The South's Best State Parks
Oak Mountain State Park
Over 50 miles of trails crisscross this park near Birmingham. Take in the incredible overlook at Kings Chair; swim at the base of the 65-foot-tall Peavine Falls; or rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to fish in the park's lakes. Bikers will find a pump track and Alabama's oldest continuously running BMX track at Oak Mountain. Flip Side Watersports, which features one of the longest wakeboard cables in North America, attracts amateurs and professionals.
Petit Jean State Park
See the dwellings of ancient Native American civilizations at Seven Hollows, or take Rock House Cave Trail to a bluff shelter that has pictographs that were left by the native inhabitants. Petit Jean Mountain, located inside the park, gets its name from an alias adopted by a legendary French woman who secretly followed her fiancé to the New World, became ill, and asked to be buried on this summit.
Cape Henlopen State Park
The huge sand dunes at this shoreline hid U.S. defenses from the German navy during World War II and from Soviet submarines during the Cold War. Learn all about the park's story at Fort Miles Museum and Historical Area. The beach is beautiful, with family-friendly facilities that make it a breeze to plan a day of swimming, kayaking, or fishing—or all of the above.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Fort White, FL
Visitors can swim or snorkel year-round at this park, and serious cavern- and cave-certified divers can scuba dive at Blue Hole Spring. Not up for a deep dive? Tubing the spring-fed Ichetucknee River is a popular activity for most of the year. Take a tram up the clear, blue river, and float back down for miles. It flows through wetlands and shaded hammocks, making for a gorgeous trip.
Amicalola Falls State Park
Many a grand adventure has begun under the stone archway at Amicalola Falls State Park as hikers set off onto the legendary 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. Watching those backpackers begin their treks is one of the highlights of visiting the park. If you're feeling more inspired by a bit of weekend adventure, Amicalola has plenty to offer. Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventures at Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge features the Zip Line Canopy Tour and suspension bridges for a day of sightseeing and fun, and the GPS Scavenger Hunt allows families to hike while searching for secret spots designed to help kids learn about nature (there's even a prize at the end). The park's 3-D Archery course, designed for both amateurs and professionals, teaches basic bow-and-arrow skills and allows students to "hunt" for bears, deer, and more in a virtual course. Don't miss the view at Amicalola Falls itself. With a 729-foot drop, it's the highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River and can be reached by trail, stairway, or car.
Cloudland Canyon State Park
Rising Fawn, GA
On the edge of Lookout Mountain sits Cloudland Canyon State Park, home to waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, caves, and creeks just waiting to be explored. This gorgeous spot on the Cumberland Plateau has miles of wonderful trails. Take a short stroll on Overlook Trail, or try the more challenging Waterfalls Trail. Hiking isn't the only adventure Cloudland Canyon has to offer. Over 30 miles of mountain biking trails and 16 miles of horseback riding trails plus an 18-hole disc golf course and a fishing pond draw hobbyists of all types. Or share a special group experience by booking a cave tour through G3 Adventures. Their family-friendly excursions here and at nearby Pigeon Mountain might get you a little wet and muddy, but they're experiences you won't forget. Pick an unusual lodging option (and skip the DIY tent setup) by staying in one of the park's 10 yurts, circular domed tents that are kept pitched and ready for up to six people.
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
With its dramatic 65-foot-high, 125-foot-wide waterfall nicknamed the "Niagara of the South," this state park in the middle of Daniel Boone National Forest reveals a secret after the sun goes down. At night, take the Rainbow Mist Ride to see the stunning moonbow (a form of rainbow that appears here during a full moon). They are quite rare, and this one at Cumberland Falls is the only one in the western hemisphere. The park has plenty to offer during the day as well, with 17 miles of hiking trails, guided horseback rides, and opportunities to fish or take rafting trips down the Cumberland River. At Riverview Restaurant, you can take in a beautiful vista and bird-watch for the Carolina chickadee or American goldfinch while sampling hush puppies and catfish. Or stay overnight at DuPont Lodge, admiring the beautiful architecture and enjoying a book or playing a board game in front of a huge stone fireplace. Before you leave, dig up some souvenirs at the Cumberland Falls Mining Company, where you can buy bags full of rough material and screen them to search for colorful fossils and gemstones.
Chicot State Park
Ville Platte, LA
You'll find no better place than Lake Chicot to observe the beauty and unique character of Louisiana's landscape and wildlife. An 8-mile canoe trail winds through cypress trees and is a favorite for locals, canoe enthusiasts, and vacationing families. The Louisiana State Arboretum, adjacent to the state park, is a gorgeous beech-and-magnolia forest with over 600 acres of natural growth as well as additional plantings of the state's native flora. Visitors to Lake Chicot enjoy generously sized campsites, abundant opportunities for fishing, and places for kids to play. Lake Chicot itself is pretty and clear, encircled by a hiking-and backpacking trail that makes room for mountain bikers along the way.
Tishomingo State Park
Tishomingo State Park is the best place to spend an idyllic summer day or to enjoy a family camping trip. Hikers will find huge rock formations, outcroppings, and bluffs throughout the park. Mossy boulders and wildflowers are everywhere, beckoning visitors to explore. The area's natural beauty has been appreciated for centuries: Traces of Native American culture run all through Tishomingo State Park, from its namesake, Chief Tishomingo of the Chickasaw Nation, to the archaeological sites revealing the lives of the Paleo-Indians who lived there thousands of years ago. Modern visitors can take canoe float trips down Bear Creek, angle for catfish and bass at Haynes Lake, swim at the park's pool, rock climb, or play disc golf at three 18-hole courses.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
In 1905, a businessman from Kansas City broke ground on his dream, building a castle of his very own atop a bluff in Missouri. Unfortunately, a fire took the castle in 1942, but the ruins (overlooking a lake) are what make Ha Ha Tonka a truly unique state park today. Trails here lead to natural bridges, caves, and sinkholes. Colosseum Trail features a 150-foot-deep sinkhole along with a natural bridge that was once used as a passageway to the castle. See Ha Ha Tonka Spring, which puts out millions of gallons of water each day, and walk along the shoreline of Lake of the Ozarks, where visitors can enjoy beautiful views and prime fishing opportunities.
Hanging Rock State Park
Visit the beautiful Sauratown Mountains, called "the mountains away from the mountains" because they're so close to the Blue Ridge Range but aren't part of it. This park, created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. Hiking trails overlook mountains, waterfalls, and a cave. Admire the serenely cascading streams, and take a dip in the pools below. Rent a rowboat or canoe on the 12-acre lake to angle for catfish and bass, or spend the day in a kayak on the Dan River. Rock climbers can take advantage of almost 2 miles of 400-foot-tall cliffs at Moore's Wall and Cook's Wall, while mountain bikers will love riding along the rock ledges and streams.
Chimney Rock State Park
Chimney Rock, NC
Do the stunning vistas of Chimney Rock State Park look a bit familiar? You can thank Hollywood—scenes from The Last of the Mohicans were shot here, and the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls was featured in the movie. Make the most of family time at the park by taking rock-climbing classes from Fox Mountain Guides & Climbing School, or learn more about small creatures at the Great Woodland Adventure trail and the Animal Discovery Den, which teaches kids about snakes, bullfrogs, opossums, turtles, groundhogs, and chipmunks. Looking for a challenging hike with fantastic scenery as a reward? This park is full of them. You can enjoy unbelievable views from the Grotto, the Subway, and Pulpit Rock. Chimney Rock itself offers a 75-mile vista that includes Lake Lure (of Dirty Dancing fame) and Hickory Nut Gorge. More ambitious hikers who are looking to push themselves and test their limits can go even farther, all the way to Exclamation Point.
