The 36 Best State Parks in America
These underdogs can hold their own against the national parks any day.
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 more than 10,000 state parks each year. In total, they span more than 18 million acres across the US—that’s more than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New Hampshire combined.
These spaces have always been invaluable, but have become even more important during recent years as stressed-out Americans scrambled to sate their wanderlust and rediscover their love of the great outdoors. State parks have served as extensions of our own backyards, offering up adventures both large-scale and intimate. And even as travel further afield returns, they'll remain alluring entry points to nature, often with fewer crowds than their better-known, big-name brethren.
Big Sur, California
As if 300-foot redwoods and world-class scuba diving from a gorgeous remote beach cove weren't enough, this little gem of a park not far from the road near Big Sur also features the glorious McWay Falls, a stunning 80-foot waterfall that flows directly into the ocean. Getting down to the beach isn't easy, but the payoff is huge. Just look at the photo.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Big Sur House
Imagine walking among sleeping Tyrannosaurus rexes and triceratops, trying to be quieter than the bubbling streams or the warm winds rushing through the ferny understory and high-palm trees. Now fast forward 66 million years. Today, Makoshika State Park—“bad earth” to the Lakota—is 12,000 acres of mudstone and sandstone badlands speckled with orange-gray tent rocks that spring up like giant mushrooms in a petrified fairytale land, fossils buried under and around their stems. Hop on the Diane Gabriel Trail to Sunset Overlook once the day is winding down, keep an eye out for hadrosaur bones, and don’t go home without seeing the K-T boundary, a thin band in the rock marking the demise of this spot’s former heavyweight champs.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Badlands Kitchen and Home
Not only is this sprawling 200,000-acre park home to Northern Maine's beloved Mount Katahdin (the state's highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail), it's also the domain of a killer variety of wildlife, from hawks to black bears who make their home amid the park's peaceful lakes and waterfalls. The park is void of paved roads, running water, and electricity, so this is your chance for the full Thoreau experience.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Dak Mountain View Lodge
To call this West Maui Mountains park "lush" is a hall-of-fame understatement. Its dense rainforest canopy makes this popular Hawaiian park one of America's more unique, dominated by the Iao Needle—a 1,200ft vegetation-covered lava remnant that rises from the valley floor to a higher height than the Eiffel Tower. Snap its photo while exploring the laid-back trails of this peaceful 10-mile-long park.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Blue Door on Church Street
The oldest and largest state park in Nevada—a place notorious for its trippy desert mirages, both natural and manmade—Valley of Fire gets its name from the enormous, striped red rock formations that cover the area, making the terrain appear as if Mother Nature melted down candy canes and poured them out across the landscape. Hit Rainbow Vista for some of the best views and look closely for 3,000-year-old petroglyphs—then hop in the car and hightail it to Vegas just an hour away.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Desert Valley HideOut
Fish Creek, Wisconsin
The Cape Cod of the Midwest offers up its fair share of unexpected geographical contradictions in a state whose stunning coast often gets overlooked—but even by Door County standards, Peninsula State Park is a jaw-dropper. There’s much to explore, but for maximum awe hit the Eagle Trail, a two-mile jaunt that starts atop a dolomite cliff and descends 200 feet through dense forest to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here, you’ll find the remains of ancient sea caves in the shadow of the 250-foot-high Niagara Escarpment. It’s even better seen from kayak, where you can score views of this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve while being lulled by waves. Watch your step—loose rocks and exposed roots will have you forgetting to admire the view.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Ephraim Home
Eldorado Springs, Colorado
In a state as rich in parkland as Colorado (it has four national parks), the state parks pack a hell of a punch. Little Eldorado Canyon State Park, just a short ride from Boulder, is a hotspot for rock-climbing walls: It has over 1,000 technical climbing routes within the park, plus 11 miles of hiking/mountain-biking trails, and fishing opportunities in the scenic South Boulder Creek. And if you get thirsty, Boulder's Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery is only 20 minutes away.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Colorado Quartz Mountain Ranch
