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Home > Close-Ups > My 10 Favorite State Parks

 

 

My 10 Favorite State Parks in the U.S.

 

 

Between my early years when I traveled with my parents and my later years when I traveled either by myself or with a girlfriend, I've visited over 300 state parks in the U.S.  One reason I like to visit state parks is to camp, and I've camped in over a hundred state parks in all parts of the U.S. and in almost every state. 

 

Although the scenery in U.S. national parks and monuments is often more spectacular than in state parks, national parks are usually a lot more crowded and their campgrounds usually offer fewer facilities.  For instance, few national park campgrounds have showers and, to my knowledge, none offer water or electrical hookups at each campsite.  While state parks may offer less-spectacular scenery, they are usually much less crowded than national parks or monuments and, furthermore, state park campgrounds usually have showers and flush toilets and many offer water and electrical hookups at each campsite.

 

I'd estimate that about 60% of the state parks in the U.S. are day-use only and don't have campgrounds, though this depends on the area.  For instance, Oregon has about 200 state parks but the vast majority of these are small 1- or 2-acre plots that are day-use only.  Conversely, while there are generally fewer state parks in eastern states than on the West Coast, a larger percentage of them have campgrounds.

 

Many state parks in the U.S. charge an entrance fee, usually between $2 and $4.  For those state parks that have campgrounds, the typical camping fee is between $8 and $18 per night, depending on the number of facilities provided.  The cost partly depends on the region, with camping fees on the West Coast being on the high end of that range while camping fees in the Midwest and Southeast being on the low end.

 

I've listed my favorite state parks below with a brief description.  By reading my website, you probably know what my biases are:  I don't like crowded, overdeveloped parks, instead preferring places that are quiet and scenic, and those having interesting things to do (like hiking).  Also, since I enjoy camping, I like parks that have nice campgrounds with private, secluded campsites, and all of these ones do.

 

Hidden Text:  Map

My 10 Favorite State Parks                          (Click for story and photos)

 

Hidden Text: Humboldt

1.  Humboldt Redwoods  (Eureka, California)

A hundred years ago, the dwindling groves of redwood trees in Northern California were on the verge of extinction.  Thanks to the efforts of forward-thinking conservationists, though, the groves have been preserved in State and National Parks to be enjoyed by future generations.  Of all the redwood parks in northern California, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the largest redwood park in America, is my favorite. 

 

A former segment of Highway 101, now called "The Avenue of the Giants," winds for 30 miles through the peaceful redwoods and is one of my favorite drives in the U.S.  There are three campgrounds in this park with my favorite, Hidden Springs, located on the southern end.  Burlington campground, located in the central part of the park, is open year-round. 

 

I've camped in this park several times and did a three-day backpack trip here a few years ago.  Walking through the lofty redwood groves here is an inspiring and unforgettable experience that should not be missed.

 

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Above left:  Fern's-eye view of the redwoods, the tallest trees in world.

Above center:  One of my favorite drives in America is this former section of Highway 101, called Avenue of the Giants, which winds through the redwoods for 30 miles.

Above right:  Yes, they do get a little rain here.  In fact, they had a massive flood here in 1964 that wiped out several towns and killed 48 people.  This is downtown Weott, California and that marker on the top is the high water mark from the '64 flood.  None of these towns have really recovered from that flood.

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Hidden Text: Kodachrome Basin

2.  Kodachrome Basin  (Cannonville, Utah)

If you've been following my website, you probably know that southern Utah is my favorite part of the U.S.  Kodachrome Basin State Park, located a few miles east of Bryce Canyon National Park, is an oasis amidst the vast, undeveloped landscapes of the Four Corners region. 

 

The nice campground here has showers, making it a great place to get cleaned up after camping in the dry Utah backcountry.  There are a lot of interesting trails here too, and plenty of activities for the whole family.  Don't forget to see Shakespeare Arch (Utah's most recently discovered arch) and Fred Flintstone Rock, whose silhouette bears an amazing resemblance to that goofy guy from Bedrock.  The park has a few pleasant oddities too, like chukar pheasants that meander through the campground. 

 

The best time to visit is during spring or fall when the crowds are down and the "no-see-ums" (small, biting flies) and cedar gnats (larger biting flies) are gone.  Summer can be hot and pretty buggy, and it gets downright cold here in the winter, as I discovered a few years ago.

 

By the way, the area was named Kodachrome Basin back in the 1940s by visitors who were bedazzled by the scenery.  The folks at Kodak didn't take kindly to the copyright infringement and demanded that the basin be renamed, which it was.  But then the Kodak folks realized that it would be good publicity and granted the use of the name. 

 

Believe me, you can shoot a lot of Kodachrome (or in my case, Fujichrome) here.

 

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Above left:  A sandstone "sand pipe" near the campground at Kodachrome Basin State Park.  These unusual and rather perverted-looking geologic features are former underground springs that silted up.  They're found in only a few locations around the world.

Above center:  Here's another sand pipe.  This one's even more perverted-looking than the last one.

Above right:  This 100-foot high monolith is called "Fred Flintstone Rock" for obvious reasons.

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Hidden Text: St George Island

3.  St. George Island  (Apalachicola, Florida)

According to a recent issue of Money Magazine, St. George Island has one of the best beaches in America.  In my opinion, this is also one of the best state parks in the nation.  St George Island is located on a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico and is a little hard to get to, but if you make the effort you'll definitely be rewarded.

 

The road dead-ends at this park so there isn't a lot of traffic.  The water in the Gulf of Mexico stays between 65 and 80 degrees all year, much warmer than the ocean waters off Southern California, and the body surfing is excellent, as I can personally attest.  Don't visit during March or April, though, when college kids from the North invade.  

 

Two other terrific state parks in Florida that just missed my Top 10 list are John Pennekamp in the Florida Keys, a haven for snorkelers and skin divers (and where I first learned to swim) and Anastasia Island, near St. Augustine.

 

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Above left:  Boardwalk to the beach at St. George Island.

Above center:  When I was here in May, 1995, the park was nearly deserted, though the ranger told me that the place had been packed just a few weeks before with college kids visiting on Spring Break.

Above right:  There's a pretty nice campground here, just a hundred yards from the beach.  This is great place to relax.

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Hidden Text: Fort Stevens

4.  Fort Stevens  (Astoria, Oregon)

Oregon, in my opinion, has the best state park system in the nation, and most of its premiere parks are located on the Oregon Coast near Highway 101.  There are over 70 state parks on the Oregon Coast, although only 15 coastal parks offer camping (and only about six of those offer camping during the winter months).  

 

I had a hard time choosing my favorite park on the Oregon Coast.  My other favorites include 

  • Bullards Beach State Park, near Bandon, 

  • Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach (day-use only), and 

  • Honeyman State Park, near Florence.  

I chose Fort Stevens because it has a lot of interesting things to see and do.  The park is at the mouth of the Columbia River and the beach, which stretches for several miles, features the rusting hulk of the English freighter "Peter Iredale."  Visitors can also tour the World War II fortifications, which were shelled by a Japanese submarine in 1942 (the only attack by a foreign country on the American mainland since the War of 1812). 

 

The campground here, with 600 sites, is the largest state park campground in America and is filled with mossy trees and ferns.  Nearby Astoria is an interesting city, as well, with lots of things to do, including Lewis & Clark's 1805-06 winter encampment at Fort Clatsop.

    

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Above left:  Fort Stevens is at the mouth of the Columbia River, shown here with a freighter going out to sea.  That's Cape Disappointment, Washington on the far side.  This is where the Lewis and Clark expedition finally reached the Pacific Ocean after traveling west for two years, noted in their journals with the words, "Ocian in View.  O the joy."

Above center:  The bow section of the "Peter Iredale" at Fort Stevens State Park.  The Iredale was beached during a storm in 1906 with no loss of life.  Every time I visit, it's a little smaller.

Above right:  Abandoned fortifications of Fort Stevens, a military installation which has guarded the mouth of the Columbia River since the Civil War.

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Hidden Text: Fort Sisseton

5.  Fort Sisseton (Webster, South Dakota)

I discovered this park on my recent trip through South Dakota.  Fort Sisseton State Park is one of the most peaceful places I've ever visited and is one of the undiscovered jewels of the upper Midwest.  Fort Sisseton was built in 1864 in response to a Sioux uprising, only to be abandoned 25 years later.  The buildings fell into disrepair but have been recently renovated by the state parks department.  

 

Most of the 15-or-so buildings here are open to the public, including a huge blockhouse and the stable, which is reputed to be the longest stone building in the United States.  Numerous interpretive signs guide the way around the grounds.  The 14-site campground has electricity and showers and overlooks a beautiful prairie and, best of all, is rarely crowded. 

 

I was going to stay here only for one night during my recent trip and liked it so much, I stayed for eight more.  The one question I kept asking myself during my stay was, "Why aren't there more people here?"

 

For more information, see my page on Fort Sisseton State Park.

 

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Above left:  Officer's Quarters at Ft. Sisseton State Park.

Above center:  The campground's restrooms and showers are located inside the old stable. 

Above right:  The North Barracks houses the Visitor Center and is decorated just as it was 120 years ago.

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Hidden Text: Sam Houston Jones

6.  Sam Houston Jones  (Lake Charles, Louisiana)

I discovered this park during my recent trip to Louisiana.  There aren't many state parks in Louisiana, but this one is pretty spectacular.  It's located on the Calcasieu (CAL-ka-shoe) River and offers a great bayou camping experience, complete with a large cypress swamp, Spanish moss, egrets, lightning bugs and croaking frogs to serenade you to sleep.  I didn't see any alligators, but I'm sure they're there.

 

The best times to visit southern Louisiana are in the spring and fall.  Winters can be gray and cold and summer can be really, really sticky, as I can personally attest.  Regardless of when you visit Louisiana, though, if you want a bayou camping experience, this park is a great place to visit.

 

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Above left:  The campground is a handy place to change your headlights.  Note the lagoon on the edge of the campsite.

Above center:  The bald cypress bayou makes a romantic setting to catch some fish... I guess. 

Above right:  The lazy Calcasieu River.  There are "No Swimming" signs posted here, but I wasn't sure if that's because of the motorboats or the alligators.

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Hidden Text: Cobscook Bay

7.  Cobscook Bay  (Lubec, Maine)

This park is in the "Down East" region of Maine, which is more remote, rugged, friendly, and lesser-visited than the area further west near Portland (yes, the Maine coast actually runs east-west, not north-south).  I've camped at this park twice, once in the spring and once in the fall, and greatly enjoyed both stays.  The spacious campground offers scenic sites overlooking beautiful Cobscook Bay. 

 

There are lots of interesting things to see nearby.  The park is located a few miles from Quoddy Head, the easternmost point in the United States and the site of a beautiful lighthouse.  It's also near the pleasant town of Lubec and President Franklin Roosevelt's summer home at Campobello.

 

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Above left:  My campsite at Cobscook Bay State Park.

Above center:  The state park is near the picturesque border town of Lubec, Maine, which you cross through to get to Campobello Island, located in Canada.

Above right:  Also nearby is Quoddy Head, the easternmost point in the United States.

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Hidden Text: Moran

8.  Moran (Orcas Island, Washington)

Located in the Puget Sound on Orcas Island, Moran State Park offers a whole slew of activities.  When I was a kid, we used to hike (or run) from the summit of Mount Constitution down to the campground, a drop of 2,400'.  The view from Mount Constitution, the highest peak in the San Juan Islands, is amazing (if the frequent fog and clouds don't obscure it).  The best part of visiting this park is the ride on the Washington State Ferry to get here, which is always a blast.  

 

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Above left:  The Washington State Ferry system is the largest ferry fleet in the U.S.  The ferries zip around the 172 islands in the San Juan Archipelago and are a blast to ride.

Above center:  Here's my friend, Julie (see News: July 22, 2001), relaxing on top of Mt. Constitution with the San Juan Islands in the distance.

Above right:  The dock at the small town of Olga on Orcas Island.

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Hidden Text: Gulf

9.  Gulf (Gulf Shores, Alabama)

This is the only Alabama state park on the Gulf of Mexico, but it's a real gem.  There's a large campground here and there are plenty of activities for the whole family.  The large campground is a short walk to the white-sand beach, which offers a beautiful sunset every night, and Southern Hospitality reigns.

 

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Above left:  Camping at Gulf State Park a couple years ago.

Above center:  Belly's eye view of the white sand beach here.  Suck in that gut, Del.

Above right:  This is one of my all-time favorite photos.  I shot this while walking along the dunes at Gulf State Park one evening about 15 years ago.

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Hidden Text: Fort Lincoln

10.  Fort Abraham Lincoln (Bismarck, North Dakota)

History buffs (like me) really enjoy this park.  Fort Lincoln was a Cavalry outpost during the late 1800s.  Its most famous resident was Colonel George Armstrong Custer who, along with the 7th Cavalry, rode out to the Black Hills to hunt for Sioux Indians in 1876, never to return.  

 

The state parks department has restored Custer's house and provides daily tours of the grounds.  There's also an interesting museum and five reconstructed Mandan Indian earth lodges.  The campground has sites right on the Missouri River with views of Bismarck in the distance, all for only $7 a night.  If you like history and are traveling across North Dakota, this park is definitely worth a visit.

 

For more information, see my page on Fort Lincoln State Park.

 

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Above left:  Firing a cannon stuffed with cabbage at a recent cavalry demonstration.

Above center:  Sergeant Mark's tour, with the Custer House in the background

Above right:  A view of Bismarck (note the skyscraper capitol) and the peaceful Missouri River from the campground.

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