Skip your planned national park visit and hit up a nearby state park insteadWe’ve rounded up some epic state parks that are in close proximity to the most popular national parks
By Anna Hider
National parks are some of the most spectacular places you can visit in the U.S.—but we’ll be the first to admit that they get an unfair amount of glory compared to their state counterparts. Though typically smaller than national parks, many state parks still offer stunning scenery, local history, and trails for outdoor recreation. And since they’re state run, these areas are not affected by the partial government shutdown.
One of the best ways you can help national parks right now is by not visiting them until the government opens back up. But don’t let that stop you from heading out and exploring. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there are 8,565 state park areas in the U.S., and many are within close proximity of a national park. Here are some of our favorite state parks, plus a few bonus destinations.
Instead of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park:
Dead Horse Point State Park
Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands attract adventure-seekers, as they’re virtual playgrounds of gorgeous red rock. The two parks are less than 30 miles from one another, and smack dab in between them is a state park that’s just as epic, Dead Horse Point. Don’t be put off by the name; its history goes back to the 19th century, when cowboys would leave horses up on the plateau as a natural corral. Dead Horse Point is set along a bend 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, offering views that rival the nearby national parks. In fact, some of the best views of Arches and Canyonlands are located within this state park.
While climbing isn’t allowed in Dead Horse Point, there’s about eight miles of hiking trails. The West Rim Trail System offers some of the best overlooks and a more moderate difficulty level. Dead Horse Point is also an International Dark Sky Park, so if you were planning on visiting Arches or Canyonlands to glimpse the Milky Way peeking out from behind the rocks, you’re in luck.
Instead of Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park:
Custer State Park
The Black Hills are incredibly special, and we’re fortunate that portions of them have been preserved with Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park. The latter remains in operation during the shutdown, and is a perfect slice of what makes the area so special. It’s a massive 71,000 acres of pure, unadulterated Black Hills beauty. Custer State Park is prime for wildlife spotting; you can see a herd of 1500 free-roaming bison, begging burros (wild donkeys that like to come up to visitors’ cars in the hopes of being hand-fed a snack), and endlessly entertaining prairie dog towns. Plus, the Peter Norbeck Center, with its historical and natural science displays, is on par with most national park visitor centers in terms of quality and information.
If you were excited to visit the Badlands to see granite boulders shaped by the forces of nature, the Needles Highway, which weaves through and around massive stone spires, and Sylvan Lake, whose shores are lined with cliffs of sparkling rock, are must-see attractions. There are also plenty of well-appointed lodges and cabins, as well as campsites, so accommodations in the park are pretty easy to sort out, too.
Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
Cumberland Mountain State Park, Mount Mitchell State Park, or Chimney Rock State Park
The appeal of the Great Smoky Mountains, one of America’s most popular national parks, lies in the rolling, woodland-covered mountains. You can find a similar setting at Cumberland Mountain State Park in nearby Crossville. Facilities at both the national park and Cumberland Mountain were developed by the CCC and WPA, so they have similar architectural elements. The state park has an interesting history, as it was developed during the Great Depression as part of the Subsistence Homesteads Project, which relocated poverty-stricken families to small farms. The park’s Cumberland Homesteads Tower Museum, located in a historic building, delves into the story. Additionally, the park contains a bathhouse, a boathouse, a pool, a golf course, many trails, and lots of other features.
On the North Carolina side, there are still more gorgeous state parks that evoke the serenity of the Smokies. Mount Mitchell State Park was the state’s first-ever state park, and preserves the highest mountain peak east of the Mississippi. It’s just off the Blue Ridge Parkway (which connects the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park) so you get those same misty mountain views. There’s a restaurant at the top of the mountain, along with camping and hiking opportunities. If you venture closer to Asheville, Chimney Rock State Park is also worth a visit. The park’s main feature is the 75-mile view from atop Chimney Rock itself, reached via a 491-step trail (or via the elevator inside the mountain), but it also has woodlands, waterfalls, and caves where moonshiners once stored hooch.
