Outside the Mighty 5

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Utah’s much more than The Mighty 5. Sure, its famous national parks—Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capital Reef National Park, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park—are must-sees but spectacular scenes don’t end at the parks’ boundaries. 

Just beyond their star-studded borders, you’ll find equally-impressive red-rock slot canyons, sandstone cliffs, and limestone plateaus. What these less-popular locales lack in national designation they make up for with easy access, peaceful meandering, and uninterrupted wilderness delight. 

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Famous: Capitol Reef National Park

Nearby fave: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes, and seemingly endless Slickrock. This area is also remote with fewer services than national parks so ensure you’re prepared to keep yourself safe.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument is a geologic sampler with a huge variety of formations, features, and world-class paleontological sites. A geological formation spanning eons of time, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante.

Hike highlights include Lower Calf Creek Falls and Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Famous: Zion National Park

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby fave: Sand Hollow State Park and Quail Creek State Park

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Sand Hollow, Quail Creek, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park offers a wide range of recreation opportunities. With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, it is one of the most popular parks because it has so much to offer. Boat and fish on Sand Hollow Reservoir, and explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain Recreation Area on an off-highway vehicle, RV, or tent camp in the modern campground.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just minutes away from Sand Hollow, Quail Creek State Park offers another reservoir for swimming but in a completely different landscape. The picturesque mountain background with a rocky landscape and blue water gives this reservoir a breathtaking view. Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George. After a fun day, settle into the park’s campground on the western shore. It offers 23 campsites with shaded tables, modern restrooms, tent sites, and pull-through and back-in sites for RVs up to 35 feet in length.

Get more tips for visiting Sand Hollow State Park

Get more tips for visiting Quail Creek State Park

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Famous: Bryce Canyon National Park

Nearby fave: Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest

“Stumbled upon.” “By accident.” “Surprised by.” That’s how some visitors happen to find Red Canyon. As Bryce Canyon’s lesser-known neighbor road travelers encounter Red Canyon en route to the national park and stun them when Scenic Byway 12 runs directly through two red-rock arch tunnels.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The winding highway displays orange-red pinnacles, spires, columns, and hoodoos. These limestone and sandstone formations line the road making it easy for drivers to stop for photo ops. But for those looking to stay longer, Red Canyon offers camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and off-roading.

Anchored by the town of Panguitch, Red Canyon makes up a small part of Dixie National Forest’s 170-mile wide nature preserve.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Famous: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park

Nearby fave: Dead Horse Point State Park

Oh, the views! The panorama from Dead Horse Point State Park is one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world. Driving to each of the park’s many overlooks reveals a completely different perspective into Utah’s vast canyon country. The park is a slender peninsula of land extending off the massive plateau that is home to Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park sits above the beautiful White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park and offers views of Moab, the La Sal Mountains to the south, and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below. The area got its name from its use as a natural horse corral around the turn of the century. According to legend, some horses died of exposure on the plateau.

A visitor center and art gallery provide a good primer to the park’s geology and key features visible from the many overlooks. The visitor center parking lot also serves as an excellent starting point to access the 16.6 miles of non-motorized single-track mountain biking and eight miles of hiking trails that sprawl across the park.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reserve a campsite or yurt at any one of Dead Horse Point State Park campgrounds. Take in the spectacular star show from this International Dark Sky Park.

Get more tips for visiting Dead Horse Point State Park

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

It’s Fall Y’all in Georgia State Parks

Cooler temps, cozy blankets, sweet s’mores, campfires and more! Fall is one of the best times to enjoy camping with family and friends in Georgia State Parks.

Crimson reds, rustic oranges, and bright yellows mark the highly anticipated start of fall in Georgia’s State Parks. Nature lovers can opt outside to take in the kaleidoscopic scenery with family and friends from atop overlooks, underneath waterfalls, in kayaks, RVs, or tents. Whatever adventure you seek, there are activities that everyone can fall for at Georgia’s State Parks. Venture out to discover why these parks are a must-visit for autumn.

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the “Leaf Watch 2022” travel planner, visitors can find information on the perfect Georgia State Parks for viewing fall foliage at GaStateParks.org/LeafWatch. The site also includes hiking tips, autumn events, and updates from park rangers. Visitors are encouraged to tag their most Instagram-worthy photos with #GaLeafWatch and #GaStateParks for a chance to be featured on the Leaf Watch website.

Laura S. Walker State Park

Sleep under the stars: For those looking for the perfect spot to toast s’mores and truly enjoy crisp, cool fall air there is no better time to gather around the campfire than fall. Regardless of equipment whether it be a motorhome or a trailer or the preferred method of getting there—via foot, boat or car—Georgia State Parks have campsites for all tastes.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay in the heart of autumn beauty and the middle of the action at Black Rock Mountain, F. D. Roosevelt, or Tallulah Gorge state parks. A few unique camping spots include Chattahoochee Bend and High Falls where visitors can paddle into their site; lakefront locations at Tugaloo, Elijah Clark, and Seminole; or tent platforms at Victoria Bryant and Fort Mountain. Camp with a steed at equestrian campsites at Hard Labor Creek, A.H. Stephens, General Coffee, and Watson Mill Bridge state parks. 

More on Georgia State Parks: Best Georgia State Parks: Plan Now for a Spring or Summer Getaway

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaf peeping at top overlooks: Track vibrant fall color as it moves across the Peach State at some top parks for leaf peeping. Top overlooks to experience glorious fall foliage await in Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Amicalola Falls, Vogel, Unicoi, F.D. Roosevelt, and Tallulah Gorge state parks. Visit these hot spots to revel in the dazzling display of fall color in late October through November depending on weather and temperatures.

Those who enjoy venturing off the beaten path will particularly enjoy the lesser-known state parks for viewing fall color: Moccasin Creek, James H. Sloppy Floyd, Victoria Bryant, Chattahoochee Bend, and Watson Mill Bridge. 

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go chasing waterfalls: Waterfalls are Georgia’s State Parks’ calling card. Pick and choose from one of Georgia’s many awe-inspiring waterfalls perfectly positioned around the state. Watch from atop an overlook or a bridge below at the whitewater cascading down as the rocks reflect bright reds and oranges of fall.

At 729 feet, Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast. Cloudland Canyon has two waterfalls that tumble over layers of sandstone and shale into pools below. Visitors also can discover these wonders of nature at Fort Mountain, Black Rock Mountain, High Falls, Tallulah Gorge, and Vogel state parks. Best of all, the cooler fall temperatures make the hike to reach these falls even more worth it.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing in Georgia’s State Parks: Reel it in this fall. From trout to spotted bass, striped bass, and crappie, Georgia’s State Parks offer some of the best fly fishing, trout fishing, and bass fishing in the country. Pick from a wide variety of parks to get the adventure started.

