16 of the Best State Parks in America

The U.S. has more than 10,000 state park areas covering a total area of more than 18 million acres

The United States is a complex landscape that stretches from coast to coast and offers steep mountains, dense forests of deciduous trees, towering pine trees, open plains, harsh deserts, and amazing RV and tent camping opportunities. Among the 50 states are an abundance of parks. What they all have in common is the passion to conserve these wondrous worlds filled with wildlife, history, and adventure. Exploring the world around us gives us a greater appreciation of the natural beauty we find and reconnects us to the simple pleasure of enjoying life.

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

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Spanning more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest park and one of the best places for camping. A diverse desert landscape the park encompassing 12 wilderness areas rich with flora and fauna. Enjoy incredible hikes, crimson sunsets, and starlit nights, and view metal dragons, dinosaurs, and giant grasshoppers. Set up camp at Borrego Palm Canyon or Tamarisk Grove Campground. Amenities include drinking water, fire pits, picnic tables, RV sites, and restrooms.

Big Bend Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Big Bend Ranch State Park follows a stretch of the Rio Grande in West Texas along the US/Mexico border. The park is a rugged landscape of desert, mountains, and steep canyons. Outdoor adventurists can choose between hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on over 230 miles of trails. Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts can explore over 70 miles of rough dirt road terrain. Campers will find a vast selection of primitive sites for overnight stays that have a picnic table and fire pit with the exception of the backcountry spots.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park covers 71,000-acres of the Black Hills in South Dakota. This sprawling park of wildlife is made up of granite peaks and rolling plains, lush valleys, and crystal clear waters. Visitors of the park enjoy outdoor activities such as RV and tent camping, fishing, hiking, biking, and swimming. The park also hosts community events throughout the year as well as educational programs at the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. Custer State Park also features a visitor center that highlights the iconic prairie bison. The Wildlife Station Visitor Center provides guests with unobstructed views of the rolling hills and prairie located on the Wildlife Loop Road.

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

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico

Elephant Butte State Park is the quintessential place for outdoor excursions like camping, boating, and fishing. The expansive campground offers a wide range of campsite set-ups including several full-hookup spots for RVs. Popular water sports and activities include swimming, scuba diving, and an array of boating and personal watercraft endeavors. The park features 15 miles of trails perfect for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Elephant Butte Reservoir was created in 1916 when a dam was constructed on the Rio Grande River. 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 173 developed camping sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs.

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. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  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.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park, Texas

Many folks come here to swim, but the park is more than a great swimming hole. With four miles of river frontage, the Guadalupe River takes center stage at the park. Step away from the river to find the more peaceful areas. On the river you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. While on land you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watching. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Trails range from the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to the 0.3 Mile River Overlook Trail which leads you to a scenic overlook of the river. The park offers 85 water and electric campsites and nine walk-in tent sites.

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. 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.

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. Stay at one of 81 campsites (all with water and electric hookups).

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.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka River State Park, Florida

Located half an hour outside of Sarasota this verdant sanctuary is one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks. A popular destination for outdoor adventure, visitors can rent a kayak and paddle along the park’s waterways in search of alligators or choose from close to forty miles of hiking trails that snake through wetlands, pine forests, and dry prairie. Myakka River State Park is a renowned location for birding and for good reason—some truly fascinating avian species can be spotted searching for food along the river banks with the vibrant pink-colored roseate spoonbill standing out as one of the area’s most coveted sights.

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 a period of 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. Admire the beautiful grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park in the 39-site campground near Bardstown. Convenience is guaranteed with utility hookups, a central service building housing showers and restrooms, and a dump station.

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. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park, Utah

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species. Nearby attractions include St George, Red Cliffs BLM Recreation Area, and Zion National Park.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park, Utah

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. This sprawling 20,000-acre park offers three campground areas that range from full hookups to standard camping. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

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. Ten riverfront tent campsites, an RV 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.

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

Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia

Entering the enchanting Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders—through Stephen C. Foster State Park presents an incredible display of diverse wildlife, unique scenic views, and rousing outdoor adventure. Canoeing or kayaking through the swamp is the park’s main attraction. It’s an otherworldly experience gliding through the reflections of Spanish moss dangling from the trees above. Turtles, deer, wood storks, herons, and black bears are a few of the countless creatures you may see here but the most frequent sighting is the American Alligator. The park offers 66 RV and tent campsites as well as nine two-bedroom cottages that can hold 6 to 8 people.

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. Cottages, campsites, and primitive backpacking sites provide a range of overnight accommodations. RV campers can choose from 90 campsites with electric hookups.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

These state parks are national treasures

Perhaps no state is more synonymous with national parks than Utah: Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands. Utah’s world-famous “big five” national parks are some of the most popular in America attracting more than 10 million visitors in 2019. That doesn’t leave a ton of space for social distancing.

Those five national parks managed to bring in more crowds than all of Utah’s 44 state parks combined with many state parks seeing annual visitation roughly equivalent to a busy summer weekend at Zion or Bryce Canyon.

But here’s a little secret: Many of those state parks hold their own against the grandeur of the Big Five, usually with a fraction of fellow humans crowding the trails and vistas. With many national parks currently limiting capacity, now’s the ideal time to point your GPS toward one of Utah’s 5 coolest, and less visited, state parks. 

