10 Extraordinary State Parks You Have to Visit

10 Extraordinary State Parks You Have to Visit

There's just something about certain places on earth. Something mesmerizing that can't really be put into words. Landscapes so captivating that they cause you to lose yourself and forget about the world's troubles. Beautiful scenery has the potential to take people's breath away and has even been known to cause people to have spiritual experiences.

Many places like this in the United States have been acquired by state and federal governments in order to protect and preserve them so they'll be there for our grandchildren to experience. Although national parks seem to get the majority of the attention, as of 2016, there were 10,336 state parks in the U.S. and many of them are absolutely stunning. If you enjoy traveling, make sure to read our article exploring our picks for the top 10 National Parks.

From cascading waterfalls, beautiful sandy beaches, and red winding canyons, to crystal clear lakes, vast grasslands, and varieties of rare wildlife, this list of state parks may help you choose where to take your next vacation. Check out these 10 one-of-a-kind playgrounds you’ll have to see to believe.

Ecola State Park
Flickr/Ralph Arvesen

1. Ecola

Located in Astoria, OR, you may recognize this 1,023-acre park from movies like The Goonies, Point Break, and Twilight. Ecola offers a mesmerizing perspective of the Pacific coastline with giant rock formations, a lavish spruce forest, and a grassy bluff that opens up to an amazing view of the ocean. The coast stretches 9 miles from Cannon Beach to Seaside and offers more than just a picturesque scene. Hiking is a popular activity along with surfing, picnicking, tide pooling, and observing wildlife. In addition to the ocean and forests, you can explore secluded caves and even an abandoned lighthouse.

Fall Creek Falls State Park
Flickr/Michael Hicks

2. Fall Creek Falls

Second on the list is Tennessee’s largest and most popular state park. Located in Spencer, Fall Creek Falls spans over 26,000 acres. The park features over ½ a dozen striking waterfalls, the most notable being Fall Creek Falls itself dropping 256 feet. The favorite swimming hole seems to be where Cane Creek Cascades and Rockhouse Falls descend into a pool surrounded by slabs of rock. Along with waterfalls, it’s home to impressive gorges, cascades, running streams, and lush forests. With over 34 miles of hiking trails, there’s plenty of activities for visitors. Swimming, bird-watching, tennis, basketball, golf, playgrounds, and a treetop obstacle course are among the recreational opportunities available.

Na Pali Coast State Park

3. Nā Pali Coast

Sometimes regarded as the most beautiful portion of Hawaii, the Nā Pali Coast State Park is located on the northwest coastline of the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i. Nā Pali means “the cliffs” in Hawaiian and with its 4,000-foot sea cliffs, crystal clear ocean waters, abundant green forests, massive valleys, and spectacular waterfalls that flow into the sea, this 6,175-acre park is nothing short of paradise. However, actually getting to it has proven to be quite difficult as it’s inaccessible by car. The only ways to get to the park are by helicopter, boat, or a treacherous 11-mile hike, and since the hike one-way takes a day, you’ll need to set up camp for a night. The popular activities available include boat tours, snorkeling, hunting, hiking, and camping. In 2017, Nā Pali was named the best state park in Hawaii for landscape photography.

Letchworth State Park
Flickr/Chris Waits

4. Letchworth

Located in Castile, NY, Letchworth State Park is referred to as “The Grand Canyon of the East.” You may wonder if you’re actually in the state of New York as you take in the extravagant 14,427-acre landscapes. The park features the scenic Genesee River flowing north through a deep gorge over 3 prominent waterfalls in the middle of a dense forest. Hikers can choose from 66 miles of trails, witness canyons that are as high as 600 feet in places, and see over 20 waterfalls. It offers year-round activities such as horseback riding, swimming, hot-air balloon tours, white-water rafting, and biking in the warmer months, as well as snow tubing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing in the colder months.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Flickr/Dawn Ellner

5. Julia Pfeiffer Burns

Named after a respected pioneer and rancher who lived in the early 20th century, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located in Big Sur, California. The 3,762-acre park stretches from the Big Sur coastline into nearby 3,000 foot ridges. It highlights McWay Falls which drops over an 80-foot granite cliff into the Pacific Ocean that you can see from Overlook Trail. In addition to the waterfall, the clear blue ocean, and the warm sandy beach, you can gaze upon 300-foot redwoods that are over 2,500 years old. Scuba diving, hiking, and camping are a few of the favored recreational activities as Sunset Magazine named it one of the four best places to pitch a tent on the Pacific Coast.

Custer State Park

6. Custer

Custer State Park is located in the famous Black Hills region in Custer, SD. In this 71,000-acre park, you can experience the American “Wild West” while you observe the rolling grassland vistas, the panoramic bison herd of 1,300 strong, along with other interesting wildlife like elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and mountain lions. Guests can take scenic drives on Needles Highway, the Wildlife Loop, and stop at the tranquil Sylvan Lake to check out the monumental granite rock formations. You can see a lot of the park just by driving, but people like to hike, bike, and horseback ride as well. During the summer, trout fishing is one of the most popular endeavors. Visitors can travel to the top of Harney Peak to gain a sweeping view of the park while some of the more adventurous guests enjoy cliff jumping into the placid waters.

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park

7. Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Located in Carlsbad, NM, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park is unique compared to the other parks listed. Its purpose is to display and protect plants and animals of the southwestern Chihuahuan Desert in their native habitats. This 1,500-acre park features more than 40 native animal species including badgers, bison, snakes, golden eagles, hawks, and many more. Among the hundreds of plants headlined are acacia, agave, saguaro, prickly pear, and yucca. One of the interesting aspects of this particular zoo is they make many species of plants and animals accessible to the adults and school children that visit each year. You can walk the 1.3-mile pathway that leads to endangered species such as the Mexican Grey Wolf and the Bolson Tortoise, explore cacti and succulents from around the world in a special greenhouse, and examine an extensive mineral exhibit in the visitor center.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park
WikimediaCommons/PeterFitzgerald

8. Palo Duro Canyon

Nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of Texas,” Palo Duro Canyon is located in Canyon, TX. It boasts the 2nd largest canyon in the United States and reaches distances of roughly 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 1,000 feet deep depending on where you are. You can explore its radiant red-rock formations and lush valley vegetation by horseback, hiking, bike, or even driving across the canyon floor. You can camp or rent a historic brick cabin. A unique opportunity this park offers is to listen to “Texas”, a live musical show performed in its Pioneer Amphitheatre. You can feel like a real cowboy here but pay attention, the park is home to rattlesnakes, coyotes, and bobcats.

Hunting Island State Park
Flickr/Ken Ratcliff

9. Hunting Island

Located in Beaufort, SC, Hunting Island State Park not only attracts over a million visitors each year but a variety of diverse wildlife as well. The 5,000-acre semi-tropical island is known for a 19th-century lighthouse which bears its name and was voted one of the nation's top 10 beaches by TripAdvisor a few years ago. You can experience thousands of acres of marsh and forest, 5 miles immaculate sandy beach coastline, and a saltwater lagoon at this popular playground. Park visitors can stand at the top of the 130-foot lighthouse and enjoy a gorgeous view of the Atlantic Coast and surrounding areas. Fishing the lagoon or off the pier, camping, boating, playground, hiking, and even geocaching are some of the recreational activities available. Loggerhead sea turtles nest on the island in the summer months and it’s the location many of the Vietnam scenes in the acclaimed movie Forrest Gump.

Kachemak Bay State Park
Flickr/Brian

10. Kachemak Bay

The 400,000-acre Kachemak Bay State Park was the first legislatively designated state park in Alaska and is located in Homer, AK. The park is mostly undeveloped wilderness, so traveling here may be an adventure as there is no road access. Most people fly or travel by boat, but once you get there, you’re in for a treat. Here you’ll find rock and sandy beaches, dense mountain forests, and tremendous glaciers and icefields. This park is rare in that you can witness sea otters, sea lions, porpoises, and whales in addition to black bears, wolves, moose, and eagles. You can take advantage of opportunities to fish, ski, boat, camp, and hike. Visitors are advised to file a travel plan with park rangers due to the unpredictability of the weather.

These parks are numbered but not meant to be rated. The National Association of State Park Directors call state parks your “close-to-home outdoor recreation resource.” The 10,336 state parks comprise more than 18.5 million acres and entertained more than 791 million visitors in 2016. If you’re going to be anywhere near them or are trying to decide where your next vacation will be, consider these 10 enchanting landscapes as a possibility. You won’t regret visiting any of them.

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