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National parks such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite might get all the attention, but there are over 8,000 state parks in the U.S. across roughly 18 million acres — all worthy of your wanderlust. That’s a lot of ground to cover! Many state parks are just as majestic as national parks and offer plenty of hiking trails to blaze, rock formations to climb, and picnic spots to enjoy without the crowds. Here are 20 incredible state parks in the U.S. that are often unnoticed.
Gulf State Park, Alabama
Across 6,500 acres adjacent to the city of Gulf Shores, Alabama, Gulf State Park offers 2.5 miles of white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the beach, the park offers ecologically important marshland, pine forests, streams, and a series of spring-fed lakes. The largest lake, Lake Shelby, encompasses 750 acres.
Fishermen won’t want to miss one of the longest piers on the Gulf — it’s more than 1,500 feet long, and kids will love the massive swimming pool and splash park. There's also a great golf course, and visitors can enjoy geocaching, kayaking, paddleboarding, freshwater fishing, biking, or riding on one of the park’s Segway tours.
Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska
If you’re looking for much-needed peace and quiet, this is the state park for you. Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness Area covers 400,000 acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness. There are only a few roads in the park, so visitors willing to make the trek must arrive by boat or airplane. This means it’s likely you’ll have the entire park to yourself, which is better for spotting moose, wolves, and black bears. Along the coast, you might even glimpse sea lions, sea otters, and whales.
Kachemak Bay is notable for being Alaska’s first legislatively designated state park. Despite its remote location, the park features a few cabins and campgrounds — great bases for exploring the rocky beaches, dense forests, and glacial formations. Visit with caution, though — sudden and extreme weather changes are common year-round.
Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona
Located in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, Lost Dutchman State Park is as famous for its gorgeous desert views and spectacular sunsets as it is for its mysteries and legends. The park is rich in Native American history and home to dozens of ancient dwellings built into cliffsides and caverns. It's also notorious for the stories of its gold deposits, which countless treasure hunters, miners, and explorers have sought but never found.
Whether or not you’re looking for gold, the park is famous for stargazing and offers frequent evening events for folks to appreciate the night sky. The spring wildflowers in Lost Dutchman State Park are spectacular too. Visit in March for poppies, bluebells, and other blossoms that thrive before spring and summer temperatures get too hot.
Crater of Diamonds State Park, Arkansas
Feeling lucky? Head to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas to explore the world’s only public diamond-hunting spot. Diamonds have turned up in the 37.5-acre, plowed field since 1906 — and visitors are welcome to keep whatever they can find. Approximately 600 diamonds of varying size, color, and quality are unearthed each year, and other gems and minerals such as quartz, jasper, agate, and garnet are also common.
Arkansas purchased the site in 1972, and before that, it was a tourist attraction operated by the Arkansas Diamond Company and the Ozark Diamond Mines Corporation. In addition to diamond-hunting, the park — which surrounds an ancient, eroded volcano — offers over 900 acres of hiking trails and campgrounds. It even has its own water park!
Salt Point State Park, California
Covering 6,000 acres along the Pacific in picturesque Sonoma County, Salt Point State Park is notable for its underwater preserves. These protected areas along the coast include tide pools, rock formations, and small caves that host a wide array of endemic marine life, including kelp, abalones, crabs, and sea urchins, which thrive in the cold, rough water.
Due to the abundance of marine life, scuba-diving and fishing are both popular in the park. If you prefer to stay closer to land, Salt Point features 20 miles of hiking trails that traverse the beach, pygmy forests, sandstone cliffs, and grasslands that buzz with birds and pollinators. The park is also well-known for its horseback-riding trails — a wonderful way to take in the area’s rugged beauty.
Dinosaur State Park, Connecticut
In 1968, a site was being cleared for a new government building, when a bulldozer operator discovered one of the largest dinosaur track sites in North America. The discovery shouldn’t have been too surprising — the Connecticut Valley has been a hotspot for dinosaur fossils since the 1800s.
The 200-million-year-old tracks, embedded in ancient sandstone, are preserved both inside and around a geodesic dome. Surrounding the dome and the legendary tracks is an 80-acre arboretum where visitors can view ancient specimens of trees including yews and sequoias.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida
Florida isn’t all beaches. Travel inland to Ichetucknee Springs State Park to experience over 2,200 acres of freshwater and forest canopy in northern Florida. Formerly the site of a phosphate mining operation, the river and natural springs on the property became popular among college students who would sneak in to go tubing. Then, in 1970, the state of Florida purchased the land, and in the years since, countless others have come to enjoy its ideal tubing conditions.
