If the last 2 years have taught us anything, it’s this: we have a lot of amazing countryside to discover and explore within our borders! Not only that, but each state or national park offers something a little bit different. You might even be surprised by what adventures await you right in your own backyard!
Did you know there are more than 10,000 state parks dotted across the United States? If you’ve focused your recent travel energies on national parks, maybe it’s time to discover some of the lesser-known state parks. We asked our readers to share and rank their favorite state parks during our annual Best of Travel Awards and the following 15 state parks came out on top — there was even a three-way tie for the eighth spot. Time to pull out the camper and plan your 2022 travel itinerary!
1. Redwood State Park (Winner)
Crescent City, California
A visit to California’s Redwood State Park should be on everyone’s bucket list, but it will require some planning. Redwood State Park is actually part of a four-park complex that includes Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. These parks encompass more than 131,000 acres and 71 acres of northern California coastline. A diversity of things to do and explore could keep you entertained for weeks, if not years.
After exploring the beautiful California coastline on foot, travel back in time on a steam engine train or enjoy spellbinding scenery as you coast through the treetops of ancient trees on the gondola ride. Pack a picnic and hike any number of the hundreds of easy or challenging trails throughout the park. Whether you’re traveling with family, friends, or want a romantic getaway, the Redwoods will not disappoint!
2. Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Does your travel itinerary include Amarillo, Texas? Drive about an hour southeast of town and spend a day exploring Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Popular with cyclists and hikers, Palo Duro Canyon boasts some impressive views of unique rock formations, fossil-rich sedimentary rocks, historical sites, and campgrounds. But did you know, this spectacular park is home to our nation’s second largest canyon? That’s right! Rim to rim, the canyon averages 6 miles in width, but can be up to 20 miles in some places!
For a different, more leisurely experience in the park, visit Old West Stables and take in the views by horseback. But whether by horseback, bike, or foot, just don’t miss the park’s iconic hoodoo formation (a tall slender rock with a larger rock on top), called The Lighthouse. This one is only visible from the canyon floor and can be seen from the 5.5-mile round-trip Lighthouse Trail.
Pro Tip: Book your horseback adventure well in advance, as they can book quickly during busy seasons.
3. Custer State Park
Custer, South Dakota
A visit to Mt. Rushmore has been an increasingly popular getaway in recent years, but if you go, don’t short-change yourself by skipping Custer State Park! Nestled in the stunning Black Hills, this park is loaded with soaring mountains, exquisite views, deep lakes, and abundant animal herds grazing through the grassland prairies. Experience the rumbling ground of running buffalo herds during the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (the last Friday of September).
To experience this park is to get a sense of what the wild west was like before the Europeans moved in. If you’ve ever seen Dances With Wolves (Oscar winner for Best Picture, 1991), you’ll understand because Custer State Park was the film site for a variety of scenes.
Needles Highway is a 14-mile dream for auto enthusiasts, especially when fall colors are changing by the day. The park offers fully-developed campgrounds with sites for tents, campers, and motor homes as well as options for those who prefer backcountry camping. Plan your visit in late spring, early summer, or the fall to avoid the large crowds.
Pro Tip: Needles Highway is very narrow and best experienced in a smaller vehicle or by motorcycle. Leave the motorhome at camp.
4. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Oljato-Monument Valley, Arizona
If the name of this park isn’t familiar to you, you will certainly recognize the landscape from iconic movie scenes from films like Forrest Gump. But more than movie backdrops and pop culture photo opportunities, the red rock mesas and sandstone buttes of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park will leave you feeling inspired and speechless. The best way to see this park is to book a guided trip with a Navajo guide allowing you to drive into the park, see the impressive monoliths up close, and learn more about the Native American culture.
Inside the park, visit The Trading Post where traditional arts and crafts of the Navajo people are preserved by local artisans.
If you want to make a road trip of it, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is part of the Trail of the Ancients, the only National Scenic Byway dedicated to archaeological, historical, and cultural sites.
Please remember this land is home to the Navajo people. Be respectful of their privacy and property.
5. Elephant Rocks State Park
Increasingly popular with tourists, Elephant Rocks State Park is an easy day drive adventure from St. Louis. Famous for its massive granite boulders that look like elephants (with a little imagination), this park offers miles of hiking trails. The Braille Trail is a great option if you have someone with physical or visual impairments in your party, as it was designed especially for them and is easy to navigate. While you may enjoy scrambling up the rocks for the perfect panoramic view, be advised that rock climbing equipment is strictly prohibited.
