Most people planning a road trip highlight popular attractions, famous landmarks, and National Parks along their route. Maybe a vintage diner on Route 66 or an iconic hoodoo in Utah makes the list. But when considering places to visit, don’t skip local state parks.
Even though they don’t have the popularity of National Parks, these parks still offer serenity, beauty, and history. Let’s examine ten must-see state parks in 2023, so you can add them to your road trip itinerary!
What Is the Difference Between a State Park and National Park?
National and State Parks are public lands open to anyone. However, National Parks are on federal lands, which the American people own. Tax money goes to support the conservation, protection, and maintenance of these areas.
On the other hand, state parks must generate funding because the state government controls them. A Californian has no say in the management of Nevada state parks.
What Is America’s Number One State Park?
Travel + Leisure compiled America’s most popular state parks according to Google reviews in September 2022. These locations have the highest star ratings, with more than 250 reviews. Bond Falls Scenic Site in Michigan has over 1,300 reviews with 4.9/5 stars. One visitor wrote, “Absolutely gorgeous waterfall!! Short walk that was gorgeous on a well made path and then you get to the falls and are amazed by its beauty. Definitely worth the stop!!!”
Resting north of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the Avenue of the Giants in California ranked number 2 with almost 400 reviews and 4.9/5 stars. One guest said, “Everyone should take a day or two of your life and drive the length of Avenue of the Giants stopping at as many groves as you like.”
One of the most famous state parks is Niagara Falls State Park. Dating to 1885, it’s the oldest state park in the country. Estimates are that over eight million people visit this location yearly to view the majesty of Niagara Falls along the New York-Canadian border.
Pro Tip: Before you hit the road to a state park, make sure you know about the Smoking Ban At State Park Campgrounds.
10 Must See State Parks in 2023
Whether you want to visit towering peaks, cascading waterfalls, or inspiring canyons, state parks offer various experiences for guests. These parks, from the East to West, from Alaska to Hawaii, will provide numerous outdoor recreational activities while putting natural beauty on display.
1. Falls Creek State Park – Tennessee
Location: 2009 Village Camp Road, Spencer, TN 38585
About: Famous for its breathtaking views of the Cumberland Plateau, Falls Creek State Park encompasses 29,800 acres. From cascades and gorges to streams and forests, this Tennessee state park is one of the most visited parks in the state for a reason. It’s also home to Fall Creek Falls, a 256-foot waterfall, one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern United States.
Best Features/Things to Do: Camping, biking, fishing, boating, and hiking are popular activities. The Canopy Challenge Course, a suspended obstacle course and zip line, is a family-friendly aerial adventure. They hold events throughout the year, like the Mountaineer Folk Festival in September and the Christmas on the Mountain event in December.
2. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – Michigan
Location: 33303 Headquarters Road, Ontonagon, MI, 49953
About: Michigan’s largest state park at around 60,000 acres, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park beckons visitors to enjoy its 35,000-acre old-growth forest. It includes waterfalls, hiking trails, and streams. The park along Lake Superior offers beautiful scenic vistas and modern, rustic, and backcountry camping.
Best Features/Things to Do: Winter activities include snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, and snowshoeing. Popular activities throughout the rest of the year include fishing, boating, hunting, canoeing, biking, and hiking. Trails range from half a mile to over 17 miles in length. Visitors also enjoy access to the Summit Peak observation tower, Porcupine Mountains Winter Sport Complex, and an 18-hole disc golf course.
3. Denali State Park – Alaska
Location: Mile 135 to Mile 164 George Parks Highway
About: When you visit Denali National Park, don’t forget about the state park nearby. The park’s 325,240 acres are almost half the size of Rhode Island and provide fantastic recreational opportunities for guests. Denali State Park is between the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range, and the Curry and Kesugi Ridges form the backbone of the park’s eastern half.
Best Features/Things to Do: Berry picking, camping, hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing are everyday activities. You can also book kayak, canoe, or float trips with a guide or rent one to venture individually. The Alaska Veterans Memorial is within the state park and is a beautiful tribute to the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.
4. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – California
Location: 12600 North Torrey Pines Road, San Diego, CA 92037
About: America’s rarest pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, makes its home in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The park also preserves one of the last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. It includes over 300 endangered and protected native plant species. Guests can also access Torrey Pines State Beach, walk along the high cliffs, and peer into the deep ravines along the shoreline.
