The South’s Best State Parks For Camping And Hiking

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There are almost 900 state parks across the South, and each is more stunning than the last. If you’re looking for a place to stretch your legs and get in touch with the great outdoors, a beautiful natural retreat is never more than a few miles down the road. There are a dozen great reasons to love a state park. Most are free to visit, or only require a small entry fee. They’re filled with activities to enjoy, from swimming and biking to kayaking and horseback riding. And they’re perfectly suitable for any type of visitor—a family seeking a quick weekend away, a couple looking for a romantic spot to watch the sunset, or a solo runner ready to hit the trails. Of course, no state park would visit would be complete without a little hiking and possibly a night sleeping under the stars. Here are the South’s best state parks for camping and hiking.

Lady standing on an overlook, Devil's Den State Park, Arkansas.
Michael Hanson / Getty Images

Appalachian Mountains

Purple flowers in Grayson Highlands State Park, USA
Jeff Greenough / Getty Images

Grayson Highlands State Park

Perfectly positioned near Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, the two highest mountains in Virginia, Grayson Highlands State Park offers panoramic vistas of alpine peaks at every turn. The 4,500-acre park is home to 13 hiking trails that take trekkers to see all the park’s most beautiful sights—cascading waterfalls, gurgling creeks, and breathtaking mountain overlooks. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the park’s most famous residents, wild ponies that were introduced to the area in 1974 to prevent reforestation of the highland balds. Since you’ll have a hard time leaving after just one day, Grayson Highlands has plenty of options for visitors looking to stay the night. Choose from 89 campsites (suitable for backcountry camping, car camping, or even RV hookups), or spring for a room in the bunkhouse lodge or one of the park’s four glamping yurts.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia, in Fall
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Amicalola Falls State Park

The main attraction at this Georgia state park is the 729-foot Amicalola Falls, the third-highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. But the park, located right on the edge of the North Georgia Mountains, has so much more to offer. There’s a ziplining course, regularly scheduled naturalist hours, guided hikes, a restaurant, and even archery lessons. A true outdoor-focused vacation destination, Amicalola Falls State Park is well-equipped to host every visitor who may want to stay, whether they prefer a hotel-style room in the lodge, a private cabin to sleep the whole family, a trendy safari tent, or a campsite in the woods or atop a mountain.  

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Another North Georgia gem, Cloudland Canyon is one of the Peach State’s largest and most-visited parks. Named for its 1,000-foot-deep canyons, the park is a playground of awe-inspiring natural features. In addition to the impressive canyons, there are also primitive caves, sandstone cliffs, rushing waterfalls, and lush woodland to explore. In warm months, the pools at the bottom of some of the park’s most popular waterfalls become swimming holes, where everyone can escape the famous Southern heat. Sixty-four miles of trails weave through the park, so you’ll definitely need more than a day to scratch the surface. Lodging options at the 3,500-acre park include 16 cottages, 10 yurts, 72 tent/trailer/RV campsites, 30 walk-in campsites, 13 backcountry site, four pioneer campsites, and a group lodge.

Pilot Mountain State Park

courtesy of Visit NC

Pilot Mountain State Park

If you want to get lost in the mountains, this is the state park for you. North Carolina’s Pilot Mountain State Park is divided into two distinct sections, the mountain section and the Yadkin River section. For an all-day hike that will take you through some of the park’s most magical areas, consider the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail, a 12.6-mile trek that crosses creeks, meanders through woods, and gets you up close and personal with the area’s stunning mountain ranges. Of course, the 2,000-foot Pilot Mountain is a major star in the area, so book early if you want to snag one of the park’s 42 campsites.

Roan Mountain State Park


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Roan Mountain State Park

Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Roan Mountain State Park is situated in the heart of the Blue Ridge stretch of the Appalachian Mountains. Much of the park’s 2,000 acres is occupied by dense hardwood forest. Thirteen miles of hiking trails take visitors through not only those forests but alongside the shimmering Doe River and along the ridges of the Roan Mountain foothills. The Doe River is one of the most productive trout streams in the state, so flyfishing is common practice in the state park. Make homebase for your visit in one of 30 cabins or 106 campsites. Pro tip: Go in mid- to late-June to see the spectacular show put on every year by the blooming Catawba rhododendron, which create a vibrant sea of purple and magenta across the mountains.

