10 State Parks That Give National Parks a Run for Their Money
There’s no denying the allure of this country’s majestic national parks. But there's plenty of natural beauty to go around, and many state parks offer outdoor experiences that shouldn't be overlooked. State parks tend to have lower entrance fees and more manageable crowds than the marquee-name national parks, plus there’s the added bonus of not being affected by pesky government shutdowns. Here are 10 fabulous state parks to get you started.
1. Custer State Park: Custer, South Dakota
(Courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks)
A free-roaming herd of 1,500 bison is the main attraction at this park in the scenic Black Hills, but there’s plenty more wildlife to be spotted along its 18-mile loop road, including pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and even feral burros. Needles Highway, a popular 14-mile scenic drive through the park, is dotted with needle-shaped rock formations, two tunnels, and sweeping views of evergreen forests and lush meadows.
Weekly park license, $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle; gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park
2. Kartchner Caverns State Park: Benson, Arizona
Home to a 21-foot stalactite that ranks as the third-longest in the world, this multi-room cave located 45 miles southwest of Tucson has only been open to the public since 1999. Kartchner Caverns is a living cave, meaning that its formations are still growing, and the park offers two guided tours that explore several different areas. The park is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, so it’s great for stargazing.
Tours, from $23 for adults and $13 for youth ages 7-13 (reservations recommended); azstateparks.com/kartchner
3. Petit Jean State Park: Morrilton, Arkansas
(Courtesy Petit Jean State Park)
Central Arkansas probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind for a mountaintop adventure, but that’s just what Petit Jean State Park offers. Perched atop the 1200ft Petit John Mountain, this park has 20 miles of hiking trails that feature captivating geological formations such as giant sandstone boulders, stone arches, rock shelters, and box canyons. The park’s historic Mather Lodge, a rustic, cozy accommodation built of logs and stone, is a great option if you’re staying a few days. Free entry; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/petit-jean-state-park
4. Anza-Borrego State Park: San Diego County, California
A remote and rugged landscape located in southeast California’s Colorado desert, Anza-Borrego State Park has 600,000 acres of varied terrain including badlands and slot canyons. The popular Borrego Palm Canyon trail takes hikers on a rocky stroll to an almost surreal oasis filled with California palms. When you’re visiting, save time to check out the collection of more than 130 giant metal creatures built by sculptor Ricardo Breceda in the nearby town of Borrego Springs. Day fee, $10 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov/ansaborrego
5. Dead Horse Point State Park: Moab, Utah
It’s not the Grand Canyon, but it was a suitable stand-in for filming the final scene of the classic film Thelma & Louise. In other words, the views from Dead Horse State Park are fantastic. Just 25 miles from Moab, this park sits 2,000 feet above a gooseneck in the Colorado River and looks out over Canyonlands National Park. Visitors can pick their favorite view from one of eight different lookout points along the seven-mile rim trail.
Entry fee, $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle; stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse
6. Watkins Glen State Park: Watkins Glen, New York
With steep, plant-covered cliffs, small caves, and misty waterfalls, this state park in New York’s Finger Lakes region feels a little like stepping into a fairy tale. Visit in spring, summer, or fall, when you can hike the Gorge Trail, a two-mile journey that descends 400 feet, past 19 waterfalls into an idyllic narrow valley. Visitors can also enjoy the beauty from above on one of the dog-friendly rim trails. Season runs mid-may to early November.
Day fee, $8 per vehicle; parks.ny.gov/parks/142
7. Tettegouche State Park: Silver Bay, Minnesota
Eight great state parks dot the 150-mile stretch of Highway 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, but Tettegouche stands out for its scenic hiking opportunities through forests, past waterfalls, and along the shoreline. The easy Shovel Point trail takes hikers along jagged, lakeside cliffs to a dramatic lookout over Lake Superior. There are also three loop trails featuring waterfalls.
