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6 of the Best State Parks in America

Who knew state parks were this good?

Eldorado Canyon, near Boulder, at sunrise. (lhanaphotography/Flickr)

Who knew state parks were this good?

National parks are our nation’s treasures, for sure. But in the country’s more popular national parks (we’re looking at you, Grand Canyon and Yosemite), you often have to deal with crowds, traffic, sold-out campsites, and pricey entry fees just to get a partial view of the North Rim or Half Dome. So here’s a thought: Make a trek to a stunning state park instead, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the place entirely to yourself. Here are some unheralded classics.

Chugach State Park, Alaska

Courtesy Eagle River Nature Ctr
(Courtesy Eagle River Nature Center)

Alaska’s Chugach State Park is massive—495,000 acres—making it bigger than both Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and Utah’s Zion National Park put together and one of the four largest state parks in the country. Plus, it’s absurdly accessible, located just seven miles east of Anchorage. You can spot glaciers, ice fields, and moose; explore 280 miles of trails via mountain bike or cross-country skis; and if you’re brave enough, surf the Bore Tide when the waves are big enough in Turnagain Arm. Rent a year-round backcountry cabin or yurt from the Eagle River Nature Center (from $70), where you’ll hike more than a mile in and can watch the Northern Lights from your porch.

Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming

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(Courtesy Curt Gowdy State Park)

Located between Laramie and Cheyenne, Curt Gowdy State Park has made a name for itself in recent years as a major mountain biking destination. The park’s 35 miles of purpose-built singletrack were awarded Epic status by the International Mountain Biking Association in 2009. Pitch a tent in the campground overlooking Granite Springs Reservoir. Not a mountain biker? You can paddle a canoe, fish for rainbow trout or kokanee salmon in one of three reservoirs, or trail run for days. Don’t miss the new Dad’s Café in Cheyenne for breakfast tamales or a post-ride Reuben.

Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

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(Courtesy Eagle River Nature Center)

Smith Rock State Park, in the tiny central Oregon town of Terrebonne, is known as the birthplace of U.S. sport climbing in the 1980s. Today, there are about 2,000 routes for all levels, with more than 1,000 bolted routes for sport climbers. This 650-acre park has ample recreation for nonclimbers, too, including preinstalled slacklines and a dozen hiking trails. The popular walk-in campground, called the Bivy, is first-come, first-served, or you can book a luxury tent and outdoor fireside massage at Panacea Resort (from $350), 15 miles away.

D.L. Bliss State Park, California

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(Megan Michelson)

While the hordes of Lake Tahoe tourists congregate at nearby Emerald Bay State Park, you can sneak off to D.L. Bliss State Park, also on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, for a gorgeous white-sand beach, summertime camping with easy lake access, cliff jumping, bouldering, and the trailhead of the eight-mile Rubicon Trail, which traverses a bluff along the lake all the way to Emerald Bay. Grab supplies like gourmet marshmallows, cheese, salami, and craft beer at the West Shore Market as you leave Tahoe City, or pick up pizzas to eat on the beach at West Shore Pizza in the sleepy town of Tahoma. Book a lodge room or private cabin at the Cottage Inn (from $165), where breakfast and happy hour come included, and you’ll be 20 minutes from the park.

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

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(Greg Keeler/Cannon Mountain)

Located deep in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Franconia Notch State Park has a little something for everyone. Backpackers can set out on the Appalachian Trail. Boaters can rent a canoe on Echo Lake. Hikers can spot waterfalls in Flume Gorge. In winter, you can ski the longest vertical drop in New Hampshire on the slopes of Cannon Mountain and even winter camp at the park’s Lafayette Campground. Hit up One Love Brewery in nearby Lincoln for beer and a burger after a day in the mountains. Book a room at the Woodstock Inn (from $101), and you can sign up for a morning yoga class in the on-site brewery.

Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado

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(lhanaphotography/Flickr)

Eldorado Canyon State Park, or Eldo, as locals call it, is a climber’s haven on the outskirts of Boulder, with more than 500 mainly trad routes up sheer, golden sandstone walls. The trails are good—three main hiking trails and some limited mountain biking—but you’ll come for the climbing or to sit by the shores of South Boulder Creek and look up at the steep canyon walls. Follow the climbers to the cash-only Southern Sun afterward for grub and an IPA. You can’t camp in the park, but there’s plenty of camping nearby, or get a hotel room with a bouldering wall at Basecamp Boulder (from $299).

Filed To: Alaska / Boulder / New Hampshire / National Parks / Lake Tahoe / Oregon / Camping / Wyoming
Nicolas Henderson/Creative Commons )

San Marcos, Texas

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, the Texas Water Safari, held each June, is a four-day, 260-mile jaunt from the headwaters of the San Marcos River northeast of San Antonio to the small shrimping town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights for the winner. Any boat without a motor is allowed, and you’ll have to carry your own equipment and overnight gear. Food and water are provided at aid stations along the way. Entry fees start at $175 and increase as race day approaches.

The Ring

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(Courtesy Quatro Hubbard)

Strasburg, Virginia

The Ring is a 71-mile trail running race in early September along the entire length of Virginia’s rough and rocky Massanutten Trail loop. To qualify, you need to have run a 50- or 100-mile race before the event and win a spot through the lottery system. Entry is free. Complete the run and you’ll become part of the tight-knit Fellowship of the Ring and be eligible for the Reverse Ring, which entails running the trail backwards in the middle of winter.

Plaza2Peak

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(David Silver)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each spring, competitors gather in Santa Fe’s historic plaza with a simple goal: be the first to reach 12,308-foot Deception Peak, 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain away. Competitors run or bike the first 15 miles to the local ski area before transitioning to their waiting ski-touring setups for the final push to the top. Time stops only when they’ve skied back down to the tailgate in the resort’s parking lot, which is funded by the modest entry fee of around $25. To add to the sufferfest, some participants sign up for the Expedition category, in which they strap their skis, skins, boots, and poles to their bikes for the long ride up. Start dates vary depending on snow conditions, but look for the event page to be posted on Facebook in late March or early April.