14 Spectacular State Parks Across the Country
Where to find gorgeous scenery and outdoor fun
by Ken Budd, AARP, Updated June 11, 2021
En español | Stunning canyons, lush forests, majestic mountains, rocky waterfalls, raging rivers — you'll find of all these natural delights at (surprise!) the roughly 8,500 state parks in the United States. For nature lovers wary of crowds, they can be a less-packed but just as beautiful alternative to iconic national parks such as Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains. Here are 14 of our favorites.
Note: Before visiting a state park, check its website for pandemic-related closures and alerts.
- 1 of
PHOTO BY: GCosby
Oswald West State Park, Oregon
With four miles of rocky coastline and a thick rain forest, this 2,484-acre park is just 10 miles south of the popular seaside town of Cannon Beach and loaded with natural wonders. One must-see site is secluded Short Sand Beach: It's surrounded by forests and sandstone cliffs, and it's a great spot for wandering, picnicking, watching surfers, and spotting the occasional bald eagle. For a hike with big scenic payoffs, hit the Cape Falcon Trail. It's 4.8 miles round trip, but you'll enjoy superb views of cliffs, coves, Blumenthal Falls — a small but scenic waterfall — and green Neahkahnie Mountain (you might even spot some whales from the trail). Want something shorter? Hike the first .5 miles of the trail through large spruce trees to enjoy an overlook of Short Sand Beach. Leashed pets are allowed. There's no camping in the park, but you can find plenty of options for accommodations in the coastal towns nearby.
- 2 of
PHOTO BY: Blaine Harrington III / Alamy Stock Photo
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California
Pfeiffer Big Sur is a lush 1,006-acre state park south of Monterey along the state's iconic coastal Highway One. It's blessed with ancient redwood groves and views that include the Big Sur River Gorge, the Santa Lucia Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean — spectacular enough to be known as the mini-Yosemite. How did it get the name Pfeiffer? A settler named John Pfeiffer built a cabin here in 1884 overlooking the gorge, and in the 1930s, he sold his 160 acres to the state of California instead of developers. You can visit his reconstructed cabin on the Gorge Trail. (Note that Pfeiffer Big Sur has a smaller, also-gorgeous counterpart in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after John Pfeiffer's sister, about 12 miles away.) The Buzzard's Roost Trail provides views of the Big Sur River and the redwoods, but it also has an 800-foot climb. If you don't feel like huffing and puffing, try the flatter Liewald Trail, which covers some of the same terrain and attracts fewer hikers. Another easy option: Take the quarter-mile River Path trail to the Redwood Deck for views of the redwoods and info on their history. You can stay at the historic Big Sur Lodge or camp in the park. $10 per vehicle entrance fee.
- 3 of
PHOTO BY: Sumiko Scott
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Want to feel like you're on another planet? Head to Valley of Fire, about 55 miles from Las Vegas. This harsh yet beautiful park of more than 40,000 acres features red Aztec sandstone, which, yes, looks like fire when it's reflected by the sun. You'll also find petrified trees, 3,000-year-old petroglyphs, and Elephant Rock (a sandstone arch, part of which looks like an elephant's trunk). White Domes Trail is a 1.1-mile loop that passes arches and sandstone formations as it extends through a narrow canyon, while the 1.5-mile Fire Wave Trail features a geologic oddity: White-and-reddish stripes on the rocky surfaces. One of the best ways to see the park is by driving 5.7-mile White Domes Road, which cuts through tall red ridges and passes a variety of rock formations. There are two campgrounds; many people make a day trip here from a Las Vegas base. $10 per vehicle entrance fee.
- 4 of
PHOTO BY: Darren Matthews / Alamy Stock Photo
Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
The 5,362-acre red-rock Dead Horse Point State Park is only 30 miles from Arches National Park — and 12 miles from Canyonlands National Park — but it's typically far less crowded. You can easily imagine the cowboys who once roamed these hills herding wild mustangs; do so standing at Dead Horse Point Overlook, which sits atop a sandstone cliff and offers sweeping canyon views, including a dramatic bend in the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below. Mountain biking is popular (the park allows e-bicycles, for those wanting a boost up steep terrain), but its best-kept secret is its least-hiked trail: A 2.5-mile round-trip trek from the Visitor Center to the Bighorn Overlook. “It's by far my favorite overlook,” says park manager Dillon Hoyt. “It provides a breathtaking view of the canyons that most visitors never knew existed.” And unlike most parks near Moab (where many visitors stay, about 30 miles away), trails allow dogs, though they must be leashed. If you want to sleep in the park, you can either camp or rent a yurt, which have beds and room for six people. Entrance fee is $20 per vehicle; $15 for visitors 62 and older.
