The List: America’s 20 Best State Parks

Nope, not Canyonlands. Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.


If national parks were “America’s best idea,” as Ken Burns called them, our state parks are at least a damn good one, and a very close second place — dozens of them rival our most famous in scenery, terrain, and opportunity. Our national map is dotted with places where the landscape is so grand and wild, the word “park” seems a little tame. Unfortunately, in tough budget times, state parks are threatened more than national parks — California alone had slated 70 state parks for permanent closure, and residents there and in other states have banded together in grassroots efforts to keep parks open, with mixed success.

1. Chugach State Park, Alaska
It’s the third-largest state park in the U.S., but it feels bigger, when you consider you can see snowy peaks, grizzly bears, and beluga whales in the same park. Chugach State Park includes the glaciated peaks of the Chugach Mountains visible from the city of Anchorage and extends out to the Turnagain Arm, including popular whale-watching viewpoints. LINK

2. Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
It would to be hard to argue for a single spot in the White Mountains that contains more diverse awesomeness: Franconia Notch State Park is home to the biggest and baddest adventure climbing in New England, an aerial tramway for less-risky sightseeing, the New England Ski Museum, trout fishing, hiking, and one of the oldest ski resorts in North America. Until 2003, it was also home to the Old Man of the Mountain, the stone face jutting out of Cannon Cliff that became a New Hampshire icon, but, like all of us, eventually succumbed to time and fell down. LINK

3. Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado
Writer David Roberts named Eldo one of the three most important areas in the development of traditional rock climbing (the other two being the Gunks and Yosemite), and you don’t even have to scale the 40-story-high red sandstone walls hanging above South Boulder Creek to appreciate it, with a handful of trails that get you as high as climbers who tackle the hundreds of trad routes here. LINK

4. Adirondack Park, New York
A lot of folks would put the Adirondack Park in a list of their favorite national parks — and there’s nothing wrong with that, except it’s not a national park. It’s just big and awesome enough to be one. The park is the largest state-level protected area in the U.S., covering 6.1 million acres, almost half of which is state land, and 1 million acres of which is wilderness — and it includes the entire Adirondack mountain range. LINK

5. Baxter State Park, Maine
Home of one of the Northeast’s most famous mountains, Thoreau’s Katahdin, Baxter State Park is a big, wild place, wilderness preserved as a park, and the mountainous pride of the state of Maine. Its popularity has led to a parking permit system for its more heavy-use trailheads — including all the access points to climb Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak, which sports the east coast’s most daunting ridge hike, the Knife Edge, where the trail narrows to three feet wide for a third of a mile. LINK

6. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
California’s biggest state park at nearly 1,000 square miles, Anza-Borrego is an enormous desert wonderland within a few hours of L.A. and San Diego. Varying from stark dry desert mountains and canyons to lush palm-tree-lined oases, the park contains more than 100 miles of trails for hikers, backpackers, and mountain bikers, 500 miles of dirt roads to be explored by bicycle or motor vehicle, and steep paved roads for road cyclists who love a challenge. LINK

6. Mount Tamalpais State Park, California
From the 2,571-foot summit of Mt. Tam all the way down to the Pacific Ocean, the terrain here serves up vertical relief, solitude, and huge views, just 20 miles from the urban cacophony of San Francisco. Mountain bikers, trail runners, and even hang gliders call Mt. Tam their playground, and San Francisco road cyclists tackle 6,000 feet of climbing on the 40-plus-mile ride from the city to the summit. LINK

7. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
The parking lot at Dead Horse Point State Park, 30 miles from Moab, is a few steps from arguably one of the most dramatic vistas in the desert Southwest — looking down 1,000 feet to the top of Dead Horse Mesa, which itself towers a thousand feet above the Colorado River doing a 180-degree turn and wrapping around its sandstone base. Grab a camp chair and get some thinking time in as you watch the sun set over Utah’s canyonlands. LINK

8. Denali State Park, Alaska
That’s right, there’s also a Denali State Park, essentially right across the street from Denali National Park — but think Alaska-scale “across the street.” On any given day, you have about a 50 percent chance of actually seeing Mount McKinley from anywhere nearby, because of the weather the massive peak creates. But spend a few days in Denali State Park, and you’re almost guaranteed to get the best views of the Alaska Range — and have a wild experience among the grizzlies, wolves and moose that call the park home. LINK

