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10 State Parks That Give National Parks a Run for Their Money

By Liz Weslander
January 12, 2022
Anza Borrego
Courtesy California State Parks
With jaw-dropping natural beauty, reasonable entry fees, and convenient locations, these state parks belong on your must-see US parks list.

There’s no denying the allure of this country’s majestic national parks. But there's plenty of natural beauty to go around, and many state parks offer outdoor experiences that shouldn't be overlooked. State parks tend to have lower entrance fees and more manageable crowds than the marquee-name national parks, plus there’s the added bonus of not being affected by pesky government shutdowns. Here are 10 fabulous state parks to get you started.

1. Custer State Park: Custer, South Dakota

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(Courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks)

A free-roaming herd of 1,500 bison is the main attraction at this park in the scenic Black Hills, but there’s plenty more wildlife to be spotted along its 18-mile loop road, including pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and even feral burros. Needles Highway, a popular 14-mile scenic drive through the park, is dotted with needle-shaped rock formations, two tunnels, and sweeping views of evergreen forests and lush meadows.
Weekly park license, $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle; gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park

2. Kartchner Caverns State Park: Benson, Arizona

Home to a 21-foot stalactite that ranks as the third-longest in the world, this multi-room cave located 45 miles southwest of Tucson has only been open to the public since 1999. Kartchner Caverns is a living cave, meaning that its formations are still growing, and the park offers two guided tours that explore several different areas. The park is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, so it’s great for stargazing.
Tours, from $23 for adults and $13 for youth ages 7-13 (reservations recommended); azstateparks.com/kartchner

3. Petit Jean State Park: Morrilton, Arkansas

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(Courtesy Petit Jean State Park)

Central Arkansas probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind for a mountaintop adventure, but that’s just what Petit Jean State Park offers. Perched atop the 1200ft Petit John Mountain, this park has 20 miles of hiking trails that feature captivating geological formations such as giant sandstone boulders, stone arches, rock shelters, and box canyons. The park’s historic Mather Lodge, a rustic, cozy accommodation built of logs and stone, is a great option if you’re staying a few days. Free entry; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/petit-jean-state-park

4. Anza-Borrego State Park: San Diego County, California

A remote and rugged landscape located in southeast California’s Colorado desert, Anza-Borrego State Park has 600,000 acres of varied terrain including badlands and slot canyons. The popular Borrego Palm Canyon trail takes hikers on a rocky stroll to an almost surreal oasis filled with California palms. When you’re visiting, save time to check out the collection of more than 130 giant metal creatures built by sculptor Ricardo Breceda in the nearby town of Borrego Springs. Day fee, $10 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov/ansaborrego

5. Dead Horse Point State Park: Moab, Utah

It’s not the Grand Canyon, but it was a suitable stand-in for filming the final scene of the classic film Thelma & Louise. In other words, the views from Dead Horse State Park are fantastic. Just 25 miles from Moab, this park sits 2,000 feet above a gooseneck in the Colorado River and looks out over Canyonlands National Park. Visitors can pick their favorite view from one of eight different lookout points along the seven-mile rim trail.
Entry fee, $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle; stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse

6. Watkins Glen State Park: Watkins Glen, New York

With steep, plant-covered cliffs, small caves, and misty waterfalls, this state park in New York’s Finger Lakes region feels a little like stepping into a fairy tale. Visit in spring, summer, or fall, when you can hike the Gorge Trail, a two-mile journey that descends 400 feet, past 19 waterfalls into an idyllic narrow valley. Visitors can also enjoy the beauty from above on one of the dog-friendly rim trails. Season runs mid-may to early November.
Day fee, $8 per vehicle; parks.ny.gov/parks/142

7. Tettegouche State Park: Silver Bay, Minnesota

Eight great state parks dot the 150-mile stretch of Highway 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, but Tettegouche stands out for its scenic hiking opportunities through forests, past waterfalls, and along the shoreline. The easy Shovel Point trail takes hikers along jagged, lakeside cliffs to a dramatic lookout over Lake Superior. There are also three loop trails featuring waterfalls.
One-day park permit fee, $7; dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/park.html