While you’re in the area, treat yourself to a soak at Johnson’s Shut-Ins about 20 minutes away from Elephant Rocks. The crystal-clear waters from Black River are perfect for swimming and relaxing under the warm Missouri summer sun.
Pro Tip: Elephant Rocks State Park is especially busy Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so plan accordingly.
6. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur, California
Located about 2.5 hours south of San Francisco, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park offers stunning photo opportunities around every corner. Named for a well-respected pioneer woman named Julia Pfeiffer, the park features a variety of trees including redwood and madrone, and is famous for an 80-foot waterfall that drops into the ocean from granite cliffs. Purple sand? Turquoise water? Yes, and yes. If you’ve never been to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ve never seen anything like it.
This park has much more to offer than a picturesque coastline. Hikers love the variety of hikes. Don’t forget your binoculars — you’ll want them to marvel at some 390 different bird species including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and kingfishers. Fair warning, bring an extra SD card (or two) along for your camera! Memorable scenes abound around every corner.
You could spend a long weekend in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but we know you’ll be planning your next visit before you leave.
7. Starved Rock State Park
With more than 40 state parks and 17 wildlife areas, Illinois offers a lot of places to explore. One of those areas, however, captivated the hearts of our readers, and that’s Starved Rock State Park. Starved Rock State Park is perfect for a romantic weekend getaway. Plan your stay at the historic 1930s-era lodge or one of the nearby lodge cabins.
Waterfall lovers will be in heaven here — just make sure you time your trip when the water is flowing at its peak! While you look for those waterfalls, explore 13 miles of hiking trails through canyons and woods. Be sure to keep an eye open for majestic bald eagles! From June through November, the park provides free guided hikes for visitors (pre-registration is required). Starved Rock State Park also offers several great fishing locations along the Illinois River, and daily river cruises, as weather permits.
8. Kohler-Andrae State Park (3-Way Tie)
Kohler-Andrae State Park is a getaway gem that will have you wondering if you are really in the Midwest or on the West Coast! Enjoy 2.5 miles of sandy beaches and stunning sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. Hiking, biking, cross-country skiing (in the winter), bird watching, and fishing (the local pond is stocked with trout and panfish) are among the many activities offered at this pet-friendly state park — just make sure Fido is leashed! This park is less than 15 minutes south of Sheboygan, providing plenty of options for nearby lodging and dining.
The park is especially popular with campers and includes a large, wooded, well-kept 137-site campground. Bring the kids or grandkids with you during Halloween, when the campground becomes a spooktacular destination as all the campsites decorate for the holiday to host a family-friendly, safe trick-or-treat experience.
Pro Tip: It’s always cooler by the lake, so bring extra layers, even if it seems hot everywhere else.
8. Hocking Hills State Park (3-Way Tie)
Looking for a getaway that lets you disconnect from a hectic schedule and reconnect with the natural rhythms of nature? Look no further than Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park. An hour south of Columbus, Hocking Hills is arguably one of the most beautiful parks in the Midwest. It’s the perfect place to unplug in a cozy treetop cabin, relax, and rediscover your inner child. Sit in constant wonder with each new waterfall, view, or bald eagle sighting.
Hocking Hills is a four-season park with something to offer visitors at any time of the year, but the winter is quite magical. When the snow begins to fly, the park comes to life with ice fishing, ice skating, and a wildly popular January cave-to-cave hiking event. Join thousands of other hikers for a snowy 6-mile guided trek that includes a hot bowl of soup served at the halfway point. You’ll enjoy the majesty of ice-encompassed waterfalls and learn some of the history and legends surrounding the caves in the park.
8. Dead Horse Point State Park (3-Way Tie)
Dead Horse Point State Park may be one of Utah’s best kept secrets. Perched at the end of a mesa some 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the park offers a breathtaking overlook of the river’s gooseneck bend and Canyonlands National Park. The park is located about an hour east of Moab, offering comfortable lodging for those who prefer not to camp.
Because it’s a lesser-known state park, you’ll enjoy fewer crowds than other nearby popular Utah parks. The best time to visit Dead Horse Point Park is spring or fall due to the harsh sun that blasts the landscape in the summer months. Hiking trails are all relatively flat, making this small park easy to explore. Mountain bike single track trails run for miles and range from easy to technical. Dead Horse Point State Park is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, allowing for extraordinary views of the Milky Way galaxy and nighttime photography. Bring your telescope!
11. Colorado Bend State Park
An easy day trip from Austin or San Antonio, Colorado Bend State Park is one of the most popular parks in the great state of Texas! Bring your fishing gear and your hiking boots for a fun and scenic weekend trip. Situated along the Colorado River, Colorado Bend State Park is also home to the eye-popping 70-foot Gorman Falls (the tallest waterfall in Texas). To get to the falls, be prepared for a 3-mile round-trip hike requiring moderate skill. Another beautiful moderate hike is Spicewood Springs, which rewards you with a soak in one of six small natural spring-fed pools.
Visitors also enjoy mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, and cave exploring. Cave guides are also available for hire if you’d like to learn more about the area.
12. Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Fort White, Florida
Ichetucknee Springs State Park offers a relaxing day trip experience enjoyed by all ages. Fed by nine natural springs, the gentle 6-mile river of bright turquoise water is an inviting place to relax and have fun with family and friends. Bring your own tube or rent one at the park office. It takes approximately 2–3 hours to float the lazy river from start to finish.
This is a day-use park with no campsites available. While the main feature is the gorgeous river, there are plenty of hiking trails and wildlife to enjoy. You may even spot an otter or some beavers! The park’s general store and Riverside Grill are convenient resources if you’re hungry or looking for a refreshing snack. The general store also offers souvenirs and stocks necessities you may have forgotten… like sunscreen!
13. St. Andrews State Park
Panama City, Florida
A trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, would not be complete without spending some time at St. Andrews State Park. The narrow strip of land is sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico on one side, and St. Andrews Bay on the other. The park has prioritized accessibility, providing wheelchair and mobility aids throughout. You can even rent beach wheelchairs from the ranger station!
If you enjoy collecting seashells, catch a ferry from the park to Shell Island for an afternoon. Whatever you do, just don’t forget your snorkel gear! The park jetties serve as a barrier reef where all kinds of sea life can flourish. Through the clear emerald water, swimmers will marvel at brightly-colored fish like angel fish, stingrays, and other sea life including coral and sponges. But that’s not all, St. Andrews State Park offers boating, fishing, camping, and trails to explore the amazing ecosystems of the area.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget your sunscreen!
14. Eldorado Canyon State Park
Eldorado Springs, Colorado
Adventure awaits at Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon State Park. Located just outside Boulder, this day-use park is an easy place to spend an afternoon or the whole day. Consequently, it’s become increasingly popular, and experts recommend planning your visit during the week (Monday–Thursday) or during cooler months to avoid the large crowds and parking problems.
Eldorado Canyon is a rock climbers paradise. Whether you choose to pursue a technical climb or watch others in wonder as they carefully climb to dizzying heights from the safety of the trail, you’ll love the scenery, panoramic views, wildlife, and Colorado’s fresh mountain air. Many visitors pack picnics to enjoy trailside along one of the many hiking trails. The park offers a large number of designated picnic areas to enjoy. Snowshoe and cross-country ski enthusiasts prize this park during the winter for its beauty and accessibility. While camping is not permitted in this state park, there are plenty of other nearby campgrounds.
15. Kōkeʻe State Park
If you think Hawaii is all about the beaches, surfing, and other water sports, guess again. A visit to Kōkeʻe State Park will have you hiking through lush green tropical forests and fields of wild flowers. This park is somewhat remote, so you may consider booking a night or two at the historic Kokeʻe Lodge cabins and wake up to spectacular scenery in one of the most beautiful places on the island. From the lodge, enjoy panoramic views at Kalalau Lookout and the Puu O Kila Lookout.
The Kōkeʻe Natural History Museum is open daily and offers a great option if the weather turns rainy (that lush green comes at a price!). Here, you’ll learn about local crafts, culture, and the park’s history.
Pro Tip: Kōkeʻe State Park is touted as the wettest spot in the world, so wear sturdy boots and pack your gear accordingly.
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Read more on TravelAwaits’ Best of Travel Awards: