Go Here, Not there: 7 State Parks that Rival National Parks

Skip the traffic, crowds, and costs

America’s 61 national parks are some of America’s greatest national treasures. Yellowstone National Park was first, designated in 1872, and 44 years later, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. This was an official way to commit to protecting and preserving America’s most beautiful and unique natural spaces, ecosystems, and habitats for future generations to enjoy.

Fast forward a century plus, and the number of annual visits to national parks has surpassed 300 million.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s great that so many people appreciate this great resource and want to get out and enjoy the parks, anyone who’s sat in an endless line of traffic to enter Zion or Arches in Utah knows that the popularity of national parks can hinder the beauty of the experience.  Visiting a national park becomes less appealing when you take into account the mobs of people elbowing each other to take a selfie at the Grand Canyon and the overcrowded parking lots and scenic overlooks.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the national parks are some truly fantastic state parks that aren’t getting the crowds or the attention. These smaller unsung heroes feature scenery and outdoor adventures that rival national parks. And fewer visitors mean easier access to parking space, hiking trails, fishing spots, and campsites. Another bonus: if you’re traveling with Fido, most state parks allow dogs on trails whereas national parks do not.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 10,234 state parks in the U. S., spanning 18 million acres, so get out there and explore. Here are some notable parks to get you inspired. Go ahead and argue with our choices, but here’s our list of places that we can’t stop drooling over.

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

This park has several dramatic scenic overlooks and an 8-mile hiking trail that includes vistas from the East and West Rim Trails. There’s a 17-mile single track mountain biking trail and road biking options. Three campgrounds include RV campsites, yurts, and hike-in tent-only campsites.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons and streams invites camping, picnicking and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen Foster State Park, Georgia

Stephen C. Foster State Park named after the popular Southern songwriter is one of the primary entrances to the famed Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia. Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas

The 4,000 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes found at this Texas state park resemble a landscape straight out of the Sahara. The Harvard Oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above 3 feet in height even though their root structure may extend down 90 feet or more. The park offers an interpretive center and museum as well as picnicking and camping…and many visitors’ favorite activity, sand surfing.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 6,000-acre Gulf State Park offers more than 2 ½ miles of white sand beaches, a convention site, 468-site campground, resort inn, modern 2 and 3 bedroom cabins, nature center, interpretative programs, family resort, marina, 18-hole and 9-hole golf courses, tennis courts, and an 825-foot pier—the longest on the Gulf of Mexico.

Myakka River State Park, Florida

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences. Given you need ample time to see and do it all, you can camp in one of 80 camping sites. The road through the park is seven miles long and offers several great places to get out, enjoy the wildlife and scenery, and take a short walk. The park road also makes an excellent bike trail. By bike, you enjoy the 360-degree view of the spectacular tree canopy over the road and the constant sounds of birds.

Anza Borrego State Park, California

Anza Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One surprise about this area of the southeastern Californian desert is the palm oases which you come upon in the Borrego Palm Canyon through the park’s most-visited hiking trail. When you want to take a break from hiking, you can make yourself at home in Borrego Springs, a small town entirely encompassed by the State park itself and full of art as well as natural beauty. Anza Borrego has numerous camping options with four established campgrounds and 175 total campsites.

Worth Pondering…

It’s a beautiful day for it.

—Wilbur Cross

4 Best Georgia State & National Parks

From the Chattahoochee National Forest to the still waters of steamy swamps and coastal seashore, there’s so much to explore in Georgia

Several of Georgia’s parks preserve attractions known as the state’s Seven Natural Wonders, including the picturesque Okefenokee Swamp. Excellent fishing opportunities abound throughout the mountain lakes and manmade reservoirs while hiking, cycling, and horseback riding trails provide unique vantage points to observe the scenery of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain regions.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a spectacular National Park Service-managed national seashore located along Cumberland Island. The seashore is only accessible via boat from the park’s visitor center in the nearby mainland town of St. Mary’s. Stunning sand dune, salt marsh, and freshwater lake habitats are preserved throughout the seashore area which also includes the 9,886-acre Cumberland Island Wilderness and several historic sites related to the Carnegie family.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seashore visitors may bring their own bikes to the island or rent bikes from the Sea Camp Dock for daily exploration. Overnight camping is offered at the park’s public campsites, including a full camping area with restrooms and facilities. Back on the mainland, the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum showcases exhibits on the region’s indigenous history and Antebellum-era plantations.

Laura S. Walker State Park

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

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, an oasis where you can enjoy the serene lake, play rounds on a championship golf course, and stroll along the trails and natural communities in this southeast Georgia haven. Located near the northern edge of the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp, this park is home to many fascinating creatures and plants including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants.

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

Walking or biking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, numerous oak varieties, saw palmettos, yellow shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons. For years, the lake has remained popular with boaters, skiers and jet skiers, but recently the area has become a hit with bass and crappie anglers. 

