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 15 most underrated state parks in the U.S.
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.
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. Because of 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.
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 height, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, including the magnificent Trail of Ten Falls. As the name suggests, this trail takes you through 10 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.
Where to stay: Smith Creek Village at Silver Falls State Park
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.
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.
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. 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.
Where to stay: Cabin near the hills on Airbnb
6. Wilderness State Park, Michigan
Overall score: 30.2
Why Wilderness Park Is Worth a Visit
Though Wilderness State Park does not count as having 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. We highly recommend camping here, as the park is a dark sky preserve and makes for stargazing like you’ve never experienced it.
Where to stay: Best Western Plus Dockside Waterfront Inn
5. Fontainebleau State Park, Louisiana
Overall score: 30.3
Why Fontainebleau Is Worth a Visit
Incredible 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.
Other things to do include taking a dip in Lake Pontchartrain and playing 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.
Overlook Trail is one of the most popular trails in Cloudland Canyon, providing sweeping views over the landscape. If your 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.
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 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. 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