The USA's 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 of the beautiful state parks remain under the radar. Given that there are more than 10,000 of them to choose from, that's a real shame. To get you started, we've picked the most beautiful state parks in the USA that really are worth a visit.
Bear Lake State Park, Utah/Idaho
Utah is one of the best states to visit and this park 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. This is a fantastic place for kayaking, paddle-boarding, sailing and swimming opportunities. There are also wonderful hiking trails that skirt the water's edge.
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', Letchworth is considered one of the most beautiful state parks in the USA.
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.
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 truly one of the most beautiful state parks in the USA. This veritable bison country spreads out in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.
Hoodoos and lakes break up the stark plains, and the Needles Highway, with its white-knuckle path through the landscape, adds to the park's breathtaking allure. The usual outdoor activities abound: there are hiking routes, opportunities for biking and boating, and plenty of sites where you can set up camp.
- For budget stays: Capitol Hill Motel
- For families: Hyatt House Portland / Downtown
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Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
The Mars-esque Palo Duro Canyon, located just a few miles outside of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, stands as a testament to its reputation as one of the most beautiful state parks in the USA. The terrain here is all orange and red bluffs – with the occasional petrified tree or green scrub. This is 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 colonised by Spanish pioneers.
Today some 30 miles of trails, bountiful campsites and open-air theatre shows make it worth a stop.
- For price and quality: Best Western Palo Duro Canyon Inn & Suites
- For modern stays: Hampton Inn & Suites Canyon, Tx
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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. Ecola is 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.
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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 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. Its waters were designated an Underwater Park in 1994, so it's worth discovering what lies beneath the surface.
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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, Blue Spring becomes a haven for swimmers and snorkelers, drawing them in with its warm waters and providing crystal-clear views into the deep. This is by far one of the most beautiful state parks in the USA. 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…
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Adirondack Park, New York
This vast northern region between Albany and the Canadian border covers an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. When it comes to grandeur, the awe-inspiring Adirondacks are hard to beat. For context, 46 of its peaks scale more than 4000ft. Visit in summer to see the purple-green mountains stretch into the distance as a series of tree-shrouded tiers.
Come autumn, you’ll be rewarded with a shimmering show of russet red and gold. Once the preserve of fur trappers, loggers and Manhattan millionaires, its rugged wilderness is now better known as a top destination for mountaineers, skiers and hikers.
Niagara Falls State Park, New York
Every second almost three-quarters of a million gallons of water explode over the knife-edge Niagara Falls, right on the border with Canada. This awesome spectacle is made even more impressive by the variety of methods laid on to help you get closer to it.
At night the falls are lit up and the coloured waters tumble dramatically into blackness. While in winter the whole scene changes as the fringes of the falls freeze to form gigantic razor-tipped icicles. Some visitors will, no doubt, find the whole experience a bit too gimmicky, although the green fringes of the state park provide some bucolic getaways.
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Chugach State Park, Alaska
On long summer days in Alaska, it is good to stay outside, perhaps strolling (or biking) along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Or explore the mountains and lakes of the 495,000-acre Chugach State Park, located just a fifteen minutes drive east of Anchorage. Challenging trails include the scramble up 4500f Flattop Mountain, which gives spectacular views of the city and Cook Inlet.
Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
Ten miles beyond Lincoln, I-93 passes through Franconia Notch State Park. Here you'll find a slender valley crammed between two great walls of stone. From the Flume Visitor Center, you can walk along a two-mile boardwalk-cum-nature trail to the Pemigewasset River as it rages through the narrow, rock-filled Flume gorge.
Alternatively, take a cable car ride up the sheer granite face of Cannon Mountain – and ascend to stunning views. On a clear day, you can see the peaks of four states – New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York – and Canada. Also, various, well-marked trails lead up to the panoramic views for free.
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Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
A turnoff on the road towards the Island In The Sky cuts south to the smaller but equally breathtaking Dead Horse Point, located at the tip of a narrow mesa, which looks straight down 2000ft to the twisting Colorado River.
Cowboys used the mesa as a natural corral, herding up wild horses then blocking them in behind a piñon pine fence that still marks its 90ft neck. One band of horses was left here too long and died – hence the name.
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Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming
The Wind River, cutting an impressive and deep canyon through the Owl Creek Mountains, showcases its remarkable beauty and secures its place among the most beautiful state parks in the USA.
The dominant feature of Hot Springs State Park is the sculpted mineral terraces of Big Spring. This gusher pours out 8,000 gallons (36 kiloliters) of water each day at temperatures of about 128°F (53°C). You can soak in the waters – renowned for their healing properties – at the State Bath House. Or try the waterslides and hot pools at two commercial complexes nearby: Star Plunge and Hellie’s Tepee Pools.
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Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina
Twenty-five miles southeast of the Parkway on US-64/74A, the natural granite tower of Chimney Rock protrudes from the almost-sheer side of Hickory Nut Gorge. After taking the elevator 26 storeys up through the body of the mountain, you can walk along protected walkways above the impressive cliffs.
Many of the climactic moments of The Last of the Mohicans were filmed here; you may recognize the mighty Hickory Nut Falls, which tumble 400ft from the western end of the gorge.
Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee
Fall Creek Falls State Park is named after its main attraction, Fall Creek Falls, which is one of the tallest waterfalls in the eastern United States, gushing 256 feet. In addition, there are several other impressive waterfalls within the park, including Cane Creek Falls and Piney Falls. The park has over 56 miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty, offering an opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the site.
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Top image: Cannon Beach at Ecola State Park, Oregon © Chris Anson / Shutterstock