10. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
This park with the bizarre moniker — named after wild mustangs that perished in a natural corral in the area — offers stunning views of the Colorado River. There are several overlooks, a large camping area, and 10 miles of hiking trails. The nearby town of Moab offers plenty of restaurants and outfitters to prepare you for your visit to Dead Horse Point or adjacent Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
9. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
The Big Sur region along the California coast features some of the most picturesque state parks in the United States. The most popular is Pfeiffer Big Sur S.P., which has a nickname, “mini Yosemite,” that says it all. Many people actually prefer the lesser-known Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park, about 10 miles south. The park’s most famous attraction is the 80-foot plunge of McWay Falls, not the highest or most spectacular falls you’ll ever see, but set against the rugged backdrop of the Pacific coastline the falls are a sight to behold. Camping is available in the park, including coveted spots just above the falls that offer a panoramic view of the coastline. There is also a designated underwater area for experienced scuba divers.
8. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Minnesota
Some local residents head to this park for the fishing, camping and hiking options, but the overwhelming draw of the park for tourists is the historic lighthouse, which began operation in 1909 and was active until the late 1960s. The image of the lighthouse’s majestic perch on a rocky cliff overlooking Lake Superior has been reproduced on numerous calendars and travel guides. The park is located some 200 miles north of Minneapolis, putting it out of reach of most tourists, but the drive itself along Minn. 61 — one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. — might make it worthwhile.
7. Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
California boasts two national parks featuring the state’s famous sequoia and redwood trees. While some 1 million visitors check out Sequoia National Park each year, and about half that number visit Redwoods National Park near the Oregon border, arguably the best redwood experience in the state is along the California coast in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The park, half an hour south of Eureka, has more than 100 miles of walking trails through the largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest in the world. If you’re just passing through the area and don’t have time to walk around, get off U.S. 101 and take the parallel California Hwy. 254 along the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants, which cuts through the park. You can even pay a few dollars for a kitschy photo opportunity, as there are three sites that allow you to drive your car through a redwood tree. Another great California park worth visiting to marvel at these enormous trees is Big Basin Redwoods State Park, near Santa Cruz. California’s oldest state park, Big Basin offers more than 80 miles of hiking trails.
6. Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina
Often confused with the better-known Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, this park in the northwest corner of North Carolina takes its name from a 600-foot-tall granite dome. The park is very popular with rock climbers eager to tackle the rock — experience is required — although fly fisherman can enjoy more than 20 miles of trout streams, and there are some 16 miles of hiking trails. This park is a very worthy side trip from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway.
5. Camden Hills State Park, Maine
Think of Camden Hills S.P. as a poor man’s Acadia National Park. You get the same type of wooded trails, leading to similar views of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, you can actually see Acadia’s famous Cadillac Mountain from Camden Hills. If you’ve already been to Acadia, or are planning a visit there, you might find a side trip to Camden Hills either worthwhile or somewhat redundant. Another reason to visit: Camden Hills is located in Camden, one of those postcard-worthy New England coastal towns that caters to tourists, much like Bar Harbor in nearby Acadia.
4. Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia
Located in the rugged Appalachian wilderness of West Virginia, Blackwater Falls is about a three-hour drive from the Washington, D.C. metro area. There’s much more to this park than just the picturesque falls that give the park its name. Visitors can also enjoy fishing and hiking along more than 20 miles of trails around the 8-mile gorge, and there are more than two dozen cabins available. If you’d rather not rough it overnight, the Blackwater Lodge located along the canyon’s rim offers all the amenities available in a chain hotel.
3. Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
The person who christened Palo Duro the “Grand Canyon of Texas” might have been exaggerating a bit, but the place does inspire awe. Famous American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived in the area in the early 20th century, noted Palo Duro, “is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” Located about 15 miles southeast of Amarillo in the Texas panhandle, spring and fall may be the best time to visit, to escape the scorching heat of summer. The park offers plenty of hiking and camping options, including a limited number of cabins.
2. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida
One of only two sites in the continental United States featuring living coral reef formations, this park in Key Largo is one of the most popular of Florida’s 160 state parks. While the park draws plenty of scuba divers and snorkelers, you can also rent a canoe or kayak and explore the park’s mangrove swamps, or take a glass-bottom boat tour.
1. Red Rock State Park, Arizona
The name says it all at this aptly named park in central Arizona. Located adjacent to the world-renowned Red Rocks of Sedona, Red Rock S.P. features views of some of the same features visible from Sedona, including Cathedral Rock (shown above). A 5-mile network of hiking trails leads to some great vistas of the Oak Creek canyon and chances to see some of the park’s abundant wildlife, including coyotes, bobcats, deer, javelin, rattlesnakes and tarantulas.
Arthur Weinstein has spent the past 20 years crisscrossing the country in search of travel adventures, and has written about numerous state parks for Livestrong.com.