Underrated State Parks That Are in Your Backyard
National parks seem like the place to be lately. But their popularity can sometimes make them too loud and crowded for comfort. You escaped the city for quiet, not to stand in line waiting to take a picture at a famous lookout point.
If you really want to get away from everything, consider looking closer to home at your friendly neighboring state parks. Though they’re not adorned with the shiny "national" title, state parks offer many of the same perks and the breathtaking beauty of nature. And you don’t even have to share them with many other people.
Here are the 21 most underrated state parks in the U.S.
Why Vogel Is Worth a Visit
Founded in 1931, Vogel is the oldest state park in Georgia. Mountainous trails take hikers to waterfalls and peaks within the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Many activities surround Lake Trahlyta, which has beaches where you can swim, picnic and play.
Visitors often stay overnight, either camping or in the yurts and cabins that the park manages. Mountain biking is also a popular activity.
Best Thing to Do in Vogel
Test your endurance at the Coosa Backcountry Trail, which leads you to the peak of Blood Mountain. The summit is the highest of the Georgian Appalachian Trail and a badge of honor for those who complete it.
Where to stay: Log cabin in the mountains on VRBO
20. Bear Mountain State Park, New York
Overall score: 25.6
Why Bear Mountain Is Worth a Visit
Outside of New York City, New York state is a filled with natural beauty. Case in point: Bear Mountain State Park. Hills, flower fields and the great Hudson River make up the landscape of the park, giving visitors opportunities for many activities.
You'll be able to enjoy the usual things, like biking, hiking and swimming. People with boats often come out to play here as well. In the winter, the park is a natural ski resort where you can do cross-country skiing, sledding and ice skating.
Facilities are modern and well-equipped. You'll even find a merry-go-round that kids love almost as much as playing in the river.
Best Thing to Do in Bear Mountain
Drive up to the summit of Bear Mountain — which gives the park its name — and enjoy the Perkins Memorial Tower. This rustic wooden observatory provides incredible views of the Hudson Valley landscape.
Where to stay: Cottage with views of the Hudson River on VRBO
19. Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California
Overall score: 25.9
Why Calaveras Big Trees Is Worth Visiting
Giant sequoias are one of the most breathtaking wonders of nature.
Though you can see these massive trees in other places like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, you won't have to deal with the crowds. The park received an impressive 9.7 in solitude, which means you'll basically get the sequoias to yourself.
The park is located halfway in between Tahoe National Forest and Yosemite National Park, so it's a great stop on a tour through California's natural landscapes.
Best Thing to Do in Calaveras Big Trees
Although seeing the giant sequoias is a must-do, we also recommend planning to take a thrilling rafting trip down Stanislaus River. This will let you see and experience the park in a way most people don't get to see it.
Where to stay: Three-bedroom mountain chalet on VRBO
17. Sky Meadows State Park, Virginia (Tie)
Overall score: 26.4
Why Sky Meadows Is Worth a Visit
Just an hour outside the busyness of Washington, D.C., you'll find this peaceful bucolic state park. As you may have guessed, there are lots of meadows and lots of sky. Farms in and around the park provide an even more idyllic setting for those visiting.
Part of the park is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so there are still good hiking opportunities, including parts of the Appalachian Trail. If you decide to stay the night, you'll be treated to a true visual feast, since this is an International Dark Sky Park.
Best Thing to Do in Sky Meadows
Enjoy the trails with your horse. Although you can't rent a horse at the park, you are allowed to bring your own and enjoy the 7 miles of horse trails available. This is one of the absolute best ways to see Northern Virginia's mountainous valleys.
Where to stay: Appalachian estates cabin on VRBO
17. Pilot Mountain State Park, North Carolina (Tie)
Overall score: 26.4
Why Pilot Mountain Is Worth a Visit
Pilot Mountain's famous peak, Big Pinnacle, is truly something to behold. The white rock walls are covered in vegetation. The unusual peak is one of the most overlooked places in North Carolina and continues to be a well-kept local secret.
Hiking is the main activity, with numerous trails catering to different levels. Rock climbing is also very popular, as the park's rock walls are the perfect challenge to lovers of the sport.
Best Thing to Do in Pilot Mountain
Though hiking to the peak of Big Pinnacle is not allowed, you can get close to it on the Grindstone Trail. It's only 3.5 miles, but they are strenuous miles, so physical endurance is required. Rest assured, your efforts will be well rewarded.
Where to stay: Vineyard with views of Pilot Mountain on VRBO
16. Blue Spring State Park, Florida
Overall score: 26.7
Why Blue Spring Is Worth a Visit
Florida's water activities go well beyond the beach, as this mesmerizing state park proves. Blue Spring offers clear spring water that allow you to see right through the bottom. The spring is surrounded by mangroves and trees, making for a magical swimming experience.
But what really draws people to the state park are the manatees that also love its waters. If you want to see the gentle giants, plan your visit during winter, when they come to escape the cold. The Florida weather makes it possible to take a dip even in the "coldest season."
Besides swimming, you can kayak, camp, canoe, fish and even scuba dive.
