, Vermont’s inland sea. Hike a half-mile on the Allen Trail to the sandy beach looking out onto the lake. In the summer, this beach is an ideal swimming area. An additional swim spot on Calm Cove has sunny smooth rock ledges to lounge on between dips. You can bring your leased pet to this beach. It’s highly recommended to also hike the Island View trail. The panorama from the top is over the Green Mountains, with Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont, in prime view. Continue hiking along the Island View Trail loop to get gorgeous views of the Lake Champlain Islands.

In the winter, the trail system is great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Don’t be surprised to hear owls in the winter months. While Niquette Bay State Park doesn’t have camping, nearly Grand Isle State Park has tenting sites and cabins.  If you camp there, bike through beautiful South Hero Island to Niquette Bay to enjoy this quiet gem of a state park.

Contributed by: Karen from Outdoor Adventure Sampler

Niquette Bay State Park

Washington – Palouse Falls State Park

Located in lesser-visited eastern Washington State, the small but mighty Palouse Falls State Park is one of the best state parks in the United States. This Washington state park spans a mere 94 acres, however, it’s home to one of the most magnificent waterfalls in Washington: the thundering 200-foot tall Palouse Falls. Carved 13,000 years ago by Ice Age floods, Palouse Falls is an incredible sight and well worth seeing when traveling the Pacific Northwest. It’s also Washington State’s official waterfall! The waterfall is the crown jewel of the park: it can be viewed from 3 viewpoints, including from an interpretive trail that includes a short 0.1 mile walk to the falls.

Aside from Palouse Falls itself, this US state park is also home to bird and wildlife watching opportunities, campsites, and picnic areas. Unlike most state parks, it doesn’t have any hiking to offer. Palouse Falls State Park is fairly remote, so be sure to come prepared with water and supplies when visiting! This is especially important because campsites (tent-camping only) are limited and offered only on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s recommended to have a backup plan if you intend to spend the night in Washington’s Palouse Falls State Park. Some suggestions include staying the night in Spokane, Kennewick, or Walla Walla.

Contributed by: Kate Storm from Our Escape Clause

Palouse Falls best state parks in the USA

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Wisconsin – Peninsula State Park

Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek, Wisconsin is a 3,776-acre state treasure with no shortage of fun activities – no matter what time of year you visit. Visiting in the summer means you can hike, kayak, bike, boat, fish, golf, and swim here. While summer is, of course, the most popular time to visit the park – fall is the most beautiful. The leaves typically begin changing at the end of September and peak color is usually mid-October. In winter, you can cross country ski, snowshoe, sled, and snowmobile! I consider this four-season park one of the best state parks in the USA.

Not to be missed, is the Eagle Trail hike. This is arguably the best hike in Peninsula State Park. It takes you from an amazing bluff-top view, down a rather difficult rocky descent, and along the shoreline of Ephraim Harbor. Camping and nature programs are also offered here year-round, and there are five campgrounds with a total of 468 family sites here. If camping is not your style, don’t worry – there are also plenty of great cabins in Door County and cute bed & breakfast stays in the area too.

Once you’re done with your outdoor activities, head to Ephraim to check out a fish boil for dinner. It’s unique to the area, and they’re not only delicious, but it’s a fun process to watch! The Old Post Office Restaurant is a short drive and is a great place to go for this.

Contributed by: Lindsey Puls of Have Clothes, Will Travel

Bottom Line: Why You Should Visit the Best State Parks in the USA

If you enjoy the outdoors and are looking for more places to visit on your next trip, then consider a visit to one of “the best state parks in the USA” listed above. While many do require a small fee to enter, the price of admission goes to park maintenance and is well worth the contribution to keep the parks looking their best. Visiting a state park is also a great idea if you’d like to avoid some of the larger crowds which tend to gravitate towards the more popular national parks.

Here are just a few pictures of our adventures in state parks around the country. We hiked to the top of Misery Ridge at Smith Rock State Park, dipped our toes into Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes State Park, crossed a suspension bridge in Tallulah Gorge, biked around Peninsula State Park, and climbed to one of the tallest points in Connecticut at Sleeping Giant State Park. We have a few that became the photos of our travel map, and are looking forward to exploring more U.S. state parks in the future.

What state parks did we miss? Leave your favorite state park in the comments below.

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14 thoughts on “The Best State Parks in the USA”

  1. Any outdoor parks are going to be the place to be this summer, this is such a great list, and although I’m not in the US I will definitely keep this for when I can visit again. I particularly like that they get a bit less attention than the National Parks sometimes which makes them even more fun to explore

  2. Holidays from Hels

    This is a fantastic list. We are really hoping to visit several US state parks this summer, including the Valley of Fire, if our rescheduled 2020 road trip dream becomes a reality. Crossing fingers!

  3. This is such a great list. State Parks are so beautiful and offer a lot. For New Jersey, I recommend Island Beach State Park, it’s a stunning beach and bay area with a lot of wildlife. 🙂

  4. This is an inspiring list! I love visiting National Parks but they are all so crowded these days. It’s nice to consider some alternatives that are equally inspiring in their own way.

  5. Sadly I haven’t been to any national parks in the US yet, but your list is really making me want to plan a trip to the states soon!

  6. Such a timely article for 2021! We will all be outside this year and state parks are often the perfect choice. Thanks for such an inspiring and comprehensive list! I’ve enjoyed visiting a few of these and was happy to see Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana made the list– I think it is my favorite state park too.

  7. There are soamy great state parks in the US that often get overlooked as people concentrate on visiting the National parks. This is s great list!

  8. It’s amazing to me how many different forms nature takes: caverns, rock formations, different colors, beach. It’s like I’ll never have time to see it all, and am grateful for this post for helping me “travel” to see them all! I think I need to add the Caverns in Montana to a “must see” list.

  9. Linda (LD Holland)

    Most people head out to visit the National Parks. But we have found some equally stunning State Parks on our U.S. travels. I love the variety in the State Parks you have shown. These will give us some great stops on our next U.S. road trip.

  10. Rhonda Albom

    I love your list of great state parks. I have only been to a couple of them but totally agree that they are lesser-known (perhaps not to locals). I wish I had known about some of these when I was in the ‘neighbourhood’. I’ll remember for next time.

  11. Wow! This is such an incredible list! I need to go back to Nevada and visit Valley of Fire. Another great state park in NJ is Island Beach State Park 🙂

  12. Great picks! <3 I love, love, love Point Lobos and Goblin Valley State Park was really cool too. I need to check out the other parks someday!

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