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15 US State Parks That Are Just as Epic as National Parks

United States National Parks Insider Guides
by Rebecca Hollman Jul 17, 2018

People are usually drawn to national parks for their size and splendor or the breadth of activities they offer. This can lead to crowding, traffic, and backlogs at the most popular attractions within those parks.

But many state parks in the US offer just as much, if not more, than dedicated national parks — often with fewer people and for less money. Don’t miss out on amazing hiking opportunities at these fifteen state parks just because they’re not classified as national parks.

1. Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee

Falls Creek Fall State Park

Photo: Jim Vallee/Shutterstock

Spanning more than 26,000 acres across eastern Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau, Fall Creek Falls State Park is the biggest and most visited park in Tennessee. This park is home to Fall Creek Falls, the waterfall that gave the park its name, as well as several other falls, including Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls, and Cane Creek Cascades. At 256-feet tall, Fall Creek Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

Along with spectacular cascades, Fall Creek Falls State Park also has overlooks, gorges, virgin hardwood forests, and more caves than you’ll find at nearly all other US parks. Some of these caves include Camps Gulf Cove, Lost Creek Cave, and Rumbling Falls Cave, which has the second largest cave chamber in the US.

Beyond all these superlatives, Fall Creek Falls State Park also has a diversity of trail options, ranging from short, moderate hikes on paved trails to overnight hikes on natural hiking trails. Most trails in the 56-mile trail system lead to overlooks with stunning views of the area’s tallest waterfall and surrounding landscape. Add in great rock climbing and fishing, and Falls Creek Falls has myriad activities to engage you.

Highlights: the tallest waterfall in the East, rock climbing
Hours: open 24 hours, every day
Entrance fee: none
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: the year-round temperature is relatively mild in Tennessee.

2. Manatee Springs State Park, Florida

Manatee Springs

Photo: Robert Whitlach/Shutterstock

The most prominent feature in 2,000-acre Manatee Springs State Park is the Manatee Springs itself. It produces 81,000 gallons of crystal-clear spring water every minute, or 117 million gallons daily. The water comes from rain that falls within 40 miles of the spring. The surrounding land acts as a sponge, and the sand and limestone allow the rainwater to seep into underground caverns that feed the water to the spring.

This water then flows from the spring into the Suwannee River, where it eventually meets the Gulf of Mexico. The spring itself is 25-feet deep and 75-feet across. In addition, over 26,000 feet of underwater cave passageways have been mapped, and these conduits can reach depths of up to 90 feet. Four main entrances give scuba divers access to these passageways. Certified divers can explore several miles of underground caverns that feed into the spring, including the popular Catfish Hotel.

The spring is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit and serves as a haven for manatees, especially during winter and spring when they calve. Beyond admiring the manatees while diving, snorkeling, and swimming, you can also kayak and canoe. On land, there are hiking and biking trails, as well as boardwalks and floating docks that allow you to get closer to the swamps, swamp vegetation, and up close and personal to the spring.

Highlights: scuba diving, manatee viewing
Hours: 8:00 AM to sundown, every day
Entrance fee: $6 per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: dogs are prohibited on boardwalks but OK in other areas of park.
Best time of year to visit: winter, when water clarity levels are best and manatees are nesting in the springs.

3. Ecola State Park, Oregon

View of the shore at Ecola State Park

Photo: SimonaKoz/Shutterstock

Ecola State Park stretches along nine miles of dramatic Oregon coastline and offers stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean. The small state park is perched on Tillamook Head near Cannon Beach, one of the best-known beaches in Oregon. The scenic Ecola Park Road winds through old-growth rainforest and Sitka spruce forest, offering many lookout points to view the rock formations, sea stacks, and headlands of the Oregon coast in both directions.

The park’s main attractions are Indian Beach, a rugged beach cove that’s popular with surfers, and Ecola Point, a lookout point that doubles as the trailhead for the Lighthouse Trail. Ecola State Park has several miles of hiking trails, which offer views of the sea, coves, and rainforest-covered landscape. The park even includes an eight-mile segment of the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT). Besides hiking, Ecola State Park is popular for bird watching, whale watching, surfing, and wildlife photography, as herds of Roosevelt elk, bald eagles, and migrating gray whales are a common sight.

Highlights: whale watching in spring, surfing
Hours: 8:00 AM-5:00 PM every day
Entrance fee: $5 per person for day use
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: spring for whale watching.

4. Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Photo: MetasZBABLU/Shutterstock

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a 600,000-acre park in Southern California, is the second largest state park in the country. Its name comes from Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the word borrego, Spanish for bighorn sheep. The park includes 110 miles of hiking trails and 12 wilderness areas, which span an immense area of different ecosystems, including desert badlands, foothills, mountain peaks, and canyons.

The majority of the site’s flora and fauna can be found within these ecosystems from February to April, and Swainson’s Hawks fly overhead as part of their spring migration. Most of the park is only accessible via primitive roads or by foot, making it true desert backcountry. Besides hiking, there are many biking trails, a bike rental shop, and offroading trails.

With its remoteness and dry air, Anza-Borrego is excellent for stargazing and was ranked the second-best International Dark Sky Community in the world. Another unique feature is Ricardo Breceda’s sculpture-art installations, which are placed randomly throughout the state park and the town of Borrego Springs. Breceda has created 130 red, giant-sized, scrap-metal sculptures that depict real-life creatures that once roamed the land. The most famous of these is a 350-foot-long dragon that seems to emerge from the dry ground.

Highlights: stargazing, free backcountry camping
Hours: dawn until dusk, every day
Entrance fee: popular areas have day-use fees between $5 and $10, but most of the park is free.
Restrictions: dogs are allowed in the park but not on hiking trails, no ground fires permitted, no drones permitted.
Best time of year to visit: either spring or fall, with spring being best for wildflower bloom and viewing hawk migrations.

5. Lake Tahoe State Park, Nevada

View over Lake Tahoe

Photo: BGS_Image/Shutterstock

Lake Tahoe, a beautiful turquoise alpine lake, has been called “the jewel of Nevada.” It’s surrounded by 72 miles of perfect shoreline dotted with pristine beaches and is a recreation heaven, offering kayaking and water opportunities during the summer and skiing and other snow sports during the winter. Four state parks surround Lake Tahoe. The largest and most popular of these is Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, which covers 14,300 acres of land.

The most-visited site in the park is Sand Harbor, a pristine, three-mile stretch of beach known for its white granite boulders, which dot the coastline and provide a stark contrast to the bright blue of the water. Sand Harbor has a boat launch, picnicking areas, Harbor House Bistro, and Lake Tahoe informational center. The Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park is also an access point for reaching the 13,000 acres of Marlette/Hobart Backcountry, which features hiking trails, equestrian trails, and mountain biking trails.

Highlights: Sand Harbor beach, kayaking/canoeing/SUPing
Hours: 8:00 AM to one hour after sunset, every day
Entrance fee: $10 USD per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: all year long, with different recreation opportunities in summer and winter.

6. Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

Smith Rock Park

Photo: Marisa Estivill/Shutterstock

Smith Rock State Park is a 652-acre park in the semi-arid high desert of Central Oregon. Smith Rock is known for its rock-climbing routes and is called the birthplace of modern sport climbing. Despite its small size, it has over 1,800 different rock climbing routes, and 1,000 of them are already bolted.

It’s a popular spot for sport climbing, traditional climbing, bouldering, and multi-pitch climbing. It also contains the first ever climb rated 5.14 (8b+). Even if you don’t come to the park to climb, Smith Rock offers hiking and biking trails, scenic views of canyons, and opportunities to spot wildlife like golden eagles, prairie falcons, mule deer, river otters, and beavers.

Highlights: rock climbing
Hours: open 24 hours, every day
Entrance fee: $5 USD per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: summer, when all climbing routes are open.

7. Baxter State Park, Maine

Baxter State Park

Photo: Brittany Courville/Shutterstock

Baxter State Park, encompassing 209,644 acres of wilderness in inland Maine, is New England’s grandest state park. Percival Baxter personally acquired and donated all 200,000 acres of Baxter State Park between 1931 and 1962. Percival wanted to keep his beloved home of Maine “forever wild” and dedicated the state park to “those who love nature and are willing to walk and make an effort to get close to nature.”

Because of this, the park was designed to be explored entirely on foot or via kayak, and there is almost no vehicular access to its 46 peaks and 215 miles of hiking trails. The limited road system really just allows people to reach the starting points for their hiking or kayaking treks. There is no WiFi, running water, food, gas, or electricity in the entire park. You’ll need to bring your own water or filter the natural water if staying at one of the park’s many campsites or cabins.

The park contains Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak, which is actually a cluster of peaks and the final terminus point for the Appalachian Trail. Baxter also contains rare alpine flowers, unique glacial formations, backcountry trails, ponds and lakes, and waterfalls.

Highlights: whitewater rapids, kayaking, backcountry hiking
Hours: 6:00 AM-8:30 PM every day
Entrance fee: $15 USD per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: limited road access
Best time of year to visit: fall, when the foliage is changing colors.

8. Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Photo: Zack Frank/Shutterstock

The second largest canyon in the US lies in the Texas panhandle. Palo Duro Canyon is 120-miles long, 20-miles wide, and 800-feet deep. It looks like the classic rugged landscape of old-time Westerns. With over 1,500 trails specifically dedicated to horseback riding, it’s one of the most horse-friendly state parks in the country. You can bring your own horse to trail ride, or you can take a guided tour from Old West Stables, located inside the park.

Early Native Americans resided in the canyon for around 12,000 years. The nomadic tribes that first arrived were followed by Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa tribes. Early Spanish explorers named the area Palo Duro, which means “hard wood,” for the immense amounts of mesquite and juniper trees in the area. Unfortunately, through US intervention, the Native American tribes were forced out of the area and into Oklahoma. Charles Goodnight was the first white American to move into the area thereafter; the JA Ranch that he set up in what is now state-park land remains a working, albeit smaller, ranch today.

Beyond horseback riding, you can hike, camp, bird watch, and mountain bike in the park. Thanks to its dark night skies, Palo Duro is also a great place to stargaze.

Highlights: trails specifically for horseback riding, stargazing
Hours: 7:00 AM-10:00 PM every day
Entrance fee: $5 per person for day use, overnight fees may differ
Restrictions: no collection of rocks or wild plants
Best time of year to visit: early spring (wildflower bloom) or late fall — the summer months are generally too hot to enjoy the park.

9. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park/Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

Julia Pfeiffer State Park

Photo: Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock

Two different state parks, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, are only seven miles apart. They can, and should, be easily combined as part of the same trip. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is located in the Big Sur Valley along scenic Highway 1, the roadway that runs from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific coast. The peaks of Pfeiffer Big Sur loom above Big Sur River Gorge, where Big Sur River runs through the park. This park is famous for its trees, among them redwoods, oaks, and willows. Wildlife includes bobcats, deer, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and dozens of birds species.

This park is extremely popular and trafficked; it’s got a sit-down restaurant, lodge, grocery store, swimming pool, and picnicking areas. However, it’s still beautiful and is one of the few places in California where you can actually camp among old-growth redwood trees.

The 3,7000-acre Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after an early-20th-century pioneer, is home to many redwoods that are over 300-feet tall and over 2,500-years old. The main feature of the park is McWay Falls, which drops 80 feet from granite cliffs into the ocean below and can be seen from the half-mile Waterfall Overlook Trail.

The park is excellent for whale watching. Overlook points throughout the park are great for viewing gray-whale migrations in December, January, March, and April. Marine protected areas off the coast of the park help conserve fragile ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems. In addition, the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Area, which is part of the state park, is an exceptional scuba diving site.