9. Tallulah Gorge State Park, Georgia
Tallulah Gorge draws admirers as one of the most breathtaking in the southeast, a 1,000-foot gash in Tallulah Dome that drops the Tallulah River over six waterfalls in one mile. Mountain biking and hiking are popular here, as well as some serious multipitch rock climbing. But the real deal here is boating — rafting and kayaking the Tallulah when the upstream Georgia Power Company opens its dam, a few times a year. LINK

10. Devils Lake State Park, Wisconsin
Three hours from Chicago and even closer to Milwaukee and Madison, Devils Lake is the Midwest’s iconic climbing spot, with a rich history and a unique no-bolts, toprope-first ethic. Oh, and legendary sandbagging. Check your ego and headpoint a couple of Devil’s Lake’s hundreds of routes before jumping on anything bold here — it’s not tall, but it’s not small in any sense. LINK

11. Indiana Dunes State Park, Indiana
Surrounded on all sides by Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and only an hour from Chicago, this mass of soft sand blown off Lake Michigan is something of an oasis among the industrial complex here. The Indiana Dunes are one of about 35 locations in the world where you can hear “singing sand,” a loud rumble caused by wind blowing over the dunes. LINK

12. Slide Rock State Park, Arizona
Arizona’s Grand Canyon casts a big shadow over everything else in this state, which has a lot more to offer besides the Big Ditch. Two hours south of the crowded South Rim is this state park, home to one of the best natural waterslides in the country, where the sandstone has been washed smooth by the waters of Oak Creek, which stays cool at about 60 degrees through the hot Sedona summer. LINK

13. Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina
Maybe not the most famous Stone Mountain in the South — the ginormous quartz dome in Georgia with three Civil War leaders carved into its face is the more-recognized — North Carolina’s 600-foot granite dome brings fly-fishers who cast in 20 miles of designated trout waters surrounding it, rock climbers who inch their way up its legendary runout slab routes, hikers, and history buffs who come to see the homestead from the mid-1800s that sits at its base. LINK

14. Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
A few minutes from Salem in a low-elevation rain forest, Silver Falls State Park is Oregon’s largest, no small feat in a state whose entire 363-mile coastline seems to be state beaches and park. Its Trail of Ten Falls is a designated National Scenic Trail that takes hikers and runners past 10 waterfalls in 8.7 miles — and underneath the rushing water of four of them. LINK

15. Palo Duro State Park, Texas
At 60 miles long and up to 800 feet deep, Palo Duro Canyon’s nickname, “The Grand Canyon of Texas” is not boasting. The technicolor walls here make for high-desert scenery more commonly seen in southern Utah, and wall-calendar worthy in their own right. Texans might tell you the singletrack here is the best mountain biking in the state, and it’s hard to argue with them. LINK

16. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas
If you want to climb (not boulder) in Texas, Enchanted Rock is your best choice, and the 650-acre pink granite dome happens to be at the center of Enchanted Rock State Park. Routes up to three pitches long line the faces of Enchanted Rock, from 5.5 to 5.11, and trails long enough for overnight backpacking surround the batholith two hours from Austin — and you can walk to the summit. LINK

17. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
Porcupine Mountains State Park is big: Big Midwest mountains (more than 600 feet vertical drop), big wilderness (58,000 acres), and big snowfall (more than 15 feet per year). Nearly 100 miles of trails (and 20 miles of cross-country ski trails) wind through old-growth forest and past cliffs, waterfalls and four large lakes, including the picturesque Lake of the Clouds. LINK

18. Smith Rock State Park, Oregon
Even if you’re not a rock climber, the trail to the top of Smith Rock’s Misery Ridge is worth a trip here, rewarding the sturdy hiker with a view of eight Cascade volcanoes all in a row on the horizon, including the Three Sisters. If you are a climber, you’re here for the volcanic welded tuff that gave rise to hundreds of climbing routes, including America’s first 5.14 sport climb and the classic three-pitch Pioneer Route up the tower of Monkey Face — and pre-2011, the epic rope swing (now prohibited) from the summit. LINK

19. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
America’s best desert scenery is often compared to Mars, and the terrain at Valley of Fire so resembles Mars that the Mars scenes of Total Recall were almost all filmed here. As aesthetic as nearby Red Rock Natural Conservation Area (but not nearly as tall), the red-and-white rock here makes for glowing sunset photos, as well as prime terrain for hiking and even some under-the-radar canyoneering. LINK

20. Custer State Park, South Dakota
The Needles Highway winds through the Tolkienesque landscape of the Black Hills’ Needles, home to some old, bold climbs, many put up by Herb and Jan Conn in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s using a 50-foot rope and historically sparse protection. Perched on the rugged terrain that arguably marks the transition from the Midwest to the West, the 70,000-plus-acre park is home to a herd of more than 1,300 bison, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats and four lakes full of trout. LINK

{ 22 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Rick Collins

    Elephant Rock State Park near Taum Sauk Mountain in SE Missouri is some shockingly good granite bouldering.

  • Mtnlee

    You have to include John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off of Key Largo. It is almost entirely undersea. Exploring is done by glaas bottom boat or SCUBA and snorkelling. Beautiful underwater scenery and abundant marine life. Very cool!

    • Heather White

      I agree! We went there this year and it is superb! Not sure which one but there is one in the middle of the keys that is absolutely amazing.

  • D

    Wyoming ? Oh wait the Fed came in and made them all National Parks before we had a chance. Grand Teton State Park has a good ring to it.

  • Dominique

    Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio is another favorite of ours…great hiking, waterfalls and photo ops! Leelanau State Park in northern Michigan has a very scenic lighthouse and rocky beach where you’ll often find a number of small balanced rock structures.

  • Matthew

    Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys is great, Best beach in the Keys with the only remaining piece of Flaggler’s rail trestle. Cool, laid back spot.

  • sarah

    I think waimea canyon state park and kokee state parks on Kauai in Hawaii are amazing! They could be added to your list as well.

  • Joel Scott

    I think that this should have been the top 50! Redwoods State Park (CA), Robert Moses State Park (NY), John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (FL), Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park (MT), and Antelope Island State Park (UT) are surprisingly missing. If you are looking for your next state park adventure, check out Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder™ ( http://bit.ly/fdEs9g ) for iOS and Android. The free app features every federal and state park and public land in the US and more than 50,000 municipal parks, all searchable by location and activities.

  • Gema Cratso

    Good sharing.. America is blessed with such a wonderful paradise on earth. Recently I have been to valley of fire state park which was a great experience for me along with my kids. My son is very fond of wild life. He likes small hearted cacti which he had seen at valley of fire state park. Thanks for sharing such a big list. http://www.etraveldestinations.com/ here you will find great information on some of the best places of America.

  • Bruce

    The Adirondack State Park is actually more of a state forest preserve similar to the national forests with private land as well as state owned. Within the park are over 50 state campgounds. i would recommend canoeing or kayaking in Forked Laked is in a remote lake with sites to boat in to. Also in the high peaks area, you can hike up Mt. Marcy, the highest in the state and near Lake Placid, home of the ’80 Olympics.

  • JuJu B

    Allegany State Park has got to be on or near the top of the list and didn’t even make the top 20. I’ve been many of those places over the years, and none is as good as ASP…waterfalls, hiking trails, conservation experts, programs for kids and adults, swiming in two lakes, creekside campsites all over the park (fun for kids to get into the creeks and find creatures there), free movies under the stars, hootenanny sing alongs and CHEAP. Renting a cabin is less than 200 a week. Where else can you get all that kind of entertainment for such a low price? Close to the casino in Salamanca. Not too far from Niagra Falls. It’s 65,000 acres and HUGE. Open all year long, winter time means winter sports with a great cross country ski course.

  • Cynthia

    What about Joshua Tree Nat’l Park, CA…a climber’s Mecca, astronomer’s dream, and artist’s/photographers blank canvas!??

  • Robert

    Lost maples State natural Area in Texas – gorgeous hill country forest trails with rare stands of bigtooth maples, crowded in November but beautiful year round

  • G.D.

    A list of the 20 best state parks that excludes both Niagra or Itasca, the countries two oldest state parks, and parks that surely would have been designated as national parks had the states not beat the feds to the punch is a flawed list IMO. Obviously this list is purely the writers opinion, but if I were making a list, i’d put a bit more effort to uncover some of the more unique jewels that are not second best to our national parks in anyway but name.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>