All Articles 8 stunning state parks to visit this summer

8 stunning state parks to visit this summer

When national park crowds overwhelm, head to these nearby state parks instead.

Lauren Breedlove
By Lauren Breedlove30 May 2024 7 minutes read
Two friends hiking in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
Goblin Valley State Park
Image: Mike Tittel/Courtesy of Visit Utah

While some of the most popular national parks like Yellowstone and Zion are certainly worth visiting, they tend to be the most crowded, especially come summer when parking lots are packed and nearby hotels are fully booked up. Nobody wants to be crammed onto a hiking trail with hundreds of other people when you’re trying to connect with nature.

That’s where the country’s underrated state parks come in—the U.S. has more than 6,000 state parks comprising 14 million acres, and few of them are as trafficked as national park lands. Not only have I visited tons of state parks, from New York’s Hudson Valley or Custer, SD, but I live on the edge of the Adirondacks, the largest state park in the contiguous United States. I’ve pulled together a list of eight state parks near famous (and very busy) national park counterparts, so you can see some of the country’s stunning natural wonders, without the crowds.

Instead of Acadia National Park, try Baxter State Park

For hikes, hikes, and more hikes

Hiker at the top of Cathedral Trail on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine
Cathedral Trail on Mount Katahdin
Image: Jerry Monkman/Getty Images

While Maine’s most famous park is the coastal Acadia, I love to head inland to the remote Piscataquis County, about three hours north, where you’ll find Baxter State Park. It’s a massive swath of rugged Maine wilderness and home to the state’s tallest and most well-known mountain—Mount Katahdin, the endpoint for the Appalachian Trail for northbound thru-hikers. The challenging but rewarding trek to the summit gains some 4,000 feet in elevation.

While the summit hike is strenuous, there are trails suited for all skill levels here. Make sure to add the Chimney Pond trail on your itinerary, which features an out-and-back 6.2-mile moderate trek with pond and mountain views and some rock scrambling. And those interested in moose spotting should go to Stump Ponds at dawn and dusk. Keep an eye out for fresh Maine blueberries along most trails, too—they make for the perfect hiking snack.

Tip: Hiking here requires some planning—all of the park’s major trailheads require a parking reservation and there’s no potable water within the park, so be sure to bring enough with you or pack a portable water purifier. A flashlight or headlamp also is required on all hiking trails.

Instead of Yellowstone National Park, try Harriman State Park

For horseback riding and elk sightings

Yellowstone is known for its dramatic landscapes and unique geysers that draw over 4 million visitors each year. Luckily—just 45 minutes west in Island Park, Idaho—Harriman State Park is a worthy trade where you can immerse yourself in incredible natural surroundings without fighting for space to take a photo.

The 16,000-acre state park was previously a cattle ranch, so take it back to the park’s roots on a horseback ride with Dry Ridge Outfitters, which run between one and four hours long, depending on your skill level. (Consider the dusk ride to hear a chorus of elk bugling.) On your own two feet, you can expect forest, meadow, and river views with the occasional swans, elk, moose, and waterfowl sightings.

Tip: Ranger-led tours of the ranch’s historic buildings are offered on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and kick off in front of the Jones House in the Railroad Ranch. There’s no need to reserve a spot in advance.

Instead of Zion National Park, try Goblin Valley State Park

For stargazing and slot canyons

Rising moon over The Three Sisters Hoodoos at dusk, Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
The Three Sisters Hoodoos
Image: marcoisler/Getty Images

Southwest Utah’s Zion National Park is home to deep red-rock formations, stunning canyon vistas, and the iconic Narrows trek through the Virgin River. But for an equally impressive and less-crowded scene, head to Goblin Valley State Park in Green River, a four-hour drive to the north.

Photographers—amateur and pro alike—will find the unique mix of hoodoo rock formations, sandstone, buttes, and bedrock an endless stream of inspiration; it feels like you’ve landed on another planet. Explore the slot canyons such as the strenuous Goblin’s Lair, enjoy a sprawling look out over the Henry Mountains and Valley of the Goblins from the Curtis Bench Trail, or visit the famous Three Sisters, an easy-to-access trio of rock formations.

Mountain biking and canyoneering are also popular, but the park is really known for its stargazing—it’s a certified International Dark Sky Park, after all. For the best Milky Way views, stay overnight at one of the park’s campsites or coveted yurts (bookable through Reserve America).

Tip: Time your trip to the park during one of the ranger-led nighttime events—think full moon hikes, telescope tours, and black-light searches for glowing scorpions.

Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, try Indian Peaks Wilderness

For stunning lake and mountain views

Situated south of Rocky Mountain National Park, about an hour from Denver, the lesser-traveled Indian Peaks Wilderness area covers more than 70,000 acres and serves as a haven for hikers and backcountry campers (permit required). While I didn’t camp, I ventured the 2.1-mile out-and-back trail to Lake Isabelle via the Pawnee Pass trail and it easily became my favorite hike in all of Colorado. The forest scenery was gorgeous but the real treat was the alpine lake it led to—a dazzling spectacle against the Shoshoni, Apache, and Navajo peaks.

Elsewhere in the park, Lone Eagle Peak is famous for its pointed top that often reflects into Mirror Lake at the base, making it the most coveted photography opp here. The viewpoint requires a 14-mile hike from Monarch Lake though, so stretch your legs.

Tip: Before hitting the trails, make sure to allow your body to acclimatize to the high elevation—it ranges from 8,400 feet to over 13,500 feet above sea level—and drink a lot of water.

Instead of Joshua Tree National Park, try Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

For desert sculptures and cacti galore

Wildflowers in Anza - Borrego Desert State Park, California
Image: Sumiko Scott/Getty Images

Even though Joshua Tree National Park sees less crowds in the summer due to the heat, it’s popular year-round. The nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a stellar substitute, about an hour southwest. Make your first in-park adventure a drive along Borrego Springs Road to see the larger-than-life metal Galleta Meadows sculptures that take the shapes of a giant sea dragon, scorpion, camels, and more.

As the largest state park in California, its 600,000 acres of desert terrain are filled with hikes, campsites, mountain biking trails, and horseback riding paths. Plus, you’ll see purple verbena and yellow desert dandelions, amongst other beautiful wildflowers, as well as palms and barrel and beavertail cacti. (Note: If you come in spring, between February and April, expect to see a wildflower superbloom—and the crowds to match.)

Tip: Be sure to walk the 2.6-mile out-and-back Pictograph Trail, where you can view pictographs and petroglyphs created by the Native Americans who lived in this area thousands of years ago.

Instead of Shenandoah National Park, try Shenandoah River State Park

For lots of time on the water

Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is an outdoor playground within the Blue Ridge Mountains that gets seriously crowded on summer weekends, thanks to its proximity to the D.C. area. If you can’t plan a mid-week visit, consider Shenandoah River State Park, located just north in Bentonville, VA. Also called Andy Guest State Park, it skirts along almost six miles of the Shenandoah River and serves as a hub for hiking, camping, boating, biking, horseback riding, kayaking. You can even go zip-lining with Virginia Canopy Tours.

The Downriver Canoe Company is located in the park as well, with rentals and guided kayak, canoe, and float trips available. And don’t miss hiking the Hemlock Hollow, Bluebell, and Overlook Trail Loop. The easy 2.8-mile gravel trail offers an overview of the park’s scenery, with river vistas, forests, and wildflowers.

Tip: Carve out some extra time to drive along the incredibly stunning scenic byway Route 340 between Front Royal and Luray for mountain and river views that wind past charming small towns.

Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, try Grandfather Mountain State Park

For cliffside hikes and major heights

People are hiking with a view of Mile High Swinging Bridge, in Grandfather Mountain State Park
Mile High Swinging Bridge
Image: Chansak Joe/Getty Images

Stretching from Tennessee to North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited parks in the country. To escape the crowds, head to Grandfather Mountain State Park in Banner Elk, NC. Named after the state’s tallest mountain and an Appalachian icon, the park spans nearly 2,500 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is free to enter. The park is a haven for hikers looking to walk a wide range of trails with varying difficulties. The one-mile Black Rock Trail and 1.2-mile Nuwati Trail are good options for easy and moderate hikes.

Book tickets in advance to visit Grandfather Mountain, a pedestrian-only suspension bridge that sits nearly a mile above the chasm below. It’s also where you’ll access the Grandfather Trail to Calloway Peak, a difficult 4.3-mile trail with cliff routes. It’s for hikers experienced in boulder scrambling—and it can be very slippery after rain.

Tip: The park is a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve, thanks to its 12 diverse ecological zones, rare species like the saw-whet owl, and endangered flora and fauna, such as the Gray’s Lily and Heller’s Blazing Star. Ask park rangers for intel on what to keep an eye out for along your hikes. There’s also a great junior ranger program, with educational booklets and staff-led hikes.

Instead of Olympic National Park, try Deception Pass State Park

For tide pools and dramatic sunsets

Deception Pass State Park, located less than two hours north of Seattle, encompasses more than 4,000 acres along Oregon’s rugged coastline. It’s spread over the tips of Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island and is full of great photo opps. For the best views, drive over Deception Pass Bridge, stopping at various pull-offs to take in the scenery, or park in the lot on the Whidbey Island side and walk the narrow sidewalk—that is, if you’re not afraid of heights.

Elsewhere in the park, you can wander some of its 28 miles of hiking trails through old-growth forests, where you’ll find three freshwater lakes, dramatic cliffs over the Salish Sea, scenic overlooks, and more. Reach the highest point in the park by walking up to the top of Goose Rock, a hill with a 4.3-mile trail where a rewarding panoramic view awaits. And if you’d like to camp at one of the park’s three campgrounds, be sure to reserve a site in advance—it’ll give you a front row seat for the park’s notoriously beautiful sunsets.

Tip: Don’t miss exploring the Rosario Head tide pools about an hour before low tide to spot marine life like sea urchins, sea stars, fish, crabs, and more.

Lauren Breedlove
Lauren Breedlove is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Upstate New York. She’s contributes to publications like Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, AFAR, and Matador Network, and keeps it real on her blog, girlwanderlist.com. She thrives on exploring off the beaten path; absorbing local culture; random adventures; dive bars; and grilled cheese. You can follow her endeavors on Instagram.