National parks may get the bulk of the attention, but nature lovers would do well to add a few state parks to their itinerary. These five spectacular destinations could either be explored as a day trip from nearby major cities or as a multiday escape. All offer campsites in addition to local cabins, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
Location: 90 minutes from Manchester, New Hampshire
Located in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, this stunning park is named after the Franconia Notch mountain pass, which traverses the towering peaks of the Franconia and Kinsman ranges. Hiking, biking, swimming, fishing and rock climbing are popular activities, but to really appreciate the expansiveness of the park, take a ride on the aerial tramway, which floats to the 4,080-foot summit of Cannon Mountain. The experience is especially picturesque in autumn.
Letchworth State Park, New York
Location: 45 minutes from Rochester, New York
Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, Letchworth State Park is like no other in the Northeast, yet its 600-foot cliffs, 66 miles of hiking trails, and dozens of waterfalls (including the tallest in the state, Inspiration Falls) have somehow stayed under the radar for most non-New Yorkers. From biking, horseback riding and hot-air-balloon rides to whitewater rafting, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, this park has something for everyone during every season of the year.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
Location: 40 minutes from Rapid City, South Dakota
Best known for its herd of 1,300 bison, Custer State Park is a must-do for wildlife lovers. Elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and burros also make their home among the paper birch, quaking aspen and Black Hills spruce that cover the park’s 71,000 acres. Though the reserve is blanketed with hiking trails and is a popular destination for cyclists, its 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road allows much of the beauty to be enjoyed from your vehicle.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Location: One hour from Las Vegas
This park’s 40,000 sprawling acres and unique red-rock formations made of Aztec Sandstone will make you forget that you’re only an hour from the glitz of Las Vegas. Spend the day trekking through naturally occurring arches, photographing petrified trees and marveling at 2,000-year-old petroglyphs. Overnight visitors who take advantage of the park’s campgrounds will also be treated to incredibly dark, star-studded skies.
Big Bay State Park, Wisconsin
Location: 2 hours and 40 minutes from Duluth, Minnesota
To visit this underrated—and under-the-radar—park, take the ferry from Bayfield, Wisconsin, to Madeline Island, the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands (cars are welcome on the 20-minute ferry ride). The park is popular for hiking, kayaking and bird-watching, with a 1.3-mile wooden boardwalk that guides visitors through the forest and along the sandy shores of Lake Superior. An accessible ramp and boardwalk connect an ADA-compliant campsite with the beach and picnic area, and a wheelchair with balloon tires is available for use in the park.