More on Georgia State Parks: 4 Best Georgia State & National Parks

Are you new to fishing? The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Fishing Tackle Loaner Program provides a way for budding anglers to try fishing without having to purchase any equipment. Available at 24 Georgia State Parks the program provides rods, reels, and tackle box equipment. Interested visitors can inquire at the park office and check out the equipment for the day.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall water adventures: At Hard Labor Creek, Stephen C. Foster, George L. Smith, and Indian Springs, water lovers who prefer leaf peeping from a kayak are in for a treat. Paddling tours of lakes let visitors enjoy autumn color from a different perspective, including copper-colored cypress trees reflecting off tannin-tinted ponds. Sign up for a ranger-led paddle or rent a canoe to explore solo. 

Fort Mountain, Vogel, and Unicoi rent equipment for paddling their small mountain lakes. These are good locations for beginners to practice paddling skills. Visitors at Fort McAllister can rent canoes to explore Redbird Creek with its sawgrass, fiddler crabs, and occasional dolphins. Paddlers who bring their boats to Crooked River can enjoy the abundant wildlife and the shortest route to Cumberland Island National Seashore (across the Intracoastal Waterway).

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster is the western entrance to the famed Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It features more “open” water than the grassy plains of the eastern entrance. Rent canoes or kayaks to explore Minnie’s Lake, Billy’s Island, or “the narrows.” Alligators, deer, ibis, herons, and egrets are commonly seen within the swamp. Reed Bingham, George L. Smith, Magnolia Springs, Laura S. Walker, and Little Ocmulgee also have pretty lakes where Spanish moss, cypress trees, and lily pads reflect off the dark water.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding at F.D. Roosevelt State Park: Trot through the Georgia countryside on guided rides surrounded by brilliant fall foliage and breathtaking views of Georgia hardwoods, mossy rock gardens, and Pine Mountain valley.

Some Georgia State Parks welcome horseback riders offering miles of horseback riding trails, equestrian campsites, horse stalls, or riding rings. Guided rides are available at Don Carter and F.D. Roosevelt State Parks. Most horseback riding trails are loop rides with links to other trails allowing you to customize your adventure. A.H. Stephens, Cloudland Canyon, F.D. Roosevelt, Fort Mountain, General Coffee, Hard Labor Creek, Don Carter, and Watson Mill Bridge offer horseback riding trails.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore on two wheels: Bicycles are welcome at most state parks and some parks rent bikes. State law requires that riders 15 and younger must wear a helmet.

More on Georgia State Parks: Laura S. Walker State Park: A Place to Reconnect With Nature

Bikers will get their fill of fall thrills as they speed down invigorating hills and breeze past colorful overlooks at Fort Mountain and Cloudland Canyon state parks. Race past bright fall colors and scenic views in the forests of Panola Mountain and Red Top Mountain. These parks belong to Georgia’s Muddy Spokes Club, a series of mountain biking trails created to challenge experienced and casual cyclists alike to tackle 68 miles of trails in 11 state parks. 

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find paved trails at Panola Mountain and Tallulah Gorge state parks. Hard-surfaced trails are located at Red Top Mountain, Skidaway Island, Smithgall Woods, and Magnolia Springs state parks and Hart State Park.

Mountain bikers may test their endurance at Cloudland Canyon, Hard Labor Creek, Fort Mountain, Tallulah Gorge, Unicoi, Richard B. Russell, Mistletoe, Fort Yargo, Watson Mill Bridge, and Victoria Bryant state parks.

More on Georgia State Parks: Spotlight on Georgia: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike rentals are available at A.H. Stephens, Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Crooked River, Florence Marina, Fort McAllister, General Coffee, Georgia Veterans, Laura S. Walker, Little Ocmulgee, Magnolia Springs, Panola Mountain, Reed Bingham, Richard B. Russell, Skidaway Island, and Vogel state parks. Contact the park for pricing.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

Camping the Shoulder Season

Welcome to one of the best seasons, shoulder season—that moment when minimal tourists occupy your favorite spot

It’s that time of year again! There’s a shift in the temperature, the sun is setting a little earlier, and the leaves are turning from their vibrant green to rich autumn color. For many RVers, this change in the season and the back-to-school grind ignites a longing for evenings around the campfire, cool weather hikes, and s’mores.

Whether you’re looking for a seasonal spot to explore over fall break or a shorter weekend getaway, there are epic destinations located all over the US to scratch that camping itch! Here are a few of my favorites:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

If you’re in the eastern United States, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a great area to explore. The park is within driving distance of several eastern US cities which makes it doable if you only have a weekend to get away.

Clingman Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This park is situated on the border of east Tennessee and western North Carolina and offers beautiful hikes, history, and scenery. When visiting this park be sure to check out Clingman Dome for epic views, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail where you can find historic log cabins as well as spot a black bear or two, and Cades Cove with countless waterfalls off this loop.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you have a little more time on your hands, you can either begin or end your drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway when visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. One more thing to do while you’re visiting is hike seventy-one miles of the famed Appalachian Trail. Make it a point to add part of that trail to your bucket list!

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park campgrounds
  • Sun Outdoors Pigeon Forge
  • Two Rivers Landing RV Resort

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Fall camping season is the perfect time to visit Zion National Park. October and early November not only offer small crowds but also days that are still warm enough to enjoy hiking through the water of The Narrows and cool enough to hike the iconic Angels Landing.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV camping is located within the park or outside the national park gates. It’s recommended that you utilize the shuttle system in this park so be prepared for that. Or, if you own an e-bike this park is the perfect place to enjoy a bike ride without car-populated roads.

If you’re pressed for time make sure to hike The Narrows trail to at least Wall Street, Angels Landing to at least Scout Lookout, and Emerald Ponds. These three trails will deliver a great experience while visiting this park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • South Campground and Watchman Campground (Zion National Park)
  • Zion River Resort RV Park & Campground
  • Sand Hollow RV Resort

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s the state’s largest and first state park named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and covers an area measuring 71,000 acres. Also operating as a wildlife reserve, the area is famous for its bison herds and abundance of other species including whitetail and mule deer, pronghorns, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, wild burros, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and prairie dogs. Mountain lions and bobcats have also been spotted during the night.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to stunning landscapes including pristine lakes, streams, and granite spires. As such visitors can enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities including camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, and picnicking.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Custer State Park campgrounds
  • Rushmore Shadows Resort
  • Rafter J Bar Ranch Camping Resort

Get more tips for visiting Custer State Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

One of the most recognizable and well-photographed natural areas in the country, Arches National Park encompasses just over 100 square miles of eastern Utah and boasts more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches. Positioned over a massive subterranean salt bed these graceful rock formations are the result of thousands of years of erosion and geological activity. The unique and variable landscape of Arches offers an array of outdoor recreational opportunities, from hiking and horseback riding to climbing.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall is the perfect time for visiting Arches National Park. The temperatures during the day range from 60 degrees to 80 degrees. The lows will dip down into the 30s to the 50s. 