Expansive views from hike in Blackwater Falls State Park in the fall
Gabriela Herman

Blackwater Falls State Park

The namesake waterfall—a 57-footer that’s the highest in the state—is just one of the scenic cascades at Blackwater Falls State Park in the Allegheny Mountains’ Potomac Highlands. The water gets its dyed color from the needles of hemlock and red spruce. The area includes 20 miles of trails, including Elakala Falls and Douglas Falls, for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing year-round. The park also offers an 18-hole disc golf course designed as a pollinator habitat, where visitors can play among butterflies and other buzzy wildlife. There are cabins and a lodge where you can stay, but the best place to rest your head is at the campground (open from late April through October).

Gulf Coast

Gulf State Park

Gulf State Park

With the Gulf of Mexico on its Southern border, 3 1/2 miles of white sand beaches, three lakes within the park, and nine ecosystems on its 28-mile paved trail system, Gulf State Park is definitely not your average state park. Popular with anglers, beach bums, and naturalists alike, visitors enjoy fishing, swimming, and paddling on Lake Shelby, observing native flora and fauna at the Nature Center on Middle Lake, and flitting around the Butterfly Garden east of Little Lake. At nearly 2,500 feet long, the Fishing and Education Pier is the largest in the Gulf as well as Alabama’s only public gulf pier, open for fishing or strolling. Stays here range from luxury inside the boutique hotel known as the Lodge at Gulf State Park to rustic in the 496-site campground.  

Grayton Beach State Park in Florida
Courtesy Kurt Lischka/Visit South Walton

Grayton Beach State Park

Deserted sugar-white sand, warm ocean breezes, and sparkling turquoise water are all hallmarks of this state park on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The beach is a big draw at this park but there’s plenty more to see. Start by winding your way through four miles of coastal forests brimming with scrub oaks and magnolias. Paddle or fish on tranquil Western Lake, then roast s’mores over a fire at your own private campsite or one of 30 two-bedroom, one-bathroom cabins.

Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park

There’s only one word for the vistas around this Florida state park: otherworldly. There’s plenty to see here—tidal creeks, spindly mangroves, tranquil salt marshes, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and of course, plenty of springs. While hiking trails don’t quite climb into the double digits here, sometimes it’s more about quality than quantity. Each of the park’s four trails wind through multiple types of habitats and give plenty of opportunity to spot native flora and fauna. Birding is a popular activity here; look out for wood storks, great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, and white ibises, and Caspian terns. Single family campsites and primitive group campsites are both available.

Ozark Mountains

Lady standing on an overlook, Devil's Den State Park, Arkansas.
Michael Hanson / Getty Images

Devil’s Den State Park

One of Arkansas’s most popular state parks, Devil’s Den is known for its rock formations, caverns, and a huge rock dam that spans Lee Creek to form Lake Devil. The lake is a prime spot for fishing, boating, and canoeing. Hiking trails will take you around rocky outcroppings, through wooded forests, and to the top of bluffs overlooking the panoramic valley below. In the summer, Ozark wildflowers bloom across the park’s meadows. Camping options include 135 campsites, as well as 17 cabins with kitchens and fireplaces and six camper cabins.

Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas

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Petit Jean State Park

Petit Jean Mountain rises over the Arkansas River valley in the first state park established in Arkansas. The state park is known for its dramatic overlook views of sweeping vistas. The most famous is Petit Jean’s Gravesite at Stout’s Point, telling the legend of Petit Jean and her ill-fated journey to America. Geological features abound in the park, including an ancient bluff shelter with pictographs and rock art on the short Rock Cave House trail. Petit Jean State Park is also part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, marking the forced migration of five Southeastern Indigenous tribes westward from their lands to Oklahoma. Lodging options include a variety of campsites, yurts, cabins, and a 24-room lodge.

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