As we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. national parks this past August, the citizens across the country rekindled their love with our national parks. These acclaimed parks span from the grandiose Zion, to the local Great Smoky Mountains—drawing international visitors year-round.
With all of this popularity, it’s easy to overlook the little brother of these national treasures—state parks! The U.S.’s state parks offer some of the best adventures in your state’s backyard. Climbers, hikers, bikers, and thrill-seekers of all kinds can find their niche in the state parks of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Give the little guy a chance and check out some of our favorite state parks. And don’t be fooled by their size, these five parks pack a punch.
Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina
The massive 600-foot face of a granite dome in Stone Mountain State Park towers over visitors of all walks of life. While this imposing rock keeps an eye out for the park’s many types of visitors—bikers, hikers, fishermen (and women), horseback riders—some adventurers brave the rock’s smooth surface with chalk and carabiners.
For those who prefer a bird’s eye view of this expansive Carolinian treasure, make sure to pick up a free climbing permit from the base of the mountain. Experienced climbers can find an unexpected challenge while scaling the face of the granite wall that has helped make this park so popular. For those who prefer to keep two feet on the ground, this park has more than 18 miles of trails, 90 campground sites, and more than 20 miles of designated waters filled with rainbow and brown trout. Natural surface trails such as the Black Jack Ridge Trail, Cedar Rock Trail, and Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail wind hikers through the rugged terrain filled with diverse wildlife and striking overlooks of the lush, green landscape.
Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia
The 4,502 acres of the Grayson Highlands State Park in Southwest Virginia will transport visitors to a landscape unlike any other. Rolling hills, the muted colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and long, tickling switch grass are reminiscent of the Scottish countryside with a southern twist. Near two of Virginia’s highest peaks—Mount Rodgers and Whitetop Mountain—the views from the highlands are hard to beat.
Just off the Appalachian Trail, skilled hikers and day-hikers alike can experience highlands and 5000-foot alpine peaks. As hikers trek over the sweeping hills, they might run into an unexpected new friend. Wild ponies, too, roam these parts. Released by the U.S. Forest Service to control the growth of the meadow brush, they now delight hikers with their tiny legs and big personalities.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park, North Carolina
Are the mountains not quite your scene? Check out the popular Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to tickle your adventurous side. Hosting the largest natural sand dune in the eastern U.S., this state park offers the traditional sightseeing and not-so-traditional sand boarding and hang-gliding by permit. This park is one of the premier locations for catching the violently red and pink beach sunsets on top of the ever-changing surfaces of the dunes.
Adventurers can check out the south side of the park for the more traditional beach experience with access to sunbathing, swimming, and paddling. After venturing out into the expansive dune field, visitors can hop on the one-mile trail into the grassy dunes and wetland thickets. Jockey’s Ridge State Park’s otherworldly dunes and stunning views reinvent the run-of-the-mill trip to the beach.
Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
Hocking Hills, nestled in the Ohio wilderness, hosts a rugged landscape perfect for hiking, biking, and camping. With six major hiking areas—Ash Cave, Cantwell Cliffs, Old Man’s Cave, Rock House, Conkle’s Hollow, and Cedar Falls—this park has varied experiences for all skill levels.
Old Man’s Cave, one of the most popular spots in the park, is a breathtaking scene of steep cliffs, flowing waterfalls, and a deep blue swimming hole. Old Man’s Cave is a romantic sanctuary surrounded by a forest bustling with thrill-seekers exploring the sandstone region of Ohio. One of the best ways to explore this park is tearing down one of the two mountain bike trails it has to offer—Purple (2 mi.) and Orange (2 mi.). Both are perfect for intermediate and expert level bikers. The Purple Trail cuts through the primitive camping area that can host individuals, families, and large groups.
Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee
This 26,000-acre park is Tennessee’s largest and most popular state park. Stretched across the Cumberland Plateau, it’s home to one of the highest falls in the eastern U.S. Beyond sightseers checking out the many roaring waterfalls throughout the park, this Tennessee sanctuary is bustling with boaters, hikers, bikers, bird waters, and anglers. With over 35 miles of hiking in the park, anyone can spend his or her ideal day escaping into this lush Tennessee landscape.
Overnight trails such as The Upper Loop (14.0 mi.) or the Lower Loop (13.2 mi.) or the single day Wheeler Farm Loop cater to more experienced hikers looking for a difficult trek on a natural surface trail. There are also winding paved and unpaved bike trails ranging from six to twenty-four miles. Even those wielding binoculars and a bird book can appreciate the chirping soundtrack of the 140 species of birds found in the area.