7 State Parks That Have Even More to Do Than National Parks, Experts Say
You won't find a shortage of activities, sights, or wildlife when exploring here.
U.S. national parks are famed for their beauty and breathtaking sights. The Grand Canyon is a must-see wonder for many, as is Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park. People spend days exploring these parks, taking in all there is to see and do. But if you're hoping to avoid the crowds, you might want to opt for a state park instead.
The only real differences between the two are who's in charge and what the land can be used for, according to Virginia Wesleyan University. As indicated by their names, state parks are overseen by state governments, whereas national parks are overseen by the U.S. federal government. State park land can also be sold if deemed necessary by a state government, while national park land is preserved and cannot be touched.
Considering this, don't overlook state parks, as some have even more to do than their national counterparts. Read on to find out which seven state parks travel experts recommend and why you might reconsider your vacation plans.
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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
One adventure-packed state park is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, which is a pleasant detour if you also want to visit San Diego or Los Angeles, Chris Emery, editor of the travel blog Ordealist, says.
The largest state park in California, it's not one to be overlooked.
"Few people outside of Southern California have heard of it, but it's really a remarkable place," Emery says. "Southern California's most famous national park, Joshua Tree National Park, gets all the attention, but Anza-Borrego certainly rivals it when it comes to the number of places to explore and things to do."
There's lots to see at this state park. It's part of the Sonoran Desert and is home to over 200 species of wildflowers, Emery explains. Aside from catching a view of the wildlife—including bighorn sheep, bobcats, and lizards—there's also a laundry list of activities to choose from.
"The park is 915 square miles in size and includes hundreds of hiking trails, dirt roads, and four-wheel drive routes to explore," Emery says. "There are hikes for people of all abilities, including some narrow slot canyons that are really fun. One hike even has Native American petroglyphs on a boulder in the middle of the trail."
Emery also notes that Anza-Borrego is an International Dark Sky Park, meaning it has some of the best stargazing. There are also several campgrounds and even hotels to choose from in nearby Borrego Springs.
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
If you're looking for a state park that has more to do and is a well-kept secret, look no further than Snow Canyon State Park.
"[This park] is home to slot canyons, petroglyphs, lava tubes, natural arches, and one of Utah's greatest natural wonders in its petrified sand dunes—yet most people have never even heard of it!" Adam Marland, travel photographer and blogger for We Dream of Travel, tells Best Life.
This state park is often overlooked thanks to its proximity to other big-name western parks, which you've likely heard of, he says.
"Left in the large shadow cast by Zion National Park, most visitors drive right by the incredible desert landscapes and star-filled night skies that lie within Snow Canyon," Marland says. "Those who make the detour from St. George, however, will discover a paradise of fascinating natural features. This includes one of the most beautiful and accessible slot canyons in Utah at Jenny's Canyon, as well as an underground world at the Butterfly Lava Tubes."
One thing you won't want to miss at this park, however, is the Petrified Sand Dunes.
"Here, braided stone flows like water throughout the region, appearing as if a river of sand was suddenly frozen," Marland explains. "In the distance, tiger-striped rock adds color and texture to the distant hills, creating a scene like none you will discover anywhere else in the world."
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Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, Hawaii
If you're able to venture all the way to the islands of Hawaii, you might want to skip Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park in favor of Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park on Kaua'i.
"With its steep lush green ocean cliffs, the Nāpali coast is renowned as one of the most beautiful places on earth," Michael Barker, of the website Aloha Secrets, explains. "Secluded beaches, secret waterfalls, and lush tropical jungles, it's a majestic place—and with its rugged terrain, it's even more untouched than many national parks."
This state park has some of the most unique opportunities, especially if you're up for the challenge of hiking the Kalalau Trail. This is no easy feat, and you need to obtain a pass from the state ahead of time, but the long trip is well worth it.
"Along the way, you'll come across beautiful beaches like Kalalau Beach, secluded between the ocean cliffs, only accessible from the trail or by boat," Barker says. "You'll also encounter majestic waterfalls like Hanakapiai Falls spilling 500 feet down into the valley." He adds that many opt to complete the 22-mile hike over the course of several days.
