If you could only pick one, a state park vs. a national park, which would you choose? Many think of national parks as the better choice, but those who’ve spent time in state parks might beg to differ. Often smaller and less crowded but with the same amount of natural wonders and places to explore, state parks may be the better choice.
The best choice, of course, is to visit as many of these gorgeous and historical places as you can. But since national parks already get a great deal of attention, we want to ensure that you don’t miss out on the nation’s many fantastic state parks. We have eight state parks here that are just as good, if not better, than even the best national parks.
It’s time to pay attention to these state parks. Let’s get started!
What Is the Difference Between a National Park and a State Park?
According to stateparks.org, there are just over six thousand state park sites with around 250 thousand campsites. Nationalparks.org states that there are 63 national parks and 423 national park sites. These locations include national battlefields, memorials, lakeshores, and more. Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong.
Governmental agencies have designated national parks and state parks to help ensure recreation within a controlled environment. They were set up to protect Earth’s resources and natural beauty and commemorate many historical sites and human endeavors.
While you might think that state parks are smaller and not as glamorous as national parks, this is generally not true. Yes, national parks may have some of the top natural and historical sites globally, but the same holds for many state parks.
State parks often have more amenities than national parks. National parks make up for the lack of amenities with more undeveloped natural space. National parks are usually more crowded than state parks because they are more well-known. Many state parks are often less crowded.
The most apparent difference between state parks vs national parks is the governmental entities that maintain them. Individual states manage state parks. National parks are handled on a federal level by the National Park Service and other federal agencies. All agencies are working hard to maintain and improve these lands that we love so much.
These 8 State Parks Are Just as Stunning as National Parks
Many state parks are just as stunning as national parks, but seven stand out. With jagged cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, prairie lands, deserts, and forests, each of these state parks can rival any of the national parks.
Kōkeʻe/Waimea Canyon State Park – Hawaii
Address: Waimea Canyon Dr, Waimea, HI 96796
About: These two parks are adjacent to each other and offer remarkable views. With the Waimea River carving its way through the Waimea Canyon, some refer to this area as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Overlooking the canyon on the island of Kauai is Kōke’e State Park. This state park gives visitors a stunning bird’s eye view from 4,000 feet above, with the Kalalau Valley below. This location is a fantastic place for camping, hiking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, and catching sight of the area’s beautiful flora and fauna.
Why You Should Go: With 45 miles of hiking trails giving you views of the coastline below, wildlife, wildflowers, and the expansive canyon, there are many reasons to visit Kōkeʻe State Park/Waimea Canyon State Park.
There’s even more to experience, like waterfalls, seasonal plum picking, and even pig hunting if you time your trip correctly.
Goblin Valley State Park – Utah
Address: 18630 Goblin Valley Rd. Green River, UT
About: Named after the goblin-like rock formations that make up this unique landscape, Goblin Valley State Park is a must-see. You can enjoy your time hiking, biking, driving, climbing, or off-roading.
What makes this place just as good as any national park are the geological wonders of the twisted rock formations. Erosion and weathering created these strange rock formations, also called hoodoos. In fact, when comparing this state park vs. other national parks in Utah, you’ll see sights very similar to the larger and more popular ones, like Arches and Bryce Canyon.
Be sure to spend time at the campground in the park. While there are no sites with electric hookups, there are sites for tents and RVs. If you’re interested in glamping, you can also reserve a yurt.
Why You Should Go: The real reason why you should visit Goblin Valley (besides the sightseeing) is to go canyoneering. This state park has Goblin’s Lair, a 70-foot sandstone cave. You will need a backcountry permit, gear, and canyoneering skills, but if you have that, then this is the place to be.
Did You Know: There are 20 states without national parks, so Are They Worth Visiting? Find out!
Valley Of Fire – Nevada
Address: 29450 Valley of Fire Hwy Overton, NV
About: Valley of Fire State Park is in the southeast corner of Nevada and worth the time it takes to get here. Named for the 40,000 acres of vibrant colors in the red Aztec sandstone and tan limestone, you’ll not only find gorgeous scenery but a lot of history. The geology includes petrified trees and petroglyphs dating back more than 2,000 years.
Exploring the beauty and history here is effortless with its many miles of hiking trails, picnicking spots, and camping options. With tent sites, RV sites, a dump station, and hot showers, you’ll find the amenities needed to handle the heat.
Why You Should Go: The stunning colors are what draw many tourists to this park every year. When the sun hits the sandstone and limestone, it can look like the earth is on fire. You can’t miss experiencing this natural wonder!
Rainbow Springs State Park Florida
Address: 19158 SW 81st Pl Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432
About: Rainbow Springs State Park is one of Florida’s many natural springs that you can swim and tube in. The waters here are warm and spectacularly clear. If you like swimming, this swimming hole is one of the most beautiful we have ever been in. These springs have an interesting history as they were first used as an amusement park and many of the original paths and structures are still visible in the woods.
