10 State Parks That Are Even Better Than National Parks, Experts Say
THESE SPOTS BRING MUCH MORE TO THE TABLE WHEN IT COMES TO SIGHTSEEING AND EXPLORING.
If you're saving up for an outdoor adventure, odds are you've been eyeing some of the iconic U.S. national parks for your next vacation. Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Zion may be at the top of your list—they might have been on your bucket list since you were a kid, in fact. But what you may not realize is that the U.S. also offers some spectacular state parks, many of which could be even more worthwhile destinations for your next excursion. Read on to find out which state parks travel experts say are actually better than the big-name national parks.
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Goblin Valley State Park (Utah)
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If you're booking a trip to Utah and seeking a less crowded alternative to Zion National Park, look no further than Goblin Valley State Park. This hidden gem is different from any other valley in Utah, according to the park's website, offering different "strange and colorful" sights. Red hoodoos—tall, thin rocks formed by erosion—are scattered throughout the park and often referred to as "goblins," Carly Brown, owner and author of the travel blog Seek Out Serenity LLC, tells Best Life.
"The unique landscape truly makes one feel as though they are on the surface of another planet altogether," she says.
And it can be the perfect option if you're taking a family vacation, according to Christina Grance, travel writer for Live a Wilder Life. "The bizarre landscape of goblin-like hoodoos and sandstone rock formations make for an otherworldly experience that kids and the young at heart will enjoy," she explains.
Children will also enjoy the 2.4-mile hike to Goblin's Lair or having "the most epic game of hide and go seek" in the Valley of the Goblins, Grance adds.
Silver Springs State Park (Florida)
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Looking for a destination on the East Coast? You might want to check out Silver Springs State Park in Central Florida. The allure here is the wildlife and the crystal clear waters, which you can observe when taking one of the park's famed glass-bottom boat tours.
According to professional nature photographer Jeremy Janus, the turquoise waters are "mesmerizing," regardless of whether you're paddleboarding, kayaking, or taking a boat tour.
"I would say the Silver River run is a must-do on the bucket list, as it is an easy ride but absolutely breathtaking," he explains. "There are tons of cypress trees that surround the river as well, which are amazing with the way the lights and shadows interplay on and through them."
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Deception Pass State Park (Washington)
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Taking up two islands in Northwest Washington, Deception Pass State Park "is absolutely stunning," Jessica Schmit, of the travel blog Uprooted Traveler, tells Best Life.
"The park is located along the waterway that connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Skagit Bay and thus, offers dramatic cliffs, views of turquoise waters, and craggy beaches," she says.
According to the park's website, you can explore 77,000 feet of saltwater shoreline and 33,900 feet of freshwater shoreline—the latter thanks to the park's three lakes. Getting from one island to the other is also made simple via the Canoe Pass and Deception Pass bridges, which create "a gateway for exploration," the website states.
Deception Pass is the most visited state park in Washington, and that may very well be because of all that it has to offer. "There are plenty of activities in the park—hiking, boating, and even whale watching—I've spotted orcas the last two times I've gone hiking there!" Schmit shares.
Cloudland Canyon State Park (Georgia)
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Cloudland Canyon State Park also outshines its national counterparts. Situated in the mountains of Northwest Georgia, this state park is a destination for adventurers, offering different cliffs, caves, canyons, waterfalls, and creeks for you to explore. If the Grand Canyon is just a bit out of reach travel-wise, Rebecca Deitsch, from the travel blog Day Trip Queen, says you can't really go wrong with this mountainous park.
"Cloudland Canyon isn't anywhere near as big as the Grand Canyon, but in a way that makes it even more fun, because you can explore it more easily!" Deitsch explains. "I recommend hiking the West Rim Loop Trail to get the views and then connecting to the Waterfalls Trail, which will take you down into the heart of the canyon to two waterfalls."
Looking to stay the night? Deitsch suggests booking a cabin on the West Rim for a "cozy, quiet getaway in nature."
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Smith Rock State Park (Oregon)
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Located in central Oregon and spanning 650 acres is Smith Rock State Park. There's no shortage of trails and wildlife here—and Adam Marland, travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel, describes the park as "a nature-built playground."
"Rock climbers, hikers, photographers, and anyone with a love for our natural world flock to this small-but-mighty state park," he says.