8. Valley of Fire State Park: Overton, Nevada

Drive just 50 miles northeast of the bustling Las Vegas strip, and you’ll find a peaceful valley filled with dramatic red-sandstone formations that take on the appearance of flames on sunny days. The popular Atlatl Rock trail features a giant boulder balanced on a sandstone outcrop 50 feet above the ground. Climb its metal staircase to see the prominent ancient petroglyphs.
Entrance fee, $10 per vehicle; parks.nv.gov/parks/valley-of-fire

9. Montana de Oro State Park: San Luis Obispo County, California

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(Courtesy California State Parks)

Spanish for “mountain of gold,” Montana de Oro gets its name from the golden wildflowers that cover the area each spring, but you can find colorful views year-round on the seven miles of rocky, undeveloped coastline that comprise the western edge of this state park in California’s central coast region. The 4.6-mile Bluff Trail is a great way to see a large swath of the beaches, tide pools, and natural bridges in the park, or you can hike the Hazard and Valencia Peak trails for summit views. Pebbly Spooner’s Cove Beach serves as the park’s central hub.
Entry fee, $20 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov

10. Baxter State Park: Piscataquis County, Maine

With no electricity, running water, or paved roads within its boundaries, this 200,000-acre park in North Central Maine offers mountain, lake, and forest adventures for those who like their wilderness truly wild. The park’s 5,200-foot Mt. Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, but there are more than 40 other peaks and ridges to explore, and five pond-side campgrounds that offer canoe rentals.
Entry fee, $15 per vehicle; baxterstatepark.org

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National Parks

Shutdown Threatens National Parks

In a matter of days, the partial shutdown of the federal government has turned “America’s best idea” into every traveler’s worst nightmare. As reported by the PBS News Hour, the Washington Post, and other major news sources, some national parks have been left with minimal or no supervision, leading at least one California local to characterize the situation as a “free-for-all,” with overflowing garbage containers, visitors taking their vehicles illegally off-road and damaging fragile ecosystems, and human waste in, um, places you just don't ever want to find it. NATIONAL PARKS IN CRISIS Because hundreds of thousands of federal employees deemed “nonessential” are currently furloughed, meaning they are not being paid and are not expected to show up for work, many national parks, which are already underfunded and in need of repairs, are now largely unstaffed. And because, unlike during other government shutdowns in recent years, the Trump administration has decided to keep national parks open to visitors despite the lack of proper staffing, we are now seeing a “nightmare scenario,” John Garder, senior budget director of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the PBS News Hour. Public toilets in many parks are either closed or overflowing, visitors have been reported arguing over campsites because rangers are in short supply to help resolve disputes, some visitors are taking advantage of free admission and understaffing to drive their vehicles off the road onto land that is typically off-limits, and there are reports of visitors urinating and defecating in the open and allowing their dogs to run off-leash into areas where wildlife, including bears and mountain lions, abound. SAFETY TIPS FOR NATIONAL PARK VISITORS Avoid camping in national parks during the shutdown. If you’ve booked lodging at a hotel in or near a national park, contact the hotel directly for on-the-ground advice about how the shutdown may affect your visit. But most importantly, we seriously urge every traveler to carefully research and consider postponing most national park visits during the shutdown—not just for your safety but for the good of the parks themselves. Park advocates and news reports have made it clear that the Trump administration’s decision to keep the parks open while understaffed is a direct threat to the safety of visitors, wildlife, and ecosystems. SOME NATIONAL PARKS ARE OPEN AND STAFFED But there is some good news. A few states are pitching in to keep some of their NPS attractions up and running during the shutdown: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island remain open to visitors thanks to $65,000 per day from New York state. The Grand Canyon remains open thanks to support from the state of Arizona. Utah is keeping the visitors’ centers open at three of its Mighty Five parks, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. And remember that state parks across the U.S. are completely unaffected by the partial federal government shutdown, and in some cases state parks deliver virtually the same gorgeous natural beauty that their neighboring national parks do.

National ParksBudget Travel Lists

Discover 6 Perfect Florida State Parks

In Florida, a day at a park doesn’t always have to mean hanging out with The Minions, Mickey or Big Bird, though it often does. No surprise, considering the Sunshine State is synonymous with popular theme and water parks. But, Florida is also home to 175 state parks scattered from the Panhandle to the Keys, each offering an opportunity to experience the state’s myriad natural and cultural treasures, whether streams and rivers threading through a verdant landscape, a system of caverns peppered with stalactites, miles of undeveloped sandy beaches, dense tracts of forests dripping with moss, or historic forts and lighthouses. The entire compendium of state parks shows off Florida’s grand diversity of ecosystems, from mangroves to pinelands to dunes, as well as the resident and migrant creatures that call these vast expanses home or pay a seasonal visit. In the six state parks below, a grand array of enticing scenery and activities are on full display. (You can learn more at floridastateparks.org.) 1. Oleta River State Park Just 30 minutes from downtown Miami, Oleta is considered Florida’s largest urban park and one offering numerous water- and land-based activities. Inside the park, BG Oleta River Outdoors (bgoletariveroutdoor.com) rents canoes and kayaks so visitors can paddle through dark, foliage tunnels along the mangrove-lined river and then on to peaceful Biscayne Bay and the Intercoastal Waterway with opportunities to spot river otter, and sea turtles. (This concession also offers full moon and one-hour Friday sunset kayak tours.) And, despite Miami’s perfectly flat topography, Oleta is considered one of Florida’s best mountain biking venues, with more than a dozen miles of interconnected, challenging single track coursing beside the park’s waterways. 2. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park On the southern tip of Key Biscayne, Bill Baggs is most noted for its one-mile-some beach -- perfect for sunning and swimming -- that’s often named as one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. by Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University, aka Dr. Beach. Bird watchers are also attracted to this park that’s a stopover on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating species, such as Cerulean and Bay-breasted wood-warblers. Anyone walking to the southern tip of the Pond Trail will be near the Cape Florida Lighthouse, South Florida’s oldest structure that provides stunning views of Biscayne Bay, Key Biscayne and South Beach. 3. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park Named for the tallest of the coastal dunes along the Gulf of Mexico that resembles a ship’s sail, rising over 25 feet high, Topsail Hill, located in the Florida Panhandle, preserves these white quartz dunes with lakes -- a unique ecosystem -- where fresh and saltwater mix. Those with a fishing license can try to snag catfish, bream or bass in one of these lakes, or cast from the beach for Spanish mackerel, pompano or red fish. The paved Campbell Lake Bike Trail -- named for this coastal dune lake, a popular picnic spot -- that’s shaded by tall longleaf pines appeals to cyclists. 4. Hillsborough River State Park Just a few minutes north of Tampa, Hillsborough is one of the few spots in Florida featuring whitewater rapids. Those who bring their own canoe relish the small section of Class II rapids. The park also rents canoes that can be put in just below the rapids on this blackwater river, the color deriving from the tannins leaching from fallen leaves. Growing along the shore, live oaks, magnolia and cypress trees provide for shaded paddling, with opportunities to see otters or alligators on the banks. History buffs often sign up on a guided tour of the reconstructed Fort Foster, a replica of the circa 1837 fort from the time of the Second Seminole Indian War. 5. Honeymoon Island State Park Having received its name after several dozen honeymoon cottages were constructed (and subsequently demolished) in the early 1940s, this barrier island remains a stunning day-trip from Tampa for nature lovers. Though beachgoers flock to the sandy and seashell/rock studded four-mile stretch, a wild landscape of tide pools, sand dunes and salt marshes await those walking past the last parking lot to the shaded Osprey Trail. Hikers will find monarch butterflies fluttering about and the ever-present scent of pine. (A real treat is seeing osprey with their young.) 6. Caladesi Island State Park A short ferry ride away from Honeymoon Island, Caladesi was once attached to its sister island prior to a major hurricane in 1921. Though now connected to Clearwater Beach after a land bridge formed, Caladesi feels like the Florida of another era, once visitors wander past the ranger station/concession, with nothing but the sounds of bird calls, and the tide lapping at the powdery beach. In 2018, Dr. Beach ranked Caladesi’s dazzling quartz sands as one of the country’s top 10. A network of sandy trails wind through the heart of this island where signs remind visitors that the dense interior is snake territory.

National ParksProduct Reviews

Great Gear for National Parks Fans

With the specter of budget cuts, climate change, and the removal of wildlife protections looming overhead, America's great public spaces are in peril, and there couldn’t be a better time to show your support. Whether you're on the road or in nesting mode, we found plenty of good stuff that benefits our National Parks, from pins, posters, and personal attire to books, games, and even candles. 1. Put a Pin on It (Courtesy National Dry Goods) For parks enthusiasts who prefer to advertise their allegiance with a whisper, not a shout, these antiqued-brass pins from National Dry Goods make an understated point. The company’s designs range from a pair of binoculars and an adorable pink flamingo–adorned vintage camper to a roll of film and a Canon AE1, but we're big fans of the National Park series, which includes conservationists Teddy Roosevelt (above center) and John Muir as well parks like Acadia, Yellowstone, and the Rockies. The pins are sold individually, but we recommend the four-piece set, which includes the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and Yellowstone—perfect for those whose appetite for exploration is as wide-ranging as the natural wonders themselves.4-Piece Parks Series gift set, $40; natdrygoods.com. 2. Let Your Imagination Run Wild (The Quarto Group) Stoke the wanderlust of young (and young at heart) travelers with this captivating, info-packed tome. Engagingly written by Kate Siber and charmingly illustrated by Chris Turnham, the book is organized by region—east, central, Rocky Mountains, southwest, west, Alaska, and the Tropics—and full of engrossing details that allow you to easily imagine, say, paddling through the thick, humid air of the Everglades, spotting plate-sized turtles and listening for the bellows of crocodiles, or trekking through Death Valley at 134 degrees in the shade, searching for animal tracks in the sand dunes and crunching across the salt-crusted surface of the lowest point in America. It's a playful, educational look at our country’s protected lands.National Parks of the U.S.A., $19.50; amazon.com. 3. Bring the Outdoors In (Courtesy Good + Well Supply Co. and UncommonGoods.com) Whether you’re a tree-deprived city dweller or an outdoor adventurer eagerly awaiting your next excursion, there’s nothing like an aroma to evoke powerful memories. Trigger that sense of nostalgia with a scent that reminds you of your favorite park. Packaged in sturdy pint or half-pint tins, the small-batch soy candles from the Seattle-based Good + Well Supply Co. are a rugged option, perfect for tossing in a suitcase to make a generic hotel room feel like home without worrying about breakage—and they’re created sans animal testing, petroleum, lead, phthalates, and GMOs to boot. Fragrance preferences are highly personal, but we fell for the Great Smokies and its subtle blend of sandalwood, laurel, and red maple; Zion is another delicate option, with notes of lavender and sage. For something a bit more bold, Big Bend conjures the magic of a campfire with a smoky combination of charred wood, embers, amber, and spice. On the more genteel end of the scale, maker Laura Reid visited Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Redwoods to nail down the blend of essential oils (think bay laurel, wild strawberry, and thermal moss) that would best conjure a sense of place, and her hand-poured, coconut-wax candles come in glass jars, with packaging emblazoned with a watercolor rendition of each park. Redolent with granite, cedar, and black sage, her interpretation of Yosemite is our favorite of the three.National Park candles, from $24; goodandwellsupplyco.com. Great Outdoors National Parks candles, $40; uncommongoods.com. 4. Dress the Part (Courtesy Parks Project) Sure, cutting a check is an effective way to give back, but you can lend even more bang to your buck by placing your purchasing power with a company that’s actively engaged with the organization it benefits. As an official partner of the National Parks Foundation, the Parks Project directly funds initiatives that support things like habitat restoration, youth education, and wildlife conservation, so your dollars go where they’re needed the most—and their stuff is really cute too. From beanies and sweatshirts to jewelry and accessories, you could outfit yourself in head-to-toe (non-embarrassing!) NPS regalia if you really wanted to. In addition to a wide selection of t-shirts and knickknacks like key chains and sticker sets, we highly recommend the enamel mugs, both for camping trips and for cold, pre-dawn workday mornings when we’d rather be camping.Joshua Tree Out There tee, $36; National Parks Are For Lovers enamel mug, $18; parksproject.us. 5. Deck Your Walls (Courtesy Fifty-Nine Parks) There are plenty of vintage-looking replicas of classic WPA-era posters floating around, but for something more contemporary, the Austin-based Fifty-Nine Parks offers a unique, high-quality alternative. A project of the National Poster Retrospecticus, a traveling show that highlights the artistry of the hand-printed broadside, the parks series celebrates our public lands in sublime, full-color fashion, with timed releases of large-scale limited editions as well as smaller, more affordable 18” by 24” prints. With the goal of getting “poster fans into the parks and parks fans into posters,” the series features the work of a different artist for each park, from Dan Mumford’s fiery, sunset-hued Haleakalā to Elle Michalka’s more subdued, five-color rendering of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They're all fantastic, so it's tough to narrow it down to one, but we particularly love Glenn Thomas's sweeping, light-filled Sequoia edition. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of them: Each poster is screen-printed here on domestic shores, and the organization donates 5 percent of purchases directly to the National Parks Service, raising $10,000 in its first two years alone.Sequoia National Park poster, $40; 59parks.net. 6. Plan Your Next Adventure (Courtesy Lonely Planet) A more straightforward take on the National Parks Service’s roster, this book from Lonely Planet (Budget Travel's parent company) documents the bounty of our country’s park system in all its glory. With vivid photography, suggested itineraries and accommodations, tips on how get around, and notes on what wildlife to look for where, it’s a one-stop trip-planning shop.National Parks of America: Experience America's 59 National Parks, $30; amazon.com. 7. Test Your Knowledge (Courtesy USAopoly) Quick, what’s the name of the world’s tallest granite monolith? How many species of bees were discovered in national parks by 2014? And which notorious island was once known for being home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast? Find the answers to these questions—and 597 more—with Trivial Pursuit: National Parks, a travel edition with categories including Natural Wonders, Battlefields and Historic Sites, Cultural Heritage, and Wildlife. It even comes with a six-sided die and a hard-plastic carrying case, complete with carabiner, for playing on the go.USAopoly Trivial Pursuit: National Parks Edition, $20; amazon.com.