But for those of us not up for a trek, Barker notes that there are also boat tours along the coast, which offer snorkeling excursions.
"Without the commotion of the mass of people who inhabit many Hawaiian beaches, the tropical fish and turtles who swim the waters are plentiful and thriving," he says. "No matter how you enjoy the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, it will be a trip to remember."
Natural Bridge State Resort Park, Kentucky
While Kentucky may be famed for Mammoth Cave National Park, if you head east, you'll stumble upon Natural Bridge State Resort Park. Situated in the Red River Gorge area, this park is jam-packed with activities, and according to Jami Dale, of the travel blog Celiac Travel Pack, this state park is a worthy rival for its national counterpart.
"The hike up to the natural bridge is one of the most famous in the state," Dale says, referring to the sandstone arch from which the park gets its name. According to the Kentucky Tourism website, this arch was formed over millions of years and is 75 feet long and 65 feet high.
If you don't want to hike, you can take a ride on the Sky Lift for a great view of the natural bridge.
"There are also multiple hikes to sandstone arches and waterfalls," Dale tells Best Life, adding that you can go rock climbing, kayaking, or try ziplining over the Red River Gorge. To zipline, however, you'll have to head to a nearby site outside of the park.
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Custer State Park, South Dakota
If you want a state park that puts nearby national parks to shame, book your next trip to Custer State Park in South Dakota. At 71,000 acres, it's one of the largest state parks in the country and offers unparalleled options to be "one with nature."
"There is hyper-scenic landscape through Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Highway, along with tons of opportunities to see wildlife, such as the bison that the park is known for," Lindsay Harvey, of the travel site Called to Wander, tells Best Life.
If you choose to drive on the Wildlife Loop, it'll also "bring you into contact with hundreds of bison, deer, elk, antelope, and prairie dogs, among others," Harvey says.
But beyond just wildlife, there's no shortage of things to do at Custer State Park.
"There is spectacular horseback riding and several great lakes for paddleboarding, swimming, kayaking, or fishing," Harvey explains, adding that hikers won't want to miss trails like those to Black Elk Peak, Cathedral Spires, and Little Devils Tower.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Florida
Named by the Seminole Indians, Weeki Wachee means "little spring" or "winding river," according to the state park's website. Situated on the West Coast of Florida, the spring—actually a naturally formed, underwater cavern—is so deep, that no one has ever found the bottom.
This natural wonder "is a must-visit for any Florida traveler," Steve Morrow, travel expert and founder of Paddle About, tells Best Life.
Water activities reign supreme at Weeki Wachee, namely kayaking, paddleboarding, and water slides at Buccaneer Bay. The real draw of Weeki Wachee, however, is the mermaids. Submerged 16 feet below the surface of the spring, these "mermaids and mermen" perform shows using SCUBA technology.
The mermaid shows may be the park's main attraction, but you might prefer a boat tour through the springs, Morrow says, which is "a great way to see the area's natural beauty." Even better, a visit won't break the bank, he adds.
"The best part about Weeki Wachee is that it's cheaper and less crowded than a national park," Morrow says. "So if you're looking for a great place to enjoy outdoor activities and experience Florida culture, add Wachee Springs State Park to your list."
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Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Head to Oregon's Cascade Mountains and check out Silver Falls State Park, which is not to be missed—even if you're dead-set on exploring Crater Lake National Park. There's no shortage of things to do here, including hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, and, of course, checking out the waterfalls.
"Oregonians widely consider Silver Falls State Park to be the crown jewel of the state parks system," Sophie Clapton, travel blogger of We Dream of Travel, says. "It is the home of the incredible Trail of Ten Falls, a 7.8-mile trail that leads hikers through a beautiful rainforest passing 10 majestic waterfalls along the way."
Over 9,000 acres of rainforest wilderness are protected at Silver Falls, Clapton explains, and along the Trail of Ten Falls, you'll also descend into a creek while walking along a larger canyon.
While you're hiking, don't forget to take a moment and observe the trees, which Clapton says are part of a "mist-shrouded forest of Douglas fir, verdant ferns, lichen, and moss."