While America’s 59 national parks may get all the glory and the Ken Burns documentaries, nearly three times as many people visit the country’s 10,234 state park areas each year. Spanning a total of more than 18 million acres across the US, America’s state parks take up the equivalent land area of 13.6 million football fields—or roughly the size of South Carolina.
So yeah, there’s kind of a lot to explore.
Here’s the cream of the crop, seven state parks you may not know about—but should.
There is no shortage of locations in Arizona that could form a Red Rock State Park, but the chosen location is in Red Rock Country several miles southwest of Sedona along Oak Creek. Red Rock State Park is a 286 acre nature preserve and environmental education center with stunning scenery. Trails throughout the park wind through manzanita and juniper to reach the banks of Oak Creek. Green meadows are framed by native vegetation and hills of red rock.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
This sprawling park in the heart of the Texas panhandle has everything you think of when you imagine a great American nature retreat, most notably the vast open spaces of the “Grand Canyon of Texas” known as the 70-mile Palo Duro Canyon. Horseback rides and hikes amidst its brilliant-red rocks and freaky hoodoos are a must, but what sets this park apart are its one-of-a-kind activities like seeing live music at its Red Rocks-style Pioneer Amphitheatre, or sleeping in historic brick huts you can rent, making this easily one of the coolest campsites in America.
Named for the river it boarders, Shenandoah River State Park is a prime destination—a peaceful and serene park. Picture perfect scenery abounds here in the mountains and rolling hills of Northern Virginia. With over 5 miles of river front and nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River State Park is truly a gem. The rolling, mountainous land features steep slopes and is mostly wooded.
Dive into the crystal-clear water of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Swim, scuba dive, or just relax under the trees at this historic park in arid West Texas. Balmorhea State Park, with the crystalline waters of San Solomon Springs that hover between 72 and 76 degrees year round, is a most pleasant place to hang out during a summer heat wave—or any other season, for that matter. As an added bonus, the stars emerge big and bright and in the nearby Davis Mountains and the temperatures dip into the 60s each night.
Sharing the same name I knew that fate would one day find us within driving distance of Vogel State Park and when that day arrived, the park did not disappoint. One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. A lake for swimming and boating, and miles of hiking trails adjacent to the famous Appalachian Trail offer something for everyone. The park’s 22-acre lake is open to non-motorized boats, and during summer, visitors can cool off at the mountain-view beach.
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.
One special feature at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants.
Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination. At the geographic center of the World Birding Center (WBC) network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest.
It’s a beautiful day for it.