America’s 61 national parks are some of America’s greatest national treasures. Yellowstone National Park was first, designated in 1872, and 44 years later, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. This was an official way to commit to protecting and preserving America’s most beautiful and unique natural spaces, ecosystems, and habitats for future generations to enjoy.
Fast forward a century plus, and the number of annual visits to national parks has surpassed 300 million.
While it’s great that so many people appreciate this great resource and want to get out and enjoy the parks, anyone who’s sat in an endless line of traffic to enter Zion or Arches in Utah knows that the popularity of national parks can hinder the beauty of the experience. Visiting a national park becomes less appealing when you take into account the mobs of people elbowing each other to take a selfie at the Grand Canyon and the overcrowded parking lots and scenic overlooks.
In addition to the national parks are some truly fantastic state parks that aren’t getting the crowds or the attention. These smaller unsung heroes feature scenery and outdoor adventures that rival national parks. And fewer visitors mean easier access to parking space, hiking trails, fishing spots, and campsites. Another bonus: if you’re traveling with Fido, most state parks allow dogs on trails whereas national parks do not.
There are 10,234 state parks in the U. S., spanning 18 million acres, so get out there and explore. Here are some notable parks to get you inspired. Go ahead and argue with our choices, but here’s our list of places that we can’t stop drooling over.
Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
This park has several dramatic scenic overlooks and an 8-mile hiking trail that includes vistas from the East and West Rim Trails. There’s a 17-mile single track mountain biking trail and road biking options. Three campgrounds include RV campsites, yurts, and hike-in tent-only campsites.
Catalina State Park, Arizona
Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons and streams invites camping, picnicking and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.
Stephen Foster State Park, Georgia
Stephen C. Foster State Park named after the popular Southern songwriter is one of the primary entrances to the famed Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia. Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface.
Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas
The 4,000 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes found at this Texas state park resemble a landscape straight out of the Sahara. The Harvard Oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above 3 feet in height even though their root structure may extend down 90 feet or more. The park offers an interpretive center and museum as well as picnicking and camping…and many visitors’ favorite activity, sand surfing.
Gulf State Park, Alabama
The 6,000-acre Gulf State Park offers more than 2 ½ miles of white sand beaches, a convention site, 468-site campground, resort inn, modern 2 and 3 bedroom cabins, nature center, interpretative programs, family resort, marina, 18-hole and 9-hole golf courses, tennis courts, and an 825-foot pier—the longest on the Gulf of Mexico.
Myakka River State Park, Florida
At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences. Given you need ample time to see and do it all, you can camp in one of 80 camping sites. The road through the park is seven miles long and offers several great places to get out, enjoy the wildlife and scenery, and take a short walk. The park road also makes an excellent bike trail. By bike, you enjoy the 360-degree view of the spectacular tree canopy over the road and the constant sounds of birds.
Anza Borrego State Park, California
One surprise about this area of the southeastern Californian desert is the palm oases which you come upon in the Borrego Palm Canyon through the park’s most-visited hiking trail. When you want to take a break from hiking, you can make yourself at home in Borrego Springs, a small town entirely encompassed by the State park itself and full of art as well as natural beauty. Anza Borrego has numerous camping options with four established campgrounds and 175 total campsites.
It’s a beautiful day for it.