Travel

These Incredible State Parks Prove You Have No Idea What the U.S. Looks Like

That’s not Mars. It’s Montana.

Caption: Naria, apparently, is in Ohio. | arthurgphotography / shutterstock
Caption: Naria, apparently, is in Ohio. | arthurgphotography / shutterstock

Iowa? Cornfields. Colorado? Rockies. Vermont? Sugar maples. You know the drill. But apparently, nature didn’t get the memo about what every state is stereotypically supposed to look like. She’s never been much for blanket, one-size-fits-all thinking. 

Nature, not borders, calls the landscape shots. Which is why you might round a bend in Buckeye country and suddenly feel transported to Narnia, or stumble across high-north badlands and deserts when you’re expecting snowy peaks. The below state parks are waiting to completely challenge your preconceived notions about US geography. And once you see them, you’ll likely catch yourself wondering: What else might be out there?

Caddo Lake State Park

Karnack, Texas
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. Some spend afternoons with rod and reel in Saw Mill Pond or on foot along the Caddo Forest Trail, but getting lost amongst these ancient floating trees is the thing to do here. 

Run your paddle through the placid, misty waters of Caddo Lake, ducking beneath Spanish moss hanging like serpents from the branches of 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.”

Makoshika State Park

Glendive, Montana
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. You’re walking along the sandy, muddy coast, almost sinking in, the humidity in the air causing more than dew on your skin.

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 juniper and pine near the North Dakota border. Orange-gray hoodoos and tent rocks 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.

Photo courtesy of Destination Door County

Peninsula State Park

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. Lace up your boots and hit the two-mile Eagle Trail, starting atop a dolomite cliff at Eagle Terrace. You’ll quickly work your way 200 feet down to shoreline, through groves of white cedar forest, sugar maple, and red oak. Watch your step—loose rocks and exposed roots will have you forgetting to admire the view.

Once you hit the water’s edge, you’re hopping along the rubble of ancient sea caves—still visible, now dry—in the shadow of the 250-foot-high Niagara Escarpment, named for a certain waterfall 700 miles east of here plunging over it. Next time, trade the boots for water shoes and paddle to this very spot for unsurpassed views of this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

Grant, Washington
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—this time, at less than highway speed.

Hocking Hills State Park

Logan, Ohio
Start at the 20-foot Upper Falls on the Grandma Gatewood Trail an hour south of Columbus, where a Civilian Conservation Corps-era bridge across this sandstone gorge makes it loom larger than its size. Head downstream along the length of the narrow canyon until you reach the Devil’s Bathtub (a churning pool), Lower Falls, and Old Man’s Cave, an above-ground recess in the rocky walls with wildflowers lining the floor.

From here, you’re continuing on the six-mile trek through groves of hemlock and beech to Cedar Falls, Rose Lake Falls, and Whispering Falls—the latter is seasonal but 100 feet tall. Ash Cave is your final destination: a recess cave 700 feet long, 100 feet deep, and 90 feet tall, with a waterfall pouring over its roof. A hint at its location, this heavyweight trail is also part of the Buckeye Trail, the North Country National Scenic Trail, and the American Discovery Trail.

Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen, New York
On the Gorge Trail in the somehow-still-overlooked 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.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.
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