Best Thing to Do in Blue Spring
To protect the manatees, you are not allowed to swim with them (thankfully). That means that the best way to see them is by passing through the park's wooden boardwalk. You'll also have the opportunity to see other animals, including alligators and wading birds. The boardwalk is wheelchair accessible, too, so people with limited mobility can enjoy it.
Where to stay: Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina
15. Caddo Lake State Park, Texas
Overall score: 27.2
Why Caddo Lake Is Worth a Visit
One of the very few natural lakes in Texas, Caddo Lake is the heart of the state park that bears its name.
The park is near the border with Louisiana, so you can expect wetlands and bayous as well as resident alligators. Yes, this means you probably won’t do much swimming here, but you’re definitely welcome to kayak, canoe or fish around the lake. No matter what activity you choose, you'll spend most of your time gawking at the majestic cypress trees.
This is a side of Texas many people simply don’t get to see.
Best Thing to Do in Caddo Lake
Go boating. There's simply no better way to explore this state park than on the water. A boat will take you around the lake, so you can safely see bald cypress trees and maybe even a gator or two. A canoe is also a good option.
Where to stay: Large Waterfront Cabin on Airbnb
14. High Point State Park, New Jersey
Overall score: 27.3
Why High Point Is Worth a Visit
High Point received its name because it is, as you likely assumed, the highest point in New Jersey. Due to its elevated height, the peak of the mountain for which the park is named rewards you with panoramic views of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The park is also known for its High Point Monument, which was built in honor of war veterans.
There are numerous trails in the park. Camping and fishing are also popular activities, as is cross-country skiing in the winter.
Best Thing to Do in High Point State Park
Visit the impressive High Point Monument. Located at the summit of High Point, it is an imposing monument to veterans that is almost 100 years old.
Where to stay: Hampton Inn Matamoras
13. Baxter State Park, Maine
Overall score: 27.8
Why Baxter Is Worth a Visit
If you wanted to climb Maine’s tallest mountain, you wouldn’t go to Acadia National Park but to Baxter State Park instead. Though the state’s famed (and gorgeous) national park deserves the attention it gets, we’d like to see more people interested in Baxter.
This state park is built around the impressive Mount Katahdin, which is at times covered in snow — though this doesn’t deter intrepid climbers from tackling its summit. Even if you’re not one for such great heights, the scenery provided at the foot of the mastiff is astonishing. You’ll also have the chance to see white-tailed deer, lynx, black bears and moose.
Best Thing to Do in Baxter
Climb to the peak of Mount Katahdin, Maine's tallest mountain. Climbing is possible during all seasons, though winter will call for more specialized equipment. Serious hikers come here to earn mountain cred.
Where to stay: Baxter Park Inn
11. Kickapoo Cavern State Park, Texas (Tie)
Overall score: 28
Why Kickapoo Cavern Is Worth a Visit
As you may have guessed from the name, this state park centers around caves — 20 of them to be exact. Its eponymous cave, Kickapoo Cavern, as well as Stuart Bat Cave, are the largest of the 20.
Adventure travelers and those looking for a unique state park adventure are drawn to this park, which is near the Mexican border. The park scored a perfect 10 in terms of solitude, meaning you will have its beauty mostly to yourself.
Best Thing to Do in Kickapoo Cavern
Explore Kickapoo Cavern. After all, this is the largest of all the park's 20 caves and its most famous. You can't go wrong with it.
Where to stay: Historic 1870s Cavalry Barracks
11. Brazos Bend State Park, Texas (Tie)
Overall score: 28
Why Brazos Bend Is Worth a Visit
If you’re near Houston, you probably want to take a day (or two) to explore nearby Brazos Bend State Park.
The protected land couldn’t be more opposite to the modern city, with wildlife like deer, alligators, otters and armadillos taking refuge within its borders.
Best Thing to Do in Brazos Bend
Unless you’re absolutely bent on hiking around, the best way to see the park is on horseback. Thirteen miles of trails can be explored on horseback, and there are even equestrian campsites for those who won’t part from their horses.
Where to stay: Cozy cabin in the woods on Airbnb
10. Hayes Lake State Park, Minnesota
Overall score: 28.4
Why Hayes Lake Is Worth a Visit
Once a large glacial lake that retreated, Hayes Lake State Park is something else. As can be expected, the land is quite flat — it used to be a lake, after all — but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. On the contrary, it makes it possible to explore the bog on a wooden boardwalk.
Rivers and lakes are the major attractions, though, with Hayes Lake providing a refreshing place to swim and be on the lookout for wildlife. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a moose on the trail.
Best Thing to Do in Hayes Lake
In the winter, you can snowshoe, backcountry ski or ride your snowmobile through designated trails.
Where to stay: AmericInn By Wyndham Roseau
9. Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Overall score: 28.7
Why Silver Falls Is Worth a Visit
Oregon has the beautiful Crater Lake National Park, but we’d posit that Silver Falls State Park rivals it in beauty and things to do.