Only accessible by boat or helicopter, Cayo Costa is a quick ride from the popular tourist destination of Captiva Island but a world away from the Florida of your spring-break nightmares. You'll spend the day walking pristine white-sand beaches dotted with ghostly tree skeletons and playful dolphins that can often be seen swimming close to the shore. If you're lucky, you can also spot a manatee or bald eagle in the high trees as birds travel from limb to limb. While sunbathing is the prime recreation activity here, you can also camp on your boat or in one of the park's 30 highly recommended tent sites.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Hidden Treasure
Niagara Falls, New York
Obvious choice? Of course. Mandatory pick? Absolutely. Hordes of photo-snapping tourists you remember from high school may have sullied your memories of the place, but America's oldest state park remains popular for a reason—or 750,000 of them, which is the number of gallons of water rushing over the falls every second. Getting up close, personal, and extremely wet with perhaps the most famous waterfalls in the world is a rite of passage. Discovering that the whole park is actually pretty rad is just a bonus.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Elegant Victorian Home
Idaho's got a wealth of state parks that help reinforce our positioning of the state as one of the union's most overlooked, but with respect to beloved Priest Lake, Castle Rocks is an absolute stunner. Here, amid the Albion Mountains, you'll find a sea of wildflowers in the spring, providing a vivid contrast to the vertiginous rock formations that are rife for climbers of all skill levels. Camping can be done in the backcountry or in yurts, and it's not uncommon to see wild horses grazing in the grassland.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Castle Rocks Getaway
If you're looking for wilderness, this massive 400,000-acre park has your number. You'll need to fly in or travel by boat (most likely from Homer) as there is no road access to much of the park—which is what preserves this pristine wilderness that is home to whales, sea lions, moose, and an incredibly diverse range of sea birds. But its main asset remains its ecological diversity: whether you're looking for sandy beaches, dense forests, or massive ice fields and glaciers, you'll find it all here.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Moose Lodge
Borrego Springs, California
Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres about an hour south of Coachella, California's largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America's state park system. By day it has 110 miles of hiking trails to explore and 12 designated wildlife areas, and by night the huge desertscape delivers some of the best stargazing in America. The park is also a site of great geological importance, as it has been found to contain over 500 types of fossils that are up to 6 million years old. If you can't picture the prehistoric vibes on your own, there are also 130+ giant metal animal sculptures that pop up out of nowhere as you roam the park's unforgiving terrain.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The House on the Hill
Located just outside of coastal charmer Cannon Beach, this vista orgy of a state park stretches nine scenic miles of Pacific Northwestern coastline from Cannon Beach to Seaside, offering secluded coves, lush spruce forest, and grassy bluffs overlooking its seductive beaches. A park so sexy it's a movie star, here you can catch stunning views of The Goonies rally point Haystack Rock or reenact the final scene of Point Break on the beach that doubled for Australia. Bonus: the also-very-cool Oswald West State Park is just a 15-minute ride south.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Viewpoint
Dunn Center, North Dakota
With large sections of this primitive park only accessible by foot or horseback, this lesser-known park is famous for its windswept badlands vistas and awe-inspiring scenery ripe for the taking via 47 miles of backpacking and horseback-riding trails. There are few rules at this remote BYOH (bring your own horse) outpost, but there is one: you must feed your horse with certified weed-free hay, available for purchase at the park.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Watford City Townhouse
Lake Tahoe, California
There's a reason Emerald Bay is one of Lake Tahoe's most popular attractions. Encompassing both the only island on the lake (Fannette Island) and a crazy 38-room Scandinavian mansion called Vikingsholm, Emerald Bay is also unique in that it is one of the first parks in the state whose underwater shipwrecks are also protected. The main activities here include camping (aka drinking) on your boat and staring at the deep-blue hues of the lake as you muster up the courage to cannonball into its refreshing waters.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Waterfront Perfection
At nearly 30,000 acres, this state park on Texas’ east side—the polar opposite of desolate deserts of west Texas—is an absolute maze of bayous and sloughs, of quiet wetlands and waterways stunning in daylight and eerie by moonlight. Run your paddle through the placid, misty waters of Caddo Lake, ducking beneath Spanish moss hanging like serpents from the branches of ancient bald cypress trees. These giants tower over you and stand, waist-deep, in every direction—this is the largest cypress forest in the world. See if you can scout out Dick & Charlie’s Tea Room, a stilt house on the water that served as a Prohibition-era speakeasy. A sign tacked to a nearby cypress reads “House Rules: 1. There ain’t none.”