In addition to the springs, the state park offers a campground and kayak or tube rentals.
Custer State Park – South Dakota
Address: 13438 US Highway 16A Custer, SD
About: Custer State Park in South Dakota is within the famous Black Hills and has 71,000 acres of forested beauty and rolling plains. You can enjoy time camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, and so much more.
Nine campgrounds have RV sites with electric, tent sites, cabins, horse camping, and backpacking. With 50 miles of epic scenic drives, 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, tunnels, and loops included, you can experience the beauty here, no matter your mode of transportation.
Custer State Park is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer, and more. Bring your camera!
Why You Should Go: Like many other state parks, Custer offers camping, hiking, and more. But what makes this park unique is its annual buffalo auction. Whether you’re an interested buyer or want to watch the action, if you can plan your trip for November, experiencing this event is a unique opportunity you won’t want to miss.
Also, driving the Needles Highway should be on every nature lover’s bucket list. Between the scenery and the wildlife, you will not be disappointed!
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness – Michigan
Address: 33303 Headquarters Road, Ontonagon, MI
About: At 60,000 acres, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is Michigan’s largest state park. It has majestic waterfalls, river streams, and more than 90 miles of hiking trails. You’ll also find one of the state’s most extensive old-growth forests here, along with Lake Superior’s spectacular shoreline.
Along with hiking and biking, there are many observation points, such as the Lake of the Clouds and the Porcupine Mountains Ski Area. There’s even an 18 hole disc golf course. You’ll find not only RV and tent camping but also a variety of glamping options, including yurts, cabins, and even tiny houses.
Why You Should Go: It’s not every day you visit a state park with access to a ski area. It has backcountry and inbound terrain for skiing and riding. If you love the snow, this is the place to be. It has 670 vertical feet and 200 inches of snowfall every year, so grab your skis for your next state park trip.
Pro Tip: Want to explore more state parks in Michigan? We found the 9 Best Campgrounds in Upper Michigan State Parks.
Makoshika State Park – Montana
Address: 1301 Snyder St. Glendive, MT
About: Makoshika State Park, located in eastern Montana, is Montana’s largest state park with around 11,000 acres. Guests know it for its badland rock formations. Its name comes from a Lakota phrase that means ‘bad land’ or ‘bad earth.’ It’s also famous for the many fossils found on site, like the remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Triceratops, and more.
And when you’re done exploring the visitor center and gift shop, you can hit up the campground for a good night’s sleep. While there are no electric sites, you may still bring your RV. There are also many tent sites.
Why You Should Go: While we all know time travel isn’t possible, viewing the many ancient fossils here will at least give you an idea of what the land was like 65 million years ago. There have been more than ten dinosaur species discovered in this area, and you never know what could be next.
Smith Rock State Park – Oregon
Address: 9241 NE Crooked River Dr. Terrebonne, OR
About: Located just north of Bend, you’ll find a jagged state park. Welcome to Smith Rock State Park, where rock climbing is the preferred activity of choice and it isn’t unheard of to catch a glimpse of a golden eagle.
If rock climbing isn’t your thing, there are plenty of hikes through the canyons, along with mountain biking trails, fishing, and more to explore and enjoy. Leave your RV at home, as this state park only has tent camping.
Why You Should Go: With thousands of climbing routes, many of them bolted, Smith Rock State Park is a climber’s dream. Combine that with some backpacking, and your time spent here will be one of adventure.
Palouse Falls State Park – Washington
Address: Palouse Falls Rd LaCrosse, WA
About: Palouse Falls State Park is in the southeastern corner of Washington. This state park may be slight at 94 acres vs. most national parks, but its beauty is immense. The Palouse River runs through the canyon and drops 200 feet at the famous Palouse Falls.
It is a beautiful site for hiking with many incredible viewpoints. It’s also an idyllic spot for bird-watching, picnicking, and enjoying the beauty of the falls. There are a few tent camping sites, but be prepared for remote camping, as the only amenity is a pit toilet. But it’s the remoteness that makes this state park unique.
Why You Should Go: More than 13,000 years ago, Ice Age floods carved a path through this area to create the falls. Today, there are many viewpoints and routes to get you to the best vantage point to experience this stunning waterfall. It would be best if you didn’t bypass Washington’s treasure. This 200-foot waterfall is officially Washington’s state waterfall.
Don’t Discount the State Parks
Now that we have your attention, it’s time to book your calendar for some prime state park visits. There’s a diverse playground to explore from the West Coast to the Great Plains, then across the ocean to Hawaii.
National parks are fantastic but don’t discount the state parks. We bet that if you give them a chance, you’ll find a lot more out there that blur the line between state park vs. national park rankings in terms of beauty, history, and memorable adventures.
What are your favorite state parks? Drop a comment below!
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