As the largest state park in Oregon, there are numerous trails that take you through green forests and hidden waterfalls. There are also horse trails for those who prefer to explore the park on horseback as well as bike paths for adventurous mountain bikers.
8. Red Top Mountain State Park, Georgia
Overall score: 28.7
Why Red Top Mountain Is Worth a Visit
Just 40 minutes from Atlanta, Red Top Mountain is decorated by pine trees and an impressively large lake.
As you hike through the numerous paths in the park, you may notice the distinct red color of the soil, which has given the park its name.
Best Thing to Do in Red Top Mountain
Hiking is popular, but fishing is the big draw. City dwellers, as well as people from surrounding towns, come to Lake Allatoona to fish for catfish and bass.
Where to stay: Hilton Garden Inn Cartersville
7. Garner State Park, Texas
Overall score: 29.8
Why Garner Is Worth a Visit
Yet another state park in Texas proves that the Lone Star State is more than oil rigs and giant sterile cities. Located less than two hours from cool San Antonio, this is where the city people come to relax by the river.
At any time of the year, you can explore more than 16 miles of trails, camp, canoe and fish in the river. There’s even a miniature golf course if that’s the kind of thing that rocks your boat. Though we’d personally rather leave that for the city and enjoy the miracles of nature.
Best Thing to Do in Garner
If you come during summer, floating along Frio River in a tube or getting active in a paddleboat are the best ways to beat the Texas heat.
Where to stay: Cabin near the hills on Airbnb
6. Wilderness State Park, Michigan
Overall score: 30.2
Why Wilderness Is Worth a Visit
Though Wilderness State Park does not have a very creative name, it makes up for it by centering around the vast and majestic Lake Michigan. Of course, water dominates most of the activities in the park, including going to the beach, fishing, swimming and canoeing.
Right at the edge of the water, there are thick forests, sand dunes and wetlands.
5. Fontainebleau State Park, Louisiana
Overall score: 30.3
Why Fontainebleau Is Worth a Visit
Fontainebleau State Park ranked an impressive 10 for wildlife and 9 for solitude. The ranking for wildlife should particularly be of interest to birders, who will have the opportunity to look for hundreds of species of birds like common loons, buffleheads and bald eagles.
You’ll probably also see a gator here and there.
Best Thing to Do in Fontainebleau
Take a dip in Lake Pontchartrain, and play on its beach. You’ll find people picnicking, sunbathing and swimming on clear, hot days.
Where to stay: Blue Heron Bed & Breakfast
4. Cloudland Canyon State Park, Georgia
Overall score: 30.5
Why Cloudland Canyon Is Worth a Visit
The reason why Cloudland Canyon broke into the top five best state parks so easily is that it features a high number of activities with a low number of visitors.
As one of Georgia’s largest nature preserves, the park offers several landscapes, including caves, canyons, mountains, gorges and creeks.
Best Thing to Do in Cloudland Canyon
Overlook Trail is one of the most popular trails in Cloudland Canyon, providing sweeping views over the landscape. If your hiking level is high, you can put your legs to the test in Waterfalls Trail, which will take you deep into the canyon and to two beautiful waterfalls with natural pools.
Where to stay: Days Inn By Wyndham Trenton
3. Governor Dodge State Park, Wisconsin
Overall score: 31.2
Why Governor Dodge Is Worth a Visit
An astoundingly beautiful park in Wisconsin’s driftless area, Governor Dodge is notorious for its sandstone bluffs. Earning an 8.3 for activities, there’s simply no way to be bored here. You can do cross-country skiing, horseback riding, fishing, off-road biking, hiking, canoeing and more.
Other features of the park are its numerous waterfalls, a hiker favorite, cold lakes and thick forests.
Best Thing to Do in Governor Dodge
Stephen Fall's Trail is a moderate 0.3-mile hike that will take you to one of the park's most popular natural features. You'll also get to see the sandstone formations iconic to the park.
Where to stay: Super 8 by Wyndham Dodgeville
2. Red Fleet State Park, Utah
Overall score: 31.7
Why Red Fleet Is Worth a Visit
Utah has some of the best national parks in the U.S., but its state parks don’t lag behind. Red Fleet State Park stands out because of the dinosaur footprints you can find here.
The park showcases contrasting landscapes: arid desert hills, lakes, caves and red rock formations.
Best Thing to Do in Red Fleet
The fossils are what brings most people in, but there’s also a large reservoir where you can enjoy numerous water activities like swimming, boating and fishing. Our advice is to first do the fossil trackway and then freshen up at the lake.
Where to stay: Dinosaur Inn & Suites
1. Custer State Park, South Dakota
Overall score: 32.5
Why Custer Is Worth a Visit
Though all parks on this list are worth visiting, if you were to visit a single American state park, Custer should be it. We don’t fully understand how it hasn’t yet been made into a national park, given its location within South Dakota’s Black Hills.
Within this magical land, you can see herds of bison and granite formations that rise from the ground like pillars.
Best Thing to Do in Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake is a particularly beautiful spot, with clear-blue water contrasting the bare rocky landscape that surrounds them.
Where to stay: Bavarian Inn, Black Hills