Roan Mountain State Park
How to play: For carpets of wildflowers and tunnels of rhododendron, for Blue Ridge Mountain panoramas atop expansive balds, look no further than Roan Mountain State Park. Appalachian Trail hikers have long treasured this particular section of white blazes as a breath of fresh air from the green tunnel. Hike the 14-mile stretch of the AT across Carvers Gap, cutting across Round Bald, Janes Bald, and Roan High Knob, for some of the most spectacular scenery in the Southeast. History buffs should be sure to make a stop at the Miller Farmstead. The historically preserved farmhouse and cluster of outbuildings were constructed in 1908 and remained occupied until as late as 1967. Given Roan’s reputation for harsh and unpredictable weather, the farmstead acts as a memorial to the hard-working subsistence Appalachian farmers who called these mountains home.
Where to stay: Pitch a tent in the woods or try to claim a spot at the Overmountain Shelter (though if you’re headed out on a weekend, the shelter will likely be crowded). Roan Mountain State Park has a 107-site campground and 30 cabins for rent, with tent sites beginning at $13.75 per night.
Breaks Interstate Park
How to play: Not quite a “state park,” but close enough, this 4,600-acre interstate park is one of only two interstate parks in the country. Straddling the border between southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, the Breaks is managed by the two states. Its name dates back to the mid-18th century when Daniel Boone scoured the rugged cliffsides in search of a literal break in the 125-mile Pine Mountain ridgeline. If you’re a whitewater kayaker, the Pound and Russell Fork rivers are a literal wet dream, with regular release weekends and continuous whitewater to fit everyone’s skill level. Each fall, paddlers from near and far set up camp at the Breaks to paddle either the upper class II-IV stretches of the Russell Fork or the class IV-V gorge below. In some places, the canyon walls loom over 1,600 feet above the river. Climbers looking for an escape from established crags and weekend crowds elsewhere are now, as of last year, permitted to climb and establish routes at designated areas within the Breaks. Over 25 miles of established hiking and biking trails lead to many of these climbing areas, and if you’re planning on throwing up a route, stop by the Visitor’s Center to learn proper protocol and to pick up a free permit.
Where to stay: The park itself has a beautifully wooded campground with 138 sites, starting at $17 per night. Upgrades include sites with electric and water or, of course, a lakefront cabin or room at The Lodge.
Grayson Highlands State Park
How to play: One visit to Grayson Highlands State Park will forever change how you rank Southwest Virginia as an adventure destination. Sandwiched between the quaint communities of Independence and Damascus, Va., this high-elevation park provides front door access to Virginia’s tallest mountains—Mount Rogers and Whitetop. The park is also home to a resident miniature pony population, which is every bit as magical and endearing as it sounds. To properly experience the highlands, you’ll need a few days and a solid pair of hiking boots. Though a small portion of the Appalachian Trail runs through the park, check out the Rhododendron or Wilson Creek trails for the opportunity to gorge on wild blueberries or catch the elusive native brook trout. In addition to hikers and equestrians, boulderers are beginning to take more notice of the park for its plentiful boulderfields. The park has a bouldering guidebook on sale at the Visitor’s Center, and out-of-town climbers can even rent a crash pad for the day.
Where to stay: Backpackers will find no shortage of places to set up camp within the park, but for those who are trying to forgo the tent, space at the Thomas Knob Shelter fills up quickly. If you’re in need of a hot shower and some electricity, Grayson Highlands’ campground sites run about $20 per night.
Blackwater Falls State Park
How to play: No matter the season, or the sport, Blackwater Falls State Park serves up the ultimate adventure sampler. Elite paddlers will tackle the classic class V Upper Blackwater, which runs regularly throughout the winter and spring months. If white-knuckling down a steep creek in the dead of winter with the potential for serious consequences isn’t for you (we don’t blame you), hikers and mountain bikers can take to the diverse offering of trails in the park, from the Blackwater Canyon rail-trail to the rooty goodness of the Balsam Fir Trail. Everyone should make a point of visiting the six-story falls for which the park is named. Here, the amber-colored waters of the river tumble over 60 feet into the canyon below, and after particularly brutal cold snaps, the falls often freeze over. After a solid snow, the park takes on an ethereal Narnia-like quality. Ski beneath the snow-laden limbs of hemlock and spruce trees on the park’s groomed cross-country ski trails, or grab a sled and take a run down the sledding hill. Year-round cyclists will even find some good fat biking here and can take a rip on one of Blackwater Bike’s rental rides.Where to stay: Open the last weekend of April until October 31, the Blackwater Falls campground is a primo place to post up. Sites start at $22 per night and can be reserved for up to two weeks at a time.
Assateague State Park
How to play: Hemmed in by the crystal-blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Sinepuxent Bay to the west, Maryland’s only oceanfront state park is a quiet alternative for beach lovers. Nine miles south of the tourist bonanza that is Ocean City, Assateague caters to the adventurous tourists who aren’t afraid to work for their fun. Grab a sit-on-top kayak and paddle out past the break from the park’s boat launch facilities. Bring a rod for some saltwater angling, or hop off the boat and dig deep for clams. Paddling the western bayside shore of Assateague gets you up-close and personal with the island’s marsh environment where insular coves and plentiful waterfowl sightings will keep you exploring for hours. The island is biker-friendly, with a four-mile paved bike path running the length of the park, so you can access any part of the beach without the worry of traffic. Sunburns and mosquito bites aside, the only real concern you’ll have on Assateague is having your beach camp raided by feral horses.
Where to stay: From $11.75 a night, the Assateague State Park campground situates campers just a stone’s throw away from the beach, which is cordoned off from the campsites by sand dunes.
Laurel Ridge State Park
How to play: Be it the subtle shades of pink and white from blooming mountain laurel or the vibrant squash oranges and yellows of peaking fall foliage, this southwestern Pennsylvania jewel of a park is stunning in every season. Its backbone and namesake, the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, traces the Laurel Mountain ridgeline for 70 miles from the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown. Though backpacking and day hiking are the most popular adventures in the park, there are a number of sections of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail that, given the right amount of snow, are navigable by cross-country ski. Additionally, the park operates a cross-country ski touring concession where visitors can rent skis, take ski lessons, and skate on over 18 miles of groomed trails. Not a skier? Rent a pair of snowshoes for the day! Snowshoeing is a rewarding way to take to the trails, but some coordination is required.
Where to stay: Hikers can opt for a lightweight setup and ditch the tent on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, as there are eight shelters situated every six to 12 miles along the trail’s 70-mile route. Traditional car campers will want to stake a site at the Laurel Ridge State Park campground, where you can grab a site starting at $17 per night.