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10 Overlooked State Parks of the American West

Arizona Utah Las Vegas National Parks
by Jen Mathews Feb 25, 2010
There are big names in the parks systems of the Southwest and West Coast. Here are some that aren’t household, but maybe could be.

KEN BURNS’S recent national parks documentary, America’s Best Idea, brought new eyes to Yosemite National Park in California and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. A Yosemite park ranger recently told the AP that the series has resulted in a noticeable increase in park attendance.

But national parks like these can overshadow their smaller counterparts in the same area: the state parks of the American Southwest and West Coast.

Due to severe budget cuts, the Arizona State Parks Board plans to close 13 of its state parks between February and June. Other state park systems, including California’s, have struggled with budget cuts.

Every park offers something different. If you’re heading to the region, support the state park systems with your feet. Here are 10 that are especially worth a visit:


Like the more crowded Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson is full of stalactites and stalagmites that have been growing for tens of thousands of years. Check out the video tour at their website.

Designated a state park in 1988, the Kartchner caverns contain one of the world’s longest “soda straw” stalactites at 21 feet, 3 inches. Two cavers discovered the caverns in 1974, but they kept their discovery a secret for four more years before telling property owners James and Lois Kartchner.

Another Arizona contender is Slide Rock State Park in Sedona, which gets its name from a natural chute of slippery rock that runs through Oak Creek. In warm weather, visitors use the rock chute as a water slide.

Named by Life Magazine as one of the most beautiful swimming holes in America, the park also maintains an apple orchard irrigated by a unique system developed by the land’s original owner, Frank Pendley, who acquired the farm under the Homestead Act in 1910.


As the oldest state park in California (established 1902), Big Basin Redwoods State Park protects a grove of ancient coast redwoods similar to those found in Muir Woods National Monument. Both areas are an easy drive from San Francisco.

Visitors to Big Basin will experience different elevations — from sea level to more than 2,000 feet — as well as significant temperature changes between ocean shores and the tops of ridges. Like other old-growth coastal forests, the park is also habitat to deer, fox, many bird species, and banana slugs.

Farther up the coast, Salt Point State Park includes one of the first underwater parks in the state (Gerstle Cove Marine Reserve).

Some of the sandstone in this park experiences natural weathering that creates a honeycomb pattern in the rock known as “tafoni.” San Francisco used the sandstone to construct its buildings and streets in the 1800s.


The attractions at Nevada’s largest and oldest park, Valley of Fire State Park, include rock formations shaped like an elephant, beehives, and a piano. Close to both Lake Mead and Las Vegas, Valley of Fire also preserves petroglyphs, or rock art, from Ancient Puebloan civilizations.

Similar to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, there are areas in Valley of Fire covered with 225-million-year-old petrified logs from a long-extinct woodland. In Nevada Magazine’s “Best of Nevada 2009” survey, Valley of Fire State Park won the “Best State Park” category for the southern division.

Nearby Cathedral Gorge State Park, in Panaca, was covered by a freshwater lake during the Pliocene Era. After the lake receded, erosion of the soft bentonite clay resulted in unique rock spires and other formations. In the 1920s, visitors held outdoor performances with the landscape as a backdrop.

Cathedral Gorge was the statewide runner-up for “Best State Park” in the Nevada Magazine survey.

New Mexico

Near Truth or Consequences, Elephant Butte Lake State Park gets its name from an animal-shaped island in the middle of Elephant Butte Reservoir that was once the core of a volcano.

In this area of the state, archaeologists have discovered the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus Rex. Others include the stegomastadon, an ancestor of modern-day elephants — a fact not known when the butte was named.

Not far away, Hurley’s City of Rocks State Park protects rare rock formations that look like chimneys. These monoliths formed from volcanic ash 35 million years ago and only exist in six other places in the world.

Because of its clear view of the night sky, City of Rocks also has a small, state-operated astronomical observatory on site.


Millions of years of wind and rain have sculpted the rock at Goblin Valley State Park, near Hanksville, into thousands of mushroom-shaped pinnacles. Very remote, this park served as the on-location setting for portions of the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.

Last year, Reserve America named Goblin Valley one of “America’s Top 100 Family Campgrounds,” selected based on its scenery, amenities, and educational programs.

In the town of Boulder, also in southern Utah, Anasazi State Park preserves one of the largest Puebloan sites west of the Colorado River. Known as the Coombs site, the 100+ excavated buildings from the 12th and 13th centuries could have housed hundreds of residents.

Located near what archaeologists consider the border between Ancient Puebloan and Fremont cultures, the resulting “melting pot” explains the broad range of artifacts left at the site.

Do you have a favorite state park in the American West? Share it with readers in the comments.

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