- 5 of
PHOTO BY: Zachary Joing
Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado
Located about eight miles from Boulder, Eldorado Canyon State Park is known for its 500 rock-climbing routes. But don't worry: There's plenty to see on the ground, whether you're peeking in caves or spotting one of 80 species of birds (four-legged residents include red foxes and black bears). Watching the climbers is fun, and some of the mountains reach elevations of up to 8,800 feet. Easy-but-scenic hiking options include the Streamside Trail (one-mile round trip), which follows the South Boulder Creek and the canyon walls. Climbers pack the parking lots on summer weekends. Now, because of social distancing, the park is closed when parking lots are full. Because of that, the best time to visit is on weekday mornings and in spring or autumn. Bring a picnic lunch: The park's 10 picnic sites line the creek and offer wow-inducing views of the canyon. You could use beautiful Boulder as your base; there's no camping or lodging here. $10 per vehicle entrance fee.
- 6 of
PHOTO BY: Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
Custer State Park, South Dakota
The park's 1,300 bison are the star attraction at Custer State Park in the Black Hills — a popular destination for visitors to Badlands National Park about 90 minutes to the east and Mount Rushmore, less than an hour's drive northwest. You'll see the massive animals year-round on 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road (stop first at the visitor center to learn where the herd is congregating). The loop is about a 90-minute drive through the 71,000-acre park, depending on how many bison cross the highway. If you visit in April, May or June you may also see calves. In late September, the park hosts a roundup: Staff and volunteers collect the herd for everything from vaccinations to pregnancy checks. Animal sightings can also include antelope, elk, mule deer, prairie dogs and mountain lions. There are other stunning drives, including Needles Highway, with its majestic spikes of granite, and plenty of fishing and hiking. Stay at the park's campgrounds or historic lodges. $20 per vehicle entrance fee.
- 7 of
PHOTO BY: Martina Birnbaum
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
To see America's second-largest canyon, head to this rugged park in the Texas panhandle, just south of Amarillo. The canyon is 120 miles long and up to 20 miles wide, and its walls feature four distinct geologic layers. For up-close views, take a scenic 16-mile drive to the canyon floor. And don't miss the hoodoos: Tall spires where a large rock is balanced on a smaller base. They look like something from a Roadrunner cartoon, which seems appropriate: Roadrunners live here along with such critters as wild turkeys, the endangered Texas horned lizard, and, yes, coyotes. The park also features rock art from native people who began living in the canyon 12,000 years ago. You can stay in cabins at the canyon floor or rim, camp, or glamp: Palo Duro Canyon now offers glamping (glamorous camping) tents for rent, complete with beds and other furnishings, fridges, air conditioning and more. $8 per person daily entrance fee.
- 8 of
PHOTO BY: Andrey Dmitriev / Alamy Stock Photo
Devil's Lake State Park, Wisconsin
Visitors to this 9,000-acre park are drawn to the 500-foot-high bluffs that were formed 1.7 billion years ago (they're twice as old as the Rocky Mountains) and overlook Devil's Lake. To see the 360-acre lake from the cliffs, take the 1.4-mile West Bluff trail; to see the cliffs from the lake, follow the popular 1.0-mile Tumbled Rock trail. For a less-crowded hike, the 1.8-mile Roznos Meadows trail will take you through grasslands for views of the bluffs. The path is also part of the National Ice Age Trail and you can see the stopping point of the last glacier that moved through Wisconsin. The park's most famous sights may be two rock formations: Devil's Doorway (visitors often pose in the doorway-like gap) and Balanced Rock. Stay at the park's campgrounds (10 accessible cabins are also available for people with disabilities). Entry fees are $13 for vehicles with Wisconsin plates ($3 for state residents age 65+) and $16 for out-of-state plates.
- 9 of
PHOTO BY: Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo
Cloudland Canyon State Park, Georgia
Jaw-dropping canyons aren't limited to the American West. Sure, the elevations at Cloudland Canyon State Park are modest — the park's highest mountains reach about 1,980 feet — but views of the tree-lined, sandstone-cliff canyon are some of the South's prettiest sites, worth the roughly two-hour drive from Atlanta (or just a little more than 30 minutes from Chattanooga, Tennessee). Multiple trails will take you along the canyon's eastern and western views, but some locals say the best views are at the park's picnic area parking lot. Want to test your lungs? Try the two-mile Waterfalls hike. You'll head down 600 stairs to see two stupendous waterfalls tumbling into pools. It's worth the walk. At least until you climb back up. Accommodations include 16 cottages, 10 yurts and a variety of campsites. The entry fee is $5 per vehicle.