Instead of Yosemite National Park:
Grover Hot Springs State Park or Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Yosemite is one of the parks that’s almost irreplaceable, but just because you can’t climb Half Dome or visit Glacier Point doesn’t mean the rest of the area isn’t worth visiting. On the east side of the Sierra is Grover Hot Springs State Park. While the landscape isn’t as dramatic as the Yosemite Valley, the alpine forest, rocky terrain, and open meadows are scenic, and the state park boasts developed hot springs where you can take a nice, long soak. There’s a hot pool where the water ranges between 102 and 104 degrees, and a cooler pool as well. Yosemite National Park doesn’t have any hot springs itself, although they are common in the Sierra Nevadas, so take advantage and get some relaxing done.
If you were hoping to see sequoias on your Yosemite trip, Calaveras Big Trees State Park is another option. It consists of two stands of mature sequoias, the more popular North Grove and the quieter South Grove. The North Grove bears the scars of human influence; some of the larger trees were chopped down or stripped of bark in the mid-19th century to turn into tourist attractions; the stump of one of the larger trees was even turned into a dance floor for a bit. But despite this, Calaveras Big Trees remains, as John Muir once said, “A flowering glade in the very heart of the woods, forming a fine center for the student, and a delicious resting place for the weary.”
Instead of Joshua Tree National Park:
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
California’s largest state park, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, provides just as much beauty as its nearby big brother, Joshua Tree… maybe even more. With 500 miles of dirt road and 110 miles of hiking trail, it’s easy to explore the park’s 600,000 acres of gorgeous wilderness. As you explore, you might come across ancient fossils, palm-lined oases, mysterious petroglyphs, winding slot canyons, and brightly colored wildflowers. It’s a bit more remote than Joshua Tree, so come prepared (ideally in a high-clearance 4WD vehicle) with lots of water, snacks, and sun protection. Borrego Palm Canyon, The Slot, Wind Caves, and Palm Bowl are a few of the hikes that really show off what makes Anza-Borrego so special.
Instead of Everglades National Park:
Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Corkscrew Swamp, or Bahia Honda State Park
If you were centering your trip to Southern Florida around wetlands and swamps rather than the beach, there are a few parks and preserves that offer that experience outside of the Everglades. Hugh Taylor Birch State Park near Fort Lauderdale features tropical hammocks loaded with mangroves, great canoeing and fishing, hiking, and a beautiful Art Deco visitor center. There’s also Jonathan Dickinson State Park, along the wild and scenic Loxahatchee River, a bit further away. Here you can take a guided boat tour out to the abandoned zoo run by the legendary Trapper Nelson, explore the remains of Camp Murphy, a once top-secret WWII training facility, canoe the river, and check out the Elsa Kimbell Environmental Education and Research Center.
In the Western Everglades is Corkscrew Swamp, a National Audubon preserve that features nearly three miles of boardwalk that winds past pine flatwoods, wet prairie, stands of pond cypress and bald cypress, and marshland. You’ll see lots of birds, of course, as well as gators, so you really get that wild Florida feel. Or if you weren’t married to the idea of visiting a swamp, Bahia Honda State Park is close by as well. It’s got a great public beach and offers snorkel boat tours, showing off another side of Florida’s natural beauty.
Instead of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
Wailuku River State Park, Lava Tree State Monument, or Kaumana Caves
There’s no shortage of stunning parks in Hawaii, so even if Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is out of the question, there’s still plenty to see and do. Like the national park, Wailuku River State Park is on the Big Island. Its two main attractions are Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots.
Rainbow Falls is the more popular destination of the two. The 80-foot cascade is set against black rock and dense green jungle, plummeting into a blue-green pool below. Legend has it that Hina, an ancient Hawaiian goddess, lived in a cave below the falls. It’s best viewed around 10 a.m. on a sunny day—that’s when you’re most likely to spot rainbows in the mist. The Boiling Pots are a series of pools fed by underground springs, which create a bubbling, rippling effect that makes the water appear to be boiling, hence the name.
