Find a little natural-wonder Zen in these amazing state parks.
We all know how awesome Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and their 59 national park siblings are. They’re America’s natural gems, after all. But if you want to get in on a secret, there are places that possess similar natural awe but are lesser-known. We’re talking about state parks, many of which showcase jaw-dropping scenic wonders in their own right. Not all—we get that. But some are mind-bogglingly amazing, for their giant sequoias, vast canyons, iconic wildlife, towering peaks, wildflower-swathed deserts, and more. Here are some of the best.
Top Picks for You
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
As you drive along the 32-mile-long Avenue of the Giants, an old stretch of US 101 that zigzags through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you’ll stare up in wonderment, trying to wrap your head around the fact that these towering trees are the world’s oldest and tallest living organisms. But to truly experience them, to smell them and feel them, you must get out and stroll in their midst: Rockefeller Forest is a 10,000-acre stand of virgin redwoods, where the 362-foot-tall (and 13-foot-six-inches-wide) Rockefeller Tree appears to sweep the sky; while a short hike at Founder’s Glen takes you to the fallen 362-foot Dyersville Giant. But there are more than trees here, as amazing as they are. Mossy glens, dangling lichen, and golden meadows add to the primeval mystique.
Na Pali Coast State Park
WHERE: Kauai, Hawaii
Towering, multihued palis (cliffs) plummet to the crashing turquoise-blue sea, divided by plush narrow valleys, cascading waterfalls, and hidden beaches. No roads penetrate the wild and lush tropical paradise of Na Pali Coast State Park. Instead, you’ll have to visit by boat, helicopter, or hiking trail. The most popular approach is from the sea, providing a broad panorama of the cliffs, especially spectacular at sunset; plenty of boats offer cruises or join a kayak tour. Helicopters—including “doors off” experiences—penetrate hidden valleys, getting you up-close-and-personal with waterfalls and sheer cliffsides. Or, for the hardy, there’s the famous 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which cuts through five remote, emerald-green valleys. Sample it along a 2-mile section from Kee Beach at Haena State Park, a popular day hike, or strap on a backpack and enjoy at least three days of supreme solitude in one of the planet’s most gorgeous destinations.
Custer State Park
WHERE: South Dakota
The Wild West comes alive in the rollicking, wildlife-dotted Custer State Park, in the heart of South Dakota’s Black Hills, where the pièce de résistance is the 1,400-strong herd of bison—though there are plenty of bighorn sheep, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and burros to wildlife-watch as well. To see the lumbering giants, take the meandering Wildlife Loop Road through mountain-ringed plains and keep your eyes peeled; they travel in a herd, so they’re hard to miss. In late September, cowboys round up the bison in an exciting stampede. For pure nature, the 14-mile Needles Highway takes you on a sweeping ride past needle-shaped rocks, with stunning mountain views (including one awesome overview of Mount Rushmore). Primo hiking and camping are offered.
Itasca State Park
Where else can you walk across the Mississippi River? This idyllic North Woods park centers on a gorgeous, loon-filled lake that spills, ever so gently, into a stream that becomes the mighty Mississippi. That’s right, you’ve discovered the headlands of Old Man River. The park harbors a drive (or bike ride) along the eastern shore that takes in the Indian Cemetery, swimming beach, and Pioneer Cemetery; and a Wilderness Drive (also for bikes) that penetrates a white and red pine wilderness, where, if you look carefully, you might spot wild orchids displaying their flashy colors (including the pink-and-white lady slipper, the state flower). Lakeside cabins make for a peaceful stay, with campsites and a lodge available as well.
Valley of Fire State Park
It may be near Las Vegas, but Valley of Fire State Park is as far away in mind and spirit as oil and water. The dramatic red-and-orange sandstone formations take on whimsical shapes, reflected in their names: Duck Rock, Seven Sisters, Beehives. They’re gorgeous any time of day, but they take on a dramatic look at sunrise and sunset, as slanting rays illuminate the red rock as if on fire. Probably the best way to take in the park’s beauty is to drive the Valley of Fire Highway and Mouse’s Tank Road, being sure to stop along the way to hike (bring plenty of water and sunscreen and wear a hat). Favorite short, easy trails include the White Domes Hike, taking in a short-slot canyon; the Rainbow Vista and Fire Canyon Overlook Hike, showcasing two canyons, one multihued, the other fire-red; and the Fire Wave Hike, where ribbony curves of pink, red, and white sandstone resemble an ocean wave.
Dead Horse Point State Park
In a state blessed with multiple national parks filled with sandstone wonderments, Dead Horse Point slinks beneath the radar—though it could be Utah’s most spectacular park of all. The focal point is the eponymous Dead Horse Point itself, soaring 2,000 feet above a curve in the Colorado River. Or, in movie speak, the vast, labyrinthine chasm beneath your feet is the real-life canyon that represented the Grand Canyon in Thelma & Louise. Easy walking trails skirt the mesa, peering into some of the West’s wildest lands.
Hocking Hills State Park
If you think of Ohio as being a flat, corn-filled, fly-over state, think again. Its southeastern tip snuggles into the Appalachian Mountains, and here you’ll find the unexpected sandstone peaks, crashing waterfalls, and hemlock-shaded gorges of Hocking Hills State Park. The park comprises six different areas, each named for a distinctive feature—Rock House, Cantwell Cliffs, Cedar Falls, Conkles Hollow, Ash Cave, and Old Man’s Cave—and patched together in an overall wilderness retreat of 10,000 acres. Misty, ethereal Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave are situated along a scenic gorge connected by the Grandma Gatewood Trail, named after Emma Rowena Gatewood, an octogenarian hiker who started the Winter Hike—still an annual tradition.
Mount Greylock State Reservation
The majestic, 3,491-foot Mount Greylock rises above a sea of pines, a longtime magnet to those wanting to climb the mountain “because it is there.” Thoreau did it (proclaiming the scenery possessed “all the delight of paradise), as did Emerson. Some believe the bald, whitish peak might even have inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; the author lived in a nearby house overlooking the peak. Whatever the case, the mountain—within the protected confines of Mount Greylock State Reservation—offers 70 miles of hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing trails, including 11.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. And these days you don’t even need to hike to get to the top. A scenic road was added in 1906, meaning you can drive to reach paradise.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Most of the time, the desert landscape in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is pretty enough, with a sprinkling of California pines, slot canyons, and badlands occupying its relatively empty space. You could say its Zen-like quietude, pure light, and occasional bighorn sheep sightings are its gifts. Between February and mid-March, flowers representing hundreds of different species—including agaves and yuccas, bushes, cactuses, and wildflowers—pop from the crevasses of the earth, putting on one of the planet’s most striking wildflower displays. Favorite flower-gazing spots include Borrego Palm Canyon, Henderson Canyon Road, and Plum Canyon. Call the wildflower hotline—(760) 767-4684—before you go to see what’s blooming where.
Baxter State Park
Talk about a wilderness playground. Baxter embraces more than 200,000 acres of backcountry lands cloaking 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin—the northern terminus of the 2,190mile-long Appalachian Trail—along with 40 other peaks and ridges. You come here to hike, fly-fish, rock-climb, camp, and wildlife-watch for black bears, moose, and bald eagles. A range of short and longer trails meander along rushing rivers and access indigo lakes and rushing waterfalls. And if you’re hardy, you can climb to the top of Katahdin itself, an 8- to 12-hour one-way hike (depending on which trail you choose) with an elevation change of 4,000 feet. Your reward: incredible, 360-degree views over miles and miles of primeval North Woods.