12 State Parks That Should Be on Your Bucket List

From seaside spots to sky-high mountaintops, state parks have plenty to offer travelers.

U.S. News & World Report

12 State Parks That Should Be on Your Bucket List

Woman Atop Angel's Landing.
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Plan your next trip to one of these can't-miss destinations.

National parks get plenty of love from travelers and industry experts, but did you know there are loads of state parks that are just as bucket-list worthy? Sure, there's the Grand Canyon, but there's also the "Grand Canyon of the East" and the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," both of which are designated state parks. From coast to coast, travelers can find spectacular state parks brimming with diverse landscapes and unforgettable attractions. But with more than 10,000 state park areas in the U.S., the amount of state parks to choose from can be overwhelming. That's why U.S. News rounded up 12 must-visit spots to help you plan your next adventure.
Backpacker hiking in Chugach State Park near Anchorage, Alaska.
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(Getty Images)

Chugach State Park in Anchorage, Alaska

Alaska scenery is at its finest within the whopping 495,000 acres of land that cover Chugach State Park. Located about 14 miles south of downtown Anchorage, this state park is nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts. Along the more than 280 miles of trails, travelers can expect to encounter diverse landscapes, including mountains, lakes, rivers and waterfalls on foot or by bike or boat. What's more, the park boasts 50 of the state's most accessible glaciers. Kayak along the turquoise waters of Eklutna Lake, traverse the Flattop Mountain Trail (the most popular peak to climb in Alaska) or take a drive along the scenic Seward Highway to enjoy vistas galore.
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Plan your next trip to one of these can't-miss destinations.

National parks get plenty of love from travelers and industry experts, but did you know there are loads of state parks that are just as bucket-list worthy? Sure, there's the Grand Canyon, but there's also the "Grand Canyon of the East" and the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," both of which are designated state parks. From coast to coast, travelers can find spectacular state parks brimming with diverse landscapes and unforgettable attractions. But with more than 10,000 state park areas in the U.S., the amount of state parks to choose from can be overwhelming. That's why U.S. News rounded up 12 must-visit spots to help you plan your next adventure.

Chugach State Park in Anchorage, Alaska

Alaska scenery is at its finest within the whopping 495,000 acres of land that cover Chugach State Park. Located about 14 miles south of downtown Anchorage, this state park is nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts. Along the more than 280 miles of trails, travelers can expect to encounter diverse landscapes, including mountains, lakes, rivers and waterfalls on foot or by bike or boat. What's more, the park boasts 50 of the state's most accessible glaciers. Kayak along the turquoise waters of Eklutna Lake, traverse the Flattop Mountain Trail (the most popular peak to climb in Alaska) or take a drive along the scenic Seward Highway to enjoy vistas galore.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is the crown jewel of Big Sur. Though there are a wealth of activities awaiting travelers in this awe-inspiring, 90-mile stretch of land in central California, hiking this coastal state park is not to be missed. There are an abundance of trails for travelers to traverse: The popular Ewoldsen Trail snakes along the McWay creek and leads to multiple redwood groves, while the Partington Cove Trail leads to directly to the ocean. But you can't visit this park without a look at the majestic McWay Falls, a beachside waterfall that drops 80 feet directly into a secluded cove.

Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona

For its smaller size (286 acres), Red Rock State Park packs a big punch. Located in Sedona, Red Rock State Park's biggest claim to fame is Cathedral Rock. The park offers easy access to Arizona's renowned red rock formations, giving travelers the opportunity to get a close-up of the impressive natural structures. But be forewarned: The 600-foot climb in elevation makes for a steep hike. There are 5 miles of interconnecting trails that take visitors through other red rocks, native vegetation and Oak Creek. The park also offers the unique opportunity to hike alongside a naturalist, plus guided full-moon hikes are available for an additional fee.

Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach, Oregon

Those looking for a laid-back state park should consider a visit to this postcard-worthy stretch of shoreline in the Pacific Northwest. Located in Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park is a coastal playground. Beach activities abound, including exploring tide pools at Indian Beach, but the best way to experience the park is by walking the Oregon Coast Trail. Follow along for access to various beaches, and make the trek to Tillamook Head. The vistas atop these cliffs were once described by explorer William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) as "… the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed."

