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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Photograph: Courtesy Visit California/Myles McGuinnessJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The 10 best state parks in the U.S.

The best state parks in America provide the perfect excuse to spend time in nature this season

Michele Herrmann
Written by
Michele Herrmann

National parks get a lot of well-deserved recognition, but state parks in the U.S. also have much to offer, with amazing landscapes, incredible wildlife and interesting geology. As staycation ideas for locals or itinerary stops for travelers, state parks can hold their own in terms of basking in their scenic beauty, spotting animals out and about, or heading along trails leading to some pretty cool endpoints or markers. Please note that state parks may require an entrance fee, so budget that into your trip planning. So go ahead and pay a visit to some of the best state parks in the U.S. Here are 10 to choose from.

Best state parks in the U.S.

1. Amelia Island State Park, Florida

Roughly a half-hour drive from Jacksonville, this state park on the southern tip of Amelia Island is a coastal sanctuary with 200 acres of preserved wilderness. Along with sweeping beaches, this park also contains ecosystems such as coastal dunes, forests and sea and salt marshes and is full of flora and fauna. Find many bird species, as this park makes for great birdwatching and marine life with opportunities for licensed fishing along George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier overlooking Nassau Sound.

2. Custer State Park, South Dakota

Set within the Black Hills, South Dakota’s oldest and largest park dates back to 1912 and has many resident animals. Nearly 1,300 bison often roam throughout its 71,000 acres. It’s also possible to see pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats and burros. What’s really a nature showstopper is the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, which takes place on the last Friday in September. On this day, the public can watch horseback riders and park crews collect and then corral this bison herd to balance their population and the park’s available rangeland forage. Animals aside, Custer State Park offers scenic drives and trail and bike rides, especially from May through early November; try ice fishing and snowmobiling in winter.


3. Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

Visiting this state park off of State Highway 24 makes you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. Its name comes from the almost mushroom-looking rock formations made of Entrada sandstone, which is shaped over time by geological forces such as uplift and erosion caused by wind and water. See them amid the Valley of Goblins, an about three-square mile, free-roaming area that maps might divide into three separate sections. Other wonders include Goblin’s Lair, a 70-foot natural sandstone chamber on the park's east side that can rappelled into with a pre-acquired permit; some tour companies offer excursions. What’s also cool is that it’s also been officially dedicated as an International Dark Sky Park.

4. Letchworth State Park, New York

Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East," this western New York state park provides a lot of versatility. The lush forested park is positioned along the course of the Genesee River, which runs through a gorge over three major waterfalls between cliffs as high as 600 feet in some areas. Trail activities can reflect the seasons, from cross-country skiing and snowmobiling to biking, horseback riding, and hiking. An Autism Nature Trail offers an inclusive area amid this mile-long path with eight different sensory stations. A nature center also offers year-round educational programming, picnicking areas and whitewater rafting opportunities on the Genesee River.


5. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

Named for a pioneer woman, this state park in California’s Big Sur makes for many incredible photo-taking ops. Its gem is the half-mile long, roundtrip Waterfall Overlook Trail, whose just about flat stroll leads to an oceanfront overlook with great views of McWay Falls. This favorite spot features a plume of water dropping about 80 feet from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below. Here's another tip: It’s said that in December and January, this trail is great for watching gray whales migrating to lagoons of the Baja California coastline for breeding and giving birth to their calves. Also, its location right off Highway 1 makes for a fun road trip.

6. Chugach State Park, Alaska

Roughly a 20-drive minute drive east from downtown Anchorage to this southcentral Alaska park that is rich in wildlife and topography, such as lakes, glaciers and vegetation. Chugach State Park, whose moniker is the tribal name for the Indigenous people of Alaska’s Upper Cook Inlet region, is also linked to an extensive trail network and bursts in August and September with a blueberry crop. Its surrounding areas aren’t too shabby either, bordering the nearby village of Eklutna and the town of Girdwood, which is the location of Alyeska Resort. It's also bounded on the north and west by the Alaska Range, and on the east by the Chugach and Wrangell Mountains and Prince William Sound.


7. Quoddy Head State Park, Maine

Located on the easternmost peninsula within the Continental U.S., Quoddy Head State Park is known for having the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse and the Quoddy Channel, which splits the United States and Canada. The lighthouse itself is open seasonally to visitors who go on tours to the top of the tower. The park contains five miles of trails that can be challenging, like the four-mile Coastal Trail, a roundtrip route with the end reward of reaching a beach. In the summertime, parkgoers can also do some wildlife viewing, with the opportunity to spot humpback, minke and finback whales offshore, along with many bird species, including eider, gannets, black-bellied plovers and purple sandpipers. Note: this park is open to the public from May 15 through October 15.

8. Ecola State Park, Oregon

Even if you haven’t visited this park on the edge of the Oregon Coast, most likely, you’ve seen it on the big screen. This park, with an amazing outlook toward the Pacific Ocean, has been the backdrop in films including Twilight, The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop. You’ll see information signs on them and other points of view extending to Haystack Rock, a sea slack in Canyon Beach, and the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Wander amid Sitka spruce forests and along a network of hiking trails, including the Clatsop Loop Trail, a two-and-a-half-mile-long historical loop. It partly follows the Corps of Discovery route, which is the Lewis and Clark Expedition military unit that trekked through the present-day park. Or spend time on the sand at Indian Beach.


9. Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Within the White Mountain National Forest, this park was once the home to the famous Old Man of the Mountain, or also known by the Abenaki as the “Stone Face.” This face-looking rock unexpectedly collapsed in May 2003, but this mountain pass that straddles part of Interstate 93 is known for additional highlights. Go on a two-mile self-guided loop to the Flume Gorge, a natural chasm at the base of Mount Liberty; there’s also a visitor center with restrooms and a gift shop. Other wonders include seeing waterfalls and covered bridges and going for a ride on the aerial tramway at Cannon Mountain. Go swimming at Echo Lake Beach or perhaps rent a kayak or paddleboat.

10. Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Texas’ biggest state park is based in West Texas along the Rio Grande and holds an International Dark Sky Park designation. The park’s region has a lengthy timespan of inhabitants, dating back over 10,000 years. In the early 20th century, the area was a ranch that changed ownership over time. It was later purchased by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department for preservation in 1988. It opened fully as a park in 2007. Today, a visitor’s center at the park’s eastern entrance delves into millions of years of geological history and the five biological landscapes of the Chihuahuan Desert (the park is located at the desert’s northern end.). Visitors can opt to hike, mountain bike and ride horses along the park’s 238 miles of multi-use trails or head toward the river to paddle, float or fish. Or go off-roading through the 70 miles of unmaintained dirt roads in high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles. This park is also a partial viewing site for the 2024 solar eclipse; reservations for doing so are required.

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