You’re right, state parks never get their due. It’s always Yosemite this, or Great Smoky that. Yet there are more than 7,800 state parks around the country, maintaining about 44,000 miles of trails and 220,000 campsites, says the National Association of State Park Directors. Last year, state parks and preserves received 740 million visits, compared to 276 million for national parks. The oldest is Niagara Falls State Park, created in 1885; as magnificent as it is, though, it doesn’t make this list of the best five:
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California
Famed for its stands of towering, old-growth Coast Redwoods, this misty preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a national treasure—in a state park kind of way. There are 80 miles of trails among its 18,000 acres, including a ten-mile circuit hike to 70-foot-tall Berry Creek Falls.
Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Here is where the 2,500-mile-long Mississippi begins, as a tiny trickle from Lake Itasca. Established in 1891, this 32,000-acre park in northern Minnesota is strewn with old growth pines, more than 100 lakes, and 30 miles of trails.
Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, Colorado
The AHRA is a 150-mile ribbon of Class II to V whitewater flanked by strips of protected land along both banks. It begins at the headwaters of the upper Arkansas in Leadville, Colorado, winds through the Sawatch Mountains, and ends in Pueblo—dropping 5,400 feet in elevation along the way. It’s the most commercially rafted stretch of river in the country.
Adirondack Park, New York
This six-million acre swath of state-protected mountain land in northern New York is larger than Vermont. It has hosted two Winter Olympics, at the village of Lake Placid, and is home to the state’s tallest peak, Mount Marcy, which ascends above the treeline to 5,300 feet. There are 2,800 ponds and lakes inside it, along with 2,000 miles of hiking trails and 1,500 miles of rivers. Enough said.
DuPont State Forest, North Carolina
The 80 miles of world-class mountain biking trails, including several miles of superb granite slab riding, would be reason enough to come to the 10,000-acre DuPont State Forest, located south of Asheville in western North Carolina. But it’s also got a larger concentration of waterfalls than just about any other state park in the country—the favorites being Triple Falls, Hooker Falls, and Bridalveil Falls.