Every year, America’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, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Great Smoky Mountains.
State parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of America’s park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year.
Here are seven state parks you may not know about—but should.
You could be forgiven for thinking you drove to Utah and ended up in the Grand Canyon instead. Featuring immense cliffs carved by the elements and stunning overlooks, Dead Horse Point State Park draws you in with its breathtaking landscapes, dark starlit skies, and rich history.
Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs about 6,000 feet above sea level. Two thousand feet below, the Colorado River winds its way from the continental divide in Colorado to the Gulf of California, a distance of 1,400 miles.
Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres about an hour south of the Coachella Valley, California’s largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America’s state park system. By day it has 110 miles of hiking trails to explore and 12 designated wildlife areas, and by night the huge desert landscape delivers some of the best stargazing in America. The park is also a site of great geological importance as it has been found to contain over 500 types of fossils that are up to 6 million years old.
When the neon of Vegas becomes too much, head out to Valley of Fire, Nevada’s first state park, so designated in 1935. You’ll be blown away by the brilliant-red Aztec Sandstone rocks that appear on fire when reflected by the sun. The Valley of Fire derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. Complex uplifting and faulting of the region followed by extensive erosion created the present landscape.
Consisting of 6,150 acres with two miles of sugar white sand beaches and three fresh water lakes, Gulf State Park has a modern full-service campground, cabins, cottages, back country trails, and the largest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico. The park also features an interactive nature center, scenic nature trail, new tennis courts, beautiful beach pavilion, 18-hole Refuge Golf Course, and a 900-acre lake for fishing in the picnic area on Lake Shelby
It may be South Carolina’s most visited state park, but that doesn’t stop this secluded barrier island located 15 miles east of Beaufort from being one of the most picturesque destinations in the South, thanks to its famous lighthouse, pristine beaches, and popular fishing lagoon. Fun fact: many of the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed here.
Adirondack Park, New York
Part state park, part forest preserve, and part privately owned land encompassing 102 towns and villages, Adirondack Park is massive. Totaling 6.1 million acres, America’s biggest state park is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Nearly half of the land is owned by the State of New York and designed as “forever wild,” encompassing all of the Adirondacks’ famed 46 High Peaks as well as 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river. You’re gonna be here a while.
Located in South Dakota’s fabled Black Hills region, the state’s first and largest state park is most famous for its herd of 1,500 wild bison that freely roam the land as well as other Wild West creatures like pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions. The scenery is everything you think of when you close your eyes and picture the great American West, laid out before you amidst 71,000 acres of vast open vistas.
It’s a beautiful day for it.