One-day park permit fee, $7; dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/park.html
8. Valley of Fire State Park: Overton, Nevada
Drive just 50 miles northeast of the bustling Las Vegas strip, and you’ll find a peaceful valley filled with dramatic red-sandstone formations that take on the appearance of flames on sunny days. The popular Atlatl Rock trail features a giant boulder balanced on a sandstone outcrop 50 feet above the ground. Climb its metal staircase to see the prominent ancient petroglyphs.
Entrance fee, $10 per vehicle; parks.nv.gov/parks/valley-of-fire
(Courtesy California State Parks)
Spanish for “mountain of gold,” Montana de Oro gets its name from the golden wildflowers that cover the area each spring, but you can find colorful views year-round on the seven miles of rocky, undeveloped coastline that comprise the western edge of this state park in California’s central coast region. The 4.6-mile Bluff Trail is a great way to see a large swath of the beaches, tide pools, and natural bridges in the park, or you can hike the Hazard and Valencia Peak trails for summit views. Pebbly Spooner’s Cove Beach serves as the park’s central hub.
Entry fee, $20 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov
10. Baxter State Park: Piscataquis County, Maine
With no electricity, running water, or paved roads within its boundaries, this 200,000-acre park in North Central Maine offers mountain, lake, and forest adventures for those who like their wilderness truly wild. The park’s 5,200-foot Mt. Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, but there are more than 40 other peaks and ridges to explore, and five pond-side campgrounds that offer canoe rentals.
Entry fee, $15 per vehicle; baxterstatepark.org
The best US national parks for stargazing, according to star map makers
"Nature is soothing, and gazing at the night sky with friends and family is the perfect way to spend a relaxing break with all the hustle and bustle of the real world that's currently taking over," says Zoltan Toth-Czifra from Under Lucky Stars. "We determined the best spots for stargazing to give US citizens inspiration for their next trip to get away and experience the true beauty of the night sky above us. We took into consideration the darkest skies for people to stargaze from, whilst factoring the park's accessibility and busyness, to ensure the ultimate stargazing experience." Here are the top five parks selected, and the full list is available here. 1. Great Basin National Park, Nevada Great Basin National Park was deemed to be the best stargazing hot spot in the US. Spanning Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and sections of California, Idaho, and Wyoming, the Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. With only 131,802 yearly visitors, this park is one of the best to stargaze from without being disturbed by other visitors. Great Basin National Park is the best stargazing hot spot in the US © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 2. Big Bend National Park, Texas Big Bend National Park is located in southwest Texas and borders Mexico. It holds national significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the US. This park also includes the entire Chisos mountain range. Thanks to its vast surface area, it is one of the best parks to stargaze from as there is very little light pollution. Big Bend National Park has very little light pollution © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 3. Redwood National Park, California Redwood National and State Parks lie along the coast of northern California. They consist of Redwood National Park, California's Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. The combined parks span 139,000 acres and feature old-growth temperate rainforests. Redwood National Park scored highly with easy accessibility, very low light pollution and a yearly footfall of 504,722 visitors – a great combination to see the stars. Redwood National Park scored highly with easy accessibility © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 4. North Cascades National Park, Washington The North Cascades located in Washington State is a vast terrain of wilderness. Filled with a varied species of animals and birds, the remote park is an outdoor dream. With just 38,208 yearly visitors to the vast land combined with low light pollution, the park is the perfect peaceful destination to enjoy the stars in the sky. North Cascades National Park is filled with a varied species of animals and birds © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 5. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota Close to the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is the perfect canvas to sit and enjoy the stars. Located in northern Minnesota, the park is known for its stunning forestry and lakes, but mostly for its overall peaceful surroundings. The park welcomes 232,974 visitors annually, which combined with low light pollution lands it in the top five. Voyageurs National Park is known for its stunning forestry and lakes © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash
Yellowstone, America’s first national park is big — 2.2 million-acres big. In addition to its size, Yellowstone divides into distinctly different regions and habitats that include geysers, fumaroles, and other geothermal features plus a canyon, a lake, and a series of limestone terraces as well as an abundance of roaming wildlife. With such vastness and variety, the park can be overwhelming. To make the most of your Yellowstone visit, follow these insider tips. 1. See Old Faithful in the early morning or in the evening. Almost everyone who enters the park heads to Old Faithful. For a more intimate experience, explore the Upper Geyser Basin in the early morning before the day visitors arrive or in the late afternoon after they leave. 2. Visit Yellowstone Lake in the afternoon. While the day visitors view Old Faithful and the surrounding area, head to 136-square-mile Yellowstone Lake, the largest in the park. Consider signing up for a guided boat tour or rent a boat on your own. 3. Take a hike. Don’t just see Yellowstone’s wonders through your car window. Walking even a ½ mile on a boardwalk or trail offers you a more complete sense of Yellowstone’s features and landscape. 4. Look for wildlife at the right times. Your best chance of spotting the park’s legendary bison as well as other critters is in the early morning or evening. 5. Explore Lamar Valley. Often less-visited than other areas, Lamar Valley’s habitat draws wildlife and the open vistas create optimum viewing conditions. You may see elk, bear, coyote, bighorn sheep, and eagles, especially if you arrive early. Consider booking the park’s early-morning Wake Up to Wildlife Tour. 6. Stop at the Visitor Centers. Each facility presents educational exhibits that focus on their region of the park. While at the centers, check for the ranger programs. 7. Look at the stars. Go outside after dark. Walk 100 yards from your lodge or drive a short distance to a turnout, then park, scan the lot for wildlife and if none is present, exit your car to look up at the dazzling display of stars. With little light pollution, the night sky is a wonder. 8. Carry a flashlight at night. Since the park keeps the outdoor lighting soft, bring a flashlight for comfort, especially when traveling with young children. 9. Bring binoculars. Stay a safe distance from the wildlife. If you want to see what a bison or elk looks like up close, view them through your binoculars. 10. Pack for multiple seasons. Even in summer low temperatures at night can hover near freezing and daytime highs shoot into the 80s. Pack layers. For more information and reservations, visit yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 307-344-7311. For more travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.
Welcome to America's newest National Park: New River Gorge!
America's Best Idea is welcoming a new park to the National Park system. New River Gorge National Park was designated as the United State's 63rd National Park. New River Gorge is the first National Park in the great state of West Virginia. It sits on the southeast corner of the state. Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It has carved beautiful canyons out of the Appalachian Mountains, and is a prime spot for adventure travelers. It boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the USA, and offers some prime climbing and hiking trails. New River Gorge also offers plenty of wildlife, as it offers some of the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. The nearest major cities to New River Gorge are Roanoke Va, Knoxville Tn, and Cincinnati Ohio. For more information, visit the NPS site.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park (nps.gov/grsm) is America’s most visited national park (with more than 11 million visitors in 2017), in part because of its proximity to large populations of people, but mostly for its sweeping views, great hiking trails, and opportunities to get up close and personal with the most biodiverse park in America. Must-see highlights include hiking to the top of Clingman’s Dome Observatory and the drive through Cades Cove. In late 2016, some of the most trafficked trails of the park, along with the neighboring town of Gatlinburg, were burned when a wildfire met a windstorm. Both the park and the town have rebounded, offering a fascinating opportunity to see how the natural world rebounds after a wildfire GETTING THERE Straddling the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most centrally located national parks and a manageable road trip from many major urban areas in the East, Midwest, and South. The closest regional airports are Mcghee-Tyson in Knoxville Tennessee or the Asheville regional airport in North Carolina. Both airports have rental car options. And remember when renting a vehicle that you do not need a 4WD vehicle to experience this park. ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK There is no entrance fee for Great Smoky Mountain National Park, because the state of Tennessee would only transfer the land to the National Park Service if they guaranteed no fee would ever be charged to access the mountains. Please consider donating $20 to the Friends of the Smokies instead (friendsofthesmokies.org); this is the admission fee for most of the national parks across the country, and funds go directly to protecting the park’s facilities and wildlife. CAMPING IS A BARGAIN Tent camping is the cheapest way to experience the Smokies . For $20/night, there are 10 different campgrounds in the Smokies. Some of them require reservations and are only open during the high season. You can check the pricing and reservation requirements online (nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/frontcountry-camping.htm). AFFORDABLE LODGING Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee are considered the “gateway to the Smokies” and both have lived up to this moniker by providing ample affordable lodging and a huge variety of activities for families. This area is what I like to call “hillbilly chic” for the way it leans into its heritage. Physical activities like go-karts, mini-golf, and horseback riding abound, but you can also experience museums of the strange and curious - from the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum all the way to the Titanic museum. And you’ll definitely notice a certain affinity for one Dolly Parton. This part of Tennessee is where the singer/songwriter grew up, and Parton has reinvested in the community by opening up several dinner theaters and her own theme park. Dollywood has several of the best roller coasters in the South and provides a great time. Should you decide to do any of these attractions, be sure to do a search for discounted tickets online before you pay full price at the box office. For the cheapest hotel options, you should consider staying in Cherokee, North Carolina (on the other side of the park from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge). This area is the Cherokee indian reservation, and has many hotels that get you more for the price. Cherokee is not as kitschy as Gatlinburg, and you’ll have fewer crowds to deal with. EATING OPTIONS ABOUND There are a plethora of restaurants on the Tennessee side of the park. You can find everything from cheap fast food to mountain pancakes to steak dinners. HIKING & MUST-SEE SIGHTS The Chimneys. The Chimneys is a classic hike in the smokies, a steep climb up to one of the best views in the park. This hike is a bit over four miles round trip, and you should plan on a workout. Bring plenty of water and a walking stick. This trail was part of the burn area in the 2015 wildfires, so it can be muddy in places where the brush was burned away. Because of the fire, you can no longer go the final .25 mile to the summit of the chimneys, but the end of the trail still provides a wonderful view. Alum Cave Bluff Trail. This is a moderate 6.5 mile trail that offers some amazing views and a variety of terrain, concluding at a natural cave in the mountain rock. This hike is really fun and is not as physically taxing as some of the other hikes in the park. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so be sure to get there early! Clingman’s Dome Observatory. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park, and has an observatory on the top that provides some incredibly views. The hike to the observatory is less than a mile, with minimal elevation gain. The trail is paved, making this an ideal outing for families with children and those who are disabled. Be sure to bring a jacket as this higher elevation is often cold and windy, even in summer. Appalachian Trail. The appalachian trail is a 2,000 mile adventure that goes right through GSMNP. Those with an adventurous spirit can meet up with the Appalachian Trail at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot and hike as much or as little of it as they wish. Keep in mind that all overnight backcountry stays in this park require a permit. IF YOU'RE VISITING WITH KIDS... Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most fun parks to visit with children. Here, two options that’ll keep little ones enchanted, and make them want to return again and again: Creek Stomping. There are several places in the park that are great for kids to play in nature. At the trailhead for the Chimneys trail is a rocky section of the creek that offers a good opportunity for kids to climb and splash in the water. Scenic Drive and Picnic. Cades Cove is in a valley surrounded by mountains and makes for a lovely scenic drive. This is the best spot in the park for picnicking, as well as providing plenty of great photos and opportunities to see wildlife. Cades Cove used to be a small mountain community, and the old structures from the 19th century have been preserved for the public to get a glimpse of life. Bears are not an uncommon sighting in Cades Cove, but don’t be afraid - black bears prefer a lazy lifestyle as long as you don’t get too close! Plan on spending at least an hour driving the Cades Cove loop - which can get crowded on beautiful days and weekends.