When hiking at Arches in the fall it’s important to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun: pack water bottles, wear sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Devils Garden Campground (Arches National Park)
  • Sun Outdoors Arches Gateway
  • Spanish Trails RV Park

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an adventurous West Texas destination for kayakers, hikers, and mountain bikers. The 801,000-acre park at the U.S.-Mexican border was named after a bend in the Rio Grande River which separates the two countries. The terrain includes, of course, the majestic river but also mountains, canyons, deserts, and several thermal hot springs. The highest point is Emory Peak located 7,832 feet above sea level in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because it is one of the most remote national parks in the continental U.S. only a few small towns surround Big Bend including Lajitas, Study Butte, and an actual ghost town called Terlingua. With a population of 430, the village of Marathon is the biggest nearby “city” although it’s about a 40-minute drive from the park’s entrance.

Inside the park, the National Park Service also offers a wide variety of programs for visitors including guided walks from rangers. Those who prefer self-guided activities can enjoy bird-watching, hiking, bicycling, fishing, and horseback riding. And for a truly unique experience don’t forget about stargazing.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Rio Grande Village RV Park (Big Bend National Park)
  • Rio Grande Village Campground (Big Bend National Park)
  • Maverick Ranch RV Park at Lajitas Golf Resort & Spa

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

More shoulder season camping destinations

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few other shoulder season camping spots perfect for exploring in the fall are:

Heading to any of these destinations during the fall camping season provides a chance to see these beautiful spots with fewer crowds, cooler temperatures, and one last chance to soak in the outdoors before the cold, dreary winter months set in.

Now the biggest question you have to answer is how will you choose where to go?

Worth Pondering…

Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.

—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet

Magical, Mystical, Enchanted: Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Climb the ancient dome for amazing Hill Country views

The massive pink granite dome rising above Central Texas has drawn people for thousands of years. But there’s more at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area than just the dome. The scenery, rock formations, and legends are magical, too!

An incentive for reaching the peak of this pink granite dome is the breathtaking view of the Texas Hill Country that awaits you at the top. Just a short 20-minute drive outside of Fredericksburg brings you to the enormous batholith that’s part of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area which was once Native American sacred grounds. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike, picnic, and camp overnight in the state park.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting or residing around Central Texas. From the top of the Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For centuries, visitors have been going to the massive pink granite dome rising above Central Texas. They become entranced by the scenery and rock formations of the area. Over the years, the 425-foot batholith has given rise to myths and legends. Climbing Enchanted Rock is a Texan rite of passage where you’ll get once-in-a-lifetime Hill Country views. Hikers will find nearly 11 miles of trails including the iconic Summit Trail. Relax under the stars at this International Dark Sky Park which offers one of the best night sky views in Texas. Enjoy interpretive exhibits and cave exploration too.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is this giant dome here?

One billion years ago, this granite was part of a large pool of magma or hot liquid rock perhaps seven miles below the earth’s surface. It pushed up into the rock above in places, then cooled and hardened very slowly turning into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away.

Related article: Texas Hill Country Is the Ultimate Road Trip

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those pushed-up areas are the domes you see in the park―Enchanted Rock, Little Dome, Turkey Peak, and others.

Although Enchanted Rock appears to be solid and durable it continues to change and erode.

Enchanted Rock is an exfoliation dome (as are the other domes here). That means it has layers like an onion.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the rock and soil on top wore away, the granite expanded slightly because there was less weight bearing down on it. That expansion caused the dome to split into curved sections. As the outer layer of rock breaks into smaller pieces and slides off, the next layer begins to peel away from the dome. This is a process that continues today.

Enchanted Rock rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- or 40-story building.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vernal Pools

On more level portions of the dome, water collects in low spots or weathering pits. The granite in these pits wears away faster than the surrounding granite. Pits that hold water for several weeks are called vernal pools. Over time, these pools develop into microhabitats, home to a unique group of plants and animals.

The pools are very fragile. Enjoy them from a distance. Protect this special habitat by keeping pets and people out.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tiny, translucent freshwater shrimp live in the vernal pools. These little fellows lay eggs that somehow survive the dry season. The eggs hatch when the pools refill with rainwater. The shrimp swim upside down, eating algae and plankton. In turn, they are eaten by birds providing an important link in the food chain. These creatures are an integral part of the fragile vernal pool habitat.

Related article: A State of Mind: Texas Hill Country

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking Enchanted Rock

There are 11 miles of hiking trails to explore when visiting Enchanted Rock.

Of the many hikes in the park, the most renowned is the Enchanted Rock Summit (Summit Trail), a 0.8-mile trail that winds to the top of the park’s namesake. The hike is short but is considered challenging due to the steep path and lack of shade along the entire way. At the top, you’ll have epic 360-degree views of the Hill Country. Look for rare vernal pools at the top (see above for details).

A more moderate hike, Turkey Pass Trail (0.7 miles) gives you excellent views of Enchanted Rock on one side and Turkey Peak and Freshman Mountain on the other.

From the intersection of Turkey Pass Trail or Echo Canyon Trail, take the Base Trail (0.9 miles) around the back side of the Rock for a different perspective.

From the Loop Trail via Moss Lake Trail, hike the Echo Canyon Trail (0.7 miles) around Moss Lake and into the saddle between Little Rock and Enchanted Rock. Stop and rest in the shade of massive boulders.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The short Scenic View Trail (0.1 miles) starts from the south end of the Loop Trail and brings you to a scenic view of the surrounding Hill Country landscape.

A short hike starting from the south end of the Loop Trail will bring you to a scenic view of the surrounding Hill Country landscape. The Interpretive Loop (0.5 miles) is a good choice for an easy, family-friendly trail. This short stroll is suitable for all ages and offers a glance at the many plants and animals in the park. A trail guide is available.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the base of Enchanted Rock, take Fontside Trail (0.3 miles) through shaded oak trees and connect to Turkey Pass.

If you have time, head over to the Loop Trail (4.6 miles). This trail goes around the park’s limit and allows you to explore the entire area. Carry plenty of water with you on this trek around the perimeter of the park. The granite pathway leads you to incredible views of the natural area. This is the only trail open after sunset. Bring along a flashlight if you’re planning to stargaze. 

Related article: Head For the Hills: Texas Hill Country

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to see near Enchanted Rock

From Enchanted Rock, you can visit Fredericksburg for a taste of German; explore downtown, grab a bite to eat at its many restaurants, join a wine tasting, or sip a coffee.

Learn about President Lyndon B. Johnson who was born and raised in the Texas Hill Country at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site.

And if you want to visit another Hill Country attraction, plan on visiting the Pedernales Falls State Park, another natural area in Texas.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Park elevation: 1,825 feet

Size: 1,644 acres

Date established: October 1978 

Location: Texas Hill Country

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 16710 Ranch Rd 965, Fredericksburg

Attractions: Hiking, backpacking, tent/car camping, rock climbing

Park hours: 6:30 am to 10 p.m. daily, gates closes at 8 pm.

