State Parks of Wonder

Explore, restore and so much more at these superb public parks.

What do the movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, rock climbing, a water park, forest bathing, boating, an escape room, a horse and buggy, mountain biking, live theater and hiking all have in common? State parks. If you haven’t visited many state parks lately, it’s time to take another look. In response to public demand for unique experiences, amenities and enhanced lodging and camping opportunities, many state parks are raising the bar in a big way. A fabulously fun and healthy vacation can be planned simply by touring state parks, and reservations to visit usually aren’t required, as they are at some of the national parks. Writer, editor, nature lover and travel connoisseur Janet Thomas highlights several superb state parks for your exploration and enjoyment.

Letchworth State Park


Letchworth State Park

Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” and considered one of the most scenically stunning destinations of the eastern United States, this 17-mile-long park follows the Genesee River as it flows north over large waterfalls (some as high as 600 feet) and a deep gorge. Hikers love the 66 miles of hiking trails and the lush forests. The area is ideal for “forest bathing,” which is a real deal: If you have ever turned off technology, turned on your senses and really immersed yourself in the sights, sounds and beauty around you in the woods, you have already practiced forest bathing. The practice is said to originate in Japan, and evidence shows it’s beneficial to your physical and mental well-being. Letchworth State Park also sports trails perfect for biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Seeing the park by hot-air balloon is a breathtaking experience, as is whitewater rafting or kayaking. Lodging options include the historic Glen Iris Inn, with its palate-pleasing restaurant; the family atmosphere of the three-bedroom Maplewood Lodge; or the get-away-from-it-all Parker’s Hideaway. Prefer more rustic quarters? Cabins and campsites should do the trick. Professional groups and retreats can also be accommodated here at a secluded conference center. Time your visit just right in the fall and leaf-peeping will make an idyllic and dreamy way to while away the day.


Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Home to one of the largest and deepest springs in the world, Wakulla Springs State Park, near Tallahassee, offers guided riverboat tours for jaw-dropping viewing of manatees, alligators and a variety of interesting native birds. As the boat winds its way through ancient Cypress swamps, visitors can begin to understand why film crews from both Tarzan’s Secret Treasure and Creature from the Black Lagoon chose Wakulla as a backdrop. Climb the 22-foot-high observation deck and jump into the refreshing 70-degree spring, or simply relax on a bench or picnic blanket and watch others do the jumping. A stately, Spanish-style lodge with a spacious and ornate lobby and dining room dates back to 1937 and was used as a military training facility during World War II. The lodge is large enough to be a popular site for weddings and reunions, yet intimate enough to delight families and couples as well. Be sure to request a delicious made-to-order picnic, as plenty of picnic tables and landscaped grounds overlooking the springs await. Sometimes referred to as “North Florida’s Castle,” the lodge and state park are a great destination for sightseeing, dinner and an overnight or just a day trip.


Eugene T. Mahoney State Park

Thanks to innovative public and private partnerships, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has boosted four of their most popular, premium state parks to what they now call Venture Parks. Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is one of them, and it’s a prime example of a true vacation-destination state park. Set on 690 acres along the Platte River, one of the main attractions here is the large Family Aquatic Center with 200-plus-foot curling slides, a wave pool and a water playground. Other activities include a GoApe high-rope adventure course and zip lines through a forest canopy, an impressive 70-foot observation tower, miniature golf, a driving range, live theater, tennis and basketball courts, softball fields, horseback riding, fishing and hiking. Mahoney State Park is open year-round, so the fun doesn’t have to end when winter arrives. Cross-country skiing, ice skating, toboggan and sledding runs, ice fishing and an indoor activity center with a playground and Venture Climb rock-climbing wall are sure to entertain. The lodging options here are incredible, with 57 modern cabins that feel more like upscale houses and boast up to six bedrooms. Or choose the Peter Kiewit Lodge, with its 40 guest rooms and large restaurant overlooking the Platte River Valley. Add to that two camping areas and a marina, and you’ve got a family-pleasing vacation right at your fingertips.


Mackinac Island State Park

Michigan’s first state park used to be a national park, so expect to be wowed. How deliciously refreshing that 80% of Mackinac Island is dedicated to the park — and that no cars are allowed. Arriving by ferry or plane is part of the fun, and most visitors board at Michigan’s second state park on the tip of the lower peninsula, Michilimackinac State Park. Once on island, folks are richly rewarded with quiet forests, beautiful views, interesting rock formations and a quaint downtown. Scores of historic sites and monuments interest many visitors, and several quaint hotels and cabins will make you want to stay and play for more than a day. See the sites on 70 miles of roads and trails via biking, walking, horse-drawn taxis and sightseeing carriages, or rent your very own horse and buggy. If biking, be sure to enjoy the Arch Rock Bicycle Trail and Mackinac Island Botanical Trail, with benches situated along the way that will tempt you to stop, smell the roses and absorb all the natural beauty.


Deception Pass State Park

If you like lots of shoreline with your state park, you will love Deception Pass State Park. More than 100,000 feet of saltwater and freshwater shoreline can be found here, thanks to Puget Sound and three beautiful inland lakes. The park spans the gap between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands, and visitors can expect stellar views of rugged cliffs, giant boulders, ancient forests, the magnificent Deception Bridge, and incredible photo-worthy sunsets. You’ll share the 4,000-plus acres with eagles, seals, deer, whales and other interesting wildlife. Many families enjoy fishing, biking, swimming, hiking, and birdwatching. Explore the park from the water by renting kayaks, paddleboards and canoes, or pick up the pace on an open-air jetboat tour with Deception Pass Tours. Serious hikers and backpackers trek through this area on the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT to those in the know). Overnight here in cabins, campsites or grab some friends and book the Cornet Bay Retreat Center, popular with larger groups for weddings, reunions and the like.


