These State Parks Are Better Than Most National Parks

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Reflections on the water at Smith Rock State Park

National parks are almost automatic destinations for campers throughout the U.S., but some state parks might be better targets. Because they’re a bit lower on most people’s radar, they’re often not as crowded. 

They just might give you a better experience than their federal counterparts. Read on for our list of less-heralded public facilities that you could say perform well above their pay grade.

What Is a State Park?

Maybe it wouldn’t surprise you that some state parks stand head and shoulder above some national parks. After all, these are lands that state officials felt were important enough to set aside for public use. Many of them provide great recreation or have amazing scenic beauty, while others have historical or scientific importance. They might even share all of these traits.

The biggest difference between state and national parks is that the state government oversees them, not the federal government. You can expect a more standardized level of services and upkeep at national parks. With state parks, it can vary widely. Sometimes this is a good thing, especially in some states that don’t mind spending more on park renovations.

10 State Parks That Are Better Than Most National Parks

What makes a state park great? Sometimes it simply comes down to location, and other times it’s because the amenities exceed your expectations. They are usually a great value and a way to beat the crowds national parks draw. Whatever the reason, here’s our list of 10 state parks that go above and beyond.

#1. Smith Rock State Park, Terrebonne, OR

Address: 9241 NE Crooked River Dr., Terrebonne OR 97760

Sunset at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon.

About: Smith Rock State Park, about 25 miles outside Bend, is often called a paradise for hikers and rock climbers. The 650-acre park stands at around 3,000 ft above sea level and boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. 

Many come to see its rock faces made of compressed volcanic ash. Hikers and cyclists enjoy miles of trails along its dramatic canyon ridges. It doesn’t have any RV spaces, but tent camping is just $8 a night, and day-use is $5.

Pro Tip: Enjoy free camping on your trip to Smith Rock State Park with these 10 great, free campsites in Oregon.

#2. Dead Horse Point State Park, Moab, UT

Address: State Route 313, Moab, UT 84532

About: You might feel on top of the world as you look down 2,000 ft toward the Colorado River. This stunning panoramic view may become a defining experience of this incredible park 30 miles outside Moab. 

It has numerous trails for hiking and biking and two different campgrounds. One of them has 20 spots for RVs. You can’t beat Dead Horse as a terrific alternative (or complement) to the two nearby national parks, Canyonlands and Arches.

Check out our epic adventures in Moab, Utah!

#3. Ledges State Park, Madrid, IA

Address: 1515 P Ave, Madrid, IA 50156

About: The Civilian Conservation Corps left its mark on Ledges State Park with numerous sturdy structures, including the picturesque stone bridge over Pea’s Creek. The centerpiece of this Central Iowa park is a deep sandstone gorge that reaches 100 ft deep in places. 

The park has some recently renovated campgrounds and two hike-in tent sites. Here’s a unique recreation opportunity: walk the ankle-deep Pea’s Creek itself, a scenic shallow tributary of the Des Moines River.

#4. Eldorado Canyon State Park, Eldorado Springs, CO

Address: 9 Kneale Rd, Eldorado Springs, CO 80025

A rock climber in the middle of scaling a boulder.

About: This 885-acre park outside Boulder has more than 500 rock climbing routes. If you prefer solid ground, walk the trails along the streams or step inside a sandstone cave or two at Eldorado Canyon State Park

You won’t forget the sweeping views of this gorgeous mountain canyon. Come do some trout fishing or horseback riding. Additionally, you may also enjoy snowshoeing or skiing in the winter. The park only allows day use during daylight hours and has no camping.

#5. Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek, WI

Address:  9462 Shore Rd, Fish Creek, WI 54212

About: If the name Green Bay makes you think only of a football team, a visit to Peninsula State Park may open your eyes. This massive 4,000-acre park hugs the shoreline of the city’s namesake scenic waterway off Lake Michigan.

You can enjoy spectacular wilderness areas or take in a round of golf or a summer theater production. It has a sand beach, hike-and-bike trails, and 460 campsites. Top attractions include the 1868 lighthouse, a 73-foot observation tower, and the imposing bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment.

#6. Cathedral Gorge State Park, Panaca, NV

Address: 111 Cathedral Gorge State Park Road, Panaca, NV 89042

About: Cathedral Gorge State Park spotlights the captivating clay formations that imitate the classic architecture of an Old World cathedral. These eye-catching spires tower above the desert sands of southeastern Nevada. 

Visit more remote areas of the park via a four-mile loop leading to the popular Miller Point overlook. It has 22 campsites, including some with electricity, on a first-come, first-served basis.

#7. Custer State Park, Custer, SD

Address: 13438 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730

Mountain goat in Custer State Park. Custer, South Dakota.

About: This gigantic space in the southern part of the Black Hills region of South Dakota also serves as a wildlife reserve. With 71,000 acres, the 1,300 bison have plenty of room to roam along with mountain goats, elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep. 

Custer State Park also has enough acreage to accommodate 10 different campgrounds, plus a resort that has four rustic lodge-style restaurants.

Pro Tip: Learn how to plan your RV trip to South Dakota when you put Custer State Park on your next itinerary.

#8. Curt Gowdy State Park, Cheyenne, WY

Address: 1264 Granite Springs Rd, Cheyenne, WY 82009

View over the landscape and river at Curt Gowdy State Park in Wyoming.

About: Named for a famed sports broadcaster, this 3,400-acre park lies in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains. Curt Gowdy State Park is halfway between Laramie and Cheyenne in the Wyoming plains at an elevation of around 7,400 ft. 

It has three different reservoirs for fishing and boating and 35 miles of trails for hiking and biking. Other activities include rock climbing, hunting, and archery. In fact, there’s a 28-target field course set up in a two-mile wooded area. You can easily access it from the intersection of I-80 and I-25.

#9. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Ontonagon, MI

Address: 33303 Headquarters Road, Ontonagon, MI 49953

Young women enjoying the view overlooking Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

About: Locals call this small mountain range in Upper Michigan near Lake Superior the Porkies. View the Porcupine Mountains up close at this 60,000-acre park that’s one of the Midwest’s last vast expanses of wilderness. 

Visit the observation tower on Summit peak, the highest point at just under 2,000 ft. Take a birds-eye look at an old-growth hardwood forest that covers 35,000 acres. Or drive the scenic byway that leads to dozens of majestic waterfalls.

#10. Castle Rocks State Park, Almo, ID

Address: 748 E Castle Rock Rd, Almo, ID 83312

About: People have visited this special place in southern Idaho for 9,000 years or more based on evidence left behind, like the area’s famous Native American pictographs. The dramatic views date back 2.5 million years at Castle Rocks State Park

You can stay at one of nearly 40 campsites with basic amenities gloriously perched among the pinyon trees on the slope of Smokey Mountain. Many enjoy rock climbing and exploring the California National Historic Trail.

Time to Visit?

We hesitated to call these state parks better than some national parks because we know it’s not a competition. All parks have their good and bad points. So let’s just say that you’ll come out a winner if you visit any of these 10 great spots. 

With their incredible locations and amenities, these parks have what it takes to put many more famous ones to shame. Visiting any of these breathtaking parks may leave you in awe and create lasting memories. Where are your favorite state parks, and why?

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8 comments
  1. Great article for state parks west of the Mississippi. Why does it seem like everyone talks about the great parks, etc. west of the Mississippi but not east of the Mississippi? I live in North Carolina and we have some wonderful state parks. So does Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina— you get the point.

  2. Need to check out Silver Falls State Park in Sublimity, Oregon ~ just east of Salem. Campground, Horse Campground, Cabins. Day use area has historical buildings, cafe, 3 picnic shelters, playground & during summer swimming area in creek. A beautiful 7.5 mile hike in the canyon to the 10 waterfalls, trail will take you behind 3 of them.

  3. Letchworth State Park in New York is a worthy honorable mention, as well as Stony Brook State Park nearby. Both have fantastic stonework completed by the CCC a century ago and waterfalls aplenty.

    I also agree with a previous comment about Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. Absolutely breathtaking.

  4. Left off Adirondack State Park in NY. Largest park (Federal or State) in the continental US. I believe it is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Canyon combined. 6,000,000 acres.

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