Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.America’s 63 national parks may get all the glory and the Ken Burns documentaries, but nearly three times as many people visit the country’s 10,234 state parks each year. In total, they span more than 18 million acres across the US-or roughly the size of South Carolina.
Those spaces have always been invaluable, but became even more important over the last year, as borders closed and housebound Americans scrambled to sate their wanderlust. State parks have served as extensions of our own back yards, offering up adventures both large-scale and intimate. And as we lean into an uncertain 2021, they’ll remain alluring entry points to nature, often with fewer crowds than their better-known brethren.
Below you’ll find the cream of the state-park crop, from hidden beaches accessible to city dwellers to expansive hikers’ playgrounds. Time to get outside. Here’s how to do it right.
Tettegouche State Park
Silver Bay, Minnesota Located about an hour north of the underrated town of Duluth along the magnificent Highway 61, this scenic Midwestern park offers everything from stunning views of jagged cliffs over Lake Superior, to roaring waterfalls, to forested hikes along the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail. If you don’t feel like going on that long of a hike, roaming the area around Palisade Head or paddling over to your kayak-in campsite should more than suffice. Pro tip: while you’re here, head another 20 minutes north to snap a photo of the ridiculously picturesque lighthouse at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
Iao Valley State Park
Wailuku, Hawaii To call this West Maui Mountains park “lush” is a hall-of-fame understatement. Its dense rainforest canopy makes this popular Hawaiian park one of America’s more unique, dominated by the Iao Needle-a 1,200ft vegetation-covered lava remnant that rises from the valley floor to a higher height than the Eiffel Tower. Snap its photo while exploring the laid-back trails of this peaceful 10-mile-long park.
Eldorado Canyon State Park
Eldorado Springs, Colorado In a state as rich in parkland as Colorado (it has four national parks), the state parks pack a hell of a punch. Little Eldorado Canyon State Park, just a short ride from Boulder, is a hotspot for rock-climbing walls: It has over 1,000 technical climbing routes within the park, plus 11 miles of hiking/mountain-biking trails, and fishing opportunities in the scenic South Boulder Creek. And if you get thirsty, Boulder’s Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery is only 20 minutes away.
Niagara Falls State Park
Niagara Falls, New York Obvious choice? Of course. Mandatory pick? Absolutely. Hordes of photo-snapping tourists you remember from high school may have sullied your memories of the place, but America’s oldest state park remains popular for a reason-or 750,000 of them, which is the number of gallons of water rushing over the falls every second. Getting up close, personal, and extremely wet with perhaps the most famous waterfalls in the world is a rite of passage. Discovering that the whole park is actually pretty rad is just a bonus.
Baxter State Park
Millinocket, Maine Not only is this sprawling 200,000-acre park home to Northern Maine’s beloved Mount Katahdin (the state’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail), it’s also the domain of a killer variety of wildlife, from hawks to black bears who make their home amid the park’s peaceful lakes and waterfalls. The park is void of paved roads, running water, and electricity, so this is your chance for the full Thoreau experience.
Kachemak Bay State Park
Homer, Alaska If you’re looking for wilderness, this massive 400,000-acre park has your number. You’ll need to fly in or travel by boat (most likely from Homer) as there is no road access to much of the park-which is what preserves this pristine wilderness that is home to whales, sea lions, moose, and an incredibly diverse range of sea birds. But its main asset remains its ecological diversity: whether you’re looking for sandy beaches, dense forests, or massive ice fields and glaciers, you’ll find it all here.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Borrego Springs, California Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres about an hour south of Coachella, California’s largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America’s state park system. By day it has 110 miles of hiking trails to explore and 12 designated wildlife areas, and by night the huge desertscape delivers some of the best stargazing in America. The park is also a site of great geological importance, as it has been found to contain over 500 types of fossils that are up to 6 million years old. If you can’t picture the prehistoric vibes on your own, there are also 130+ giant metal animal sculptures that pop up out of nowhere as you roam the park’s unforgiving terrain.