DeGray Lake Resort State Park

Arkansas boasts 52 state parks, one for every week of the year, and with a name like DeGray Lake Resort State Park, you might guess there’s much to offer. The park sits in the tall pines of the Ouachita Mountains on the shore of 13,800-acre DeGray Lake. Drive over a causeway onto an island where a 90-room upscale lodge awaits (treat yourself to one of the new suites), as do yurts and campsites shaded by beautiful trees that provide impressive colors come fall. With spectacular water views at every turn, guests delight in relaxing at the lakeside heated pool and hot tub, dining at the Shoreline Restaurant and golfing at the 18-hole championship course. Fishing, tennis, hiking, biking and horseback riding are also worthwhile pursuits here. An impressive 132-slip, full-service marina offers boat rentals, party barges, kayaks and canoes. Scenic lake tours and eagle-watching tours by park interpreters are also a huge highlight. The setting is ideal for weddings and corporate retreats, with a 300-seat conference center, and there is now even an escape room attraction — and yes, we are still talking about a state park!

Devil’s Den State Park

Arkansas gets another mention because of how vastly different these two state parks prove to be. If you like changing and varied scenery on your hikes, you will love Devil’s Den State Park. This 2,500-acre Northwest Arkansas gem sits deep in a valley of the rugged Boston Mountains. The terrain contains caverns, bluffs, waterfalls, natural bridges, streams and interesting rock formations. Its namesake 1.5-mile trail, Devil’s Den, packs a scenic punch and should be a must-do on any hiker’s or nature lover’s wish list. Mountain biking is enormously popular in Northwest Arkansas, and the Fossil Flats Trail and multiple others here provide primo trails for the sport. Get away from it all on the 15-mile Butterfield Trail, used by many backpackers and athletes training for longer hikes and adventure sports. Lodging includes one-, two- and three-bedroom cabins with kitchens and fireplaces, rustic camper cabins and campsites. A picturesque eight-acre lake makes a pleasant backdrop for the park’s cafe, store and swimming pool.

So whether you and your family or friends are looking for fun and adventure, fitness or relaxation, you’ll want to nurture your body, mind and soul naturally at a state park soon.

15 More to Explore

Missouri: Bennett Spring State Park

Fly-fishing afficionados consider this a peaceful slice of paradise, with a trout hatchery, trails and about 100 million gallons of water flowing daily.

Oregon: Smith Rock State Park

Near the cool town of Bend, rock climbers of all levels are drawn to this park, which boasts several thousand climbs and miles of hiking and biking trails.

Minnesota: Itasca State Park

More than 100 lakes call this 32,000-acre park home, plus the mighty Mississippi River begins its 2,500-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico from this site.

New York: Niagara Falls State Park

Many people don’t know this iconic destination is actually a state park — and the United States’ oldest one at that.

California: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Gorgeous park with tall peaks, a river, old-growth trees, an 80-foot waterfall that ends in the Pacific Ocean, miles of trails, campgrounds and the 61-room Big Sur Lodge.

Tennessee: Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park

Known for its premier whitewater paddling, trout fishing and scenic portion of the John Muir Trail.

Utah: Dead Horse Point State Park

Enjoy the high desert, hiking, mountain biking and views of the Colorado River while overnighting in yurts.

Texas: Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Famous for its deep canyon spanning 120 miles, biking, hiking and horseback riding trails, cabins and camping.

Virginia: Grayson Highlands State Park

Go for the hiking trails to waterfalls and overlooks, all in an ideal setting near Whitetop Mountain and Mount Rogers, the state’s tallest peak.

Nevada: Valley of Fire State Park

Stunning scenery, sandstone formations, petroglyphs and the Valley of Fire Road draw visitors here from nearby Las Vegas and beyond.

Colorado: State Forest State Park

Being home to the largest concentration of moose in the state is a huge draw, plus 71,000 acres of rugged peaks, alpine lakes and miles of trails.

Nebraska: Arbor Lodge State Historical Park

Tour a beautiful 52-room mansion that belonged to the founder of Arbor Day. Tree lovers unite and unwind at the nearby upscale Lied Lodge and the Arbor Day Farm, with its exhilarating Treetop Adventure.

Georgia: Amicalola State Park

Boasting the state’s highest waterfall, this park is brilliantly built around the waterfall with hundreds of stairs and pausing platforms with benches. Check out the family-friendly Adventure Lodge.

Montana: Makoshika State Park

Dinosaur fossils and skeletons, impressive badlands rock formations, hunting, archery and tent and RV campsites are the draws.

Illinois: Chain O’Lakes State Park

Water lovers delight in Illinois’ largest concentration of natural lakes, where boats with electric-only motors are allowed. Rent a canoe, paddleboat, kayak or rowboat and overnight at family cabins.

Enjoyed this? You might also enjoy these articles from the summer edition of Invited magazine:


Three-Day Stay: L.A.

Explore Los Angeles with this perfect long-weekend itinerary


Floridian Renaissance

A breathtaking renovation turns a premier golf resort into a luxurious getaway


Champions Classic