America’s 62 national parks may get all the glory and the Ken Burns documentaries but nearly three times as many people visit the country’s 10,234 state parks each year. In total, they span more than 18 million acres across the US—or roughly the size of South Carolina.
This summer with so much of the world effectively grounded and many national parks limiting access and services, state parks are poised for a long-overdue place in the spotlight offering a chance to get out, stretch, and explore. Below you’ll find the cream of the state-park crop from picturesque mountainscapes and deserts, lakes and ocean beaches, and expansive hikers’ playgrounds. Time to get outside! Here’s how to do it right.
NOTE: Be sure to double-check each park’s status before making the trip—as with most things right now, their status can change day by day.
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
It may be South Carolina‘s most visited state park but that doesn’t stop this secluded barrier island located 15 miles east of Beaufort from being one of the most picturesque destinations in the South thanks to its famous lighthouse, pristine beaches, and popular fishing lagoon. Fun fact: many of the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed here.
Adirondack Park, New York
Part state park, part forest preserve, and part privately owned land encompassing 102 towns and villages, Adirondack Park is massive. Totaling 6.1 million acres, America’s biggest state park is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Nearly half of the land is owned by the State of New York and designed as “forever wild,” encompassing all of the Adirondacks’ famed 46 High Peaks as well as 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river. So pack up the canoe or kayak, get ready to scale Mount Marcy, or simply meander about its 2,000 miles of hiking trails. You’re gonna be here a while.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico
Elephant Butte Lake State Park is just over an hour north of Las Cruces, bordering the Rio Grande. As New Mexico’s largest state park, there are plenty of outdoor activities for everyone. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and jet skiing are all commonplace at Elephant Butte Lake. For less water-based activities, you can enjoy the 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Camping is allowed, including along the beach.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
Located in South Dakota‘s fabled Black Hills region, the state’s first and largest state park is most famous for its photogenic herd of 1,500 wild bison that freely roam the land as well as other Wild West creatures like pronghorns, bighorn sheep, burros, and mountain lions. The scenery is everything you think of when you close your eyes and picture the great American West, laid out amidst 71,000 acres of vast open vistas and mountain lakes. There’s biking, boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, wildlife watching, and swimming. The place is so cool that even President Calvin Coolidge made it his “summer White House,” so that has to count for something, right?
Myakka 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 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.
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.
Catalina State Park, Arizona
Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. 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. There are 120 campsites available, 95 with water and 50/30 amp electric service. Most sites are spacious and level easily accommodating the largest of RVs.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres, California’s largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America’s state park system. By day it has 110 miles of hiking trails to explore and 12 designated wildlife areas and by night the huge desertscape delivers some of the best stargazing in America. The park is also a site of great geological importance as it has been found to contain over 500 types of fossils that are up to 6 million years old. If you can’t picture the prehistoric vibes on your own, there are also 130+ giant metal animal sculptures that pop up out of nowhere as you roam the park’s unforgiving terrain.
Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
You could be forgiven for thinking you drove to Utah and ended up in the Grand Canyon instead. Mountain biking the Intrepid Trail is a must for thrill seekers, but the more relaxed can simply gaze open-mouthed at the deep-red rocks and glorious hues via panoramic vistas of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The park gets its name from horses that died in this unforgiving landscape and with much of the park open with unfenced cliffs and little signage you’re best exercise a bit of common sense if you want to make it out of here alive.
Vogel State Park, Georgia
Vogel State Park is in the heart of north Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, 11 miles south of Blairsville. One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. At 2,500 feet elevation Vogel State Park maintains a cool evening temperature even in the dog days of summer, making this a great stop for camping.
Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so emerges with sunshine and air and running water that whole eons might pass in a single afternoon without notice.