The Best State Parks in the South (2024)

From Gulf State Park in Alabama to Babcock State Park in West Virginia, hikers, campers, and outdoor adventurers will want to add these 14 state parks in the South to their outdoor adventure list

If the great outdoors is calling your name, set out for an adventure in one of the South’s best state parks. These state parks are some of my favorite destinations for getting outside and exploring nature. They span the region and represent an exciting array of landscapes.

Find your way to these outdoor destinations and you’ll be met with mountains, gorges, beaches, rivers, swinging bridges, marshes, hiking trails, campgrounds, and plenty of fresh air. Some are more remote and offer a real escape from the bustle of everyday life while others are just a stone’s throw from cities and small towns, making them easy weekend getaways.

Whether you’re looking for picturesque hiking routes, dramatic waterfalls, secluded camping sites, or sandy spots to settle in and see the sunset, there’s a park here that’s destined for your bucket list. Explore the great Southern outdoors this year and make new memories in the South’s best state parks.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

Hunting Island is a secluded semitropical barrier island near Beaufort and one of the state’s most popular state parks. Lots of land and maritime wildlife love the park, too, and inhabit its five miles of pristine beaches, thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, and a slew of saltwater lagoons. Trek up 130 feet to the famous Hunting Island Lighthouse for breathtaking panoramic views.

Here are some articles to help:

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida

Established in 1963 as the United States’ first undersea park, this unique state park offers a firsthand glimpse of Florida’s Coral Reef, a 350-mile coral reef system that runs from the Dry Tortugas to St. Lucie on the Atlantic coast. For 70 nautical miles around Key Largo, marine life and habitats can be seen in several ways: snorkeling and scuba diving lessons and tours, glass-bottom boat tours, and canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding trails.

On land, boardwalks and paths meander through mangroves and tropical hardwood forests, and the visitor center holds six saltwater aquariums for more up-close views.

Meaher 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’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.

If you need ideas, check out: Where the Rivers Meet the Sea: Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and Meaher State Park

Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina

You can see Hanging Rock’s namesake long before you reach the entrance to the park: Rising miles out of the Sauratown Mountain Range is the frequently photographed quartzite outcropping that most travelers hike to at least once. Of course, the park is much more than that. Encompassing roughly 9,000 mountainous acres and home to 20 miles of trails—including the 2.7-mile Hanging Rock loop—it’s a hiker’s paradise. Several small waterfalls, a small lake (with a swimming beach), and mountain biking trails are also big draws.

Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Babcock State Park, West Virginia

Babcock State Park is a must-see vacation destination—especially in the fall. Autumn colors line the historic Glade Creek Grist Mill, and lush, forest-lined hiking trails are at their peak. Visitors to the park can stay in a cozy mountain cabin or explore the charming small towns nearby.” 

Here’s a helpful resource: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round out your trip with a visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Chicot State Park, Louisiana

An ecological wonderland, Chicot—Louisiana’s largest state park—is a 6,400-acre mix of swampland, waterways, and hill country. Within the park is Lake Chicot, which has an eight-mile canoe trail and a 600-acre arboretum where indigenous species (sycamores and beech, magnolia, and crane fly orchids) are carefully preserved.

One of Chicot’s many highlights: is the 20-mile backpacking trail that circles Lake Chicot. (There are six first-come, first-serve backcountry sites along the trail.) Walking the lakeside trails in fall, when the cypress trees that seem to sprout from the lake change color, is especially magical.

Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

This state park on the South Carolina coast includes both beach and inland wetland terrain, which makes it a destination for wildlife watching. Several nature trails allow access to the landscape and its inhabitants: Be on the lookout for seafaring birds such as egrets, herons, and ospreys plus other animals like alligators and sea turtles, which live in and around the area.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

With the Gulf of Mexico on its Southern border, 3.5 miles of white sand beaches, three lakes within the park, and nine ecosystems on its 28-mile paved trail system, Gulf State Park is popular with anglers, beach bums, and naturalists alike. Visitors can fish, swim, and paddle on Lake Shelby, see native flora and fauna at the Nature Center on Middle Lake and flit around the Butterfly Garden east of Little Lake.

At nearly 2,500 feet long, the Fishing and Education Pier is the largest in the Gulf as well as Alabama’s only public gulf pier. Normally open for fishing or strolling, the pier is currently undergoing repairs and is expected to reopen in summer 2024.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

Vogel, one of Georgia’s oldest state parks, sits at the base of Blood Mountain inside Chattahoochee National Forest. The park is particularly popular during the autumn months when the Blue Ridge Mountains put on a colorful display of fall foliage. RV campers can choose from 90 campsites with electric hookups.

If you need ideas, check out: Vogel State Park on My Mind

Goose Island State Park, Texas

Brown pelicans, whooping cranes, camping, fishing, and the waters of Aransas, Copano, and St. Charles bays draw visitors here. Fish from the shore, boat, or the 1,620-foot long fishing pier. The CCC built Goose Island, Texas’ first coastal state park. It sits on the southern tip of the Lamar Peninsula. Dramatic wind-sculpted trees dominate the park.

Be sure to visit the Big Tree which has been standing sentinel on the coast for centuries. In 1969, it was named the State Champion Coastal Live Oak.

Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. The park also has 25 walk-in tent sites without electricity, and a group camp for youth groups.

Check this out to learn more: Life by the Bay: Goose Island State Park

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—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 creatures you may see here but the most frequent sighting is the American Alligator.

The park offers 66 RV and tent campsites with electricity as well as nine two-bedroom cottages that can hold 6 to 8 people. In addition 10 Eco Lodge bedrooms are available for rent. The RV sites range in size from 15 and 25-foot back-ins to 50-foot pull-through sites.

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Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka River State Park, Florida

Myakka River State Park offers a variety of experiences: Day-trippers come for the airboat ride, tram ride, canopy walkway, and stop at the water-front café. Adventurers head for the 39 miles of hiking trails, excellent paved and unpaved biking trails, or scenic rivers and lakes for kayaking.

Given you need ample time to see and do it all, you can camp in one of 80 camping sites or book one of five rustic log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.

That’s why I wrote Myakka River State Park: Place of Abundance Offering Varied Experiences

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina

Located on Edisto Island, Edisto Beach State Park is one of four oceanfront parks in South Carolina. Edisto Island lies about an hour south of bustling Charleston as the pelican flies.

 Its 1.25-mile public beach is ideal for swimmers and beachcombers—and also a nesting site for loggerhead turtles.

The state park is situated neatly between a salt marsh and the beach making it possible to hear the waves lapping at the shore regardless of whether you’re staying in an RV, tent, or cabin. Located in the town of Edisto Beach, it’s just a short walk or bike ride from the grocery store, gas station, restaurants, and shops.

Check this out to learn more: Edisto Beach State Park: Unspoiled Paradise

Highland Hammock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highlands Hammock State Park, Florida

Supporting a beautiful yet delicate ecosystem, central Florida’s Highlands Hammock possesses a unique collection of plant and animal life. The park features 15 distinct natural communities in its more than 9,000 acres with a diversity of habitats. 

Eight of the nine trails are located on the loop drive and visitors can easily extend their walks as several connect via a bridge or catwalk. Trails run through the hydric hammock, cypress swamp, hardwood swamp, and pine Flatwoods

The family campground offers water and electric hookups, a dump station, access to restrooms with shower facilities, laundry, and dishwashing areas. Campsites have picnic tables and fire rings. Sites vary from being open and sunny to partially or fully shaded and range in length from 20 to 50 feet.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome