A visit to a park, be it national or state, offers one the chance to get up and close to nature, cherish personal space and seclusion, admire the spectacular scenery, and gasp at unique geological formations. There is also the chance to brush sides with grizzly bears, bison, and other wild animals only seen in nature documentaries. Then again, the view of the sun when mirrored on a calm lake — is one of the most heart-ravishing natural displays. Yet in most cases, state parks are bypassed for national parks, the unknown for the known, the small for the vast. For those who have discovered the secret, however, some state parks are just as astounding as national parks — and come with a bonus; they are often less crowded. Discover the most underrated state parks you should visit.
Adirondack Park, New York
Adirondack Park is so vast that it spans an area larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon — combined. Established in 1892, the Adirondack Park is the largest park in the United States—excluding Hawaii and Alaska. Also regarded as the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi, the Adirondack has inspired awe and legend in equal measure. The early Dutch settlers, for instance, thought that unicorns once roamed their wilds. This New York treasure is unspoiled and unbelievably rich.
For those who only have a day to explore this underrated wonder, take Route 73, which meanders through the Keene Valley—and through to Lake Placid. Pull to a stop at Loj Road and savor the surreal views of the peaks. After this, advance towards Lake Placid and stop at the Olympic grounds. Pause for views of Whiteface Mountain. Enjoy a meal at Big Slide Brewery and Public House, and explore Lake Placid.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
Spread out about 20 miles south of Rapid City on vast prairies and rugged mountains that span 114 square miles, Custer State Park is another underrated state park that can hold its own against any of America’s famous national parks. While Yellowstone National Park is home to the largest bison herd in America, Custer State Park also boasts one of the highest bison populations in the world—and the highest in America outside Yellowstone.
Spanning 71,000 acres of breathtaking wilderness, including a sizeable portion of South Dakota’s Black Hills, Custer State Park will induce gasps at every turn of the eye. Aside from the herds of bison, Custer State Park is home to burros, coyotes, and elk. Dotted with beautiful overlooks, five glittering lakes, including the post-card-perfect Sylvan Lake, and miles of hiking trails, Custer State Park should be on every adventurer’s bucket list, along with driving the spectacular Needles Highway.
Palouse Falls State Park, Washington
Palouse Falls is another under-the-radar gem that does not get the hype it should. While the state park has other attractions one can indulge in, its star attraction is the nearly 200-foot waterfall which is among the most spectacular in the Northwest. This waterfall is also as stunning for its thundering drop—as it is for the suntanned, wildly undulating geography that encircles it. That is not to mention the circumstances scientists attribute to its formation.
This water wonder is the product of the second-largest flood the world has ever witnessed. Glaciers formed a natural dam on Montana’s Clark River, and the effect was the emergence of Glacial Lake Missoula. When the Ice Age ended, however, the ice began to retreat, the glacial dam gave way, and water rushed out at a rate of 17 million cubic meters per second. For perspective, that is ten times as much as every single river on Earth combined. At the nearby overlook, one will be able to marvel at the last remaining perpetual waterfall that once stood in the path of the Ice Age floods.
Assateague State Park, Maryland
This underhyped state park is adjoined with a national park, and so a distinction is often necessary. Those who have read Misty of Chincoteague will have the inspiration to check out this Maryland gem — which acted as the setting of the page-turner. But even for those who have not, it will be worthwhile to explore the only oceanfront park in Maryland.
Located on a pristine island sandwiched between the whistling waves of the Atlantic to the east and the Sinepuxent Bay to the west, Assateague State Park’s setting is a fairytale. Park visitors should peel their eyes for the island’s most prominent residents: wild ponies. Those planning to discover this Maryland secret should pack some bug spray and then engage in an adventure that will make them feel like Robinson Crusoe. For foragers, the highbush blueberry that thrives in the area might make for a table in the wilderness.
Valley of Fire, Nevada
This underrated marvel is right beside Las Vegas. Many often associate Vegas with partying hard and wild, with Vegas the Entertainment Capital of the World. Yet Valley of Fire does not really buck the trend. It only offers a different kind of entertainment. And to those who have experienced it, the Strip may lose its color, its taste, and its appeal. Better still, why not try both?
The spectacular red rock formations at Valley of Fire will make the coldest heart skip a beat. Besides, there is the chance to see wildlife–including bighorn sheep whose curved horns are some of the greatest natural artworks. That said, try traveling to this underrated park in winter — when temperatures are a bit cool and bearable. There is a reason it is called Valley of Fire.
Montaña de Oro State Park, California
Montaña de Oro State Park is vintage California—in its most pristine—in its authentic wildness. Think Big Sur, but on a tolerably lighter scale. This trip will include inhaling heart-ravishing curves—and much more. Picture coastal cliffs that will make any heart sink, ethereal sunset views, especially from the adorable Spooner Cove, and picturesque, well-marked trails.
For hiking enthusiasts, Bluff Trail could be what the doctor recommended. It is ideal, even for those who will not want to break a sweat — and delightfully interspersed with panoramic lookouts. Also, the drive to Montaña de Oro, through the tunnel of huge trees, is a complete adventure by itself.
Dead Horse Point, Utah
It is unconscionable that many people troop to Moab, only 30 miles away, and return without checking out Dead Horse Point. Despite its name, Dead Horse Point is not a burial ground where one can see nothing but the bones of dead horses. The name, according to legend, is in reference to how Natives used to coral wild horses and how they accidentally left some horses on the dangerous side of the mesa top — who eventually slid down to their death.
Today, no words can do justice to the heart-stopping views of the depths at Dead Horse Point, the area’s undulating wildness, and the death-like splendor of the surrounding terrain. Then again, this could be the only point where one can get a panoramic view of the triad that includes the Colorado River, Canyonlands, and La Sal Mountain—simultaneously.
Turkey Run State Park, Indiana
Spectacular waterfalls. Enormous boulders. Stark gorges. Old stone stairs built into the side of hills and ladders. Turkey Run State Park provides an experience of a lifetime. First-time visitors will marvel at the awe-inspiring views at every turn of the eye — at what is possibly the most underrated park in the Midwest. Wandering through the woods in a forest that is nothing less than magical, pulling paddles along the waters of Sugar Creek, and crossing the beautiful 202-foot-long suspension bridge over the creek—these and more—are experiences that are better lived than told. Ensure that bug spray, sunscreen, and plenty of water are well-packed. In addition, Shades State Park, Turkey Run’s quieter neighbor, is just about 10 minutes down the road.
Itasca State Park, Minnesota
There are many reasons to check out the oldest state park in Minnesota. Where else in the country, for instance, will one walk across the Father of Waters, as the Mississippi River is known? Spanning 32,000 acres of varied scenery, first-time visitors will savor the experience of stepping from rock to rock in a bid to cross the third-longest river in the world. This park is also a must-do as it is where the Mississippi River begins its remarkable 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
The park is home to more than 100 lakes, including Lake Itasca, which boasts a swimming beach, a playground, and a volleyball area. A visitor will enjoy pulling a paddle in this oasis of calm. Hitting the road on the 10-mile Wilderness Drive will give a first-time visitor a sense of this park’s breathtaking scenery.
The United States boasts an impressive collection of national parks. But while the national parks: Yellowstone and Yosemite—often get a lot of attention—there are many under-the-radar state parks that are just as spectacular. From the impossibly vast Adirondack Park, regarded as the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi, to Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi begins its southward meander to the Gulf Coast, America’s state parks do not get the hype they deserve.