11 of the Best State Parks in the United States to Check Out

tent on mountain at chugach state park - 11 best state parks in the united states

If you’re planning to explore the United States, a great place to start is the nation’s state parks. They’re as different as the states themselves and each is uniquely beautiful and well worth your time to visit.

Chugach State Park

Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Best Time to Go: June to September

Chugach State Park is a wonderland of rugged wilderness. The fourth largest state park in the U.S., it encompasses a huge range of southcentral Alaska’s diverse topography. The park is more easily accessible than other Alaskan parks and preserves, making it an attractive day-trip destination for hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Despite the park’s proximity to civilization, its mountains, glaciers, ice fields and lakes lose none of their pristine beauty.

Custer State Park

Location: Custer, South Dakota
Best Time to Go: September to October

Famed for its herds of bison, Custer State Park is a wildlife-watcher’s paradise. Within the park you’ll find wild rivers, plains ecosystems, tranquil lakes, the picturesque Black Hills and wildlife as varied as the park itself. This is a park best experienced while moving. Driving, riding, hiking and mountain biking all afford the best opportunities to see the most of this dynamic park and get up close to its many nonhuman residents.

Dead Horse Point State Park

dead horse point state park - 11 best state parks in the united states

Location: Moab, Utah
Best Time to Go: April to May; September to November

This stunning park will astound you with its dramatic cliffs and canyons and its dizzying plateaus. Its high desert geography makes for a pleasant combination of easy hiking and breathtaking vistas. Most visitors come for the sweeping views of the Colorado River but the park also features more novel activities like geocaching and stargazing. As part of the International Dark Sky Association, Dead Horse Point is an incredible place to spend an evening watching the universe turn.

Emerald Bay State Park

Location: Lake Tahoe, California
Best Time to Go: May to October

Experiencing a sunrise or a sunset at Emerald Bay State Park should be on everybody’s bucket list. The clear waters and dramatic surroundings of the bay are incredible, whether witnessed from one of the park’s viewpoints or at the shoreline. Hiking and cycling are popular in Emerald Bay but many visitors prefer to take to the water and swim, kayak, paddleboard or boat. Scuba divers and snorkelers have the unique opportunity to follow an underwater trail that tours Lake Tahoe’s heritage shipwrecks.

Fall Creek Falls State Park

fall creek falls state park - 11 best state parks in the united states

Location: Spencer, Tennessee
Best Time to Go: September to November

Nestled within the pristine hardwood forests of this state park is a dynamic network of rivers, gorges, caves and waterfalls. A hike through the old-growth forest, a swim at the base of Fall Creek Falls (the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States), a tree canopy tour and a daring walk over the swinging bridge are just a few of the many activities you can enjoy while getting back to nature.

Iao Valley State Park

Location: Wailuku, Hawai’i
Best Time to Go: Any month; mornings are better for viewing the Needle

Located on the island of Maui, Iao Valley State Park is a popular destination for visitors looking for a break from the Hawai’ian beaches and the heat. The Iao Needle, an enormous rock feature eroded into its present iconic shape, is a highlight of a trip to the park, as is the walk through the lush rainforest itself. Visitors can also learn about the cultural history of this park, which is no less interesting than its geological history.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

mcway falls, julia pfeiffer burns state park - 11 best state parks in the united states

Location: Big Sur, California
Best Time to Go: September to November

From the coastline to the mountain ranges, this park encompasses a little of everything that makes Big Sur country so justly famous. McWay Falls, which makes a staggering drop from high granite cliffs down to a small, sandy cove, is a very accessible highlight of a trip here. Redwood forests, coastal views and rugged beauty are the other big draws, especially for hikers.

Letchworth State Park

Location: Castile, New York
Best Time to Go: September to November

The Genesee river is the star attraction of this park. It cuts through the park’s gorge and plunges over three main waterfalls set against a backdrop of tall canyon walls and lush temperate forest. Trail riding, mountain biking and hiking are all popular ways to experience the park. In the winter, the trails are open for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snow tubing. Visitors can even take a hot air balloon ride and experience the park by air.

Niagara Falls State Park

niagara falls state park - 11 best state parks in the united states

Location: Niagara Falls, New York
Best Time to Go: June to September

If you’re never seen Niagara Falls, you should. They are magnificent. In Niagara Falls State Park you can observe the falls from above or hike down into the Niagara Gorge and stand on the “Hurricane Deck” to feel the wind and spray up close. There are some hikes and some neat interactive exhibits on hand here, but really, you’ve probably come to see the falls and they will definitely be enough to keep your interest.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Location: Canyon, Texas
Best Time to Go: March to May; October to November

Exploring the massive Palo Duro canyon is an epic experience. With its fascinating caprock formations and brilliant colours, the park’s geography is spectacular to see, whether from the rim of the canyon or from the canyon floor. The park is quite accessible but it still gives off a feeling of peaceful isolation. Hiking and mountain biking are some of the best ways to cover a lot of ground and really get off the beaten trail and see the park.

Smith Rock State Park

smith rock state park - 11 best state parks in the united states

Location: Terrebonne, Oregon
Best Time to Go: September to November

Smith Rock State Park is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. The towering cliffs, winding rivers and high desert ecosystem draw visitors year-round with their rough-around-the-edges beauty. It’s a prime area for watching wildlife, especially birds. Hiking, trail riding and cycling are popular activities but rock climbing is where the park really shines. It’s a world-famous climbing destination and there are many routes available for visitors with all levels of experience.

feature image: Paxson Woelber; image 1: Pedro Szekely; image 2: Michael Hicks; image 3: John Fowler; image 4: Michael Gray; image 5: David Lee

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