Park entrance fee: $8/person daily. Reservations recommended online or by calling 512-389-8900. Paark closes for those without entry permits when the capacity is reached. Busy season is September to May.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designation: Certified IDA International Dark Sky Park

Distance to the Park:

  • San Antonio: 90 miles
  • Austin: 100 miles
  • Houston: 250 miles
  • Dallas: 250 miles
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Enchanted Rock opened as a state natural area in October 1978.

More than 400 archeological sites have been discovered in the park of which about one-quarter are State Archeological Landmarks.

Related article: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As temperatures fluctuate, particularly in the evening, the rock can be heard groaning and creaking—a once-mysterious trait that lends itself to legends of the “enchanted” nature of the park. We now know that these sounds are caused by the thick sheets of granite contracting and expanding across one another.

Translucent Fairy Shrimp are known to live in the dome’s vernal pools. The depressions are frequently dry but the eggs can survive without water, hatching after rain refills the pools.

The vernal pools also support rock quillwort—an endangered species of grass only found in Central Texas

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Sand Surfer: Ride the Dunes at Monahans Sandhills State Park

Thousands of acres of dunes up to 70 feet tall make up Monahans Sandhills in West Texas

You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Essentially a giant, hilly sandbox, the park is a small part of a dune field that extends further into Texas and New Mexico. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off “surfed in a desert” from your travel bucket list.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s never the same park twice. With an ever-shifting landscape that is always at the mercy of the West Texas winds, Monahans Sandhills State Park transforms itself almost daily. And that’s just the beginning of why one of the most unique geological areas of Texas is worth a visit. 

Monahans is a remarkable geographic formation dating back tens of thousands of years. Erosion from as far away as the Rocky Mountains was blown south and east eventually trapped by higher elevations surrounding the Permian Basin. It’s only a small fraction (although, at nearly 4,000 acres, small is relative) of a much larger dune field that stretches across state lines yet it is unique within Texas.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indigenous people lived—and thrived—on this land as far back as 12,000 years up until the late 1800s. That’s when the town of Monahans was created as a water stop for steam engines on the Texas and Pacific Railway. Not long after, the area’s oil boom began. The park was created in 1957 to preserve this stunning landscape and its unique and diverse ecosystem.

Related article: Totally Texas

Come out and join people of all ages who find serenity in this vast park and surf the dunes—you can rent a “sandboard” at the park. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to its ever-changing nature, the park does not have marked trails. And with hills that often look alike it can be easy to lose your way so take plenty of water when heading out. On the flip side, exploring most anywhere in the park offers the chance to encounter numerous plant and wildlife species that thrive in this tough environment. Explorations of active dunes can reveal all kinds of tracks from jackrabbits to lizards to snakes; it’s even exciting to explore the unique characteristics of insect tracks. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans is a great place to camp out under the stars. There are 26 campsites in the park, each with water and electricity. The surroundings are particularly serene at sunset when the sands glow golden-orange and the sparse vegetation creates long, delicate shadows across the surface. And come sunrise, the windswept dunes may even look slightly different than the afternoon before which allows eagle-eyed campers the opportunity to spot the changes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some folks jog. Others play tennis, swim laps, or practice yoga. And others ride the dunes at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Sand surfing is wonderful exercise. It’s very aerobic when you climb up the hills. Low impact, too, because of the sand! Kids of all ages love surfing, sliding, or tumbling down the sandhills and hiking back up to do it all over again.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to sand surf, too? Give it a try at Monahans Sandhills where you can rent sand disks for a mere buck an hour and boards for $2. Slopes range from gentle grades to steep inclines that reach 60 feet or higher. The park’s 3,840 acres of dunes—which peak at 70 feet high—lie within a massive dune field that stretches some 200 miles from south of Monahans and north into New Mexico.

Related article: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Pro tip for newbies: Lean forward and stay low. Keep your weight forward. Otherwise, if you go too fast and get scared, you’re going to fall back. Wax your board and never goes barefoot (shoes and socks a must).

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shifting sand against blue skies and sunsets will call to your inner painter and photographer so bring along your gear. You’ll also find a surprising variety of wildlife including roadrunners—watch for tracks in the sand. 

Though most visitors come to check out the dunes the park offers other activities, too. For instance, horses are welcome in the 800-acre horseback riding section (hitching posts and water available). Campers can book a site with water, electricity, and a shade shelter. The brush is thicker in this area but you’ll love exploring on horseback.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the largest oak forests in the world is found here. Acorn-bearing Harvard shin oaks cover stabilized dunes (those that don’t change with the winds) across the park yet only grow 3-4 feet tall at maturity.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Numerous bird species including pyrrhuloxias, western meadowlarks, black-throated sparrows, Harris’s hawks, and curve-billed thrashers abound in the park. In early morning and late evening, watch for coyotes, javelin, and mule deer.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the Dunagan Visitor Center, interactive exhibits tell about the area’s oil production, native flora and fauna, and the constantly changing dunes. They’re spectacular when the sun is setting and the wind is blowing and you’re walking toward the sun. The sunlight reflecting off the sand looks like a silver river running over the dunes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sandhills are located on the east side of Monahans, 30 miles from Odessa beside I-20 and they have a dedicated interstate exit (#86). The land on either side is also sandy but quite bushy and used for oil drilling—countless oil wells (pumpjacks) are scattered over the surrounding flat plains of the Permian Basin for several hundred miles in some directions.

Related article: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park truly is unlike any other destination in Texas. Its landscape may seem uninviting from the outside but its beauty, history, and diversity of life along with all the activities and excitement you can handle once you’re here, make it a Texas gem you don’t want to miss. So come see for yourself and surf the dunes at Monahans. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Elevation: 2,724 feet

Climate: January average low is 29 degrees. July average high is 96 degrees. Average rainfall is 12.3 inches.

Entrance fee: $4/person

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping facilities: 25 sites with electric and water hookups, picnic table, fire ring, shade shelter, waist-high grill, restrooms with showers nearby

Camping fee: $15 + entrance fee

Horse sites: 3 sites are next to each other in the same parking area designed for large vehicles and trailers to back in, only

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horse sites fee: $2/horse/day

Note: The Dunagan Visitor Center is currently closed for renovations. The park office is now at the Sandhills Picnic Pavilion. Contact the park for more information.

Related article: Road Trip from Austin to El Paso: 9 Stops along the Way

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously -mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.

—Chase A. Fountain

These State Parks Should Be On Your Radar

Ready to get your outdoor adventures started? Why not choose one of these awesome state parks, prep the RV, and hit the road? Your wanderlust is sure to thank you!

National parks are some of the very best attractions America has to offer. These beautiful spots are especially wonderful for RVers and outdoorsy people because they provide opportunities to park your rig in gorgeous places, spend time outdoors, and connect with nature.

The problem? The most popular national parks are often extremely crowded, especially during the busy summer travel season.

Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some people, these crowds are a real buzzkill and they will simply avoid the parks altogether. Others will choose to spend less time in the more crowded parks or they’ll simply visit during the off-season. No matter which of these options you choose, you will likely be looking for ways to fill those days when the crowds are too heavy to visit a national park but you still want to get out into nature.

Babcock State Park, West Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where state parks come into play. There are hundreds of amazing state parks all over the country and these are often completely overlooked as they are overshadowed by the national parks that everyone knows and loves. Why not avoid the crowds at national parks and take the time to visit some of these amazing state parks instead?

Below I’ve listed some of the most crowded national parks and the best state parks I could find to replace them. In some of these cases I’d even go so far as to say the state park alternative is as good as, or better than, the national park itself, and that’s saying something!

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Zion National Park, try Sand Hollow State Park

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail CreekSand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is an amazing place. Unfortunately, it is also extremely crowded. More than a few individuals were frustrated when they discovered that timed entry tickets were required to enter this past summer and I fully expect this to happen again when the busy season rolls back around.

These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Badlands National Park, try Custer State Park

Even the wide-open Badlands National Park can get overly crowded during peak season. Fortunately, the crowds don’t feel quite so bad here, but if you’re looking for a way to avoid crowds altogether, you can always choose to go to the fabulous Custer State Park instead.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is easily one of the best state parks in the country and seeing as it’s just a short drive from Badlands, it should be woven into any trip to the area. This is one of the best places for seeing bison, pronghorns, and other local wildlife, and the granite peaks, rolling hills, and clear waters make for some fantastic photos.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Arches National Park, try Dead Horse Point State Park

Like the state park above, Dead Horse Point is one of the best state parks in the US. This is awesome because it’s located just outside of Arches National Park and near the town of Moab.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Therefore, if you ever find Arches too crowded for your taste, you can just leave and head to this incredible park. Dead Horse Point State Park is stunning. This is one of those unique state parks just as awesome as a national park. Incredible red canyons and high desert woodlands beg to be explored and the vast trail system makes it easy to do just that. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time in this amazing place.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Saguaro National Park, try Catalina State Park

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 invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Shenandoah National Park, try Shenandoah River State Park

Shenandoah River State Park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east. A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure. Twelve riverfront tent campsites, a developed campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. The developed campground has 32 sites with water and electric hookups suitable for RVs with sites up to 60 feet. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Joshua Tree National Park, try Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Like Custer and Dead Horse Point mentioned above, Anza-Borrego is one of the best state parks in America. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California Desert.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish word borrego, or bighorn sheep. The park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas. Visitors may also have the chance to see roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer, and bighorn sheep as well as iguanas, chuckwallas, and the red diamond rattlesnake.

Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of New River Gorge National Park, try Babcock State Park

The New River Gorge National Park provides incredible outdoor recreation opportunities and stunning landscapes but there are also several nearby West Virginia State Parks waiting to be discovered and explored. These state parks offer accommodations, mountain adventures, and unparalleled scenic views. One such state park is Babcock, home to 4,127 acres of iconic scenery and stunning views.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Babcock State Park is best known for the Glade Creek Grist Mill, a fully functional replica of the original Cooper’s Mill that once ground grain on Glade Creek long before Babcock became a state park. Other attractions include recreational activities like hiking, fishing, and mountain biking. Babcock is home to 28 cozy cabins tucked away in the woods. Babcock also includes a 52-unit campground, and 28 sites with electric hookups.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Discover Blue Ridge Beauty at Shenandoah River State Park

The Park encompasses more than 1,600 acres of Blue Ridge beauty

Virginia Route 340 between Front Royal and Luray is perhaps one of the more underrated scenic drives in the state. And as more and more RVers and outdoor adventurers are discovering one of the best places to get out of the car and adventure in that scenery is Shenandoah River State Park (also known as Andy Guest State Park).

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As many great outdoor spots are, it can be a bit easy to miss. Driving south on 340 from Front Royal, go about eight miles and the park entrance is on your right. Admission for a vehicle is $10.

The Park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. The park opened in June 1999. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. Twelve riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure. Expansive views of the river and valley can be seen from high points along the trails.

The visitor center features native wildlife and has touch-screens on display to educate about park history and local birds. There is also an aquarium. Outside the visitor center, there are several picnic tables, an overlook, a koi pond, and a nature garden. The center’s gift shop sells snacks and souvenirs.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife watching opportunities in the park are diverse and range from the herons, waterfowl, and otter on the river to the white-tailed deer, black bear, scarlet tanager, and other neotropical migrants of the forest. Overhead, almost anything might appear from osprey and bald eagle fishing the river to broad-winged hawk and American kestrel. While moving from the river into the forest, search blooming wildflowers for butterflies such as eastern tiger and spicebush swallowtails, hackberry emperor, and a variety of skippers, sulfurs, and whites.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers car-top access in the day-use area located 3.2 miles downstream from the Bentonville access area. The “fish trap” access area near Shelter 3 is suitable for wade fishing. Freshwater fishing is available for those with a Virginia freshwater fishing license. The park does not rent boats. There are three car-top launches and two outfitters within five minutes of the park.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smallmouth bass fishing especially in spring will give anglers all the action they want. While popular tales of catching “100 fish in a day” are probably a thing of the past, the Shenandoah River is still a very good bass fishery.

Some of the trails lead into deep woods and sightings of wildlife such as deer, turkeys, and the occasional black bear are not at all uncommon. Ask for the trail map where you pay your entry fee to choose from various trail lengths and degrees of difficulty.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adventure races—such as the Shenandoah Strong where competitors have 12 hours to traverse 50 miles of terrain by foot, bike, and kayak/canoe—lie partially within the park as well as George Washington National Forest.

There are over 24 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails that criss-cross Shenandoah River State Park. You can enjoy both river and mountain views. The trail network offers a wide range of fun, easy and family-friendly trails as well as more moderately difficult routes.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearly 20 named hiking trails allow visitors to traipse all across the park. At 5.4 miles, the teal-blazed Bear Bottom Loop Trail is the longest park trail.

It’s a cinch to cobble together a few trails to create a fantastic day hike. It’s also easy to return again and again and not complete the same hike twice.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available year-round. Shenandoah River’s developed campground has 31 sites with water and 20/30/50-amp electric hookups suitable for tents, popups, and RVs up to 60 feet in length. More than half of the sites have shade. The shaded camp sites are 1-18 while sites 19-31 are in full sun. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers and a coin-operated laundry. Sites have steel fire-rings for cooking and campfires, picnic tables, and lantern holders. Twenty-six sites are back-in, and five are pull-through. Firewood can be purchased on-site for $6 per bundle. The family campground is a short walk from two river access points (for fishing, not for swimming or paddling), as well as the Campground Trail.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the family campground, there is a primitive campground for tents-only on the north side of the park that has 12 canoe-in or walk-in sites. All camp sites offer shade and require a walk on gravel path from the parking lot. There are wagons at the entrance to help transport gear to your site.

At the back of the Right, River Campground is a group campground that can accommodate up to 30 people.