Amazing Airbnb nearby: FirstCastCabin
While it is known as one of the best rock-climbing areas in the West and regarded as the birthplace of American sport climbing, Smith Rock also delights with low-impact family hikes and eye-popping scenery at every turn. Watch golden eagles soar over the Crooked River stocked with river otters as you try not to burn out your iPhone battery snapping pictures of the jagged rock formations popping up in this Central Oregon high-desert outpost. Bonus: nearby Bend is home to one of the best beer scenes in the country.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Smith Rock Nest
We know water parks aren’t exactly everybody’s jam (although we’d argue that they’re not all bad). But there’s something about careening down a slippery slope crafted specially by Mother Nature that just hits different. Such is the case at Slide Rock State Park, named for the all-natural, 80-foot-long red rock water slide that took around 8 million years to form. Instead of spending a hundred bucks on a water park season pass, come here for $20 and use the money you save to head 7 miles south to Sedona: one of the most beautiful places in Arizona, and a kickass desert town that’s a natural phenomenon in its own right.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Sedona Sunset Jewel
Castile, New York
Whether you're into horseback riding, whitewater rafting, or simply gazing at magnificent waterfalls cascading over rocky gorge cliffs surrounded by lush forest, you'll find it all at this beautiful Western New York park known as the "Grand Canyon of the East." The 17-mile-long park contains 66 miles of hiking trails and over 20 waterfalls, one of which is straddled by a picturesque 235-foot railroad trestle. In the winter months, you can also snow tube and cruise the park by horse-drawn sleigh—but nothing beats floating over the park in a hot air balloon on a clear summer or fall day. You can also camp in one of 82 rustic cabins or, if you feel like getting corporate, rent an in-park conference center.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The West Barn
Although it’s not a household name, Dead Horse rides coattails in the best way possible: It’s situated near one of Utah’s Big Five, it’s basically the Grand Canyon’s long-lost twin, and it was the backdrop for Thelma & Louise’s iconic final scene. Mountain biking the badass Intrepid Trail is a must for thrill-seekers, 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 and Canyonlands National Park. The park gets its name from horses who often died in this unforgiving landscape and, with much of the park open with unfenced cliffs and little signage, you best exercise a bit of common sense if you want to make it out of here alive.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Vasaca Utah
Watkins Glen, New York
On the Gorge Trail in New York's Finger Lakes region, you start out walking through a dark tunnel carved deep into the rock. In front of you is a stone bridge—the first of many. You cross it, quickly finding yourself underneath Cavern Cascade, water rushing over and ahead of you down the narrow 400-foot gorge. Through another tunnel and underneath a suspension bridge, you’re now in The Narrows, a moss- and fern-covered environment more akin to a rainforest than anything. Up the stairs, your eyes set on Glen Cathedral, where dry grasses and shrubs seem like they fell out of the desert. But it’s quickly back to waterworld: Central Cascade plunges 60 feet into the gorge, followed by Rainbow Falls a few hundred steps later. Dripping springs along a dark, narrow pathway lead you across Spiral Gorge, to Mile Point Bridge, and then up 180 stone steps nicknamed Jacob’s Ladder—all this in a whirlwind, two-mile trek.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Sunset Shores
