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, and the Grand Canyon.
These state parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of the park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year.
Chances are you’re not too far from a state parks. Visit a state park today.
Everyone has lists and seldom do any two lists agree. But lists can be interesting fodder for discussion, debate, and sometimes agreement.
Here are My 5 Favorite State Parks.
Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. Witness hawk migrations and enjoy bird walks and natural history tours at this key migratory stopover.
You can spend a whole day exploring bird life along a one-mile walking trail through sugar hackberry, Rio Grande ash, and Texas ebony; and the six-mile paved inner and outer loops. Or take the tram or rent a bicycle to meander around the loops.
Catalina State Park, Arizona
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 of the special features at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
With its blood-red sandstone cliffs and weird rock formations, there’s an other-worldly feeling at Valley of Fire State Park. The terrain at Valley of Fire so resembles Mars that the Mars scenes of Total Recall were almost all filmed here.
Popular activities include camping, picnicking, photography, hiking among the intriguing rock formations, and soaking in the fascinating story of the area’s geological evolution. Park features include Fire Canyon/Silica Dome, Rainbow Vista, White Domes, and Beehives. Valley of Fire State Park is 55 miles—and a few light-years—northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and on exit 75.
Gulf State Park, Alabama
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, nationally recognized 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.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
With its pine-clad mountains and striking stone spires giving way in the south to gently rolling grasslands, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park occupies one of the prettiest corners of South Dakota’s Black Hills.
Drive on the windy Needles Highway in the north, through narrow tunnels carved through the rock, to mirror-like Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel.” To the south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop is the place to find pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and the famous “begging donkeys”.
Custer State Park touts itself as one of the few remaining wild sanctuaries in the country. Elk, mountain goats and nearly 1,300 buffalo roam this 71,000-acre park, set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.