Reservations can be made on line or by calling 1-800-933-PARK (7275). All sites are specifically reserved.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, numerous ranger-led interpretive programs are offered for park visitors. Topics vary widely but include outdoor photography, fishing, butterflies, astronomy, birding, and wetland walks. Shenandoah River State Park also offers a variety of kid-friendly programs including Feeding Time, as well as Skulls, Tracks and Scats. Both ranger-led programs educate about animals found in the park. Most programs are offered on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park is a good central location for the area’s many activities. Caverns and caves such as Shenandoah Caverns and Luray Caverns make good activities for rainy days. Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive are a short distance away making for a great day trip. The area is also famous for its many vineyards.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Elevation: 547 feet

Park size: 1,619 acres

Trails: 24 miles

Park admission fee: $10/vehicle

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping fee: $40 + $5 transaction fee (Virginia resident); $46 + $5 transaction fee (non-Virginia resident)

Location: The Park is in Warren County, 8 miles south of Front Royal and 15 miles north of Luray. It’s off State Route 340 in Bentonville

Address: 350 Daughter of Stars Drive, Bentonville, VA 22610

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

12 of the Best State Parks for Fall Camping

Parks contain the magic of life. Pass it on.

National Parks are a treasure and definitely worth putting on your travel list. But while you’re dreaming, consider adding State Parks, too. It takes a little planning (every state has a different reservation system) but is well worth the effort.

You may dream of seeing the geysers of Yellowstone or the overwhelming greatness of the Grand Canyon but chances are you have a handful of little wonders in your backyard. State parks like Dead Horse Point in Utah hold their own against the neighboring Arches National Park (or Canyonlands, for that matter) while California’s Anza-Borrego State Park is arguably just as wild as the well-known Joshua Tree National Park. Plus, state parks tend to be less crowded and more affordable, two things that bode well for overnight guests.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a well-developed RV site with all the bells and whistles or a wooded tent spot far from any sort of road or development, there’s a state park campsite for you. To lend a hand—there are over 10,000 state parks, after all—I’ve profiled a list of some of the best campsites in state parks that are known for their popularity and unique beauty.

No matter your level of camping expertise, spend the night beneath a canopy of stars and awake to a wondrous landscape when you park your RV or pitch a tent at some of America’s beautiful campgrounds from the beaches to the desert to the mountains.

Before I dive in, take a moment to review the following state park camping tips.

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Park Camping Tips

State parks may not see the heavy traffic of national parks but in most cases you’ll still want to plan ahead to secure your camping spot. Each state runs its own reservation system which may be online, via phone, or even in-person. And some parks are first-come, first-served, so you won’t want to show up too late in the day.

Before you pack up and head out, make sure to research the available amenities— some state park campgrounds are extremely primitive requiring you to pack in your own water and pack out your trash while others have full RV hookups, hot showers, and laundry.

And finally, be sure to respect any wildlife you encounter, manage your campfire responsibly, and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.

Alamo Lake State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Park Camping Reservations

Making reservations at state parks, especially when planning a trip that crosses multiple states, can be both complex and frustrating. Each state, and in some cases, individual parks, make its own rules for when and how they’ll take reservations for camping sites.

Georgia State Parks allow for reservations up to 13 months in advance and require a 50 percent deposit for most reservations. Reservations can be made over the phone or online. Mississippi’s state parks have one of the most generous reservation windows and can be booked 24 months in advance. The parks also welcome walk-ins when there is availability. The vast majority of Alaska State Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served, with a few exceptions.

Meahler State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park, Alabama

This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of north Mobile Bay and is a day-use, picnicking, and scenic park with modern camping hook-ups for overnight visitors. Meaher’s boat ramp and fishing pier will appeal to every fisherman and a self-guided walk on the boardwalk will give visitors an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher’s campground has 61 RV campsites with 20-, 30-, and 50-amp electrical connections as well as water and sewer hook-ups. There are 10 improved tent sites with water and 20-amp electrical connections. The park also has four cozy bay-side cabins (one is handicap accessible) overlooking Ducker Bay. The campground features a modern bathhouse with laundry facilities.

Get more tips for visiting Meaher State Park

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake State Park, Arizona

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. The crystal clear lake is surrounded by mountainous terrain speckled with brush, wildflowers, and cacti making for a visually pleasing experience.

For nature lovers, spring rains bring an abundance of wildflowers and the lake environment attracts a variety of wildlife year round, including waterfowl, foxes, coyotes, mule deer, and wild burros. Stargazers are sure to enjoy the amazing views of the night sky, with the nearest city lights some 40 miles away.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake offers a variety of camping experiences in five camping loops. Campground A offers 17 basic sites with both back-in and pull-through sites. Campground B has expanded to 42 mixed-amenity sites. Campground F has 15 full-hookup sites. Campground C offers 40 water and electric sites. Dry camping is located in Campgrounds D and E and each site have a picnic table and fire ring. There are convenient vault and chemical toilets located throughout the campgrounds. 

Get more tips for visiting Alamo Lake State Park

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure. Patagonia Lake State Park was established in 1975 as a state park and is an ideal place to find whitetail deer roaming the hills and great blue herons walking the shoreline. The park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout.

The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

105 developed campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. Sites tend to fill up in the evening from May until November. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m. – 8 a.m. There are also two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles with ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long for camper/trailers.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, the first state park named for a woman, an oasis that shares many features with the unique Okefenokee Swamp. This park is home to fascinating creatures and plants including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants. Walking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, saw palmettos, yellow-shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons. The park’s lake offers opportunities for fishing, swimming, and boating, and kayaks and bicycles are available for rent. The Lakes 18-hole golf course features a clubhouse, golf pro, and junior/senior rates.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers 44 electric campsites suitable for RVs, six cottages, and one group camping area. Sites are back-ins and pull-through and range from 25 to 40 feet in length.

Get more tips for visiting Laura S. Walker State Park

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Driving from the south, visitors pass through Neel Gap, a beautiful mountain pass near Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. Vogel is particularly popular during the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains transform into a rolling blanket of red, yellow, and gold leaves. Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, including the popular 4-mile Bear Hair Gap loop, an easy lake loop that leads to Trahlyta Falls, and the challenging 13-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

90 camping sites with electricity, 34 cottages, and primitive 18 backpacking sites provide a range of overnight accommodations. Campground sites 42–65 were recently renovated.

Get more tips for visiting Vogel State Park

My Old Kentucky Home State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky

The farm that inspired the imagery in Stephen Collins Foster’s famous song, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” is Kentucky’s most famous and beloved historic site. Built between 1812 and 1818, the three-story house originally named, “Federal Hill,” by its first owner Judge John Rowan became Kentucky’s first historic shrine on July 4th, 1923. Located near Bardstown the mansion and farm had been the home of the Rowan family for three generations spanning 120 years. In 1922 Madge Rowan Frost, the last Rowan family descendant sold her ancestral home and 235 acres to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The golf course is open year-round.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admire the beautiful grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park in the 39-site campground. Convenience is guaranteed with utility hookups, a central service building housing showers and restrooms, and a dump station. A grocery store and a laundry are nearby across the street from the park. The maximum reservation window is 12 months in advance of the date.

