7 inspiring US state parks to visit when we get the all-clear

Apr 2, 2020

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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials note that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing some travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking trips for travel until later this year — and even then, be mindful of cancellation policies. Many state parks are currently closed or partially closed so use this information for inspiration for a future trip.

As points-and-miles travelers, we all tend to gravitate to the far-and-away exotic vacations. But America is an incredibly diverse country, and while you’ve likely visited some of the major national parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, there also are more than 10,000 state parks to explore. If you haven’t visited many, check out these seven that are a few of our favorites.

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In This Post

Denali State Park

(Photo by Kevin Smith/Design Pics/Getty Images)
Canoeing in Denali State Park with Denali peak in the background. (Photo by Kevin Smith/Design Pics/Getty Images)

Alaska is home to many incredible, wide-open spaces but Denali State Park — about half the size of Rhode Island — is the kind of place everyone should visit at least once. This is the wilderness at its best and, unlike Denali National Park right next door, the state park only has two trailheads, accessible via Parks Highway, two recreational areas — Blair Lake State Recreational Site and Tokositna River State Recreation Site, and three campgrounds. The rest of the park is pure wilderness. From here, you can see Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), the Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains, among other formations.

Whether you’re an outdoorsy person or not, it doesn’t matter. You can hike through the park or just drive through. There are some easy-to-access lookout points along the road. Bring your camera because many species of animals make Denali home. You may see black and grizzly bears, elk, moose, deer and more. Note that mosquitoes also frequent the park in the warm months, so don’t forget that bug spray!

Related: These are the best times to visit Alaska

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Sequoia trees in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. (Photo by demerzel21/Getty Images)
Sequoia trees in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. (Photo by demerzel21/Getty Images)

California’s Santa Cruz County — about 90 minutes south of San Francisco — has so much going for it, including the gorgeous Monterey Bay coastline, hippie town of Santa Cruz and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Big Basin is California’s oldest state park, founded in 1902. Ever since California was settled, people have been entranced by the Santa Cruz Mountains and the ancient redwood trees that populate the coastline. The trees in this park are old — between 1,000 and 1,800 years old — and they are huge. It’s common to see redwoods that have a circumference of 50 feet and can tower 300 feet in the air.

If you love hiking, you’ll find 80 trails with elevations ranging from sea level to more than 2,000 feet. Discover waterfalls along the way and look out for birds ranging from herons and California woodpeckers to Steller’s Jays and egrets.

In addition to the outdoor portions of the park, there is also a nature museum and the Rancho Del Oso Nature & History Center. Campsites are available for booking.

Related: TPG’s complete guide to visiting California’s redwood forests

Cayo Costa State Park

Aerial view of Cayo Costa State Park. (Photo by Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

When you want to commune with nature and avoid other people looking to do the same, check out Cayo Costa State Park, a barrier island off Captiva along Florida’s sun-dappled Gulf Coast. The park is only accessible via ferry, private boat or kayak. The main draw here is the park’s nine miles of practically untouched beach. It’s a sheller’s paradise and also provides incredible swimming, snorkeling, fishing and bird-watching.

Take the ferry from the mainland and rent a campsite or cabin for overnight stays. You can see a lot in just a day visit, too. Along the shoreline, watch for manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, porpoises and other sea creatures. Or rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to get out onto the water yourself. If you prefer cycling, you can rent a bike for your day in the park.

Related: Florida’s best beaches

Iao Valley State Monument

Iao Valley (Photo by Fernando Margolles/Getty Images)

If you’re exploring West Maui, make a point to visit Iao Valley State Monument. A stream helped shape this picturesque valley over the millennia and it’s one of those places where you can feel the presence of ancestral Hawaiians. This is where in 1790,  Kamehameha I — leader of Hawaii Island — and his warriors battled the Maui army and won. It was a bloody battle that changed the future of the island chain.

Today, people visit to spy Iao Needle, a rocky outcrop 1,200 feet above the valley floor that’s been a lookout point for generations. What’s especially nice about this park are the two easy-to-walk trails: Iao Needle Lookout Trail, a paved 0.6-mile walkway, and the Ethnobotanical Loop that showcases Native Hawaiian plants. A babbling stream completes the picture and is a terrific spot to sit and meditate.

Related: 9 things to do in Maui that aren’t the Road to Hana

Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park

Na Pali Coast (Photo by Getty Images)
Na Pali Coast (Photo by Getty Images)

There are some stretches of coastline that are so beautiful, you need to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not in the middle of a dream. That’s what Kauai‘s Na Pali Coast is like. The sea carved the cliffs over time and the coast is especially gorgeous at sunset. Many travelers only see it from the water on day trips but you should also try to get to Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park if you can.

You’ll need to make a special effort to get to the park since you can only access it by first entering the reservation-only Ha’ena State Park. And, you’ll need to be a fit, experienced hiker if you plan to access the difficult 22-mile round-trip Kalalau Trail. You will journey through lush valleys, visit beaches like Hanakapi’ai and Kalalau, and pass by streams and waterfalls.

Related: Hawaii or the Caribbean — Which should you visit?

Baxter State Park

Fly fisherman at Kidney Pond in Baxter State Park, Maine. (Photo by Joe Klementovich/Getty Images)
Fly fisherman at Kidney Pond in Baxter State Park, Maine. (Photo by Joe Klementovich/Getty Images)

Maine’s Baxter State Park in North Penobscot, Maine, was founded to preserve wilderness first and foremost, and only after that be a source for recreation. Today, you can visit the park to hike 215 miles of trails, go camping at any of 337 campsites, picnic at one of the park’s many sites like the Abol Pond Shelter or Togue Pond Beach, rent a canoe or kayak to go paddling, bike, climb or fish. No matter what type of outdoor activity you wish to pursue, you can probably do it at Baxter State Park.

While there are all sorts of animals at the park, birdwatchers will be particularly thrilled with the incredible range of species they can spy here.

Related: TPG’s guide to Acadia National Park in Maine

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse (Photo by Jeff R Clow/Getty Images)
Dead Horse Point State Park. (Photo by Jeff R Clow/Getty Images)

Visiting the Grand Canyon is a rite of passage for nature lovers. But if you’ve already visited the Canyon, there’s another park that will similarly steal your breath: Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, Utah. Like the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River winds its way through Dead Horse. The water, along with wind and ice over the centuries, has carved out stunning cliffs that rise 2,000 feet toward the sky.

Explore the desert plateau or any of the hiking trails along the rim and check out any of the eight overlooks for stunning views. You can also mountain bike along some trails. Dead Horse Point also is an International Dark Sky Park , so you can do some serious stargazing at night. Book a campsite or yurt for overnight stays.

Featured image by Per Breiehagen/Getty Images.

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