Did you know that as of 2016, there were 10,336 state parks in the United States? How many have you visited? I’m guessing you haven’t even made a dent in that number. I know I haven’t.
While national parks are pretty well- known and are among featured stops on many vacations, state parks are often overlooked or just plain unknown to many of us; the hidden gems of the U.S. Some state parks hog all of the glory, like Niagra Falls State Park in New York, (did you even know it was a state park?), or Ecola State Park in Astoria, Oregon, home to Cannon Beach– the much photographed beach featured in the 1980’s movie ‘Goonies’. Not to mention Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Big Sur), or Emerald Bay State Park (Lake Tahoe). If you bother to take the time, you will probably find some amazing state parks that should make it onto your bucket list. It’s possible there are a few within a few hours of you that you are missing out on because you don’t even know they exist.It generally doesn’t cost a whole lot to visit state parks and some are, in fact, free. They are a fantastic way to take in the beauty of America and a cost- effective way to vacation. Often times you can stay right in the park, whether it be camping, hotels or a lodge, and sometimes a combination thereof. I personally prefer staying in the park if possible, for the sake of convenience.
Some parks are historic parks, revolving around historical landmarks, while others were created to protect nature and allow us to enjoy it at the same time.
A great example of a historical state park would be Mackinac Island State Park in Michigan. Most people have never heard of it, but this hidden gem is a phenomenal getaway. Take a ferry (all a part of this unique experience) over to the island where the magic begins. You see, this is no ordinary island…
there are no cars allowed. Step off the boat and step back in time to the clip- clop of hooves as you take in the wonder of Main Street where you’ll see people traveling in horse and carriage as well as porters carrying a giant pile of luggage on bicycles. It is a sight to behold! Much of the island itself is the state park. There are historical landmarks everywhere you look, including Fort Mackinac where you’ll occasionally here the boom of a cannon. It was a Revolutionary War fort held by the British who moved from Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland. Americans took control in 1796 and it saw battle once again in the War of 1812 when the British recaptured it.
Along the cliffs of the island you can find some of the most gorgeous historical mansions.
People generally use these as summer homes, but there are also a good number of year- round residents. One of the most iconic landmarks of the island is the Grand Hotel.
The movie “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was filmed there as well as several other spots on the island. There are also a lot of natural landmarks throughout the park, like Arch Rock.
The Round Island lighthouse can be seen from the island and is a beautiful addition to the ambiance of the island.
You can stay the night on the island, although most only come for the day. I suggest booking a room and experiencing the enchantment of downtown at night. For all of you night- owls out there, there are several bars open late. Bring your walking shoes and take in the sights over a couple of days and make sure you stop in at one or all of the incredible fudge shops for some authentic Mackinac Island Fudge. You won’t regret it!
If nature is what you’re looking for take a trip to Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. I suggest staying at the lodge and enjoying the convenience of being right in the park. You can access all of the trails right from there (although there are several parking areas nearer some of the actual canyons that are further out). At Starved Rock you have the pleasure of hiking deep into large hidden canyons with the reward of the possibility (if it hasn’t been too dry) of a waterfall at the end.
If waterfalls are your thing, and really, who doesn’t love a great waterfall, check out Tettegouche State Park in Minnesota with it’s jagged cliffs and water views and miles of hiking trails. While you’re there, head north just a bit further and take in the picturesque Split Rock Lighthouse. Want more waterfalls? Try Letchworth State Park in New York where you can hike and raft and view over 20 different falls. There is also Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee with the highest free- fall waterfall east of the Mississippi and a cave system below it.
If you want the most naturey nature experience, visit Baxter State Park in Maine. This park is home to Mount Katahdin and a ton of wildlife; it has no paved roads, no electricity and no running water, but it does have lakes and, you guessed it, waterfalls :).
For the chance to see a wide variety of large wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and pronghorns, direct yourself to the ‘Wild West’, Custer State Park in South Dakota. For a different wildlife viewing experience, go to Lime Kiln Point State Park in Washington State to see whales right from terra firma. A great option for those prone to sea- sickness. You might also see dolphins, seals, and sea lions as well as the most adorable animal in all the world, the otter.
Lastly, forested mountains can be discovered at Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire. The park, situated in the White Mountain National Forest, separates the Franconia Mountain range and the Kinsman Mountain range. Just spectacular!
What are you waiting for? I challenge you to decide what kind of park you’d like to visit and then how far you want to go and get planning! Adventure awaits…