Highlights: vista point, whale watching, scuba diving, redwood trees
Hours: a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset
Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle for day use — the fee covers entrance to both Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns in the same day.
Restrictions: drone use not permitted
Best time of year to visit: spring for the whale migration.

10. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Dead Horse Point in Utah

Photo: Elisaveta Ivanova/Shutterstock

Only 32 miles from Moab, Dead Horse Point State Park is one of the country’s most spectacular recreation spots. Dead Horse Point is a beautiful lookout point that allows you to see 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River and out towards the surrounding Canyonlands National Park. Millions of years of geologic activity, which formed the rust-colored canyons and spires, have created a masterpiece of natural art.

The park offers 16 miles of hiking and biking trails that wind around the edge of the mesa, giving fantastic lookout points and views into the canyons below. Beyond hiking, Dead Horse Point is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park and is one of the best places for stargazing in Utah because of its high-plateau location and distance from light pollution.

Highlights: vista points, stargazing
Hours: 6:00 AM-10:00 PM every day
Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: all year long, but winter and the off-season allow for lower temperatures and fewer crowds.

11. Chugach State Park, Alaska

Chugach State Park

Photo: Susan R. Serna/Shutterstock

Located near Anchorage, Alaska, Chugach State Park spans 495,000 acres — big enough to contain both Los Angeles and New York. Only Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California (see above) and Wood-Tikchik State Park, also in Alaska, are larger. Its 200 coastal miles stretch from seven miles west of Anchorage to the Canada border. With nine different ecosystems inside the park, every terrestrial mammal that’s found in Alaska can be found in Chugach State Park. These include moose, bears, wolves, lynx, beavers, river otters, and 45 other mammal species.

Even with its remote location in Alaska, Chugach is extremely accessible given its proximity to Anchorage. The 110 trails can be used for hiking, biking, ATV riding, horseback riding, or snowmobiling. Along with these activities, hunting, fishing, gold-panning, and berry picking are also common. The park is also popular for wildlife watching, photography, boating, and kayaking.

Highlights: snowmobiling, wildlife photography, kayaking
Hours: open 24 hours, every day
Entrance fee: none
Restrictions: no motorized boats
Best time of year to visit: summer for the best temperature and longest sunlight hours.

12. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Valley of Fire State Park

Photo: Edwin Verin/Shutterstock

Named for its dramatic red sandstone formations, Valley of Fire State Park truly looks like it’s ablaze under the rays of the late afternoon sun. The park contains 40,000 acres of iconic Aztec sandstone, as well as gray and tan limestone, petrified trees, and petroglyphs. Samples of petroglyphs left by the Anasazi people can be found throughout the park. Valley of Fire also has many species of desert plants like brush, cactus, and wildflowers. Spring wildflower blooms of desert marigold, indigo bush, and desert mallow make the park look incredible.

The scenic, ten-mile Valley of Fire Road traverses the park and own is worth the trip to park in its own right. You can also take short, quick walks to iconic rock formations or lookouts right off the scenic drive. Of course, there are also hiking trails and camping spots. Valley of Fire is just 50 miles from the Las Vegas strip, making it an easy and accessible day trip from the city.

Highlights: scenic drives, proximity to Las Vegas
Hours: 6:30 AM-7:00 PM every day
Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: none, dogs allowed
Best time of year to visit: spring or fall to avoid the peak heat of the summer — the wildflower bloom in the spring is especially pretty.

13. Napali Coast State Park, Hawaii

Na Pali coast

Photo: Jo Ann Snover/Shutterstock

Kaua’i is called the Garden Island because it’s the greenest of the Hawaiian islands. It’s stunning throughout, but its most beautiful asset is the Napali Coast, an 11-mile stretch of extremely sheer cliffs, hidden lava-rock caves, and beaches. Na Pali translates from Hawaiian to “high cliffs,” and the escarpments rise up to 4,000 feet above sea level in some places. There are no roads, vehicles, hotels, or cell-phone signals here. There aren’t many people either.

