State parks, you say? Something for everyone? Really? Not national parks? Sure, America has a dazzling variety of national park sites–423 of them-and that will be a great blog post for another day. But for now, let’s consider those beautiful and convenient found in every single state. With over 10,000 state parks across the country, there’s bound to be one close by. Check out this map of all the parks in every state from America’s State Parks. Click on the map or scroll down to the list of states.
These days, being outdoors has become both necessary and essential. It probably always was, but COVID-19 really brought it to our attention. Science shows there are lots of benefits to spending time in nature. (Don’t we all want a better memory?) Just a walk in the neighborhood gets you moving, but the positive effects of a walk in nature will stay with you for seven hours. And…trees naturally give off “phytoncides.” or wood essential oils, which have a calming effect on our nervous systems.
What’s so special about state parks?
Every state sets aside and maintains public land for its residents to encourage them to get out and enjoy local activities. The parks are established for three reasons:
- Preserving and protecting spaces with unique or scenic features. Conservation is the priority, including indigenous wildlife.
- Designation as a place of historical significance. It may be a birthplace or a battlefield–no matter your interests, there are state parks with matching history.
- Providing outdoor recreational opportunities. You can nearly always count on hiking trails. Beyond that, you may find boating, golfing, skiing, birding–even spelunking. There can be camping, cabins, and lodges, often at reasonable rates.
Of course, these uses can be combined. It just depends on the park’s size and purpose. A good example is Custer State Park in South Dakota. Its 71,000 acres offers all three reasons to visit. The geography includes granite peaks, open plains, and clear mountain streams. Bison roam freely–you can also spot mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs. Presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower loved it here; Coolidge came for the summers, calling it the “Summer White House.” Recreation and lodging options are endless and available year-round. There is even a theatre with live performances during the high season.
The smallest state park in the country is in Acton, Texas, where the gravesite of Elizabeth Crockett (Davy Crockett’s second wife) claims a measly .006 acres. The biggest? At a whopping 6 million acres, Adirondack Park in upstate New York covers more area than Death Valley and Yellowstone National Parks combined.
State parks are good for solos, too
Just because you’re a solo traveler doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy state parks. “Something for everyone,” remember? You may not want to try rock climbing on your own–all safety rules still apply–but many places have boardwalks, marked trails with posted distances, and short walks to view a waterfall or lookout.
Historical parks feature convenient parking; many offer accessible sidewalks that allow visitors to reach the site. Even if the state park also has paths or recreational facilities, the historic areas are usually easy to find. Every traveler, solo or otherwise, should be mindful of their physical limits. Don’t overdo it!
Of course, you know to be prudent and use your common sense. Tell someone where you’re going. Bring a fully-charged phone and water. Check out the map of the park before you go–print it if you want–as well as the information on hours, holidays, fees, updates, and advisories. Weather can affect the park or scheduled maintenance can shut down some areas. No point in getting there only to find it closed.
Some of my favorite state parks…
I’ll admit it: State parks were always not on my radar screen. I’ve visited some, regularly returned to some, and have stumbled across some on my travels. Family and friends have introduced me to others. But I didn’t appreciate their value. It wasn’t until the COVID pandemic–and the eagerness to get outdoors–that I started to realize what a gift they are, to all of us. Now, I intend to find them and use them wherever I go.
Here are five state parks I love and recommend. Depending on interests and physical ability, solos can feel comfortable exploring any of these.
Jack London State Historic Park, California
I wrote about this beautiful spot in Northern California in Jack London: He Wrote So He Could Be a Farmer. Dear friends Ginna and David took me here when I visited them. I didn’t think of it as a state park, more of a cool place to learn more about London and enjoy one of Ginna’s marvelous picnics.
The combination of nature, history, and literature is a Trifecta. Docent-led tours are always a bonus. There’s even a golf cart tour, if you’re not up for hiking to all the sights. Walk two short historic trails, or hike any of the back-country trails…29 miles of them. Just remember to bring water…
The description of Jack London Historical State Park from its website says it all: “Walk, hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, bird watch, take pictures, paint, picnic, relax, learn, enjoy nature! The main attraction to the Park is certainly the man and the legend—Jack London, famous for his literary accomplishments as well as his dramatic exploits, exotic travels and adventures.”
California has lots of great state parks. Click here to find out more!
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, Florida
Gainesville, Florida, is not on a coast, so there aren’t beaches or ocean breezes. In fact, during the steamy summers, the air is completely still. Those are the days to visit the remarkable Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park.
This state park is small, but mighty. The collapsed sinkhole is 120 feet deep, easily accessed by stairs. Going down, you’ll feel the temperature drop; hear the trickling streams of water; and experience a quiet rainforest. (Coming back up, mostly you stop to catch your breath.)
The Orlando Sentinel calls it “the most interesting hole in Florida.” The unusual names comes from the funnel-shape of of a grain hopper: millhopper. The “devil” part is based on the dead animals and bones found at the bottom. But it’s not spooky at all–plenty of school field trips make use of the park and its Interpretive Center.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built the original stairway down to the sinkhole in the 1930s. For awhile, the area belonged to the University of Florida; students used it to research its ecosystems. Then, the students used it for partying, leading to erosion and littering. The state purchased it from UF in 1974, when it was designated a National Natural Landmark.
Find out more about Florida State Parks here.
Tahquamenon Falls State Park, Upper Michigan
I’m an unabashed fan of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Thanks to my patient nephew’s “guided tours,” I’ve been all over the UP. The number of waterfalls (300 in all, 200 with names) is astounding. All but one of Michigan’s waterfalls are in the UP. Upper Tahquamenon Falls is one of the largest east of the Mississippi, with a drop of 50 feet, spilling more than 50,000 gallons a second.
Yet only four miles downstream, you’ll find the lower falls. Five altogether, they’re shallow, gentle, and swimmable. Or at least splash-worthy. The brown/rust color of the water is caused by the tannins from the cedar, spruce and hemlock trees in the swamps drained by the Tahquamenon River.
This is a year-round state park, with 40 miles of trails, including a trail between the upper and lower falls. Wildlife? Black bear, coyote, otter, deer, fox, porcupine, beaver and mink are a few of the species which can be seen in the park. Birds, too–125 nesting species–of course.
Want to know more about Michigan State Parks? Click here!
Burgess Falls State Park, Tennessee
Burgess Falls State Park, Sparta, Tennessee, has four waterfalls that deserve your attention. Once the hunting grounds of Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw tribes, the Falling Water River that feeds the falls was later used for a gristmill, and sawmill, and to generate hydroelectric power. It became a Tennessee State Park in 1973.
This hiking trail is considered difficult to strenuous, so it’s not for everyone. The 1.5 mile round-trip hike requires 18 creek crossings which can be challenging or impassable during high water as there are no bridges, only cables, and rock crossings. The park actually closes for high water, heavy. snow, and other weather conditions.
Find out more about Tennessee State Parks here.
Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Here’s another one I wrote about…last year, when pandemic restrictions finally loosened up. My First Post-Pandemic Getaway: Starved Rock State Park. Now I’m happy to report that the park is back for hiking and overnight stays.
To find more Illinois state parks, just click here!
State parks: something for everyone!
Visit your state’s website to find a park near you and start exploring, hiking, swimming, boating…pack a picnic and sit outdoors. As the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip, take time to enjoy nature and be grateful.
“The poetry of the earth is never gone.”
– John Keats