Hiking, birdwatching, paddleboarding, snorkeling, diving, and geocaching are also popular activities in this state park. And keep your eyes out for wildlife: In the water, you might spot alligators, river otters, and manatees, while wild turkeys, wood ducks, and white-tailed deer make appearances on the trails.
Chain O'Lakes State Park, Indiana
Northwest of Fort Wayne, Chain O’Lakes State Park is exactly what it sounds like — a chain of lakes. There are 11 lakes across the park’s 2,700 acres, including eight connecting lakes. Referred to as “kettle lakes,” the lakes are believed to have formed during the Pleistocene Epoch by receding ice sheets. The abundance of lakes means the park is a haven for boaters, fishermen, swimmers, and kayakers.
On dry land, visitors can explore more than 10 miles of trail on foot or, weather permitting, on cross-country skis. There are two campgrounds and cabin rentals in the park, and each December, the park hosts the HUFF 50K Trail Run and Relay, a popular ultramarathon.
Chicot State Park, Louisiana
At 6,400 acres, Chicot State Park is Louisiana’s largest state park. It’s named for Lake Chicot, a manmade lake that spans 2,000 acres and is stocked with bass, bluegill, sunfish, and other species of fish. The fish make the park very popular among fishermen, who cross the water in rented canoes and flat-bottom boats. Surrounding the green lake are 20 miles of trails and boardwalks for hiking and exploring the wetlands and cypress woods.
Chicot State Park also features the Louisiana State Arboretum. Spanning 600 manicured acres, the garden includes almost every kind of plant and tree native to the Pelican State, including stately beech and magnolia trees. Established in 1961, it’s the oldest state-supported arboretum in the country.
Porcupine Mountains State Park, Michigan
The Porcupine Mountains — or “Porkies,” as the locals call them — are Michigan’s only mountain range. Porcupine Mountains State Park covers 60,000 acres of the range, making it the largest state park in Michigan. Located in the Upper Peninsula along Lake Superior, the park is famous for its old-growth forests, waterfalls, and moose — it's one of the few places in the state where you can spot the animal.
Fall is a great time to visit to see the leaves change, but many visitors hold off until winter, when the Porcupine Mountain Ski Area opens and snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing are popular throughout the preserve.
Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Itasca State Park, which covers roughly 32,000 acres, is Minnesota’s oldest state park. Established in 1891, Itasca is famous for being home to the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. The Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center on Lake Itasca marks the location, offering educational displays and a cafeteria — but scrambling over the rocks where the lake runs into the river is even more memorable.
Itasca Lake is only one of over 100 lakes in the park, making the state park a favorite among anglers, canoers, boaters, and swimmers. And the peaceful, white pine forests offer plenty of trails for hiking and biking — or snowshoeing and snowmobiling come winter. The Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary, a park within the park, contains precious old-growth forests.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, Missouri
“Shut-ins” are spots where a river’s flow is limited by erosion-resistant rock. Water ends up rushing over and around the outcroppings, which are often worn smooth over thousands of years. In Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, the shut-ins of the East Fork Black River in Missouri create a maze of rocky wells, stone chutes, and shallow plunge pools — essentially a natural waterpark — that visitors can scramble over and swim in.
The park is located within the St. Francois Mountains and encompasses more than 8,700 acres that include over 150 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. It is one of only a handful of Missouri parks that allow rock climbing. The ecology in the park is also unique; restored wetlands and a desert-like dolomite glade protect a variety of plant life endemic to the area.
Medicine Rocks State Park, Montana
Named for the park’s famous Medicine Rocks — weathered sandstone bluffs and pillars dotted with holes and tunnels that rise 60 to 80 feet in the air — Medicine Rocks State Park is considered a sacred place for Plains Indians. In fact, the Swiss cheese-like formations that characterize the 330-acre park contain centuries-old rock art created by Indigenous people who were likely drawn to the area for its fossils and native medicinal plants.
