- There are more than 10,000 state parks open to tourists across the United States, many off the beaten path.
- State parks offer all the beauty of national parks, but are often less crowded and more economical.
- These state parks are great for a weekend trip or as a stopover to a longer expedition.
The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone may have international acclaim as being among the best national parks—and rightly so—but that doesn’t mean they’re the only parks worth visiting. With more than 10,000 state parks open to tourists across the United States, the keen-eyed road-tripper should investigate the local recreation areas that are a little further off the beaten path. State parks offer all the beauty, diversity and resources of national parks, but are often less crowded and more economical than their larger counterparts.
We’ve gathered a list of state parks that are perfect on their own as a weekend trip or as a stopover on a longer expedition.
1. Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, New York
This charmingly named state park is nestled right in the heart of the beautiful Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. Located just outside the cozy college town of Ithaca, Buttermilk Falls State Park offers family-friendly trails, cascading waterfalls and a natural swimming hole with lifeguards on duty. Those looking to picnic should grab snacks from local favorite Ithaca Bakery (sandwiches start around $5), which boasts an extensive sandwich menu with plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans. After stopping in town, head to the upper park to enjoy short-but-scenic nature trails around Lake Treman and the gorge before descending to the swimming hole and play areas at the base of the falls. Post-swim, pick up a leaflet on native flora and fauna from the park office and take a brief tour through Larch Meadows, a wetland area in the lower section of the park. Admission is $8 per car.
Driving distance: 1 hour 15 minutes from Syracuse, New York | 1 hour 45 minutes from Rochester, New York | 2 hours 45 minutes from Buffalo, New York | 3 hours 10 minutes from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Albany, New York | 4 hours from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, New York
2. Moran State Park in Olga, Washington
For the adventurous road-tripper, the vibrant San Juan Islands are a must. Located just off the coast of Washington state, this archipelago includes tourist-friendly Orcas Island, which is home to stunning Moran State Park. Known for its picturesque mountain ranges, serene lakes and densely wooded hiking and mountain-biking trails, this park has something to offer every kind of voyager. At the top of the list is a journey up Mount Constitution, the highest peak on Orcas Island. Although the summit is accessible by car (ideal for those looking to catch the sunrise), the views are best enjoyed from the many trails that wind their way to the top from several starting points throughout the park. Outside of the Mount Constitution routes, Moran has a variety of other trails, from the quick and easy Cascade Falls Trail to the challenging 5-mile trek on the Southeast Boundary Trail to the summit of Mount Pickett.
Part of the fun of this unique experience is the ferry journey from Anacortes, Washington, to Orcas Island. Those traveling by car can ride the car ferry for about $40 for a vehicle and one passenger, plus $13.50 for each additional passenger. Book tickets in advance. A full schedule and list of fares is available from the Washington State Department of Transportation. Fares are 50% off for children between the ages of 6 and 18; kids under 6 travel for free. Park entrance is free on certain dates or $11.50 per car for a one-day Discover Pass.
Driving distance: 2 hours from Seattle, Washington | 2 hours 10 minutes from Kent, Washington | 2 hours 25 minutes from Tacoma, Washington | 4 hours 20 minutes from Portland, Oregon | 5 hours from Salem, Oregon (Driving distances listed are to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal in Anacortes, Washington. The ferry is an additional 1 hour 20 minutes from Anacortes, and Moran State Park is a 30-minute drive from the Orcas Island Ferry Dock.)
3. Chino Hills State Park in Chino Hills, California
Just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of central Los Angeles is Chino Hills State Park, a verdant oasis in arid Southern California. This park makes a perfect day trip for Los Angeles-based explorers while offering plenty of natural beauty for an overnight or long-weekend excursion. Once used by the indigenous Gabrielino tribe as a site to gather native nuts and berries, this park was later utilized for tending cattle, as evidenced by the various barns and windmills that dot the countryside. Today, hikers and those on horseback can enjoy more than 45 miles of winding trails located right at the base of the impressive Santa Ana Mountains.
Perhaps this park’s most striking feature is its biodiversity, from the rare coastal cactus wrens and majestic red-tailed hawks to the towering black walnut trees and colorful wild roses. Guided tours are available for nature enthusiasts looking for a more in-depth understanding of the park’s flora and fauna. Admission is $5 per car.
Driving distance: 1 hour 10 minutes from Los Angeles, California | 2 hours from San Diego, California | 2 hours 30 minutes from Santa Barbara and Bakersfield, California | 3 hours 40 minutes from Las Vegas, Nevada | 4 hours from Fresno, California
4. Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Slade, Kentucky
Tucked away in sprawling Daniel Boone National Forest, Natural Bridge State Resort Park is well-known among Kentuckians for its unusual sandstone rock formations, quiet hiking trails and eponymous main attraction, Natural Bridge. Spend the morning canoeing, kayaking or fishing for catfish and rainbow trout at 40-acre Mill Creek Lake before heading for the trails. Most hikes are between a quarter-mile and 2 miles, the notable exception being the strenuous 7.5-mile Sand Gap Trail. Many of the trails lead to specific rock formations, such as Balanced Rock Trail or Battleship Rock Trail. Other noteworthy sites include Lover’s Leap, a hair-raising overlook, and Fat Man’s Squeeze, a narrow path straddled by two sheer rock faces.
The bridge itself is the park’s crowning glory, a naturally formed sandstone arch with a height of 65 feet and a breadth of 78 feet. Several trails lead to the top, but first-timers and families with children may want to take the Skylift, a mile-long chairlift that transports riders directly to the top of the arch. After your trip on the Skylift, be sure to stop in at nearby Miguel’s Pizza (inexpensive), a quirky mom-and-pop pizza shop famous among climbers. Park admission is free.
Driving distance: 1 hour from Lexington, Kentucky | 2 hours from Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio | 3 hours from Knoxville, Tennessee | 3 hours 40 minutes from Indianapolis, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio | 4 hours 10 minutes from Nashville, Tennessee
5. Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park in Middle Brook, Missouri
When the Johnston family left Appalachia seeking better prospects in the early 1800s, they couldn’t have known the land where they settled would turn into a popular attraction for locals and visitors alike. With its origins in the Appalachian lexicon, the expression “shut-ins” refers to a river that has been diverted by super-resistant rock into a tight channel, thus “shutting in” the river. The result, in this case, is a series of small chutes, gentle waterfalls and deep, naturally forming pools that are ideal for intrepid bathers.
Begin your day at Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park by taking in some of the hikes the area has to offer. Scour Trail, for example, is an off-the-grid loop with plenty of informative signs along the way. For a more challenging but rewarding trek, take the 10-mile Goggins Mountain Trail through deep and undisturbed woodlands. In the afternoon, make your way to the swimming area to jump in the cool water right as the heat is peaking. Children and adults will love clambering over the rocks, jumping in the pools and floating lazily along the river. Admission is free.
Plan your trip: Visit Missouri
Driving distance: 1 hour 45 minutes from St. Louis, Missouri | 2 hours 45 minutes from Jefferson City, Missouri | 3 hours 10 minutes from Springfield, Illinois | 3 hours 15 minutes from Springfield, Missouri | 4 hours from Memphis, Tennessee | 4 hours 10 minutes from Peoria, Illinois