When US President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence in 1916, he committed our country to protect some of our most beautiful and naturally unique settings. The idea was actually born some 44 years earlier with the designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, which put the geysers, mountains, and natural wildlife habitats of northwestern Wyoming under protection for generations to come. And come they have. According to official statistics from the National Park Service, over 318 million people visited national parks in the US in 2018.
However, being stuck behind a line of RVs and camper vans crawling over Trail Ridge Road in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park at a timid 12 mph is no more fun than being stuck in a torrential downpour during a mountain hike. Crowded highways, parking lots, and overlooks are increasingly common at many of the most visited national parks, which is an unfortunately unavoidable result of positive appreciation. The thing about crowded parks, though, is that they’re likely right near a state park that isn’t getting nearly as much attention.
Far from the local stepchild of national parks, state parks can make a viable addition to — or even an alternative to — your next national parks road trip. State parks are more affordable, often less than $10 per day for as many people as you can cram into one vehicle. Because access permits aren’t required at most state parks, expect trails, river put-ins, and fishing spots aplenty, with fewer people jostling for that perfect selfie at a scenic overlook and less competition at campsites. And, state parks tend to have far less stringent regulations surrounding dogs — while Rocky Mountain National Park does not allow dogs on any hiking trails, for instance, nearby State Forest State Park has no such restrictions.
Here are the best state parks near the five busiest national parks.
Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Annual visitors: 11.5 million
Panther Creek State Park, Tennessee
Distance from national park: 1.5 hours
With over 30 miles of trail access within park grounds and more nearby, Panther Creek State Park offers Appalachia’s rolling green hills and the bonus of on-water activities at Cherokee Reservoir. There’s even a disc golf course for when leisurely competition calls and some of Tennessee’s best fishing. Campsites can be booked in advance, and the park has Wi-Fi for routing the next stage of your adventure. Get the family out on the Old Wagon Trail, or hit the Hunt Knob Trail for more of a challenge.
Gorges State Park, North Carolina
Distance from national park: 1.5 hours
As the name suggests, Gorges State Park is ringed with river gorges that feature some of the most striking waterfalls in the southern US, and is home to one of the region’s most diverse collections of rare plants and wildlife. The gorges’ towering rock walls and expansive views give it a sort of Yosemite-in-the-southeast feel, and the hiking is on par with Appalachia’s best. For a light jaunt, hit Bearwallow Valley Trail, or try the Foothills Trail if you’re looking to make a day of it.
Near Grand Canyon National Park
Annual visitors: 6.4 million
Homolovi State Park, Arizona
Distance from national park: 2.5 hours
Homolovi State Park is an entirely different feel from the Grand Canyon, home to native Hopi ruins and hiking trails that run across the high prairie grasslands. The park is home to more than 300 archaeological sites including 14th-century Hopi pueblos and artifacts from prehistoric residents of the area. This park is equal parts outdoor experience and cultural wonder, so expect to learn a thing or two about how the southwest has changed over the past 600 years.
Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah
Distance from national park: Just over three hours to Grand Canyon, 30 minutes to Bryce Canyon
Expect to stop every few minutes to take photos of the towering, spiral-shaped rock monoliths at Kodachrome Basin State Park. They’re known as sedimentary pipes, and they make this park quite similar to Arches National Park. The Sentinel Trail is the must-do hike here, though its most famous site, Shakespeare Arch, actually collapsed earlier this year. You can easily turn this into a parks road trip for ages by taking advantage of a plethora of parks in the southwest. Start with Canyonlands or Arches national parks, visit Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, and then dip a bit further south to unwind in the party scene surrounding Lake Havasu State Park.
Near Zion National Park
Annual visitors: 4.3 million
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah
Distance from national park: 40 minutes
In the same region of the country as the Grand Canyon is Zion National Park. The Spectrum reported that Zion National Park saw over four million visitors this summer — more than double the number of visitors the park saw just a decade ago. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park sounds like a place you might find closer to the tropics rather than in southern Utah. It nearly resembles the image too, save for the lack of an ocean. This is perhaps the best place in the country for sandboarding, and ATV riding is accessible as well. If you’ve been to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, Coral Pink is a similar experience without the RVs. The sand appears pink because it is actually eroded Navajo sandstone, another factor separating these dunes from others.
Near Rocky Mountain National Park
Annual visitors: 4.6 million
State Forest State Park
Distance from national park: 1 hour and 45 minutes
State Forest State Park takes the title for the dumbest park name, but spend a few days backpacking through the park and summiting the 12,900-foot Clark Peak and you won’t be thinking about the name at all. If summiting a peak isn’t your bag, try the Gould Loop Trail or American Lakes Trail, both doable in a morning if you get an early start.
Lory State Park
Distance from national park: 1 hour and 15 minutes
If you’re on the Denver side of Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Lory State Park for backpacking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Trails wind up above Horsetooth Reservoir, climbing up peaks and overlooking the city of Fort Collins in the distance. Put the East Valley and West Valley trails together for a 5.5-mile loop that is perfect for a moderately challenging hike or a quick morning bike ride.
Near Yellowstone National Park
Annual visitors: 4.1 million
Sinks Canyon State Park
Distance from national park: 3.5 hours
Sinks Canyon State Park brings the defining characteristics of the Wyoming outdoors together in one place. Mountains to the west, groves of aspens and forested hillsides, and the canyon itself, so named because the Popo Agie River actually dips underground in the canyon like a stream of water flowing into a sink. The mountains are anchored by wide-open rock faces, and hiking the Falls Trail and Canyon Trail along the water as it cuts through the park is about as tranquil an experience as you can expect to have. There’s a high probability that there won’t be anyone else around — except for the birds, which makes this one of the best places for birding in all of the west.
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