You'll be responsible for a small parking fee, but entry to the park is free, Marland confirms, meaning this trip won't break the bank if you're on a budget. "Hiking trails for all abilities are available, from a flat, pleasant stroll along the Crooked River to the aptly-named Misery Ridge climb that goes straight to the top for panoramic views over Oregon's high desert," he says.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Florida)
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If you want a taste of something truly unique, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Florida is the place to see.
"John Pennekamp State Park was the first underwater state park in the U.S.," Sophie Clapton, travel blogger with We Dream of Travel, explains. "Located in beautiful Key Largo and extending three miles into the Atlantic Ocean, this pristine coastal park was created to protect a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental U.S."
Canoeing and kayaking in the clear blue water are a must, according to the park's website. With average temperatures ranging between the mid-70s and 80s, it's great to visit year-round—just be wary of hurricane season if you're traveling in the fall.
"Visitors can enjoy world-class snorkeling, including a visit to the 'Christ of the Abyss' underwater sculpture, or pull up a towel and enjoy a day on the beach," Clapton says.
If you're looking to catch a glimpse of wildlife, you also might want to visit this state park instead of your national options. According to Clapton, crocodile sightings are "extremely normal," but thankfully, no human has ever been attacked.
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Custer State Park (South Dakota)
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Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre gem nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and it's definitely one to rival national parks.
"This amazing state park is often called the 'Little Yellowstone' for good reason," Grant Sinclair, travel blogger of Our Wander-Filled Life, says. "Located on the south end of the Black Hills, this park has tons of wildlife, including the second largest herd of bison in the U.S."
Caitlin Dismore, travel blogger of Twin Family Travels, recommends taking a scenic drive on the Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, or the Wildlife Loop Road, which will take you through tunnels and around hairpin turns.
You also won't want to miss Sylvan Lake, one of five within the park, she tells Best Life. "It has a swimming beach, hiking trails, a lodge with a restaurant, canoe and paddle boat rentals, and fishing opportunities," Dismore says.
Silver Falls State Park (Oregon)
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The second Oregon State Park to make the list, Silver Falls was one of the most frequently recommended by our experts.
"Although it's tough to compete with the monoliths that are Olympic, Mount Rainier, or even Crater Lake, I absolutely think travelers should make the detour to visit Silver Falls State Park in central Oregon," Hannah Ashcraft, travel blogger for Moderately Adventurous, says. She explains that the park makes up for its smaller size thanks to its 10 waterfalls, volunteer-run nature store, and the simple fact that it's less often visited than other Pacific Northwest national parks.
Marland agrees, noting that Silver Falls is described as the "crown jewel" of the Oregon State Parks. "Visitors will follow the Silver River as it flows through an enchanted forest that feels like a postcard for the Pacific Northwest," he describes. "The most popular and noteworthy hike is the Trail of Ten Falls." According to Marland, you'll see all 10 of those waterfalls while on this "7.8-mile jaunt."
You may want to hold off a few months before checking the park out, however. "Silver Falls is best visited in the fall, when the golden autumn colors transform the landscape in seasonal beauty," Marland says.
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Moran State Park (Washington)
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Another state park not to be missed is Moran State Park in Washington state. Covering 5,424 acres, this park is a unique destination that offers camping, hiking trails, and opportunities to explore structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
"Moran State Park is in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, so this park showcases a unique landscape that cannot be found anywhere else in the U.S.," Laura Witt, the blogger behind the site Amateur Adventure Journal, tells Best Life.
You can take in both island and mountain views here, enjoying the great outdoors without the crowds that flock to the national parks in Washington state, Witt explains.
"A trip to Moran State Park is not complete without seeing the panoramic views from Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands," she says. "On a clear day, Vancouver, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier are all visible, but the view from here is beautiful even on a cloudy day."
Humboldt Redwoods State Park (California)
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Rounding out this list is Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California. According to Todd Sarouhan, owner of the travel site Go Visit San Diego, the views at this state park rival those at the nearby Redwood National Park.
"It is home to the Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining old-growth forest of coast redwoods in the world," he explains. "And let me tell you, nothing in the national park compares to driving through the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt State Park."
You can take the whole family camping at one of the Humboldt's 250 campsites, heading down hiking trails and fishing at the South Fork of the Eel River, the park's website states. All in all, the views at Humboldt Redwoods State Park are not to be missed. "It's the third-largest park in the California State Park system, and a definite contender for your bucket list if you love the outdoors," Sarouhan adds.