Ecola State Park
Astoria, Oregon Located just outside of coastal charmer Cannon Beach, this vista orgy of a state park stretches nine scenic miles of coastline from Cannon Beach to Seaside, offering secluded coves, lush spruce forest, and grassy bluffs overlooking its seductive beaches. A park so sexy it’s a movie star, here you can catch stunning views of The Goonies rally point Haystack Rock or reenact the final scene of Point Break on the beach that doubled for Australia. Bonus: the also-very-cool Oswald West State Park is just a 15-minute ride south.
Makoshika State Park
Glendive, Montana Montana’s largest state park might not be as famous as places like Glacier, but it’s still the finest spot in Big Sky Country to mingle with dinosaur fossils. And the best part? You can mingle with said fossils buried within the state’s far eastern plains anytime of day, as the park never closes. Also, you can play disc golf at all hours of the night in total wilderness.
Smith Rock State Park
Terrebonne, Oregon While it is known as one of the best rock-climbing areas in the West, and regarded as the birthplace of American sport climbing, Smith Rock also delights with low-impact family hikes and eye-popping scenery at every turn. Watch golden eagles soar over the Crooked River stocked with river otters as you try not to burn out your iPhone battery snapping pictures of the jagged rock formations popping up in this Central Oregon high-desert outpost. Bonus: nearby Bend is home to one of the best beer scenes in the country.
Little Missouri State Park
Dunn Center, North Dakota With large sections of this primitive park only accessible by foot or horseback, this lesser-known park is famous for its windswept badlands vistas and awe-inspiring scenery ripe for the taking via 47 miles of backpacking and horseback-riding trails. There are few rules at this remote BYOH (bring your own horse) outpost, but there is one: you must feed your horse with certified weed-free hay, available for purchase at the park.
Emerald Bay State Park
Lake Tahoe, California There’s a reason Emerald Bay is one of Lake Tahoe’s most popular attractions. Encompassing both the only island on the lake (Fannette Island) and a crazy 38-room Scandinavian mansion called Vikingsholm, Emerald Bay is also unique in that it is one of the first parks in the state whose underwater shipwrecks are also protected. The main activities here include camping (aka drinking) on your boat and staring at the deep-blue hues of the lake as you muster up the courage to cannonball into its refreshing waters.
Letchworth State Park
Castile, New York Whether you’re into horseback riding, whitewater rafting, or simply gazing at magnificent waterfalls cascading over rocky gorge cliffs surrounded by lush forest, you’ll find it all at this beautiful Western New York park known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” The 17-mile-long park contains 66 miles of hiking trails and over 20 waterfalls, one of which is straddled by a picturesque 235-foot railroad trestle. In the winter months you can also snow tube and cruise the park by horse-drawn sleigh, but nothing beats floating over the park in a hot air balloon on a clear summer or fall day. You can also camp in one of 82 rustic cabins or, if you feel like getting corporate, rent an in-park conference center.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Moab, Utah You could be forgiven for thinking you drove to Utah and ended up in the Grand Canyon instead. Mountain biking the badass Intrepid Trail is a must for thrill seekers, but the more relaxed can simply gaze open-mouthed at the deep-red rocks and glorious hues via panoramic vistas of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The park gets its name from horses who often died in this unforgiving landscape and, with much of the park open with unfenced cliffs and little signage, you best exercise a bit of common sense if you want to make it out of here alive.
Peninsula State Park
Fish Creek, Wisconsin Located across Green Bay from upper Michigan, Peninsula Park manages to stun even despite being surrounded by the many geographical wonders of Wisconsin’s storied Door County, AKA the Cape Cod of the Midwest. There’s much to explore, but for maximum awe hit the Eagle Trail, a two-mile jaunt that starts atop a dolomite cliff and descends 200 feet through dense forest to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here, you’ll find the remains of ancient sea caves in the shadow of the 250-foot-high Niagara Escarpment. It’s even better seen from kayak, where you can score views of this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve while being lulled by waves.