Get more tips for visiting My Old Kentucky Home State Park

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania

The 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through the forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. A series of looping trails limited to foot traffic wander through the campground and day-use areas of the park. Additional multi-use trails explore forests, fields, lakeshore areas, and woodland streams.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool and features forested sites with electric hook-ups and walk-in tent sites. Campground shower houses provide warm showers and flush toilets. A sanitary dump station is near the campground entrance. In addition, the park offers three camping cottages, two yurts, and three group camping areas. The maximum reservation window is 12 months in advance of the date.

Monohans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas

Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. The park is only a small portion of a dune field that extends about 200 miles from south of Mona­hans westward and north into New Mexico. Bring a picnic and spend the day exploring on foot or horse­back. The park does not have marked trails; you are free to ex­plore at will. Rent sand disks and surf the dunes. Learn about the park and its natural and cultural history at the Dunagan Vis­i­tors Center. Set up camp and witness spec­tac­ular sun­sets.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers 25 campsites with water and electricity and a shade shelter. Other amenities offered include a picnic table, fire ring, and waist-high grill. Restrooms with showers are located nearby.

Get more tips for visiting Monahans Sandhills State Park

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco State Park, Texas

This small park hugs a one-mile stretch of the Blanco River. On the water, you can swim, fish, paddle, or boat. On land, you can picnic, hike, camp, watch for wildlife, and geocache. A CCC-built picnic area and pavilion is available for a group gathering. Anglers fish for largemouth and Guadalupe bass, channel catfish, sunfish, and rainbow trout. Swim anywhere along the river. Small children will enjoy the shallow wading pool next to Falls Dam. Rent tubes at the park store.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose from full hookup sites or sites with water and electricity. Eight full hookup campsites with 30/50-amp electric service are available. Nine full hookup sites with 30-amp electric are available. 12 sites with 30 amp electric and water hookups are also available. Amenities include picnic table, shade shelter, fire ring with grill, and lantern post.

Or reserve a screened shelter overlooking the river.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas

Listen to Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges and splashing into pools. Follow trails winding through the Hill Country woods. Explore the remains of an early Texas homestead and a very old rock shelter. All of this lies within Austin’s city limits at McKinney Falls State Park. You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek.

Hike or bike nearly nine miles of trails. The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail have a hard surface, good for strollers and road bikes. Take the Rock Shelter Trail (only for hikers) to see where early visitors camped.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay at one of 81 campsites (all with water and electric hookups). 12 sites offer 50-amp electricity while the remaining 69 sites offer 30-amp electric service. Other amenities include a picnic table, fire ring with grill, lantern post, tent pad, and restrooms with showers located nearby. A dump station is available.

Get more tips for visiting McKinney Falls State Park

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Utah

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. The park offers a wealth of technical routes for rock climbers and mountain biking. The park is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. There is also a pleasant picnic area. 

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

The park includes a developed campground with RV sites, six with partial hookups.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia

Just 15 minutes from the town of Front Royal awaits a state park that can only be described as lovely. This park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east. A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ten riverfront tent campsites, an RV campground with water and electric sites, cabins, recreational yurts, six-bedroom lodge, and a group campground are available. Camping is year-round. Shenandoah River’s developed campground has 31 sites with water and electric hookups suitable for RVs up to 60 feet long. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers. Sites have fire-rings, picnic tables, and lantern holders. Twenty-six sites are back-in and five are pull-through. All sites are specifically reserved.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

Avoiding National Park Crowds the Easy Way

These underdogs can hold their own against the national parks any day

In a year that many national parks are bursting at the seams with record-setting traffic consider camping at a state park instead.

America’s 63 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.

Those spaces have always been invaluable but became even more important over the past several years as visitation at the national parks has exploded. State parks have served as extensions of our backyards offering up adventures both large-scale and intimate. And, they remain alluring entry points to nature, often with fewer crowds than their better-known, big-name cousins. 

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the RV traveler, many state park campgrounds offer amazing facilities often offering 50/30-amp electric and water and on occasion even sewer. On the other hand, most national park campgrounds lack these amenities and in most cases are unsuited for larger RVs.

Below you’ll find the cream of the state-park crop from hidden beaches to expansive hikers’ playgrounds. It’s time to get outside and here’s how to do it right.

Here are some of my favorite state park campgrounds.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres about an hour south of Palm Desert, California’s largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America’s state park system. By day Anza-Borrego Desert 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, 130+ giant metal animal sculptures pop up out of nowhere as you roam the park’s unforgiving terrain.

Borrego Palm Canyon Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available at Borrego Palm Canyon, Tamarisk Grove, Bow Willow, and Vern Whitaker Horse Camp; numerous sites at Borrego Palm Canyon offer full hookups.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Although it’s not a household name, Dead Horse rides coattails in the best way possible: It’s situated near two of Utah’s Big Five—Arches and Canyonlands—and basically the Grand Canyon’s long-lost twin. Mountain bike the badass Intrepid Trail but the more relaxed can simply gaze open-mouthed from 2,000 feet in the air down at the deep-red rocks, glorious hues, and panoramic vistas of the Colorado River. The park gets its name from horses that died in this unforgiving landscape.

Kayenta Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled within a grove of junipers, Kayenta Campground offers a shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and 50/30/20-amp electric service. New in 2018, Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RVs while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites.  RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground. The Wingate Campground also holds four yurts. 

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park: Arizona

Located in the Tonto National Forest near the old mining town of Superior, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden. Boyce Thompson is a surprising spot for fall color, given that the high-desert garden is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than nearby metro Phoenix.

There are no camping facilities at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia

Just 15 minutes from the town of Front Royal, Virginia awaits a state park that can only be described as lovely. This park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. Ten riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 a popular fishing lagoon. Climb to the top of Hunting Island lighthouse to survey the palm-studded coastline. Bike the park’s trails through the maritime forest to the nature center, fish off the pier, and go birdwatching for herons, egrets, skimmers, oystercatchers, and wood storks. Camping is available at 100 campsites with water and electrical hookups, shower and restroom facilities, beach walkways, and a playground.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico

Enjoy camping, fishing, and boating at Elephant Butte Lake, New Mexico’s largest state park. The lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes including kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats. Besides sandy beaches, the park offers developed camping sites with electric and water hookups for RVs.

Myakka Canopy Walkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka River State Park, Florida

Seven miles of paved road wind through shady hammocks, along grassy marshes, and the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. See wildlife up-close on a 45-minute boat tour. The Myakka Canopy Walkway provides easy access to observe life in the treetops of an oak/palm hammock. The park features three campgrounds with 90 campsites equipped with 50 amp electrical service and water; some sites also have sewer hookups.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 largest 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.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This six-million-acre park offers thousands of campsites and hundreds of campgrounds from state-owned and operated to private campgrounds with family-friendly amenities. Camping is the perfect way to relax after hiking one of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks and preparing for the next!