If you were hoping to see volcanic awesomeness on your trip, there’s always Lava Tree State Monument, which houses a collection of lava sculptures formed when an eruption swept through the forest in 1790. It’s worth a quick stop for the .7-mile loop and unique sightseeing. There’s also Kaumana Caves, the highlight of which is a massive lava tube formed by the national park’s Mauna Loa in 1881. While you can explore the cave’s mouth and descend inside to explore a bit, much of the cave is on private property. Remember to bring a flashlight!
Instead of Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park:
Kodachrome Basin State Park
Utah has five popular National Parks, including Zion and Bryce Canyon, which are in the Southwestern-ish corner. Also in that corner of Utah, you’ll find Kodachrome Basin State Park. Yep, like the film. In fact, the park was named for the film (Kodak gave their permission and everything). With such vibrantly colored rocks and so many photo ops, the name is a perfect fit. It may not be as dramatic or massive as Zion and Bryce Canyon, but it holds its own with loads of multicolored cliffs, sandstone spires, natural arches, and lush canyons. Camping and horseback riding are popular activities here, but hiking is the best way to explore. The Panoramic Loop Trail is a quick hike that shows off the millions of years of geology that shaped the landscape.
Instead of Grand Canyon National Park:
Grand Canyon West, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, or Slide Rock State Park
The Grand Canyon is popular year-round, but what many people don’t realize is that a portion of it, Grand Canyon West, is on tribal land. That means that it’s privately owned and fully staffed during the shutdown. It’ll cost a bit of money, but is well worth a visit. This is where you’ll find the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe bridge that extends 70 feet out into the canyon, allowing you the chance to look straight down through its glass floor. They also offer rafting and aerial tours of the Canyon, and feature a Native American village and demonstrations to teach visitors about the Hualapai, Navajo, Plains, Hopi, Havasupi, and other tribes who lived in the area.
Additionally, the Grand Canyon is close to state parks like Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Sedona’s Slide Rock State Park. Coral Pink Sand Dunes is great for hiking, ATV riding, or dune boarding if you want to add something different to your trip, and Sedona features countless hikes among beautiful red rocks in parks like Slide Rock (which also happens to have a natural waterslide).
Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park:
State Forest State Park
Staying in a lodge or resort will allow you to experience a lot of what the Rocky Mountains have to offer, as will experiences like the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. But if you’re looking for that hiking and camping vibe, State Forest State Park in the Rockies’ Medicine Bow Range is ideal. It’s got campgrounds with rustic cabins, alpine lakes for fishing, and nearly 100 miles of trails, which vary in length and steepness. It’s also well-known for being a great place to sight moose.
Whether you just want a weekend in a lakeside cabin or you’re hoping to head deep into the wilderness for backpacking, the mountains at State Forest State Park can accommodate.
Instead of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park:
Sinks Canyon State Park, Harriman State Park, Buffalo Bill State Park, Hot Springs State Park, or the Beartooth Highway
The massively popular Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are probably the hardest parks to replace with anything nearby. Even the nearby National Elk Refuge is affected by the shutdown. Sinks Canyon State Park in Wyoming and Harriman State Park in Idaho are close by and offer hiking and camping, but don’t quite capture the special mountains and rich history of the Tetons or the geothermal oddities of Yellowstone.
Head a bit further off the beaten path and plan a trip to Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, which has a developed hot spring-fed pool you can soak in, as well as 6 miles of trails. If you were hoping for mountain scenery, a trip along the Beartooth Highway, which starts just outside Yellowstone and ends in Red Lodge, Montana, should satisfy—but double check that it’s open before visiting. And, finally, there’s nothing wrong with spending your trip holed up in Jackson, just outside Grand Teton National Park. It’s a totally authentic cowboy town with tons to see and do.
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