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Best State Parks

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 year-round.

Free Country has compiled a list of the best state parks in America based on activities you can do at each location. Explore the best state parks for sightseeing, dining, stargazing, water sports, and more to help you choose the ideal place for your next outdoor adventure. 

Best State Parks for 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.

Best State Parks for 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.

Best State Parks for 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.


Best State Parks for Water Sports

While hiking the trails is an excellent way to discover the nation’s diverse fauna and lush flora, there’s nothing more thrilling than hitting the water in your boat or jet ski.

Although land-locked Nevada may not be your first choice of destination for water sports, Big Bend of the Colorado Recreation Area boasts some of the best opportunities for fishing, skiing, boating, and swimming in the country. The park is downstream of Davis Dam, so the water is crystal clear and refreshingly cool all year. There are also numerous chances to view various species of aquatic birdlife, including mallards, geese, and herons.

If you enjoy canoeing or  kayaking, Suwannee River Wilderness State Trail in Florida offers 171 miles of pristine river with views of limestone cliffs, sandy bluffs, and cypress and oak trees. The park provides a comprehensive paddling guide, and River Trail includes numerous hubs and river camps to stop and explore.

Best State Parks for 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. The Golden Gate State Park offers multiple hiking trails for different skill levels.  Its popular Blue Grouse Trail provides 1.6 miles of hiking for beginners, while the 2.6-mile Raccoon Trail is a moderate loop that offers hikers 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.

Best State Parks for Roughing It — or Not 

Spending the night in a state park does not necessarily mean 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.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy roughing it in the great outdoors, you’ll want to visit state parks that offer safe yet rugged campgrounds for visitors. For example, the campsites at Maine’s Baxter State Park offer a truly natural experience for campers, as they don’t have water spigots, restrooms, or showers available like other locations. 

A happy medium might be the City of Rocks State Park in the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico. Here you have several camping options ranging from primitive to a site with electric and sewer hookups. Either option allows you to view the 34.9 million-year-old stunning rock formations that rise as high as 40 feet on either side of the campsites.

Best State Parks for 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 early bird, so bring a cozy fleece to guard against the morning chill.

When birdwatching at these state parks, you can also enjoy other natural elements along their miles of trails, like wildflowers, trees, bluffs, rock formations, and local wildlife. 

For instance, California’s Crystal Cove State Park offers one of the state’s only beachfront parks on the Pacific Coast. Explore Reef Point, which features a quarter-mile trail that leads to Scotchmans Cove, or Pelican Point, which offers a view of coastal vegetation and rugged bluffs.

Or, visit Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, which features eight miles of rugged Pacific coastline and old-growth Redwood forests. When exploring the majestic forested trails, you can expect to find Snowy Egrets and Spotted Owls, as well as numerous other waterfowl species. 

Get Outside and Visit Our Nation’s Beautiful State Parks

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gorgeous state parks. From exploring the wild and rugged backcountry of your state to partaking in activities like horseback riding, hiking, sightseeing, or mountain biking, 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.