State Parks can be hit or miss. This is because our National Parks take care of this country’s most awe-inspiring beauty (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Volcanoes, Yosemite, ext…); having been created to show off America’s most impressive features. State parks on the other hand, get left with the rest; natural and historical sights that may be worth protecting, but really only show off a state’s best qualities.
But there’s just too much beauty out there for Washington DC to manage. Inside America’s best State Parks, you can find the source of the mighty Mississippi, the country’s second deepest canyon, the only living coral reef in the United States and the best whale watching look out on Earth. There are horseback riding trails that can take you back to the time of when the deer and the buffalo roamed, and islands where you can see remnants of Native American settlements that have been left for hundreds of years in their natural state. If you go, you’ll most likely find less crowds and more peace and quiet than at our big national parks, and deeper sense of America’s past. So from sea to shining sea, we present to you America’s best state parks.
1—Chugach State Park, Alaska
Just seven miles east of downtown Anchorage is Chugach (pronounced: Chew-gach) the country’s most vast and rugged state park. Chugach is 495,000 acres of impressive mountains, glaciers, alpine lakes and remote shorelines stretch from Prince William Sound to the peaks of the Alaska Mountain Range. Named for the indigenous people who once lived in this area, today you can see moose, bears, mountain goats, foxes and muskrats on easy day trips from the city or stay and camp.
2—Custer State Park, South Dakota
Most people drive right past Custer State Park on their way to see Mount Rushmore, missing this 71,000 acre patch of land that transforms from piney mountains and stone spires to rolling prairie grassland. While the pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk and famed “begging donkeys” (which are not afraid of your car) are sights to remember, the park is best known as one of the few remaining places to see wild buffalo roam.
3—Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
While everyone is clambering to see the Grand Canyon, why not give America’s second deepest canyon a go? Palo Duro Canyon, found in high plains of northern Texas, reaches 20 miles in width and 800 feet in depth. It’s hoodoo rock formations stand stoically above desert grassland and harken back to at time when cowboys and Native Americans roamed this land. There are great hiking trails, but horseback is the best way to see experience this park. If you’re into some western quirk, check out “Texas,” a live stage show that for the last 40 years has taken over the park’s amphitheater on summer nights.
4—Jackson F Kimball State Park, Oregon
State Parks in Oregon like Silver Falls, Smith Rock and Saddle Mountain could stand on their own in an international forum (and all fit on this list), but we’re going with the more demure Jackson F Kimball State Park, roughly 250 miles from Salem. Why? It is a hidden gem from which to base overnight to trips to Crater Lake, the magical tourist magnet that is only ten miles away. Kimball State Park is practically empty, except for the Wood Rover whose pristine aqua blue waters cut right through it and are perfect for canoeing. There are ten campsites that are rarely full.
5—Lime Kiln Point State Park, Washington State
Want to see whales but don’t want to get on a boat? Head to this small park that’s widely considered to have the best land-based whale watching in the entire world. The viewing is best from May to September, but the prime show happens in July and August when three orca pods (herds) form into one, 80-whale family.
6—Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
Sadly, this park’s most revered feature—Old Man of the Mountain, a stone face jutting out of Cannon Cliff made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorn—was destroyed in a landslide in 2003, but it is still teaming with awesomeness. Located in the White Mountains, it’s got some of the most scenic climbing on the East Coast (Flume Gorge Loop is one of the most popular and includes covered bridges) and also is home to the first passenger aerial tramway in North America, which may or may not be more of an adventure than climbing to the peak of Cannon Mountain yourself. Once up there, you can see clear though to Maine, Vermont, New York and Canada.
7—John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida
If you want to see coral reefs you have to head to Belize, or even Australia, right? How about just Key Largo, outside of Miami in Florida, which is home to the only living coral reef in the United States? It’s in John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater state park in the country, which can be experienced on glass bottom boats, or by snorkeling and scuba diving.
8—Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Inside the 32,000 acre park you can find old growth forests and hundreds of beautiful lakes, one of which is Lake Itasca—the source of the Mississippi River. You can actually wade across the 30 foot mouth as the waters start out along their 2552 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico…or just rent a bike and ride the 16 miles of trails that loop around lakes and in-between the park’s ancient trees.
9—Fall Creek State Park, Tennessee
Though it may be hard to pry yourself away from the great beer, food and music currently happening in Nashville Tennessee, if you do, be sure to head here. Aside from glorious 200 foot plus waterfalls (the tallest being the park’s namesake at 256 feet), it has 34 miles of breathtaking forest trails that are great on horseback.
10—Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park, California
Wanna go off the beaten path? Head to this park in Shasta county that is only accessible via boat. Once there, you’ll find freshwater springs, young lava flows, and the unfettered remains of ancient fish traps built by the Ahjumawni indians who once lived here.