Koke'e State Park in Kauai, Hawaii

Situated on a plateau above Kauai's famous Na Pali Coast, Koke'e State Park is a feast for the eyes, to say the least. The park features 45 miles of the state's finest hiking trails, introducing visitors to awe-inspiring tropical foliage and unbeatable vantage points. The Kalalau and Pu'u O Kila lookouts offer prime views of the stunning Na Pali Coast, while the Waimea Canyon and Pu'u Hinahina lookouts offer panoramic views of the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." There are also seven trails available that vary in size and difficulty, including the unique Alakai Swamp Trail – an elevated pathway that snakes through rainforests and shallow bogs.

Adirondack Park in Northville, New York

For a long getaway, there's no better place than the Adirondacks. That's because Adirondack Park covers 6 million acres of land – that's bigger than Yellowstone National Park, Everglades National Park, Glacier National Park and Grand Canyon National Park combined. It's the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. The park also boasts 2,000 miles of trails and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. There's plenty to see, but it's worth noting the record-breaking attractions within the park: Whiteface Mountain has the largest vertical drop on the Eastern Seaboard and Mount Marcy's summit is the highest point in New York state.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Lancaster, California

If you're a sucker for flowers, a visit to this California nature reserve is a must. Located about 70 miles north of Los Angeles, the landscape of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Lancaster transforms from run-of-the-mill desert grassland into a vibrant blanket of wildflowers come springtime. Owl's clover, lupine, goldfield and California poppies are among the many flowers that blossom from mid-February through May in this section of the Mojave Desert. Bloom quality varies yearly, but should you make the journey, keep in mind that picking flowers is prohibited and staying on the marked trails is strongly advised as rattlesnakes are abundant.

Letchworth State Park in Castile, New York

Those overwhelmed by the mammoth land mass of the Adirondacks should head to Letchworth State Park, about 50 miles south of Rochester. Coined the "Grand Canyon of the East," Letchworth is unique in that it follows the Genesee River, covering 14,350 acres of surrounding land. The gorge features spectacular waterfalls, including the upper to lower waterfalls and the tiered Deh-ga-ya-soh Falls. Along with 66 miles of trails, some of which wind along the cliffs of the gorge, visitors can enjoy natural pools throughout, whitewater rafting and hot air balloon rides. If you really want to see the park at its best, visit during the fall for stunning seasonal northeastern foliage.

Lake Tahoe State Park in Incline Village, Nevada

Lake Tahoe is a renowned adventure destination, but did you know only half of it is designated as a state park? Nevada calls its portion of Lake Tahoe a state park and everything you could ever want in a park can be found here: There's the lake and its many beaches; tall peaks with trails and enviable vistas; and plenty of cold weather activities, such as skiing and snowshoeing, come winter. Popular spots in the park include Sand Harbor, with its 55 acres of beaches featuring views of snowcapped peaks, and Spooner Backcountry, which gives way to plenty of trails, including access to the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail.

Akaka Falls State Park in Honomu, Hawaii

Believe it or not, there's not many opportunities for hiking in this state park. However, adventure travelers will likely be pleased with what lies within. Akaka Falls State Park is home to two incredible waterfalls: Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls. Akaka Falls is the stuff of Hawaiian dreams: lush tropical foliage hugs the edges of the cliff as water plunges 442 feet down into an eroded gorge. Kahuna Falls, another stunner, can be found shortly before Akaka Falls on a trail that is less than a half-mile long. Along the trail, visitors are immersed in a tropical rainforest featuring wild orchids, draping ferns and bamboo groves.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida

The country's first underwater park is brimming with activities both above and below the ocean's surface. The park was originally built to protect part of the only living coral reef in the continental U.S., and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular activities, with about 70 nautical square miles for exploration. Visitors can also rent kayaks or paddleboards to explore the ocean or the park's mangrove swamps. Beaches abound and you'll find a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium at the visitors center. If you decide to go down under, get an underwater camera and snap a photo with the Christ of the Abyss statue.

Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota

Animal lovers shouldn't overlook Custer State Park, a wildlife hot spot. One of the country's largest state parks (and South Dakota's first state park), covering about 71,000 acres of land, Custer is home to a 1,300-member herd of bison, one of the largest publicly owned herds in the world. Don't be surprised if one greets you somewhere along the road; it's a common occurrence along Wildlife Loop Road. There are also pronghorn antelopes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, turkeys and burros that roam freely within the park. What's more, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is only about a 15-mile drive away.
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