National parks get all the attention, but some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes are found in lesser-known (and noticeably less busy) state parks. From the caves of Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio to the hoodoos in Utah’s Mars-like Goblin Valley State Park, there are endless places waiting to be explored right here in the U.S.
So whether you’re looking to venture out in your home state or planning an epic road trip to the country’s best state parks, buckle up (literally), and get ready to witness some of the most beautiful and unusual terrain in our country.
White-sand beaches might not be what comes to mind when you think of Alabama, but a visit to Gulf State Park might change your perspective. From the Gulf Coast’s sugar-sand shores you can kayak, bike, or do absolutely nothing — no judgement.
It doesn’t get much more picturesque than Chugach State Park, which has glaciers, endless mountains, and is less than 20 minutes from Anchorage.
Located near the Superstition Mountains and just about 40 miles east of Phoenix is Arizona’s Lost Dutchman State Park. As you might suspect, the park is full of towering red rock formations, cacti, and enough hiking trails to keep you occupied for days.
In this state park, wood and stone structures dot the landscape, which itself is full of surprises — thanks to a smattering of shady caverns and rock formations. You can hike through the forest, try out mountain biking, or rent a boat and fish Lake Devil.
While technically a state and national park, we’d be remiss to leave this off the list. Here in the Redwoods, you’ll find some of the world’s tallest trees and endless open coast (keep an eye out for whales and harbor porpoises).
Near the city of Boulder (which itself is spectacular) is Eldorado Canyon State Park, home to one of the state’s most scenic canyons. You can hike beneath towering sandstone cliffs or spend the day conquering one of the park’s iconic climbing routes.
This beachy state park boasts acres-upon-acres of dunes and beach and an impressive bird sanctuary on Charles Island.
It’s all about the water at Cape Henlopen State Park — where people come to swim, boat, fish, kayak, paddle board, and windsurf. For an extra challenge, grab a surfboard and head to one of the park’s two surf breaks.
Explore a different side of Florida when you visit the swamps and springs of the state’s interior. In Ichetucknee Springs State Park, you can kayak under lush green trees or spend the day tubing down the river, drink in hand.
This state park surrounds a 2-mile, 1,000-foot-deep gorge that was formed by the Tallulah River. You can hike along the rim and peer below, or get a permit and hike to the gorge floor. Either way, don’t miss the park’s iconic suspension bridge.
This Maui park has a little bit of everything — the famous black-sand Paʻiloa Beach, freshwater pools, endless hiking, and sacred ruins.
Nestled in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains of northern Idaho is the 4,000-acre Farragut State Park. With easy lake access, you can set up camp before venturing deeper into the park for fishing, hiking, and biking.
The sandstone canyons, waterfalls, and wooded trails of Starved Rock State Park make it feel as though you’re in another world. And if you happen upon a white-tailed deer or a bald eagle, the effect is only magnified.
If you like to bike, head to the Hoosier State’s Brown County State Park where you’ll find nearly 30 miles of singletrack in addition to great hiking (plus, the fall colors are hard to beat).
From caves and trout fishing to climbing and biking, Backbone State Park has it all. You can spend the morning on the 21-mile trail system before hiding out in the shade of Backbone Cave.
Wilson State Park has beautiful sandstone bluffs and its own reservoir, which has excellent fishing (with bass and walleye), kayaking, swimming, and paddle boarding.
This park is best known for its namesake: Cumberland Falls, one of the few places in the world that regularly produces moonbows, also called white rainbows or lunar rainbows. Before settling in to watch this phenomenon, hike through the forest or book a raft trip down the Cumberland River.
A visit to Chicot State Park will put you deep in the bayous surrounding Chicot Lake (which is stocked with bass, crappie, red-ear sunfish, and bluegill). If you’re feeling up for it, take on the 20-mile hike around the circumference of the park.
This Maine state park is huge, at 200,000 acres — so it’s no surprise that the recreation opportunities are endless. There are hundreds of miles of biking and hiking trails (including a segment of the Appalachian Trail), lakes, streams, and, of course, excellent camping.
This park sits on Assateague Island, a barrier island off Maryland. This one-of-a-kind destination is best known for the wild horses that live here (and are often spotted running down the sandy coast).
In the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, Mount Greylock State Reservation sprawls. The park has 70 miles of trails and trailside shelters perfect for backpackers.
This spacious state park (spread across 60,000 acres) has a lush old-growth forest, miles upon miles of rivers and streams, and of course, beautiful waterfalls. Located on the state’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll find over 90 miles of hiking trails at the park in the summer and a ski resort in the winter.
As you might expect from a Minnesota state park, Itasca has over 100 lakes within its boundaries. But what really makes this park special is the fact that it contains the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
At the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Mississippi is Tishomingo State Park, home to groundbreaking archaeological excavations and otherworldly sandstone outcroppings.