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, Custer, 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, and mountain lions. The scenery is everything you think of when you close your eyes and picture the great American West laid out before you amidst 71,000 acres of vast open vistas and mountain lakes. The place is so cool that even Calvin Coolidge made it his “summer White House,” so that has to count for something, right?

Custer State Park offers nine campgrounds all with a variety of scenic sites. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sand, surging surf, seagulls, and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into.

Located 1.5 miles from the white sand beaches, the Gulf State Park campground offers 496 improved full- hookup campsites with paved pads and 11 primitive sites.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park, Arizona

High desert meets the riparian zone of Oak Creek in this wonderfully serene Sedona area park. There are plenty of trails that facilitate your adventure through a colorful park experience—all you have to do is lace up your boots and start hiking. Trails near the creek show off an absolutely beautiful display as you pass under a canopy of colorful leaves, or you can hike up the Eagle’s Nest Trail to get a top-down view of the fall splendor. Get lost in the sounds and sights of an Arizona fall at Red Rock. Chances are this will be an annual destination for you to collect beautiful long-lasting memories!

This day-use park has no camping facilities. Nearby Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers excellent camping facilities.

Worth Pondering…

Recently I ran across a few lines by Pierre de Ronsard, a 16th-century poet: “Live now, believe me wait not till tomorrow. Gather the roses of life today.” Maybe it’s time to stop dreaming about that trip you’ve always wanted to make—and just do it!

Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

In state parks and national parks alike you’ll find things like caves and waterfalls, mountains and valleys, wide-open fields, and pristine lakes and seashores

There’s one thing you know for certain: you’re looking to get away, get outdoors, and go exploring. But where are you going? Chances are you want to visit a place where the natural world is front and center which means state parks and national parks are two of your best options. These special, protected environments are available for public use and offer plenty of opportunities for exploration, recreation, and adventure. Whatever outdoor activities you’re enthusiastic about it’s guaranteed that both national and state parks afford plenty of access to a variety of great places to pursue them.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in any case, you have no bad options! No matter which type of park you choose to visit, you’ll be able to explore endless trails, campsites, and outdoor adventure opportunities. So make your choice and get out there!

In the southeastern corner of Georgia lies the Okefenokee Swamp, a 438,000-acre wetland. The cypress-filled wilderness—with its labyrinth of black canals inhabited by some 12,000 gators—is a long drive from anywhere. The Native Americans aptly called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits covering much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanish moss-laced trees sway in the breeze. A carpet of yellow bonnet lilies floats on top of the glossy dark waters of this refuge, home not only to alligators but also to turtles, black bears, herons, and many other creatures. At night, you hear the barred owls hooting deep within the forest.

More on state parks: 16 of the Best State Parks in America

One noise missing is the beep-beep of mobile devices. Cell phone service is spotty at best and honestly, you’ll be delighted by a break from the digital world. 

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors have three main entry points to choose from, each about two hours from the next. Stephen C. Foster State Park is the western entrance to the Okefenokee. It’s nestled within the much larger Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge but it offers much that the bigger reserve does not include campsites with electrical hookups, running water, and access until 10 p.m.—a plus for the stargazers attracted by its International Dark Sky designation in 2016. The park is 18 miles from the closest town of Fargo, Georgia.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park staff removed 13 streetlights and switched many bulbs to light-emitting diodes (LED). They worked with a local power company to install state-of-the-art lighting which casts downward rather than outward. The staff even retrofitted outdoor lighting on park cabins to be motion-activated.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These days, Okefenokee’s 120 acres of state park have more fans than ever. Since the pandemic started, they’ve seen an uptick in visitation even in the summer when numbers are normally low. That’s no anomaly. As travelers seek new options for enjoying the outdoors, state parks across the country have reported rising attendance.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surprisingly, as of 2019, they were already welcoming about 2.5 times more visitors than their higher-profile, federally funded counterparts despite having only 16 percent of the acreage. While many state campgrounds do book up fast, a relatively local audience means that visitors at this southern George park tend to be more evenly distributed throughout the year which preserves the low-key, less crowded atmosphere. People can be out relaxing in nature without encountering the Instagram swarms angling for photo ops in the more famous parks.

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowd volume is also helped by the simple fact that there are more state-run options for travelers to choose from. America’s State Parks alliance tallied nearly 6,800 reserves while the National Park System manages just 423.

More on state parks: 12 of the Best State Parks for Summer Camping

As national parks introduce timed entry tickets and day-use reservations in an attempt to tackle overtourism these laid-back siblings feel all the more inviting. Of course, 50 states mean 50 different systems for camping permits, and from park to park amenities are even more variable. Some sites are tricked out with golf courses, zip lining, and RV hookups; others, such as Maine’s Baxter and California’s Sonoma Coast state parks don’t even have running water.

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As demand grows, so, too, do the choices. Texas’s first new state park in 25 years, Palo Pinto Mountains will open next year on nearly 5,000 acres halfway between Abilene and Fort Worth. Visitors will be able to hike, bike, and ride horses over the hills. There will be fishing and canoeing on Tucker Lake and campsites where you can stargaze. Once the park opens, one of the first things visitors will see is a sweeping view of the hills from a road built along a ridge. That was on purpose—to awe people on their way in and out.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And Michigan just announced $250 million in funding for state parks including $26.2 million to create one in Flint—a key investment in the community as it continues to move past its water crisis.

Older sites are getting new energy, too. Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee opened a $40.4 million, 85-room lodge this past January.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In five Minnesota parks, all-terrain electric wheelchairs with continuous-track treads for navigating rugged ground will be bookable as of this summer.

More on state parks: The 15 Best State Parks for RV Camping

Still, state parks grapple with the same challenges national ones do—and then some. One big concern is having enough help to manage maintenance, ticketing, and other operations.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pennsylvania recently announced the creation of three new state parks. The state’s 2022-23 spending plan includes $56 million to add the new state parks to what is currently a 121-park system. The three will be the first new state parks in Pennsylvania since 2005 not counting Washington Crossing which was transferred from the state Historical and Museum Commission. The money will also help develop the state’s first park for the use of all-terrain vehicles and similar motorized recreational vehicles.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Delaware State Parks which have been filled with a growing number of visitors in the past few years is getting $3.2 million to upgrade some facilities. The goal is to increase the number of attractions in the popular state parks drawing even more tourists to the state. A record-breaking 8 million people visited state parks in 2021 exceeding previous attendance numbers. State officials say this year’s numbers are on track to top that total. Since 2011, reservations and occupancy for camping nights in the parks have grown 124 percent. In 2011, 67,000 nights were reserved, while last year, total reservations approached 150,000.

More on state parks: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge