If you need a vacation that’s not a theme park and you want nature, but not all the crowds of the National Parks, we have some great suggestions. Among our top picks for the best state park, you’ll find a ghost town, amazing waterfalls, giant metal sculptures, alligator sightings, warm beaches and breathtaking views. It’s enough to make you want to load up the car and hit the road ASAP. Keep reading to see them all.

Brazos Bend State Park - Needville, TX

Just 45 minutes away from Houston, Brazos Bend State Park is considered by many as a nature lover’s paradise. There are 37 miles of trails (some which are even wheelchair-friendly) including the short half mile Creekfield Lake Nature Trail which is outfitted with various exhibits and touchable bronze sculptures of wildlife, a boardwalk and observation deck. Other trails wind back and forth from the lakes and the hardwood forest and are good for those walking, biking or even horseback riding. You’ll learn about the three ecosystems in the park at the Nature Center and the stars at the George Observatory. Nearby you’ll find the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site and the George Ranch Historical Park—both worth a trip. You can stay at the park at a campsite, screened shelter or cabin.

Online: texas.gov/state-parks/brazos-bend

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Red Fleet State Park - Vernal, UT

Red Fleet State Park is one of the nation’s youngest state parks with some of the world’s oldest “residents.” Opened in 1988, Red Fleet’s 1,963 acres are home to a number of dinosaur tracks which are said to be over 200 million years old. A short 1.5-mile trail will lead you to them, but head's up—the path has a few large hills and dips along the way. It's a little tense, but you’ll be rewarded with great finds along the three-mile loop. The park is a great place to hike, mountain bike or go off-roading. Water-lovers will enjoy the swimming, boating and fishing, and the park rents out canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and paddle boards at reasonable rates. Finally, you’ll want to get your overnight reservation in early to rent out one of the two authentic teepees for just $30 a night. How cool is that?

Online: stateparks.utah.gov/parks/red-fleet/

Amicalola State Park - Dawsonville, GA

It’s no wonder why the Amicalola State Park is a popular spot for weddings—it's beautiful and probably more upscale than what you would normally expect from a state park. There is a lodge on the premises that not only offers a comfortable place to stay but lots of activities as well. Here you can learn how to paddle board, fly fish, or take a guided wilderness hike. You can also try your hand at 3-D archery, brace yourself for the many zip lines, go on a GPS scavenger hunt or check out the nearby Amicalola Falls. You can also camp in one of the 24 wooded campsites available.

Online: gastateparks.org/AmicalolaFalls

Niagara Falls State Park - Niagara Falls, NY

Did you know that Niagara Falls State Park is the country’ oldest? While the spectacular falls are probably enough reason to visit it, you might be surprised by how much else there is to do here. The 400-acre park is surrounded by 15 miles of hiking trails and gardens including the observation tower which is not only your best bet for unobstructed views of the falls but also offers a way to the “Crow’s Nest” and the base of the gorge. While there, you’ll want to allow time to discover the new multimedia experience, “The World Changed Here” located near the Cave of the Winds. If getting drenched is not your thing, the Niagara Scenic Trolley offers a fun and comfortable way to learn the history of the area (and it’s cheap too!).

Other suggestions: Niagara’s Adventure Theaters shows the 30-minute film, Niagara: Legends of Adventure, which tells the tales of men who dared to plunge over the falls, and the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center features a bunch of hands-on displays, a 180-degree multi-screen theater and a rock climbing wall with a few fossils and geological formations trapped inside.

Online: niagarafallsstatepark.com

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park - Borrego Springs, CA

We’re pretty sure that the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the coolest park in the country. Smack dab in the middle of the Anza-Borrego Desert, you'll find over 130 giant metal sculptures installed around the Borrego Valley and Borrego Springs. Created by Ricardo Breceda, these sculptures are easy to get to and pose with and allow for numerous photo opps. Some the creatures you’ll find here include a 350-foot long serpent, a scorpion, a grasshopper, a sabertooth tiger and a Colombian mammoth. You’ll also want to take a stroll to the park’s visitor center to check out the exhibits as well as the 15-minute film, A Year in the Desert. Just outside of the visitor center you’ll find the desert garden with its own pupfish pool (where the fish will burrow in the bottom if the weather gets too warm or too cold) and an amazing bouquet of wildflowers. Of course, that is just part of the 600,000 acres of canyons, washes, ridges and peaks that await you through a series of self-guided trails.

Onlineparks.ca.gov/anzaborregodesert

Big Bone Lick - Union, KY

Big Bone Lick not only has a funny name, but it also features a most unusual mix of activities. First, it boasts of a visitor’s center that features all new exhibits and displays on paleontology, Ordovician geology, ice age mammals, Native American history, the chronology of science at Big Bone, and ongoing research currently underway at the park. The park is also a great place to view the wild basin every day of the year. Of course, the park is a great place to camp with a swimming pool and playground areas to keep the kids busy, but it is only open from mid-March to Mid-November, so plan accordingly. Other activities to do here include biking, boating, fishing, horseback-riding and even mini golf.

Online: parks.ky.gov/big-bone-lick

Cape Disappointment State Park - Ilwaco, WA

Your family won’t be disappointed to visit the 2,023-acre Cape Disappointment State Park that sits along the Long Beach Peninsula. Fronted by the Pacific Ocean and looking into the mouth of the Columbia River, you’ll find a mix of freshwater lakes, saltwater marshes and ocean tidelands with lighthouses. Soak in the rich history as you walk in the moccasins of Lewis and Clark at their very own interpretive center located on top of a 200-foot-high cliff. And don’t forget the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. And if you still run out of things to do, there are eight miles of trail worth hiking as well. When the exploring is done, relax by the beach, which is also is a great place to go clam-digging or kite-flying. The campground offers yurts, cabins and historic vacation homes to rent.

Online: parks.state.wa.us/cape-disappointment

Alabaster Caverns State Park - Freedom, OK

The highlight of this 200-acre park is the ¾-mile cavern formed of alabaster, which is the largest natural gypsum cave in the world. Sure, it’s not the world’s largest ball of twine, but it’s still pretty impressive—especially with its new extensive lighting overhaul. Daily guided tours are available. Also, wild caving (or spelunking) the four caves at the park is also pretty popular, and if you are a fan of bats, this is your place. The Alabaster Cavern’s Raptor Roost Trail is a great way to get your heart rate up. The park features 11 RV campsites and a dozen tent sites.

Online: travelok.com/state-parks/110

Boston Harbor Islands State Park - Boston, MA

Boston Harbor Islands State Park is not your usual state park. It consists of 17 islands which are part of 34 islands (which some are part of the national park) which are spread out over 50 miles of bays, harbors and rivers (Sound confusing?). Needless to say, there is a lot to see and do here. The top on our list is a visit to Georges Island where you can explore the Civil War-era Fort Warren with its amazing granite archways and the rumored Lady in Black ghost. They also have a popular interactive visitor center. However, the two-hour Lighthouse Cruise sounds good too, with a narrated cruise sailing past three lighthouses including America’s oldest one, Boston Light. With all of that water, there are plenty of opportunities to go fishing, swimming or just beachcombing and lots of places to camp to crash after your day is done.

Online: bostonharborislands.org

Fall Creek Falls State Park - Spencer, TN

The crown jewel at Fall Creek Falls State Park is the 256-feet tall waterfall, but it’s not the only thing here to experience. One of Tennessee’s largest state parks (over 26,000 acres), it features cascades, gorges, streams and even more waterfalls. Don’t miss a trip to the 15-mile long Rumbling Falls Cave—ot contains the largest cave room in the eastern U.S. and the second largest in America. The park is known for lots of hands-on activities, including arts and crafts, movies, campfires and live music from time to time not to mention the environmental education center. Other activities include an 18-hole golf course, the Canopy Challenge Course with 74 obstacles, four playgrounds and an Olympic-sized pool. And there is plenty of room to camp here as it contains 222 campsites and 30 rent-able cabins surrounded by 56 miles of walkable trails. 

Onlinetnstateparks.com/parks/fall-creek-falls

Ecola State Park - Cannon Beach, OR

While there is no overnight camping allowed at Ecola State Park, it still makes a worthwhile stop during an Oregon beach vacation. Wrapping around Tillamook Head between Seaside and Cannon Beach, the park stretches along nine miles of coastline with outstanding views from above and up close tide-pooling down below. The park features an eight-mile segment of the Oregon Coast Trail as well as the two-and-a-half-mile historical and interpretive Clatsop Loop Trail. Be on the lookout for wildlife like deer, elk and eagles. The shores are popular with surfers, little crab hunters and picnic-takers.

Online: oregongstateparks.org

Bannack State Park - Bannack, MT

Have you ever wanted to go to a ghost town? Then Bannack State Park is your place with over 60 structures to explore. The small town of Bannack was formed in 1862 when John White discovered gold. It later became a mining town, and by the 1950s it was pretty much abandoned. While visiting this town can be fun any time of the year, it really comes alive during Bannak Days in July when “townspeople” show off their pioneers skills, meals are served in the Hotel Meade, and the occasional gunfight breaks out in the street. Kids can pan for gold in Grasshopper Creek all summer. In September, the town offers a Living History Weekend reliving the events of the Gold Rush era and a month later, you’re invited to take a spooky Ghost Walk. The town also offers two small campgrounds with 32 campsites total.

Onlinebannack.org

Natural Tunnel State Park - Duffield, VA

This is pretty incredible: The Natural Tunnel State Park features the tunnel that stretches more than 850 feet and is ten stories high and was dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by William Jenning Bryan. Don’t worry, you won’t have to climb down the tunnel. You can take the chairlift! You’ll also find a variety of activities to do here including the new Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center with numerous hands-on exhibits and a library full of books and photographs covering early America through the Civil War. The park has seven walking trails, a swimming pool with a 100-foot-long slide, and places to boat, fish, ride horses and even hunting.

Online: dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/natural-tunnel

Patagonia Lake State Park - Patagonia, AZ

For a more relaxing vacation, consider visiting Patagonia Lake State Park. You might see whitetail deer or blue herons while enjoying the beach or take a hike along the creek trail to see if you can spot such birds likes the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture or several types of hummingbirds. The large park offers 105 campsites with picnic tables and a fire-ring/grill, but you might want to spring for one of the air-conditioned cabins with lakefront views. There are seven furnished, three-room cabins—and they look pretty sweet.

Online: azstateparks.com/patagonia-lake

Gamble Rogers State Park - Flagler Beach, FL

The 145-acre Gamble Rogers Memorial State Park is named and dedicated to Florida’s own folk singer and storyteller Gamble Rogers. This is a beautiful beachside park great for sandcastle builders. You’ll find pelicans at the beach or opt to kayak down the Intracoastal Waterway to find dolphins and manatees. A must-see is the butterfly garden with a variety of native plants in bloom and several special of butterflies fluttering all around. Finally, this is one campground where you’ll want to get up early and stay up late as the sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean and sunsets over the Intracoastal Waterway are spectacular.

Online: floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/gamble-rogers

Devil’s Den State Park - Westfort, AR

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps used native material to build the Devil’s Den State Park’s rustic-style wood and stone structures, and it is one of the few that stands most intact. There is plenty to explore here including the amazing rock dam, the 1.5-mile self-guided trail and the easy quarter-mile CCC Interpretive Trail. There are other trails designed for mountain bikes and horseback riding and the nearby Lake Devil is great for fishing and boating. The campground offers 135 campsites, 17 cabins with kitchens and fireplaces and six camper cabins. There is a pool which is open all summer long and a playground to keep the young ones happy.

Online: arkansasstateparks.com/devils-den-state-park

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park - Soudan, MN

The highlight of this park, of course, is the two underground mine tours. Slip on a hard hat and get ready to experience life as a miner during one of two tours now offered. One is a walking drift tour which focuses on exploration and geology, and the other is the Secrets of the Deep Science Tour, which focuses on the various research that occurred in the physics lab and the new research that is happening in the mine. If that all sounds like too much, you can also take a self-guided tour with audio commentary. When you’re not in the dark, the many activities available here include hiking, fishing, boating, and snowmobiling. The park offers 33 campsites and three canoe sites.

Online: dnr.state.mn/state_parks

—Jeff Totey

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