In a year that many national parks are bursting at the seams with record-setting traffic, why not try camping at a state park instead?
“There are about 60 national parks, and about 6,000 state parks. There’s a lot of hidden gems that are just overlooked because they don’t get the media hype,” says Kevin Long, co-founder of The Dyrt.com, a camping website and app, featuring reviews from millions of users.
He shares some favorite state campgrounds with USA TODAY.
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Grayson Highlands State Park
Not only are the Blue Ridge Mountain views memorable at this state park, but so are the residents, a herd of wild horses. “They’ll walk through your campsite if you’re lucky. They kind of ignore the people,” Long says. Overnight visitors can choose from a bunkhouse, yurts and camping sites, along with equestrian camping areas.
More information: dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/grayson-highlands
Goblin Valley State Park
Although named for its distinctive, eroded sandstone pillars, the appeal here goes beyond the geological. It’s also a certified International Dark Sky Park, which makes for incredible stargazing. “It’s one of the best spots if you want to see the Milky Way,” Long says. “If you catch it, it will be a lifetime memory.”
More information: stateparks.utah.gov/parks/goblin-valley/
Monte Sano State Park
Located above Huntsville, this park offers easy access to the city’s famed U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and other attractions. But there’s plenty to see on site too, including a Japanese garden and tea house, planetarium and playground. “If you have a family that gets a little too antsy sitting around, there’s plenty of campsite activities,” Long says.
More information: alapark.com/parks/monte-sano-state-park
Devils Lake State Park
This Midwestern park may get its name from a lake, but its most prominent feature is the 500-foot bluffs towering over the water. “They’re really beautiful and striking,” Long says. The outcrops are part of the ancient Baraboo Range, which is an estimated 1.6 billion years old, meaning they’re older than the dinosaurs.
More information: dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/devilslake
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
For an epic canyon experience without the crowds, Long suggests checking out this West Texas park. Its canyon stretches for 120 miles, making it the second-largest after the Grand Canyon. “It’s a totally different foot-traffic level. It’s like being able to have a national park experience at a state park,” he says.
More information: tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon
Smith Rock State Park
If you like scaling cliffs, you’ll love this park, one of the country’s top rock-climbing sites with more than 2,000 routes. But even if you’d rather stay on the ground, you can still enjoy a visit too, Long says. “I love walking around that park and watching those people on cliffs doing things I wouldn’t do myself.” It also has hiking and mountain biking trails.
More information: https://stateparks.oregon.gov/index.cfm?do=park.profile&parkId=36
Letchworth State Park
Called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” this park, located about 40 miles from Rochester, centers on the Genesee River. Highlights include three major waterfalls, thick forests and 66 miles of hiking trails. Long recommends the hot air balloon rides, offering an unforgettable view of the landscape from above.
More information: parks.ny.gov/parks/letchworth
Valley of Fire State Park
Take your choice of tent, group and RV camping at this Mojave Desert park northeast of Las Vegas, which even offers wifi plans for visitors. The park’s striking landscape comes from red sandstone outcrops set among gray and tan limestone mountains. Make sure to seek out the 2,000-year-old petroglyphs painted on canyon walls. “It’s pretty amazing when you start thinking about that,” Long says.
More information: parks.nv.gov/parks/valley-of-fire
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Whatever your camping style, you can find it at this Lake Superior shoreline park. Campers can choose from pack-in, walk-in or unique cart-in sites, using a free wagon provided to haul in gear. Some sites are even ADA accessible and others have access to a remote beach. “You’re not going to have that experience at a national park, I’ll tell you that,” Long says.
More information: dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/park.html?id=spk00266#homepage
Cloudland Canyon State Park
With opportunities to climb, mountain bike or even explore wild caves (by permit), there’s plenty to do at this Appalachian Mountain park in northwest Georgia. As one of the state’s largest parks, it offers walk-in camping, RV sites, cottages and yurts, along with backpacking sites.
More information: gastateparks.org/CloudlandCanyon