Central and Eastern Washington’s arid climate is already a stark contrast to the evergreen pines and roaring oceans the state’s name conjures. That’s before you come across the otherworldly lakes dotting the landscape. Walk up to the Vista House Overlook—a short 15-mile drive from the healing waters of Soap Lake—and you’ll catch a panorama of blue-green puddles beneath a 400-foot-high, 3.5-mile-wide cliff. It’s all shrub-steppe habitat: barren, volcanic desert terrain. This dry, arid landscape was once the world’s largest waterfall: 350 feet of water repeatedly fell over this ridge at 65mph some 13,000 years ago during the Ice Age floods. Attempt to process this geologic carnage, then book it for Deep Lake on the park’s far eastern side. Take the 2.25-mile Deep Lake Trail along the basalt ridge, or grab the kayak and paddle this dark Ice Age leftover, floating between tabletop cliffs.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Dome at Blue Lake
If you love the dramatic spires of Bryce Canyon or the vast, rolling desolation of the Badlands but don’t love the crowds, visit Cathedral Gorge instead. About 2.5 hours north of Vegas, this relatively small state park—less than three square miles—packs a lot in, with a dramatic drop into a maze-like valley floor filled with otherworldly slot canyons, surrounded by hulking spires, and decorated by rock pillars formed tens of millions of years ago from volcanic ash. The already-haunting scenery is made even more so by the stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, including an abandoned water tower that looks like the turret of a castle. Despite the large concentration of state parks in this part of Nevada, it still feels incredibly remote; the only towns within 100 miles of the park all have populations of about 1,000, and at some point you'll likely find that you've driven an hour or more without any cell service.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Panaca Home
So, this is what mountains are supposed to look like. You might think this park's location just 20 minutes south of Anchorage might lead to packed crowds… until you realize this massive 500,000-acre park is the third-largest in the country. So yeah, there's plenty of space to spread out a blanket and get weird. Combine that with Alaska's legal cannabis and you've got a pretty fun day of hiking amidst pristine glaciers, rivers, and lakes on your hands. You can also drive scenic highways, ATV the Bird Valley Trail System, or whale-watch at the scenic Beluga Point. All good.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Hemlock Mountain House
This popular park is beloved by Tennesseans not only for its 256ft namesake waterfall Fall Creek Falls (the highest free-fall waterfall east of the Mississippi), but also for caves likes Rumbling Falls Cave System (the second-largest cave chamber in the country) and modern amenities including an 18-hole golf course, zip line, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Although cooling off in one of its many natural waterfalls is always a better idea.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Fall Creek Falls Cabin
Beaufort, South Carolina
It may be South Carolina's most visited state park, but that doesn't stop this secluded barrier island located 15 miles east of Beaufort from being one of the most picturesque destinations in the South, thanks to its famous lighthouse, pristine beaches, and popular fishing lagoon. Fun fact: many of the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed here.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Harbor Point Beach Estate
Northville, New York
Part state park, part forest preserve, and part privately owned land encompassing 102 towns and villages, Adirondack Park is massive. Totaling 6.1 million acres, America's biggest state park is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Nearly half of the land is owned by the State of New York and designed as "forever wild," encompassing all of the Adirondacks' famed 46 High Peaks as well as 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river. So pack up the canoe or kayak, get ready to scale Mount Marcy, or simply meander about its 2,000 miles of hiking trails. You're gonna be here a while.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Adirondack Riverfront Home
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?