National Parks

Celebrate National Park Week 2018!

National Park Week 2018 is April 21 through 29, and we have good news, not-so-good news, and not-so-bad news for national park lovers. The good news is: Free admission on Saturday, April 21! The not-so-good news: Park fees will rise on June 1. The not-so-bad news: Fees will not rise as much as had been proposed and discussed earlier this year; they’ll rise only $5 at 66 National Park Service sites. Here’s what’s happening: FREE ADMISSION ON APRIL 21 National Park Week 2018’s theme is “Park Stars” - including the night skies overhead, iconic park landmarks, and “superstar volunteers.” The day that will attract the most attention and visitors is a fee-free day on Saturday April 21. National Park Week also overlaps with National Volunteer Week and the 48th annual Earth Day (April 22), making this coming weekend an excellent time to get to know a national park, forest, historical park, or other NPS site better. NATIONAL JUNIOR RANGER DAY Saturday April 21 also happens to be National Junior Ranger Day, allowing kids to participate in hands-on learning and activities and earn a Junior Ranger badge and ranger hat. The Junior Ranger program is actually available just about any day that a park is open, and it's one of the finest examples of the National Park Service mission at its best: Rangers engage with kids to teach them the basics of park ecology, wildlife, geology, and Native American history and culture, often inspiring a lifetime love of the national park experience. GOOD NEWS ABOUT PARK FEES On June 1, entrance fees (7-day entry per vehicle) at 66 parks will rise by $5. While park lovers, including Budget Travel, are relieved that fees will not rise to the $70 that had been proposed earlier this year, we do appreciate that park fees alone, no matter how high, cannot possibly fund the NPS’s backlog of repairs and upgrades and support the growing popularity of our national parks. FIND YOUR PARK We love the Find Your Park program (findyourpark.com), a collaboration between the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation. We also unblushingly recommend our own coverage, including national park guides, photo galleries, and news that we hope will inspire and empower you to get out there and discover all the NPS has to offer.