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

If the mind-blowing landscapes of this Grand Canyon-styled park look familiar, it’s probably because the final scene of Thelma & Louise was filmed here. But you don’t need to launch your car off a cliff to appreciate the views: there are plenty of vista points to gaze upon the color-packed vertical cliffs and rugged canyons rising 2,000 feet above the Colorado River with sweeping views extending into nearby Canyonlands National Park.

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

In addition to mountain biking 17 miles of expert single-track along the Intrepid Trail or peering out over the edge hiking the East Rim and West Rim trails, you can also camp in an RV, tent, or even a yurt. Water is NOT available.

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

Kayenta Campground offers 21 campsites with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far reaching views to the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV or tent campers. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park

With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This popular park about 30 minutes east of St. George is like a “best of” for Utah’s state park system all rolled into one. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.

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

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir, or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board on its clear waters. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest but remember to take only photos.

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

Bordering the massive Delaware-sized Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12—only 64,000 people visit annually—allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest. Anglers can also test the bluegill and rainbow trout-stocked waters of the laid-back Wide Hollow Reservoir where canoeing and kayaking are also excellent and solitary endeavors.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park

Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities.

Utah Lake Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding. The park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass which is also stocked and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But wait, there’s more!

Other spectacular state parks on our bucket list include Snow Canyon, Kodachrome Basin, Coral Pink Sands, Goblin Valley, and Goosenecks. And I would be remiss not to mention spectacular Natural Bridges National Monument which attracted a mere 88,000 recreational visitors in 2019.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?

Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

The All American Road, Utah Scenic Byway 12 is one of the most beautiful drives in America! To top it off, it connects two beautiful national parks!

Scenic Byway 12 has it all: isolated canyons, grand plateaus that rise 9,000-feet above sea level, deep valleys that plunge to 4,000-feet, and the natural and man-made history to prove it. This 122-mile byway is one of the most scenic in the nation and Utah’s first All American Road takes you from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. Some TripAdvisor reviewers describe the scenic drive as “something out of a movie” or “like a trip to another planet.”

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12 begins to the west in Panguitch and ends in Torrey to the northeast. It connects Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, but getting from point A to point B is only a fraction of the fun. The real adventure lies in what you’ll encounter along the way. From the hoodoos to red rocks and a scenic overlook near the road’s summit at 9,000 feet, travelers enjoy breathtaking views that provide countless opportunities for exploration.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locals say you can do it in three hours or three days. Others say it will take three years to fully take advantage of all it has to offer. To get the most out of your travels, it’s better to take your time. Here’s a glance at what you might encounter along what’s known as “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.”

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though there’s more than one way to enjoy Scenic Byway 12, one suggested itinerary is to travel from west to east. The adventure begins in Panguitch and takes you through a scenic drive of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known for its hoodoo-filled red rock desert that contrasts with high alpine forests, Bryce Canyon is the perfect place for hiking, camping, and horseback riding. You can learn about the park’s unique geology through their ranger programs or take guided hikes under a full moon. Shuttles travel back and forth the length of the park from the visitor center 17 miles south to Rainbow Point, with plenty to do at every stop along the way.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, you’ll find some of the most beautiful parts of Southern Utah. The town of Escalante is located along Scenic Byway 12 in the south-central part of the state—about 90 minutes south of Capitol Reef National Park.

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

This charming little town has seen an uptick in visitors since the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante as a National Monument in 1996. It’s the perfect destination for hiking, camping, fishing, canyoneering, horseback riding, and four-wheeling. Travelers are frequently awestruck by the ancient multi-hued rock formations and the twisting, turning narrows of its famous slot canyons.

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

Hikers will enjoy dipping their toes in cool riverbeds, hiking miles of soft-sand trails, and gazing at the inscriptions of humans who stood in the same spot thousands of years ago. For a trip to prehistoric times, take the family to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park where ancient petrified trees, dinosaur bones, ammonite and shell fossils abound.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town itself offers a handful of down-home cafes and diners. As an added bonus, while most of Southern Utah experiences sweltering summer heat, Escalante’s higher elevation makes for more moderate temperatures—most of the time. But it’s always a good idea to prepare for an unexpected rainstorm.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park is a great way to cap off your Great American Road Trip adventure. While you’re taking in the view of stunning overlooks, you can discover abandoned Mormon outposts, explore unearthed Fremont Indian villages and petroglyphs, and wind through the slot canyons.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the park itself is alluring, there’s also charm in the surrounding areas with its small towns, secluded getaways, and rich history. You can pick fruit directly from the orchard in Fruita, wander aimlessly through a valley full of red rock goblins, camp out under the stars, and stroll an art gallery in Torrey.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As beautiful as it is in the day, the park is even more stunning at night. Capitol Reef is an official International Dark Sky Park which means you can see incredible views of the Milky Way Galaxy in the pitch-black night sky.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you get ready to pack up the RV, don’t forget to check road conditions and other travel information you may need for your trip. And to ensure a fun and safe experience, it’s a good idea to check current COVID-19 precautions so you can plan for the road ahead.

Worth Pondering…

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.