Cayo Costa State Park
Captiva, Florida Only accessible by boat or helicopter, Cayo Costa is a quick ride from the popular tourist destination of Captiva Island but a world away from the Florida of your spring-break nightmares. You’ll spend the day walking pristine white-sand beaches dotted with ghostly tree skeletons and playful dolphins that can often be seen swimming close to the shore. If you’re lucky, you can also spot a manatee or bald eagle in the high trees as birds travel from limb to limb. While sunbathing is the prime recreation activity here, you can also camp on your boat or in one of the park’s 30 highly recommended tent sites.
Valley of Fire State Park
Moapa Valley, Nevada Arches National Park may be more famous, but that’s quite alright for fans of this perfectly named Southern Nevada oasis. While less than an hour drive from Vegas, this incandescent, 42,000-acre park couldn’t be further from the vibe of the Vegas Strip. Similar to Joshua Tree National Park’s relationship with Los Angeles, this park is the perfect place to escape urban life and immerse yourself in solitude. You’ll be blown away by the brilliant-red Aztec Sandstone rocks that appear on fire when reflected by the sun.
Chugach State Park
Anchorage, Alaska So, this is what mountains are supposed to look like. You might think this park’s location just 20 minutes south of Anchorage might lead to packed crowds… until you realize this massive 500,000-acre park is the third-largest in the country. So yeah, there’s plenty of space to spread out a blanket and get weird. Combine that with Alaska’s legal cannabis and you’ve got a pretty fun day of hiking amidst pristine glaciers, rivers, and lakes on your hands. You can also drive scenic highways, ATV the Bird Valley Trail System, or whale-watch at the scenic Beluga Point. All good.
Fall Creek Falls State Park
Spencer, Tennessee This popular park is beloved by Tennesseans not only for its 256ft namesake waterfall Fall Creek Falls (the highest free-fall waterfall east of the Mississippi), but also for caves likes Rumbling Falls Cave System (the second-largest cave chamber in the country) and modern amenities including an 18-hole golf course, zip line, and Olympic-sized swimming pool. Although cooling off in one of its many natural waterfalls is always a better idea.
Hunting Island State Park
Beaufort, South Carolina It may be South Carolina’s most visited state park, but that doesn’t stop this secluded barrier island located 15 miles east of Beaufort from being one of the most picturesque destinations in the South, thanks to its famous lighthouse, pristine beaches, and popular fishing lagoon. Fun fact: many of the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed here.
Northville, New York Part state park, part forest preserve, and part privately owned land encompassing 102 towns and villages, Adirondack Park is massive. Totaling 6.1 million acres, America’s biggest state park is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Nearly half of the land is owned by the State of New York and designed as “forever wild,” encompassing all of the Adirondacks’ famed 46 High Peaks as well as 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river. So pack up the canoe or kayak, get ready to scale Mount Marcy, or simply meander about its 2,000 miles of hiking trails. You’re gonna be here a while.
Custer State Park
Custer, South Dakota Located in South Dakota’s fabled Black Hills region, the state’s first and largest state park is most famous for its photogenic herd of 1,500 wild bison that freely roam the land as well as other Wild West creatures like pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions. The scenery is everything you think of when you close your eyes and picture the great American West, laid out before you amidst 71,000 acres of vast open vistas and mountain lakes. The place is so cool that even Calvin Coolidge made it his “summer White House,” so that has to count for something, right?
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Big Sur, California As if 300-foot redwoods and world-class scuba diving from a gorgeous remote beach cove weren’t enough, this little gem of a park not far from the road near Big Sur also features the glorious McWay Falls, a stunning 80-foot waterfall that flows directly into the ocean. Getting down to the beach isn’t easy, but the payoff is huge. Just look at the photo.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Canyon, Texas This sprawling park in the heart of the Texas panhandle has everything you think of when you imagine a great American nature retreat, most notably the vast open spaces of the “Grand Canyon of Texas” known as the 70-mile Palo Duro Canyon. Horseback rides and hikes amidst its brilliant-red rocks and freaky hoodoos are a must, but what really sets this park apart are its one-of-a-kind activities like seeing live music at its Red Rocks-style Pioneer Amphitheatre, or sleeping in historic brick huts you can rent, making this easily one of the coolest campsites in America.
