State parks sometimes get overshadowed by national parks, but it’s time they got their chance in the spotlight. They’re more affordable, usually less crowded and full of beautiful vistas. State parks are pretty much all we have in Nebraska (OK, there are a couple national forest lands and the Lewis & Clark National Trail headquarters, but still…). However, our visits to state parks when traveling have been highlights of our trips – especially our trip to South Dakota.
I asked travel bloggers to share their favorites, and my friends, they did not disappoint. Here are some of their favorites you need to visit this year, starting with Midwest state parks.
Midwestern State Parks
Matthiessen State Park
Where: Oglesby, Ill.
Why: This park nestled in farmland unexpectedly has beautiful areas with deep canyons cut by streams, plus a few waterfalls, including Lake Falls.
Tip: Jai from Midwest Bliss pointed out that the Upper Dells is, by far, the most scenic and easily accessible trail area where you will be able to view most of the falls and vegetation.
Pere Marquette State Park
Where: Grafton, Ill.
Why: Pere Marquette State Park is known for bald eagle nesting in the winter. There is horseback riding, fishing, hiking and geocaching the rest of the year. Try the hike to McAdams Peak for beautiful views.
Tip: Melissa from A Little Time and a Keyboard mentioned one thing I haven’t encountered at any other state park: This one has a winery in the lodge.
Stone State Park
Where: Sioux City, Iowa
Why: Considered an “urban wildlife sanctuary,” Stone State Park is found in the Loess Hills Scenic Byway. Mountain biking, hiking, fishing and camping are popular here.
Tip: The trails at this park have a lot of hills, some quite steep, so Lindsay at Siouxland Families recommends sturdy hiking boots for good traction, and keeping toddlers in a carrier. “For a flatter walk, try parking at the Pammel Valley shelter and walking along the lake a bit. It’s not a very long hike, but it’s beautiful and the terrain is easy enough for most kids and many people with limited mobility.”
Falls of the Ohio State Park
Where: Clarksville, Ind.
Why: The park is situated along the Ohio River where you can view the exposed Devonian fossil bed. While you can’t collect fossils there, it’s pretty neat to see. See close-up photos of some of the fossil beds on Melissa’s post at A Little Time and a Keyboard.
Tip: If you really want a fossil, the gift shop has some you can purchase.
Turkey Run State Park
Where: Marshall, Ind.
Why: Turkey Run State Park is one of Indiana’s most popular state parks for good reason. Families can hike to a waterfall, canoe, horseback ride, and swim.
Tip: Lindsay from Let Me Give You Some Advice said the staff at the nature center can clue you in to which trails are best for your ability, as some can be rugged. “We hiked Trail 3 which is moderate in places and very rugged in others including three wooden ladders and some rocky walls to navigate. Good shoes (that are OK to get muddy) are a must. Plus, you’ll need to see if there’s been high water recently since much of the trail follows a creek bed.”
Mackinac Island State Park
Where: Mackinac Island, Mich.
Why: Mackinac Island State Park is a mix of trails and the historic Fort Mackinac. Once a military outpost and a national park, Fort Mackinac now is a park to tour, watch demonstrations and take in gorgeous views of Mackinac Island. One of its draws is that its located on a car-free island.
Tip: Each day, there is a ceremonial cannon shot that one guest can fire. It’s an additional fee to do it, and you must be older than 12, but it’s quite the experience! I tried it, and my kids helped prep the cannon. Read about our experience in this post about Fort Mackinac at Mackinac Island State Park.
Silver Lake State Park
Where: Mears, Mich.
Why: This park has stunning sand dunes sandwiched between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan. One fun way to explore the park is by dune buggy, which you can rent there.
Tip: Kylie from Between England and Iowa rented a dune buggy while in Silver Lake State Park and offered several tips for safe driving. One the best pieces of advice she had was “Don’t drive through water in a rental. It may look like a shallow puddle from a distance but I saw a buggy that was almost up to the ‘windows’ in the middle of the water, having to be towed out by another vehicle…engines and sand don’t mix.”
Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park
Where: Nerstrand, Minn.
Why: Visit Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park in the spring to find a unique species of lily found in only three Minnesota counties, the Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily. The park is also home to Hidden Falls, a waterfall along on Prairie Creek.
Tip: There are some hills, but according to Kristie at World is Wide, most trails are low-key hikes. To feel like you have the park to yourself arrive early. Her family started their hike at around 9 a.m., and by the time they returned to their vehicle, the parking lot was full.
Niobrara State Park
Where: Niobrara, Neb.
Why: Niobrara State Park cabins offer some of the best views ever of the winding Niobrara River, and according to LeAnna at The Well-Traveled Nebraskan, the camping sites were some of the best she’d ever seen.
Tip: The park offers horseback riding and has a swimming pool, but most unique is its seasonal Buffalo Cookouts. Eat a buffalo burger dinner and enjoy entertainment from ranging from poets to storytellers to singers. Reservations are required.
Hocking Hills State Park
Where: Logan, Ohio
Why: Hocking Hills State Park is a popular destination for traveling families because of its natural rock formations and numerous waterfalls. Plus, Conkles Hollow is a sight to see in the winter, according to Leah at Yoder Toter Blog. She described how dramatic it gets, with walls of the gorge being filled with ice formations. “On one winter visit, my little ones thought we had taken off to Elsa’s land in Frozen.”
Tip: According to Leah, the easiest trail for kids to hike is the paved Gorge Trail at Ash Cave. The trail ends at the large cave recess, in an area that’s full of sand and rocks. Basically, it’s a giant sandbox, so you may want to bring digging supplies and trucks for small kids to play.
Mohican State Park
Where: Loudonville, Ohio
Why: Many people visit Mohican State Park for the views from the Clear Fork Gorge Overlook. The park is popular for fishing, hiking, and when the weather’s right, tubing down Clear Fork River.
Tip: Two trails recommended by Tonya at Travel Inspired Living are the Big Lyons Falls Trail and Pleasant Hill Trail. The Pleasant Hill Trail is an easy one-miler.
Custer State Park
Where: Custer, S.D.
Why: This is one of the nation’s largest state parks, with 71,000 acres of lakes, including my favorite, Sylvan Lake, as well as pastures, pine forests, historic sites, and granite rock formations. It’s great to visit year-round; in fact, you’ll find it on this great list of family vacation ideas for spring break.
This park has the picturesque Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, voted as one of the 10 Most Outstanding Byways in America. The Dang Travelers have a great list of reasons why Custer State Park should be on your radar.
Tip: You want to take one of those photos of Mount Rushmore through one of the tunnels in Custer State Park? You’ll want to drive Iron Mountain, the 18-mile road between SD 36 and SD 244. You have three chances (ie. three tunnels that frame the monument).
State Parks Beyond The Midwest
I have travel friends around the U.S. who’ve visited some memorable state park. Here are a few of their recommendations for parks outside the Midwest, including New York, New Mexico and North Carolina.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Where: Longwood, Fla.
Why: This beautiful state park is near Orlando, making it a great day trip for those visiting theme parks. There is a swimming area, if you dare (we paddled by a small alligator).
Tip: You can rent, canoes kayaks or standup paddleboards. Read about our experience canoeing with Wekiva Island.
Letchworth State Park
Where: Castile, N.Y.
Why: Letchworth State Park is along the Genesee River, and features scenic cliffs and three waterfalls (one is 107 feet high). Fall is a particularly stunning time to visit this 14,427-acre park.
Tip: to the upper Falls can be a bit dicey, but worth it, according to Ann at Ann’s Entitled Life.
Pilot Mountain State Park
Where: Pinnacle, N.C.
Why: The views and challenging hikes
Tip: Mountain Trail is a serious climb, according to Katie at Living The Katie Way. It’s good to hike if you want the challenge, but she shared this good tip: Pilot Mountain State Park actually has the best access for non-hikers to a summit. “If you want, you can drive practically the whole way to the top and just walk around the Big Pinnacle and hit the overlooks from the top of Little Pinnacle.”
Oliver Lee State Park
Where: Alamogordo, N.M.
Why: Gorgeous dessert views and challenging hikes, plus Oliver Lee State Park puts you near White Sands National Monument, Three Rivers Petroglyph Recreation Site, International Space Hall of Fame, and Pistachioland.
Tip: Hillary at RV Like Midgley stayed six days at Oliver Lee State Park and wrote about her experience hiking the challenging 6-mile Dog Canyon Trail. “It was definitely one of the more challenging trails I’ve been on – with all the rock climbing and elevation gain. It took us about 3 hours to make it to the end, which was the remains of a small cabin at the end of the canyon. You could feel the temperature drop as we ascended into the canyon and we even found ice by the small spring. Then it took us another hour and 45 minutes to climb back down. It was challenging, but the views were spectacular!”
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