The terrain in Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is both stunning and surprising. Here you’ll find a slew of rocky wells that form shallow pools perfect for swimming in addition to great singletrack trails.
Ever dreamed of traveling to Mars? You’ll get the same effect (with much less travel time) at Makoshika State Park. This Montana park has beautiful badlands and bizarre-shaped rock outcroppings in addition to plenty of dinosaur fossils (including those from a Tyrannosaurus Rex).
If you love waterfalls, head to Smith Falls State Park, home of Nebraska’s tallest waterfall. From the park, you can paddle down the Niobrara River or hike to the nearby Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which protects the area’s bison and elk.
In Franconia Notch State Park, you’ll find lush old-growth forest and the Flume Gorge, a 90-foot-tall, moss-covered granite canyon.
Once you see the beautiful red sandstone of Valley of Fire, it’s hard to get it out of your mind. The dramatic landscape of blazing red rock formations includes petrified trees and the park’s fair share of petroglyphs.
As you might’ve guessed, this state park is all about the beach. The narrow barrier island stretches for 10 miles, offering up miles and miles of sandy coastline and coastal dunes.
Pinnacles and oddly-shaped boulders seem to pop out of the earth at City of Rocks State Park — and the reason why is fascinating. A volcano erupted millions of years ago, spewing rocks and boulders across the landscape. Today, the state park is a rock climber’s dream.
Arguably the most famous park on this list, Niagara Falls State Park is also one of the oldest. Inside this iconic state park are destinations like American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and part of Horseshoe Falls.
Near Asheville, North Carolina, a 315-foot monolith of granite — named Chimney Rock — makes up the backbone of this state park. But while Chimney Rock may be the park’s namesake, the real draw is the park’s 404-foot waterfall and occasional views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
This park is all about hiking, and in fact, a good chunk of the badlands are only accessible by trail. But that’s part of the appeal of this quiet, often-overlooked state park which offers a backcountry experience and a million reasons to unplug.
Hocking Hills State Park almost feels like seven parks in one thanks to the varied terrain found within. You’ll find over 25 miles of trails, awe-inspiring rock formations, waterfalls, and plenty of caves, including Old Man’s Cave, Whispering Cave, and Ash Cave.
The centerpiece of Lake Murray State Park is Lake Murray (no surprise there) — but what may be surprising are the campgrounds, beaches, hiking trails, and golf course (yes, really) found within.
This park sits on the cape, showcasing the wild, rugged coastline Oregon is known for. In addition to the seaside, you’ll find temperate rainforests and a great surf break — Short Sands Beach (aka Shorty’s).
In this beautiful Pennsylvania state park, you’ll find natural water slides, fossils, great backpacking (check out the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail), and over 25 miles of mountain bike trails.
This piece of open space boasts some of the best ocean views in Rhode Island. From here, you can kickback and watch sailboats cruise by or hop on the East Bay Bike Path and pedal your way around the area.
Love waterfalls? Look no further. Jones Gap is rich in towering columns of water and is beloved for its huge variety of wildflowers.
Situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park has miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, great climbing routes, and the beautiful Sylvan Lake, which sits beneath granite crags. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a bison.
The setting alone makes this state park unique — it’s perched atop the eastern Cumberland Mountains and provides access to stunning waterfalls, vistas, and dizzying gorges.
The second-largest canyon in the U.S. is found on the Texas Panhandle in the beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park. In addition to fewer people and more space than the Grand Canyon, you’ll find miles of trails suitable for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
Named for the goblin-esque hoodoos that dot the landscape, people come to Goblin Valley State Park to photograph and walk among these mushroom-shaped rock pinnacles.
Named for the thin, 1,000-foot-tall rift through the Green Mountains, Smugglers’ Notch State Park is the sort of place worth visiting just for a photo — but of course, we recommend sticking around. The park provides easy access to hiking and great picnicking spots.
Grayson Highlands State Park is fairly big (over 4,500 acres), but its placement within the Jefferson National Forest and proximity to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area makes it feel even larger. For the best views, take on Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.
Located along the Pacific Northwest Trail between Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island is Deception Pass State Park, a beautiful gem in Washington with coves, cliffs, and a towering bridge.
The water flowing down the Blackwater River really does look black (or maybe it’s more amber-colored) — but either way, this gorge and waterfall is not to be missed, especially if you happen to be good with a camera. In addition to the scenery, the park has plenty of hiking, biking, and fishing.
The largest state park in Wisconsin is also one of the most stunning. The glacier-formed Devil’s Lake is surrounded by impressive bluffs and giant trees. Spend a summer day on the saddle of a mountain bike or a horse before jumping in the lake to cool off.
The riverside hot springs — which flow at a constant temperature of 128 degrees Fahrenheit — make this park particularly special. You can brave a dip in the steamy pool or hike through the park’s trails looking for free-roaming bison.