Every year, our nation’s nearly 8,000 state parks see more than 720 million visitors—more than two-and-a-half times the number of all visits to national parks, which include marquee names such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.These state parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of our park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year. Here are 10 you may not know about—but should.—Deb Hopewell
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
At 120 miles long, 20 miles wide in some places, and 800 feet deep, Palo Duro Canyon is the second-largest canyon in the country, behind the Grand Canyon. You can explore the 20,000-acre park by hiking or horseback-riding, or even take a leisurely drive across the canyon floor. There’s tent, equestrian, and RV camping, but for a modest splurge, book one of the three stone cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (since modernized), set on the rim with sweeping view of the canyon below.
Insider Tip: From the end of May until mid-August, more than 60 actors, singers, and dancers take the stage at the park’s amphitheatre to perform Texas, a rousing musical that depicts the settling of the Texas Panhandle. Go early for the chuck-wagon BBQ dinner beforehand.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Amarillo Guide
T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Straddling the Gulf of Mexico to the west and St. Joseph Bay on the east, you can practically watch the sun rise and set on this narrow spine of beach without moving your chair. T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park on the Florida Panhandle’s “forgotten coast” is perfect for those who eschew people-watching and boardwalks in favor of fishing, snorkeling, bird-watching, and star-gazing.
Insider Tip: One of the most popular activities at the park is snorkeling over the grass beds to collect delicious bay scallops from St. Joseph Bay. The season runs through the summer, and a saltwater license and dive flag are required.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Florida Guide
WHERE: New York
Though technically not a state park, Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous U.S., covering six million acres in northern New York—bigger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined. Unlike most parks of its kind, about half is privately owned, meaning there are towns (over a hundred), boutiques, restaurants, homes, and luxury resorts, making it a crazy quilt of mixed uses. But with roughly three million acres consecrated as a “forever wild” preserve, there are more lakes (3,000), mountains, rivers, forests, and beaches than anyone could see in a lifetime.
Insider Tip: The past few years have seen a small boom in wine production along the Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain. The 66-mile Adirondack Coast Wine Trail roughly follows Interstate 87 from Plattsburgh to Chazy, and includes seven wineries and cider houses.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Adirondacks Guide
Fall Creek Falls State Park
The half-dozen impressive waterfalls are the featured attraction at this 26,000-acre park, most notably the titular Fall Creek Falls, one of the highest vertical-drop waterfalls (at 256 feet) east of the Mississippi. In addition to the activities that state parks are typically known for—hiking, fishing, bird-watching—this “resort” state park also features an 18-hole golf course with a pro shop, heated Olympic-size pool, tennis courts, four playgrounds, basketball courts, and shuffleboard courts.
Insider Tip: The best swimming hole in the park is upstream from Cane Creek Falls, where the Cane Creek Cascades and the Rockhouse Falls (125 feet high) plunge into a large pool ringed by massive slabs of rock.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Tennessee Guide
Itasca State Park
One of the most popular activities at this state park in northern Minnesota—the second oldest in the country, behind Niagara Falls—is to wade 30 feet across the cold, shallow water as it leaves Lake Itasca on its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, this innocuous-looking flow is the source of the mighty Mississippi and attracts more than half a million visitors each year. Renting bikes to pedal the 16 miles of paved bike trails is a popular way to explore the heavily forested, 32,000-acre park.
Insider Tip: At the Douglas Lodge pier, you can board the 141-passenger Chester Charles II for a two-hour, 10-mile round trip cruise to the headwaters with a naturalist who’ll detail the area’s history, and can almost guarantee you’ll see a bald eagle or two.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Minnesota Guide
Franconia Notch State Park
WHERE: New Hampshire
Franconia Notch is a broad pass through the White Mountains separating the Franconia and Kinsman mountain ranges, and includes part of the Appalachian Trail. It was also home to the revered “Old Man of the Mountain,” a 40-by-25-foot natural rock feature made famous by Nathanial Hawthorne, which collapsed in 2003. One of the most popular hikes is the two-mile Flume Gorge loop, where boardwalks, steep stairs, and covered bridges follow the path of the creek as it tumbles through the narrow granite gorge.
Insider Tip: Take the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway (the first passenger tramway in North America) to the 4,200-foot summit for breathtaking views of Franconia Notch and the mountains stretching to New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Canada, and New York.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s White Mountains Guide
Hocking Hills State Park
This 2,356-acre state park is actually a patchwork of five main park areas within the Hocking Hills area of southeastern Ohio, popular for its sandstone gorges, caves, cliffs, basins, and waterfalls—a geological respite from the flatness that characterizes the rest of the state. Hiking is the favored activity at this park (don’t wander off the trails, as the steep cliffs are dangerous), but nearby Lake Logan is also popular for fishing.
Insider Tip: For an adrenaline-fueled, bird’s-eye view of the forest, Hocking River, and caves below, Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in nearby Rockbridge operates a network of zip lines for most ages and adventure levels—including the DragonFly, for kids age 5–12.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Columbus Guide
Slide Rock State Park
There’s pretty much one reason and one reason only to visit Slide Rock State Park, seven miles north of Sedona: to slip down the smooth, red-sandstone water slide and be carried over the surface by a cooling creek into the swimming hole below. Though relatively small at 43 acres, the park is extremely popular with crowds seeking relief from the hot Sonoran Desert sun, so expect traffic and waits on busy days, especially in summer.
Insider Tip: Slide Rock was once a homesteaded apple farm, and you can follow a short, quarter-mile paved trail that includes some of the original orchards, the homestead house, tourist cabins, and great views of the Oak Creek Canyon walls.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sedona Guide
Lime Kiln Point State Park
Though a mere 36 acres (and only open for day use), Lime Kiln State Park has one huge draw: It's considered one of the best places in the world to watch whales from land. The majestic animals will sometimes breach as close to 20 feet from shore, making for breathtaking viewing. Orcas are the star of the show, but minke whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and otters are all often sighted in this part of the Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island.
Insider Tip: The best time of year for whale-spotting is May through September, and especially in July and August, when the three resident orca pods combine into one “superpod” of 80 or so whales.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Juan Islands Guide
Custer State Park
WHERE: South Dakota
With its pine-clad mountains and striking stone spires giving way in the south to gently rolling grasslands, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park occupies one of the prettiest corners of South Dakota's Black Hills. Drive on the windy Needles Highway in the north, through narrow tunnels carved through the rock, to mirror-like Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel.” To the south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop is the place to find pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and the famous “begging donkeys” (you might want to keep your windows rolled up).
Insider Tip: Each year, thousands of onlookers from around the country gather at two viewing areas in the park to watch as volunteer cowboys and cowgirls drive and corral the herd of about 1,300 bison at the annual Buffalo Roundup. (The annual roundup will be held Sept. 29.) Once in the corral, the animals are sorted, branded, and tested, ensuring a healthy, stable population.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Black Hills Guide