Our national parks are dubbed “America’s best idea” for a good reason: They’re magnificent. But they’re also well-loved to the point of exhaustion, both for the land and for its visitors, who often must wait in lines dozens of cars deep just to get past the front gate.
So if you’re planning a late summer or fall vacation, how about visiting a state park? These ecological treasures often have the same vistas, bomber bike trails, epic hikes, and other outdoor creds as their more famous NPS brethren, but without the hordes. Below, we provide the lowdown on 10 of the off-the-radar best.
Shenandoah River State Park (Virginia)
John Denver famously sang of the Shenandoah River’s marvelous combination of placid tranquility and pastoral mountain views. This uncrowded oasis is scrupulously well-maintained and offers a perfect base camp for any local adventure you can dream up, including paddling or tubing on the park’s namesake waterway. Or spend a week in the park itself, from posh cabins and lovely riverside campsites to miles of hiking and biking trails and even a zip line, you won’t be bored. And if you’re looking for epic vistas or anything else that Shenandoah National Park has to offer, the northern terminus of iconic Skyline Drive is 15 minutes away in Front Royal.
Breaks Interstate Park (Virginia and Kentucky)
The “Grand Canyon of the South” straddles two states and features a five-mile-long gorge—the largest east of the Mississippi—that plunges some 1650 feet into the earth and is surrounded by 4,600 acres of classic Appalachian countryside. With more than 25 miles of hiking trails and a 12-mile mountain biking trail, there are plenty of opportunities to take it all in. If water sports are your thing, fish, paddle, or raft Laurel Lake, Beaver Pond, or the Russell Fork River that carved the gorge. Kids will love the on-site splash park. Lodging runs the gamut, including an 81-room lodge, rustic cottages, lakefront log cabins, and car camping.
Twin Falls Resort State Park (West Virginia)
This slice of green in the southern West Virginia mountains offers all the hiking and biking you can handle, plus lots of the trappings of a fine resort to top it off. For example, how about an 18-hole championship golf course? There’s the usual car camping/RV option, and Twin Falls Lodge—complete with a restaurant, pool, and fitness center—and 14 furnished cottages tucked away in the woods completes the package. Use these posh digs to explore nearby attractions, including five other West Virginia state parks.
Greenbrier State Forest (West Virginia)
While technically not a state park, this 5,100-acre gem tucked away in the southeast corner of West Virginia offers dense, mountain-blanketing tree cover that’s perfect for anyone looking to scratch their outdoor itch. Take in the views from 3,280-foot Kate’s Mountain, or reserve a campsite or well-equipped cabin and stay for a while. While you’re at it, enjoy shooting and archery ranges, hiking and biking trails, volleyball nets, and even a disc golf course. And after pushing yourself to the limit, take a relaxing dip in the heated swimming pool. Not bad for a state forest, if you ask us.
Gorges State Park (North Carolina)
If it’s endangered species you’re after, this temperate rainforest is a must-visit, considering it harbors one of the greatest concentrations of rare and unique plants and animals in the eastern United States. Eight inches of rain per year can be a bummer, but it’s what makes all the flora and fauna thrive. The prodigious precipitation also jacks up the scenery, including nearly 7,500 acres of towering waterfalls and picturesque river gorges just waiting to be explored. Primitive campsites in this spectacular setting facilitate epic backpacking excursions, and the park’s waters team with trout to cook up for dinner.
Cloudland Canyon State Park (Georgia)
Feast your eyes on nearly 3,000 acres of spectacular scenery from the western rim of Lookout Mountain. Enjoy a stroll to one of two photogenic waterfalls, spend a few hours on horseback, or hike into the backcountry for a wilderness camping experience. If you’re looking to sleep a little closer to civilization, there are cottages perched near the edge of a deep gorge carved by Sitton Gulch Creek, along with car camping and even yurts. Wherever you stay, you’ll appreciate the rugged standstone and shale geology that make this park unique. To top it off, the truly adventurous can take a guided trip into a “wild” cave—no paths or handrails, just water, mud, and a whole lot of fun.
More for the Bucket List
Janes Island (Maryland)
For a chilled-out backcountry kayaking and camping experience, look no farther than this island getaway that serves up 2,900 acres of salt marsh, more than 30 miles of water trails, and pristine beaches where the only footprints will be your own. One caveat: You’ll need fresh water for the paddle-in campsites.
Grandfather Mountain (North Carolina)
This giant chunk of granite, a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve, boasts more than a dozen distinct ecological zones, enthralling vistas, and some of the South’s most difficult hiking. In 2009, 2,456 acres of it became NC’s newest state park.
Keowee-Toxaway (South Carolina)
Don’t miss a little-visited slice of SC upcountry featuring some of the state’s best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not to mention carpets of kaleidoscopic wildflowers, fascinating rock formations, and 18,500-acre Lake Keowee, which is perfect for camping, fishing, or a leisurely paddle.
Devil’s Fork (South Carolina)
Pleasantly undeveloped 7,500-acre Lake Jocassee is the main event here. A trout fisherman’s paradise fed by waterfalls plunging from the vertiginous Jocasee Gorges, the lake also offers great visibility for scuba divers. The only public access point is through the park, so if you want solitude, you’ll have it.