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Tatanka Cabin
Silver Bay, Minnesota
Located about an hour north of the underrated town of Duluth along the magnificent Highway 61, this scenic Midwestern park offers everything from stunning views of jagged cliffs over Lake Superior, to roaring waterfalls, to forested hikes along the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail. If you don't feel like going on that long of a hike, roaming the area around Palisade Head or paddling over to your kayak-in campsite should more than suffice. Pro tip: while you're here, head another 20 minutes north to snap a photo of the ridiculously picturesque lighthouse at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Cabin Beck
This sprawling park in the heart of the Texas panhandle has everything you think of when you imagine a great American nature retreat, most notably the vast open spaces of the "Grand Canyon of Texas" known as the 70-mile Palo Duro Canyon. Horseback rides and hikes amidst its brilliant-red rocks and freaky hoodoos are a must, but what really sets this park apart are its one-of-a-kind activities like seeing live music at its Red Rocks-style Pioneer Amphitheatre, or sleeping in historic brick huts you can rent, making this easily one of the coolest campsites in America.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Hideout
This place is just ridiculous. With otherworldly cliffs rising 4,000ft above the beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline it straddles, this remote section of Kaua'i's northwest coast is inaccessible by car, meaning you need to charter a boat or helicopter to get the most expansive views of its stunning "land before time" charms. The more adventurous can hike or kayak their way through its 6,000+ acres of breathtaking waterfalls, lush valleys, gorgeous forested cliffs, remote beaches, and historic stone-wall terraces. In other words, sure beats hanging out at the hotel bar all day.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: The Surfshack
Green Valley, Utah
This sprawling, otherworldly stretch of the San Rafael Desert is positively overflowing with rock formations both monstrous and phallic, home to some of the country's best stargazing, and somehow completely overlooked, meaning you'll probably have it to yourself with minimal effort. It's endlessly trippy and highly explorable, a kaleidoscopic playground where towering rock titans and their more diminutive underlings capture hikers' imaginations like some sort of living bit of folklore crossed over with a Dr. Seuss illustration. It's utterly hypnotic. Such is the power of hoodoo in the realm of the true Goblin King.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Red Rock Cave Home
Asheville, North Carolina
The flag-topped 315-foot granite monolith is the centerpiece of this 8,000-acre wilderness outside of Asheville, and gazing down on the sea of trees below as they turn fiery in the fall is an unforgettable experience. But the crag isn’t the only notable rock in the area. Boulders like Rumbling Bald Mountain have become destinations for climbers from all over the region. And the roaring, 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls might even be more famous than the patriotic namesake rock: It was prominently featured in Last of the Mohicans, a canonical dad movie and a favorite of high-school history subs nationwide.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Chimney Rock Glamping Dome
Seaside Park, New Jersey
Jersey is more than the sum of its stereotypes, and those in the know will tell you that the best place to soak in the sun lies beyond the Shore towns. Island Beach is positively massive, allowing you to ditch the crowds in favor of soaking in stretches of pristine beach in relative solitude, with only wild foxes to help you share the view. It's not as epic in scale as many of the parks on this list, but it's certainly an oddity, a spot attainable to New Yorkers that actually makes you feel like you've discovered some lost beach without an international flight. Plus, there's a bar, because sometimes Jersey is what you expect it to be.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Seaside Beachfront Home
Western and Northern Washington tend to grab all the attention, what with the massive national parks, beautiful coast, alpine villages, and goddamn Twin Peaks itself. But the eastern part of the state pulls its weight as well, and it takes one glance at Palouse Falls to see why. Here, the state reveals what appears to be a to-scale miniature version of the Grand Canyon, minus all the RV-bound tourists and plus a 200-foot waterfall dropping into an impossibly clear punchbowl. And at 94 acres, it's infinitely more explorable than that big-ass hole in the ground out in Arizona.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Hideaway Tent with Pool & Hot Tub
Michigan's shoreline is a tough act to follow, but keep headed north and you'll eventually come across the glorious sea of trees that make up the Porcupine Mountains. This 60,000-acre wilderness area is packed full of dense forest hikes, roaring waterfalls, and endless vistas, spanning whitewater rivers and the shores of Lake Superior. There's a reason that Yoopers constantly complain when the word gets out about the jaw-dropping beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula: It's one of the most beautiful and least-explored places in the country, and Porcupine Mountains is just one stepping stone into the dense, untamed peninsula.
Amazing Airbnb nearby: Gitchee Gumee Ecolodge
Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram @j.kehoe.