The Napali Coast State Park is 6,175 acres located along the north side of Kaua’i and was created to protect the Kalalau Valley, where ancient groups of Hawaiians once lived, surviving by fishing and trading with other groups. This state park is completely inaccessible by car or any vehicle. You can enter by sea via kayak or by land via the Kalalau Trail, or you can view it from above via helicopter.

Kayaking tours can either be done as a day trip to one beach or a multi-day excursion along the entire coast. These tours allow you to view the coastline in all its magnificence and enter sea caves not accessible by land. Hiking in via the 11-mile Kalalau Trail allows you to experience the flora and fauna, gives you access to all the campsites and beaches, and brings you past waterfalls. Viewing the park from above instantly reminds you that this is where the movie “Jurassic Park” begins and gives you a unique birds-eye view of this beautiful coastline.

Highlights: dramatic scenery, remote access
Hours: daylight hours, every day
Entrance fee: none
Restrictions: permits required for campgrounds, maximum 5-night stay, no motorized vehicles/road access
Best time of year to visit: summer, as camping is only permitted between May 15 and September 7 for anyone wishing to reach the park via hike or kayak.

14. Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

Humboldt State Park

Photo: EyeLights West/Shutterstock

Twice the size of the city of San Francisco, Humboldt Redwoods State Park spans 53,000 acres — 17,000 of which are old-growth virgin redwood forests. It’s the largest area of old-growth redwoods on the planet, established nearly a century ago by conservationists who purchased it from the Pacific Lumber Company. More than 100 trees over 350-feet tall can be found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and you’ll drive right through the base of three of these stately trees along the 32-mile Avenue of Giants.

The tallest in the park, and the fourth tallest living redwood on earth, the Stratosphere Giant is 370.5-feet tall. The tallest redwood on record was also located in the park. It was the 372-foot-tall Dyerville Giant, which fell in 1991 at the ripe age of 1,600 years old. Beyond its massive array of redwoods, Humboldt Redwoods also has excellent campgrounds with hot showers, beaches, hiking trails, a horse camp, and equestrian trails. The South Fork Eel River also provides opportunities for fishing, boating, and swimming.

Highlights: redwood trees
Hours: 9:00 AM-5:00 PM from April to October, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM from November to March
Entrance fee: $8 per vehicle for day use
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: summer — rain is extremely common during all other seasons.

15. Adirondack Park, New York

Adirondack Park

Photo: Johnathan Esper/Shutterstock

Located in upstate New York, Adirondack Park is six million acres of “forever wild” forest. This converts to 9,375 square miles, nearly the size of the entire state of Vermont. Bigger than both Death Valley and Yellowstone National Parks put together, it has over 3,000 ponds and lakes, 30,000 rivers and streams, and 2,000 miles of hiking trails. It’s the largest protected area in the US and an interesting patchwork of both public and private land. There are 102 towns within the state park, and technically, the state of New York only owns half of the land. The 3.4 million acres that are privately owned are managed by an agency called the Adirondack Park Agency.

The Adirondacks is known for its remoteness and vast array of hiking trails. The 46 tallest peaks in the state park are called the Adirondack High Peaks, and the people who have managed to summit all 46 peaks call themselves the “46ers.” Mt. Marcy is the tallest peak and the highest point in New York at 5,343 feet. Regardless of whether you plan on becoming a 46er, summiting a few peaks, or just walking on relaxed trails, Adirondack State Park has over 2,000 miles of trails that cater to every skill level and can be used for cross-country skiing in the winter.

Highlights: vastness of hiking trails, remoteness
Hours: open 24 hours, every day
Entrance fee: no entry fee
Restrictions: none
Best time of year to visit: summer months for hiking, but the park is accessible all year for alpine and cross-country skiing.

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