Great State Parks

by Lindy Zupko

While the United States’ 63 national parks are justly famous for their wonders, it would be a mistake to underestimate the hundreds of state parks—especially since there is a good chance you live near one. Most state parks have welcoming visitor centers and offer plenty of amenities at reasonable rates.

Sightseeing
The second largest canyon in the U.S.—after the Grand Canyon, of course—happens to be in a state park. Located in the Texas panhandle, Palo Duro Canyon is 800 feet deep, and you can stay overnight in a stone cabin on the rim. Don’t worry: the rugged exterior hides a comfortable interior.

Just 90 minutes east of Niagara Falls is Letchworth State Park, New York, where the Genesee River goes through gorges that include three grand waterfalls. (Honeymoon suites not included.)

Overlooking Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest, Deception Pass State Park hosts the Kukutali Preserve, which is co-owned and co-managed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and offers great views of Fidalgo, Hope, and Skagit islands.


Dining
Many state parks offer unique dining experiences beyond takeout sandwiches. At De Leon Springs State Park in Florida, you can swim in spring water, hike in a subtropical forest—and make your own pancakes at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill, a restaurant on the site of a mill built in the 1830s to process cane sugar. (A pair of board shorts will come in handy if you decide to take a dip.)

The Arrow Rock State Historic Site in Missouri is the rare state park where you can catch dinner and a show. For the first, head to the J. Huston Tavern, which was built in 1834 and is said to be the oldest continuing restaurant west of the Mississippi. The popular Lyceum Theater is a two-minute stroll away.

Stargazing
City lights have a magic of their own, but they do make it hard to fully experience a night sky. One of the best stargazing locations in the U.S. is Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania, which offers stunning views of the Milky Way.

Other certified International Dark Sky Park locations include California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, under two hours from San Diego, and Dead Horse State Park in Utah, a great spot from which to watch meteor showers. A puffer vest or jacket will make for shiver-free stargazing.


Hiking
Colorado is famous as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, but rest assured you don’t need to be a super-athlete to enjoy its natural bounties. At Golden Gate State Park, for example, the popular Blue Grouse Trail is only 1.6 miles; the 2.6-mile Raccoon Trail is a moderate loop that offers views of the Continental Divide.

For a completely different vibe, Minnesota’s Itasca State Park hosts not just a hundred lakes, but the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The Minnesota winter doesn’t stop local families from enjoying walks or snowshoeing on the park’s trails, and the visitor center’s warming house makes for a welcoming pit stop.

Roughing it—or Not
Spending the night in a state park does not necessarily means pitching a tent. You can also book cabins, as in Carolina Beach State Park, North Carolina, or cottages, as in New York’s Wildwood State Park. Three Utah state parks offer stays in teepees, and you can find yurts in Colorado.

Then there are parks with much larger buildings. The 117-room Lodge Montgomery Bell sits by Lake Acorn in Montgomery Bell State Park, 40 minutes from Nashville, Tenn. Also by a lake is the wood-and-stone lodge at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park, Kentucky.

Bird Watching
It’s hard to think of a less intrusive way to connect with nature than bird watching. Thousands of state parks are great for bird watching, so look for the ones located on migration paths, like Montauk Point and Camp Hero State Parks at the eastern tip of New York’s Long Island, or Ohio’s East Harbor State Park, by Lake Erie. You know what they say about the earlybird, so bring a cozy fleece to guard against the morning chill.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gorgeous state parks. The park of your dreams may be just a stone’s throw away from your doorstep. To find a state park near you, visit stateparks.org.


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