8 of the most beautiful state parks in the USA

written by Jacqui Agate
updated 7/27/2018
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The USA's national parks get a lot of hype. From the Grand Canyon to the Everglades, America's backyard is pretty special. But while ever-increasing visitor numbers put pressure on these popular sites, many equally beautiful state parks remain under the radar.

Given that there's more than 10,000 of them to choose from, that's a real shame. To get you started, we've picked eight state parks that really are worth a visit.

Bear Lake State Park, Utah/Idaho

This place deserves its 'Caribbean of the Rockies' moniker. The lake stretches for some 20 miles, seeping across the Utah-Idaho border and, at its calmest, barely a ripple breaks its surface. Its eye-popping blueness is the result of calcium carbonates deposited in the water.

The sand and pebble strands draw the day trippers, as do the kayaking, paddle-boarding, sailing and swimming opportunities, and the hiking trails that skirt the water's edge.

Outfitter Epic Recreation can kit you out with water and winter sports equipment, bikes and all-terrain vehicles, and there are dinky cabins available for rent at various points around the park.

Bear Lake State Park, Utah © Jacqui Agate

Letchworth State Park, New York

The falls are the cardinal charm at this New York state park, often touted as the 'Grand Canyon of the East'. What the park lacks in red rocks, it makes up for with lush woodland, waterfalls and 600-foot scarps carved over millennia. Some 66 miles of trails lace the site, while the rumbling Genesee River offers some of the best white-water rafting in the United States.

Natural history buffs should make a beeline for the Humphrey Nature Center, which hosts a range of interactive exhibits. There are also plenty of designated camp spots if you want to pitch up under the stars.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Zack Frank / Shutterstock

Custer State Park, South Dakota

If you're searching for the spirit of the wild, wild west, the 71,000 acres of Custer State Park deliver. This is veritable bison country, spreading out in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Hoodoos and lakes break up the stark plains, and the Needles Highway beats a white-knuckle path through the landscape.

The usual outdoor activities abound: there are hiking routes, opportunities for biking and boating, and plenty of sites where you can set up camp. The annual buffalo round-up is a sight to be seen too.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Tom Reichner / Shutterstock

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

The Mars-esque Palo Duro Canyon lies a few miles out of Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle. All orange and red bluffs – with the occasional petrified tree or green scrub – it's undoubtedly one of the most impressive gorges in the country, snapping at the Grand Canyon's rugged heels.

History is woven into these rocks, too. The canyon was originally the realm of the indigenous Clovis and Folsom peoples, who first inhabited the land some 12,000 years ago, before it was chanced upon by Spanish pioneers. This was also the site of the storied Red River War in the 1870s, which saw the Native Americans pillaged and driven from their land by the US army.

Today some 30 miles of trails, bountiful campsites and open-air theatre shows make it worth a stop.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas © Zack Frank / Shutterstock

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Ecola State Park, Oregon

If you 'do like to be beside the seaside', then the shores of Ecola State Park should be calling. Nine miles of Oregon coastline are protected by the park – coves, cliffs and wind-whipped strands, edged by spruce forestland.

Surfing and sunbathing are the primary attractions here, and it's dream fodder for the budding photographer: craggy sea stacks and coy deer make for perfect subjects. Depending on the season, you may also spot a whale or two.

Ecola State Park, Oregon © tusharkoley / Shutterstock

Nā Pali Coast State Park, Hawaii

The peaks of Kauai's Nā Pali Coast State Park could be plucked straight from Avatar. They loom 4,000 feet over the sand, circled by sea birds and stalked by the tide. Flood damage has forced great swathes of the park to close over recent months, but restoration works are well underway, and it will reopen again as soon as it's safe.

The park can be explored via the Kalalau Trail, an 11-mile track hugging the coast, with the Kalalau Beach its dazzling finale. For now, though, the coastal drama can be taken in by boat, or by helicopter if you've a head for heights.

Emerald Bay State Park, California

The best way to see this park, with its glossy lakes and fir-tree-covered banks, is from the water.

You can swim, sail or scuba dive within its expanse – and its waters were designated an Underwater Park in 1994, so it's worth discovering what lies beneath the surface.

Outfitters, such as Kayak Tahoe, can get you ready for various activities, and you can stay overnight at one of a handful of campsites – the Boat-In campground enjoys a dreamy lakeside location.

Emerald Bay State Park, California © Purplexsu / Shutterstock

Blue Spring State Park, Florida

The impossibly clear waters of Blue Spring, the largest spring along the St Johns River, are home to a large population of Florida manatees. From November through to March, hundreds of sea cows can be spied here, best seen from the various wooden boardwalks around the park.

In the summertime, it's swimmers and snorkellers that frequent Blue Spring, attracted by the warm waters and the crystal views into the deep. The moss-draped oaks that line the spring offer pleasant shade from the sun too.

From the Blue Spring itself, keen kayakers can paddle further along St John's River – just remember to keep an eye out for crocs…

Blue Spring State Park, Florida © Jose Antonio Perez / Shutterstock

Top image: Cannon Beach at Ecola State Park, Oregon © Chris Anson / Shutterstock

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written by Jacqui Agate
updated 7/27/2018
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