Best Features/Things to Do: Unlike other state parks on this list, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve doesn’t permit picnicking or camping. They also do not allow dogs. These measures protect the delicate ecosystem here. However, popular activities include docent-led hikes, docent-led children’s programs, mindfulness walks, and interpretive exhibits at the visitor center.
Pro Tip: While in California make sure to check out these 7 Best State Parks in CA.
5. Eldorado Canyon State Park – Colorado
Location: 9 Kneale Road, Eldorado Springs, CO, 80025
About: Towering sandstone cliffs define Eldorado Canyon State Park. Visitors can see mule deer, elk, black bears, bobcats, red foxes, coyotes, and mountain lions. Other animals people have spotted there are golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. The Ute Native American tribes once inhabited this land, and it protects the rugged beauty and natural resources these people once considered sacred.
Best Features/Things to Do: Rock climbers enjoy over five hundred technical rock climbing routes along the cliffs of Eldorado Canyon. Hiking, biking, fishing, and picnicking are also everyday activities. In the winter, visitors can participate in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
6. Walden Pond State Park – Massachusetts
Location: 915 Walden Street, Concord, MA 01742
About: The 1854 book Walden by Henry David Thoreau reflects on the simple life amid natural surroundings. Thoreau built a cabin near Walden Pond State Park and used this setting to write about plants, animals, bodies of water, and more. Today this famous pond welcomes guests of all ages who want to escape the summer heat and enjoy a day on the water.
Best Features/Things to Do: Swimming, boating, and hiking are the most popular activities at Walden Pond State Park. They do not permit biking on the trails. Guests can also visit a replica of Thoreau’s single-room cabin.
7. Assateague State Park – Maryland
Location: 7307 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, MD 21811
About: Maryland’s only oceanfront state park, Assateague State Park, is home to the park’s famous wild ponies. The park is also along the Atlantic flyway, so guests will likely see egrets, herons, ospreys, and even peregrine falcons. Assateague Island is a barrier island with two miles of beaches and secluded coves within Sinepuxent Bay.
Best Features/Things to Do: The day-use area offers beach access for visitors to swim and search for seashells. The famous Pony Express Snack Bar is a prime location to view wild horses. Guests can also book campsites on the beach and enjoy boating and fishing along the shore or from the pier.
8. Waimea Canyon State Park – Hawaii
Location: State Hwy 550, Waimea, HI 96796
About: Waimea Canyon State Park overlooks the gorge of Waimea Canyon. The park’s scenic drive allows guests to view the vastness, depth, and stunning colors of the gorge. They do not permit pets here, and there are no campsites. Pig and goat hunting is seasonal.
Best Features/Things to Do: Sightseeing is the most popular activity in Waimea Canyon State Park. The overlooks along the park’s scenic drive offer glimpses into the natural beauty of this Hawaiian treasure. There are also walking paths and fishing opportunities.
9. Valley of Fire State Park – Nevada
Location: 29450 Valley of Fire Hwy, Overton, NV 89040
About: Valley of Fire State Park contains 40,000 acres of bright red sandstone among gray and tan limestone. Ancient petrified trees and petroglyphs date back more than 2,000 years. To learn more about the history and geology of the park, guests can visit the Visitor Center.
Best Features/Things to Do: Hiking, picnicking, and camping are popular park activities. There are two first-come, first-served campgrounds and one RV campground with partial hookups. Old Arrowhead Road is the only trail allowing bicycles and horses. The trails range from 0.1 miles to Balancing Rock to the 6.8-mile-long Old Arrowhead Road trail.
10. Black Mesa State Park – Oklahoma
Location: County Road 325, Kenton, OK 73946
About: Black Mesa State Parks gets its name from the layer of black lava rock that coated the mesa about 30 million years ago. Visitors can enjoy 1,600 acres, 23 rare plants, and eight rare animals. The plateau is 4,973 feet above sea level, Oklahoma’s highest point.
Best Features/Things to Do: This park is famous for its dark skies. The annual Perseid meteor shower in August draws in numerous astronomy enthusiasts. Campsites are available at Lake Carl Etling, adjacent to the state park. Hiking, paddling, and fishing are other popular activities.
Are State Parks Worth Visiting?
If you want to escape the crowds of National Parks, visit your local state parks. You won’t lose out on the natural beauty, history, or cultural heritage, as each location offers a unique glimpse into the geological past or ancient traditions. State parks are generally less expensive than National Parks, making a road trip to several sites easier on the budget.
The next time you plan a trip, consider visiting nearby state parks. Check out the available campgrounds and enjoy the scenic views from your front door.
Which state park will you visit first? Tell us in the comments!
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