- 10 of
PHOTO BY: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee
At 265 feet, Fall Creek Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern United States — and one of many must-see wonders at the 30,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park, which Southern Living readers voted the best state park in the Southeastern United States. You'll find gorges, streams, oak and hickory forests, a lake and 56 miles of hiking trails (to escape the crowds, check out the view of Cane Creek Falls from the two-mile Falls Day Loop Trail). Other options include biking trails, fishing, boating, and a Canopy Challenge Course with zip lines, rope swings and more than 75 wobbly bridges. And if your idea of birdies involves putters rather than woodpeckers, Fall Creek Falls boasts an 18-hole golf course (as well as tennis courts and an Olympic-size pool). Nature, however, is still the star. For an easy view of the sights, drive on 8.5-mile Scenic Loop Road, which features multiple waterfall overlooks. The park includes 30 cabins and 222 campsites. Tennessee parks do not charge an entry fee.
- 11 of
PHOTO BY: pawel.gaul
Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
The 2,356-acre Hocking Hills is best known for its caves; the most popular is Old Man's Cave, named after a hermit who lived here in the 1800s. You can reach it via a .6-mile trail that takes you along a gorge and offers impressive views of waterfalls and a creek. Other must-see spelunking spots include Whispering Cave, which features a seasonal waterfall that cascades to the floor below (park staff also recommend the less-crowded Rock House, a tunnel-like cavern that offers views of a waterfall crashing over the cliff face). Additional attractions include a three-hour zip-line experience and an 8,500-square-foot visitor center, which opened in 2019 and provides exhibits on the area's history and ecology. For a quick side trip, head to Rockbridge State Nature Preserve. It's about a 20-minute drive or 2.75-mile round-trip hike from the park. The highlight: A 100-foot-long arch that's considered the largest natural bridge in Ohio. Stay at the park's campgrounds or cabins. All state parks in Ohio are free.
- 12 of
PHOTO BY: James Schwabel / Alamy Stock Photo
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
With five miles of beaches and 5,000 acres of low-country marshes and forests, Hunting Island is South Carolina's most popular state park. Be sure to visit its picturesque lighthouse, built in 1859 and rebuilt in 1875 after it was destroyed by Confederate forces during the Civil War. You'll pay $2 for a 167-step climb to the top where an observation deck provides views of the island and seascape. A series of short trails will take you through the forests — home to deer, owls and hawks — and along a saltwater lagoon. The Marsh Boardwalk is the best place to watch a Low Country sunset, park staff say, and they also recommend the .7-mile Nature Center Scenic Trail: You'll cross a bridge to Little Hunting Island for a view of the lagoon (the park had 153 sea turtle nests in 2019, which tied a park record). Hunting Island offers 100 campsites and one cabin, which is near the lighthouse. Park admission is $8 for adults, $5 for people 65 or older, $4 for children age 6-15.
- 13 of
PHOTO BY: Geoffrey Giller / Alamy Stock Photo
Letchworth State Park, New York
The Genesee River roars through a forested gorge before crashing dramatically over three waterfalls, one of which is a nearly 600-foot drop. Those wet wonders are a big reason why USA Today readers chose Letchworth as America's best state park. For the best views, head to Archery Field, near the park's Castile entrance, or Inspiration Point. The park has 66 miles of hiking trails and the most popular is the seven-mile Gorge Trail, which offers views of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls. To avoid the crowds, hike the Big Bend Trail on the east side of the park, which follows the rim of the gorge along the great bend of the river. Want to go when the crowds are thinner? Winter not only is quieter, but you can try snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. The park offers campsites, cabins and the 16-room Glen Iris Inn. Letchworth's entry fee is $10 per car.
- 14 of
PHOTO BY: Mindy Fawver / Alamy Stock Photo
Baxter State Park, Maine
Want to escape civilization? Head to rugged Baxter State Park. The park has no WiFi, no paved roads, no food, no electricity and few facilities. You will, however, find 209,000 acres of wilderness, 215 miles of trails, and 46 peaks and ridges, along with plentiful streams and the Penobscot River (you might even spot a bull moose in a pond, dipping its head to nibble some plants). Baxter is remote — about 136 miles from Bangor — but the upsides include fewer crowds than in other wildlife areas, particularly during fall, when autumn leaves bathe the park in oranges, yellows and reds. For good views of Katahdin, the state's highest mountain at 5,268 feet, consider renting a canoe on Togue Pond or try the easy 1.5-mile Cranberry Pond Tail. You can stay in campgrounds, cabins, lean-tos, remote backcountry tent sites or a bunkhouse. The entrance fee is $15 (note that motorcycles aren't allowed).
Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.
More on Travel