Stephen C. Foster State Park

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park spans 80 acres anchored around the gorgeous Okefenokee Swamp. The park, which is located within the broader 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016 to protect its unique and sensitive swamp ecosystem.

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park visitors can canoe, kayak, and boat on the Spanish moss-lined swamp’s waters or embark on guided fishing and boating tours. Wildlife watchers can enjoy chances to catch glimpses of the park’s population of more than 12,000 American alligators along with black bears, deer, herons, wood storks, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Exhibits on the park’s wildlife are showcased at its Suwannee River Visitor Center which also offers interpretive programming.

Vogel State Park

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park is a 233-acre state park that was one of Georgia’s first two state parks at its founding in 1931. The park which is located within the Chattahoochee National Forest at the base of the impressive Blood Mountain is also one of Georgia’s highest-altitude parks sitting at elevations of over 2,500 feet above sea level.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four hiking trails of varying difficulty offer opportunities to observe spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains scenery year-round, most popular during the autumn months as leaf-watching routes. A public visitor center museum focuses on the park’s history and construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps with features detailing the park’s connection to the Great Depression. A 22-acre lake is also open for boaters along with a seasonal swimming beach available to visitors of all ages throughout the summer months.

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

Stephen Foster State Park: Land of Trembling Earth

What better way to begin a winter southern adventure than a stop at Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Stephen C. Foster State Park, named after the popular Southern songwriter, is one of the primary entrances to the famed Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia.

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

Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters, while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface.  Here, paddlers and photographers enjoy breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife. Inhabiting the lush vegetation of the Okefenokee are 223 species of birds, 41 of mammals, 54 of reptiles, and 60 of amphibians.

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

In an earlier post we explored the East (main) Entrance to Okefenokee, located 11 miles southwest of Folkston. Using Okefenokee RV Park in Folkston as our home base we continued our exploration of Okefenokee with a day trip to Suwannee River Visitor Center at Fargo and Stephen C. Foster State Park (West Entrance), a distance of 160 miles return. Both entrances to Okefenokee are located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest national wildlife refuge in the eastern United States.

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

Stephen C. Foster State Park is located on Jones Island, 18 miles northeast of Fargo on State Highway 177. The Suwannee River, which flows past this park, is the main outlet of Okefenokee Swamp. Stephen Foster, who wrote the song “Way Down Upon The Suwannee River,” is the namesake for this preserve.

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

This is the only entry point to Okefenokee Swamp with overnight RV accommodations. The campground at Stephen Foster State Park offers 64 campsites with water, electrical, and cable TV hookups. Amenities include rest rooms with hot showers, laundry facilities, fire rings, picnic tables, and a small store. There are numerous sites suitable for large rigs; however, extreme care is required when navigating the interior roads. The park offers nine overnight cabins for your non-RVing friends as well as a marina with rental boats and a trading post that supplies fishing and picnic paraphernalia.

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

A half-mile wheelchair-accessible nature trail includes a boardwalk and a sampling of the trembling earth so characteristic of the Okenfenokee. A visitors center has interpretive exhibits. But the best way to see the swamp is by water. There are 25 miles of well-marked water trails within the swamp. A horsepower limit applies to water craft.

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

You can take a guided tour of the swamp or rent a powered johnboat to see Billy’s Island, once the site of the Okefenokee’s largest settlement during the cypress-logging era. It is estimated that more than 431 million board feet of timber was taken from the area between 1909 and 1927. The only remnants of the logging today are rusted and ruined equipment. But the swamp is still alive.

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

Also a popular fishing area, anglers try for jack fish, bream. and catfish.

A water trail also leads to Minnie’s Lake, another popular fishing area amid the towering cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss.

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

Make sure to stop by the Suwannee River Visitor Center, where you can learn about the area wildlife. Located in Fargo, southwest of Stephen Foster State Park and backed by Spanish-moss draped trees, the Suwannee River Visitor Center overlooks a bend in the black-water river where people can fish and launch boats.

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

Inside, visitors learn that tannic acid produced by decaying vegetation is what gives the river its tea color, and that unlike other reptiles, mother alligators actively care for their babies. Animal displays include a black bear, bobcat, fox squirrel, otter, snakes, fish, and numerous birds, including a wood stork.

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

A short film takes visitors on a leisurely trip through the river and swamp, highlighting flowers, insects, misty morning fog, and the many creatures that call the waters home. The center also includes exhibits on the timber industry, local history, and energy efficiency.

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

The Suwannee River Visitor Center is operated by Stephen C. Foster State Park.

Worth Pondering…

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away
That’s where my heart is turning ever
That’s where the old folks stay
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam
Still longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home

—Stephen Foster, 1851