With 423 sites spread across 85 million acres, America’s national park system is a treasure trove of wilderness gems, panoramic vistas, and historical landmarks. But many of the country’s state parks are every bit as stunning to visit — with the added benefit that they are often overlooked by tourists, especially travelers from other states or countries. Managed by individual states instead of the federal government, these natural wonders are often easier and less expensive to access. There are more than 3,700 state parks scattered throughout the nation, offering activities to appeal to every type of traveler — from the surfer to the spelunker. Here are 14 state parks you shouldn’t miss.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida
Nine natural springs bubble up to feed the Ichetucknee River, and its turquoise waters wander lazily over the course of six miles in north-central Florida. Surrounded by stately cypress trees and towering longleaf pines, the river is an oasis both for the tubers and kayakers who glide its length as well as a varied population of wildlife. Turtles, beavers, and otters are abundant, and birdwatchers can delight in belted kingfishers, ibis, egrets, and great blue herons. In the winter, you may even spy a rare West Indian manatee.
Emerald Bay State Park, California
Two miles south of D.L. Bliss State Park (which warrants a visit on its own), Emerald Bay State Park boasts picture-perfect views of Lake Tahoe and petite Fannette Island, along with loads of outdoor activities. Hike along Rubicon Trail or grab a mask and fins and dive or scuba along the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail. On shore, don’t miss exploring the grand stone castle called Vikingsholm, a Scandinavian-inspired mansion built by widowed heiress Lora Josephine Knight in 1929.
Niagara Falls State Park, New York
Established in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the U.S. Its namesake natural wonder — the largest waterfall (by volume) in North America — also makes it the most instantly recognizable. The park covers 400 acres, more than a quarter of which is underwater. Don a poncho — you’ll need it — and explore behind the American Falls at Cave of the Winds or take a thrilling boat ride on the Maid of the Mist.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
This state park is where the buffalo roam … and occasionally cause traffic jams on Wildlife Loop Road. (Pro tip: Stay in your car.) Covering 71,000 acres in the storied Black Hills, home to centuries of Native American history, Custer State Park (named for General George Armstrong Custer) contains bison-filled prairies and towering spires of granite. Swim (or stand-up paddleboard) on the clear waters of Sylvan Lake, go off-roading on a Buffalo Safari Jeep tour, or eat like a cowboy at a post-hayride chuckwagon supper.
Mackinac Island State Park, Michigan
Any trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island is a trip back in time — after all, cars aren’t allowed on the island. The state park covers almost 90% of this idyllic outpost in Lake Huron. Explore the park on foot or horseback, or by bicycle, scooter, or old-fashioned horse-drawn buggy. Don’t miss Arch Rock, the British Landing (the site British troops once occupied during the War of 1812), and the eerily named Skull Cave. And finish the day by treating yourself to some fudge — with five tons of fudge crafted everyday in peak tourist season, Mackinac Island is known as America’s unofficial fudge capital.
Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware
The Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay at Cape Henlopen State Park, and there are six miles of coastline perfect for swimming, clamming, kayaking, or watching for dolphins and seals. Visitors can borrow a free bike and pedal through the dunes and forest on the Loop Trail, cast a line from the fishing pier, and tour the Fort Miles Museum and Historical Area. The Seaside Nature Center has a 500-gallon touch tank with stingrays, crabs, and other marine creatures. After your visit, keep tabs on the avian action via the park’s OspreyCam.
Chugach State Park, Alaska
Chugach State Park lies only 20 minutes from downtown Anchorage but offers an outdoor paradise with nearly half a million acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness. It was named after the Indigenous peoples who call this breathtaking region home. There are more than 280 miles of maintained trails in the park, so you’ll have no shortage of options to pick berries in an alpine meadow or explore the massive glaciers on Prince William Sound. For some of the best views and abundant wildlife, take a hike on Flattop Mountain.
Oswald West State Park, Oregon
Spruce-shaded and fern-laden trails through dense temperate rainforest give way to stunning views of the wild and windswept Pacific Coast at Oswald West State Park, 10 miles south of Cannon Beach, Oregon. Four miles of shoreline feature dramatic headlands, secluded coves, and sandy beaches — including “Shorty’s,” a favorite beach among the local surfing community.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
Known as the “other Grand Canyon,” Palo Duro Canyon State Park is home to the second-largest canyon in the U.S., sprawling across 120 desolate miles in the Panhandle. Explore the colorful passages carved by the Red River on foot or mountain bike, or take a horseback tour for a true taste of the Wild West. The park’s varied habitats are home to a wide assortment of birds, including the colorful Painted Bunting and the elusive Mountain Bluebird.
Smuggler’s Notch State Park, Vermont
Some of New England’s finest fall foliage can be found at Smuggler’s Notch State Park, a colorful corridor in Vermont’s Mount Mansfield State Forest. Named for the narrow pass that was once the site of a brisk smuggling trade between the U.S. and Canada, the park now provides a bounty of hiking surrounded by 1,000-foot-tall cliffs. Pack a picnic and follow the trail to Bingham Falls, which has a refreshing (but brisk) swimming hole at its base.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Glowing red towers of Aztec sandstone, 2,000-year-old petroglyphs, and petrified trees lure visitors to Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park — and for good reason. The park’s 46,000 acres are hauntingly beautiful and irresistible to photographers and hikers who brave the often-harsh conditions for the perfect shot. Take a drive along White Domes Road and hike up to Silica Dome Overlook for panoramic views of the surrounding Mojave Desert.
Itasca State Park, Minnesota
The headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River are found at Itasca State Park, where the river begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. But that’s not all that attracts visitors to this 32,000-acre park. Hunt for rare lady's-slipper orchids; wonder at the abundance of birdlife (including loons, woodpeckers, and wrens); explore the untouched shoreline of Lake Itasca; or canoe on one of the 100 lakes contained in the park’s pristine Minnesota wilderness.
Waiʻānapanapa State Park, Hawaii
Located on the magical island of Maui, Waiʻānapanapa State Park is a petite (only 122 acres) slice of paradise. A favorite stop on the famed Road to Hana, it’s a tropical jewel of palm trees and Pacific Ocean views. While the park is most famous for the black sands of Paʻiloa Beach, visitors will also find seabird colonies, tide pools, and lava tubes. Amenities are limited, so bring a picnic and be sure to pick up a loaf (or two) of the island’s legendary banana bread.
Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado
Rock climbers come from around the world to scale the tawny sandstone cliffs at Eldorado Canyon State Park, located just a few miles outside Boulder. If heights aren’t your thing, splash or fish in the crystal waters of South Boulder Creek, hike or mountain bike on one of the many scenic trails, or explore on cross-country skis when the snow starts to fall. The park has very limited vehicle capacity and fills quickly — especially during summer weekends. There’s no public parking nearby, but visitors can hop on the free shuttle.