Popular among avid hikers and nature photographers, the park is free to enter. However, campsites are a bit primitive and guests must take any garbage with them when they leave. Despite the lack of amenities, the area is breathtaking; it isn’t uncommon to spot mule deer, antelope, grouse, and raptors while exploring.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park might not be as well-known as the world-famous Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, but it’s only a bit farther from Las Vegas and features equally spectacular red-rock formations as far as the eye can see. The park is massive, spanning 46,000 acres — and from some vantage points, the craggy, fiery-red landscape can feel like Mars. The canyons and buttes offer an infinite number of vistas, but visitors can’t miss the Fire Wave.
The natural arches of Valley of Fire feature slot canyons perfect for adventurous hikers, rock-climbers, and mountain bikers. And don’t miss the ancient petroglyphs near Atlatl Rock along the Mouse Tank Trail!
High Point State Park, New Jersey
Located in the Skylands Region of northwestern New Jersey, High Point State Park is best-known for its granite-and-quartz obelisk monument. Completed in 1930, the 220-foot High Point Monument is a tribute to war veterans. Guests can climb 291 steps to the monument’s highest vantage point for sweeping views of forest and farmland across the New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania countryside.
The monument is located at the highest point in the state of New Jersey. Beyond the manicured lawns are more than 15,000 acres of woodland in the Kittatinny Mountains. The park is also popular for cross-country skiing, fishing, camping, and hiking — even including a segment of Appalachian Trail.
Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
Believe it or not, there’s some rugged terrain in southern Ohio. Within the Appalachian foothills, Hocking Hills State Park offers a series of spectacular waterfalls, canyons, caves, and rock formations, which offer impressive views and make for challenging hikes. Don’t miss blazing the trail to Ash Cave, boasting a 700-foot rim and a seasonal runoff waterfall in spring. Hocking Hills is also home to many mountain-biking trails and archery facilities, and is especially stunning in spring, when wildflowers bloom.
Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee
There are a lot of waterfalls in Fall Creek Falls State Park — seven, to be exact. The eponymous cascade is the largest, featuring a stunning, 256-foot drop that makes it the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. But each of the waterfalls feeds off the same tributaries of the Caney Fork River, including the 85-foot Cane Creek Falls and the adjacent Cane Creek Cascades.
The park, which encompasses 29,000 verdant acres of virgin hardwood forest, is located within Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. Within its borders, guests can enjoy cabins and campgrounds, an interpretive nature center, a golf course, an Olympic-sized pool, and over 56 miles of trails. But the Canopy Challenge Course might be the park’s most unique feature. An adventure course for daredevils, it includes a series of 75 bridges, swings, nets, zip lines, and balance beams.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
The second-largest canyon in America (after the Grand Canyon, of course) is within Palo Duro State Park. Located in the Texas Panhandle, the Palo Duro Canyon has been a source of wonder for centuries. In fact, the breathtaking views were a frequent subject of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings when she lived in the region and headed the art department at West Texas State Normal College. The canyon, consisting of red-rock scarps and dotted with desert shrubbery, is a whopping 120 miles long and is up to 20 miles wide at certain points.
Palo Duro, which is officially nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” is famous for its spectacular sunsets. The park offers 30 miles of trails along steep mesa walls for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
Cape Disappointment State Park, Washington
Named for Captain John Meares’ failure to discover the Columbia River in 1788, Cape Disappointment State Park is anything but a letdown. Located on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula where the Columbia River meets the Pacific, the park features dramatic oceanside cliffs, old-growth forests, rocky beaches, and the historic Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.
Formerly a fort and military base in use as far back as the Civil War, the area was decommissioned after World War II. In the 1950s, the land was turned over to the state of Washington for use as a state park. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center on the cliffside features interpretive exhibits on the landmark expedition as well as the area’s military, maritime, and natural history.
Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming
There’s a lesser-known alternative to Yellowstone National Park’s world-famous hot springs and geysers — Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming. The Cowboy State’s first state park includes a stretch of mineral terraces along the Bighorn River. Here, the water reaches a boiling 128 degrees Fahrenheit and flows over the terraces, creating an otherworldly vista of rushing water and billowing steam year-round. The mineral-rich water feeds into the park’s outdoor pools and bathhouse, where visitors can rejuvenate and relax in 104-degree pools for free.
Hot Springs State Park’s rocky terrain and grasslands host a free-roaming bison herd, so keep your eyes out for the huge mammals as they graze. Spring visitors will be awed by the park’s incredible wildflower bloom, whether or not they’re brave enough to cross the river on the park’s wobbly suspension bridge.