Looking for some destinations to add to your list of summer travels? Forget the national parks and tourist hot spots and hit up some of our favorite state parks in this state-by-state guide!
Tallulah Gorge State Park
How to play: This remarkable 1,000-foot gorge is highly regarded among the paddling community for its remote feel and quality class IV-V rapids, but it’s those very same reasons that make the gorge an incredible destination for hiking, cycling, and even climbing, too. Visitors can walk the easily accessible rim trails and overlooks for shorter trips, but to trek to the gorge floor where waterfalls abound, a permit will need to be obtained. Permits are limited to 100 per day, and are not available during water release dates, so know the schedule before you go. For the full Tallulah experience, hike the two-mile Hurricane Falls loop, which breezes past heady gorge views, across an 80-foot-high suspension bridge, and down to the falls for which it’s named. Cyclists can also explore the gorge via the Stoneplace Trail, a 10-mile technical trail that can be ridden in conjunction with the four-mile High Bluff Trail for a moderately difficult ride, or the paved 1.7-mile Shortline rail-trail for a family friendly outing.
Where to stay: Backcountry campsites by Tallulah Lake start at $20 per night, but for visitors who want at least a few of the comforts of home (and without the two-hour hike in), there are plenty of campground sites starting at $32 per night.
Jones Gap State Park
How to play: Nearly 4,000 acres comprise this South Carolina state park near the North Carolina border. Bisected by the Middle Saluda River, Jones Gap has boundaries that bleed into the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, which is flanked by Jones Gap to the east and Caesar’s Head State Park to the west. Together, this trifecta of protected lands is a sanctuary for Upstaters and western North Carolinians alike. Anglers in particular will appreciate the park’s wide variety of trout fishing opportunities along the Middle Saluda River, and Matthews or Julian Creeks. As springtime turns to summer, Jones Gap is the place to be for its ample waterfall and swimming hole options. Rainbow Falls is particularly stunning after a solid spring rain, and at over 100 feet in height, you’ll easily hear this behemoth long before you see it.
Where to stay: Trailside camping is available in Jones Gap State Park and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area with a permit and only at one of the 18 designated primitive sites. Camping at the campground ranges from $8 to $20 per site, per night.
Gorges State Park
How to play: Once considered nothing more than an area in which to log and experiment with hydropower, Gorges State Park is now considered a jewel of western North Carolina for its explicit beauty and its importance as a haven for rare species. This 7,500-acre park extends all the way to the northern lip of Lake Jocassee where hikers can hop on a portion of the 76-mile Foothills Trail. Aptly named, the must-see stops in Gorges are, without a doubt, the numerous waterfalls that plunge through the Toxaway and Horsepasture gorges. The three-mile roundtrip Rainbow Falls hike is a popular excursion, both for the jaw-dropping power of the falls and for the rainbow itself that often arcs over the riverbank. Discover the pot of gold by continuing upstream about a quarter of a mile to Turtleback Falls for an unforgettable swimming hole.
Where to stay: Primitive camping can be found all along the Frozen Creek and Grassy Ridge Access Areas and is free of charge but not reservable. For those wishing to backpack along the Foothills Trail toward Lake Jocassee, there are six designated sites along the trail that can also be used on a first-come, first-serve basis. Campsites at Raymond Fisher Camp Area require about a 1.5-mile hike in and run $10 per night.
Mount Mitchell State Park
How to play: At 6,684 feet, the summit of Mount Mitchell rises higher than any other peak east of the Mississippi. The views from this sacred spot are expansive, dramatic, and well worth the strenuous six-mile hike up the Mount Mitchell Trail (though there is a quarter-mile summit trail from the parking lot, we’re not that type, and we’ll assume you’re not either). The trail takes hikers beneath the boughs of an ancient spruce-fir forest, not unlike that found in northern climates, before popping out of the tree cover. Even on the hottest of summer days, the temperature and weather atop Mount Mitchell can be unpredictable and often cold, so come equipped with proper layers. Another favorite hike in North Carolina’s first state park is the Deep Gap Trail, which begins near the summit of Mount Mitchell and traverses the Black Mountain range. Hikers will cross over Mount Craig, second in size to Mount Mitchell, and Big Tom Mountain as they follow the crest.
Where to stay: There are nine walk-in tent sites in the park and primitive camping for backpackers on Commissary Ridge open year-round. For hikers looking to tackle the Mount Mitchell Trail, the Black Mountain Campground is your best bet. Here you can directly access the trail, and at $22 per night for a maximum of two cars and eight people, it’s an affordable spot to crash with a group of friends (make sure you bring cash if you don’t reserve online). Just down the road is the similarly priced Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area and Campground, which is a great destination unto its own.