Na Pali Coast State Park
Kapaa, Hawaii This place is just ridiculous. With otherworldly cliffs rising 4,000ft above the beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline it straddles, this remote section of Kaua’i’s northwest coast is inaccessible by car, meaning you need to charter a boat or helicopter to get the most expansive views of its stunning “land before time” charms. The more adventurous can hike or kayak their way through its 6,000+ acres of breathtaking waterfalls, lush valleys, gorgeous forested cliffs, remote beaches, and historic stone-wall terraces. In other words, sure beats hanging out at the hotel bar all day.
Goblin Valley State Park
Green Valley, Utah This sprawling, otherworldly stretch of the San Rafael desert is positively overflowing with rock formations both monstrous and phallic, home to some of the country’s best stargazing, and somehow completely overlooked, meaning you’ll probably have it to yourself with minimal effort. It’s endlessly trippy and highly explorable, a kaleidoscopic playground where towering rock titans and their more diminutive underlings capture hikers’ imaginations like some sort of living bit of folklore crossed over with a Dr. Seuss illustration. It’s utterly hypnotic. Such is the power of hoodoo in the realm of the true Goblin King.
Chimney Rock State Park
Asheville, North Carolina The flag-topped 315-foot granite monolith is the centerpiece of this 8,000-acre wilderness outside of Asheville, and gazing down on the sea of trees below as they turn fiery in the fall is an unforgettable experience. But the crag isn’t the only notable rock in the area. Boulders like Rumbling Bald Mountain have become destinations for climbers from all over the region. And the roaring, 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls might even be more famous than the patriotic namesake rock: It was prominently featured in Last of the Mohicans, a canonical dad movie and a favorite of high-school history subs nationwide.
Castle Rocks State Park
Almo, Idaho Idaho’s got a wealth of state parks that help reinforce our positioning of the state as one of the union’s most overlooked, but with respect to beloved Priest Lake, Castle Rocks is an absolute stunner. Here, amid the Albion Mountains, you’ll find a sea of wildflowers in the spring, providing a vivid contrast to the vertiginous rock formations that are rife for climbers of all skill levels. Camping can be done in the backcountry or in yurts, and it’s not uncommon to see wild horses grazing in the grassland. MORE:Get up close and personal with Castle Rock
Island Beach State Park
Seaside Park, New Jersey Jersey is more than the sum of its stereotypes, and those in the know will tell you that the best place to soak in the sun lies beyond the Shore towns. Island Beach is positively massive, allowing you to ditch the crowds in favor of soaking in stretches of pristine beach in relative solitude, with only wild foxes to help you share the view. It’s not as epic in scale as many of the parks on this list, but it’s certainly an oddity, a spot attainable to New Yorkers that actually makes you feel like you’ve discovered some lost beach without an international flight. Plus, there’s a bar, because sometimes Jersey is what you expect it to be.
Palouse Falls State Park
LaCrosse, Washington Western and Northern Washington tend to grab all the attention, what with the massive national parks, beautiful coast, alpine villages, and goddamn Twin Peaks itself. But the eastern part of the state pulls its weight as well, and it takes one glance at Palouse Falls to see why. Here, the state reveals what appears to be a to-scale miniature version of the Grand Canyon, minus all the RV-bound tourists and plus a 200-foot waterfall dropping into an impossibly clear punchbowl. And at 94 acres, it’s infinitely more explorable than that big-ass hole in the ground out in Arizona.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
Michigan Michigan’s shoreline tends to grab all the attention, but keep headed north and you’ll eventually come across the sea of trees that make up the Porcupine Mountains. This 60,000-acre wilderness area is packed full of dense forest hikes, roaring waterfalls, and endless vistas, spanning whitewater rivers and the shores of Lake Superior. There’s a reason that Yoopers constantly complain when the word gets out about the jaw-dropping beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: It’s one of the most beautiful and least-explored places in the country, and Porcupine Mountains is just one stepping stone into the dense, untamed peninsula.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!
Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor and he never met a state park he didn’t like. Follow him @innerviewmag.
Travel editor Andy Kryza contributed to this story.
The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’. Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health.
Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid.
Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor.
To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power.
Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.
You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks.
It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties!
An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:
‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.”