Hunting Island State Park
Hunting Island, SC
If you've been searching for a perfectly picturesque beach—5 miles of it—Hunting Island State Park won't disappoint. It has even been immortalized in movies like Forrest Gump and G.I. Jane. Take in the full view of the ocean, beach, and marshland by climbing to the top of the Hunting Island Lighthouse; lucky visitors might even snag a reservation at the lighthouse cabin. The island is named for the hunting done here in years past, and today you can still see deer and waterfowl regularly. The endangered loggerhead turtle nests here as well. If you'd like to catch some fresh seafood for dinner, try crabbing or fishing off the pier on Fripp Inlet. Enjoy a cool Atlantic breeze as you swim, boat, or kayak. Bonus: pirate stories. Hunting Island and nearby Beaufort were supposedly layovers for Blackbeard and his "associates."
Fall Creek Falls State Park
Tennessee's largest state park occupies more than 26,000 acres with waterfalls, gorges, and 56 miles of trails. Fall Creek Falls stands at an impressive 256 feet, but the park's other waterfalls, like Cane Creek Falls and Piney Falls, are also pretty. Kids (and adults) will love the Olympic-size swimming pool, open only during the summer. Boats and paddleboards are available for rent, while the ArborTrek Treetop Obstacle Course offers an elevated playground with zip lines, bridges, rope swings, and more. Golfers will enjoy the 18-hole Fall Creek Falls Golf Course, and trails for bikes attract those looking for two-wheeled excitement.
South Cumberland State Park
This sprawling beauty encompasses about 25,000 acres and is spread out over four Tennessee counties. It features nine major areas to explore and more than 90 miles of trails, including the Fiery Gizzard Trail, which offers waterfalls, gorges, rock formations, streams, and swimming at Fiery Gizzard Creek. And climbers rave about the park's myriad rock formations.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
A working sheep-and-cattle ranch until the late 1980s, Big Bend Ranch State Park showcases the Texas of tall tales and legendary stories. This huge park located in the Chihuahuan Desert is ideal for a long getaway because there's so much to see—beautiful views and an array of activities that will suit just about any interest. Explore Big Bend Ranch by car along the Camino del Rio and other roads (some of them unpaved) as well as by horse, mountain bike, or plane—this park even has an airstrip!
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Welcome to the "Grand Canyon of Texas," the second-largest canyon in the country. It's 120 miles long, reaching a depth of 800 feet and a maximum width of 20 miles. Travel around in your car, or explore trails on foot or mountain bike. The park also offers 1,500 acres designated for horseback riding (you can bring your own mount or rent one for a guided tour). The unique natural beauty of the Texas Panhandle is reason enough to plan a trip to Palo Duro Canyon, but there are other attractions to enjoy here as well. During the summer, catch a lively performance of the outdoor musical TEXAS, which is presented in the Pioneer Amphitheater. In true Lone Star State fashion, barbecue is available before each show.
Grayson Highlands State Park
Mouth of Wilson, VA
This mountain escape is an absolute must-see for horse lovers. Wild ponies were brought into the park in the 1970s to help control forest growth, and visitors might see them on the trails but should be careful to keep their distance for safety. Grayson Highlands doesn't provide horses for riding but does offer overnight stables and trailer facilities, and the park is home to more than 9 miles of bridle trails that connect to Jefferson National Forest. Equestrians aren't the only ones who will find adventure here. Campers can enjoy guided canoe trips that showcase the park's rugged beauty, and rock climbers are challenged by seven bouldering fields. Anglers can explore almost 10 miles of wild trout streams. Planning a long trip? You can access both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail from Grayson Highlands State Park.
Blackwater Falls State Park
At this West Virginia gem, you can enjoy cool evenings year-round. Even though the mountainous area here is well known for its offerings in winter (when it bustles with sledding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing), summer is a wonderful time to come and beat the heat or just get away from it all. Take in the beautiful landscape and hiking trails, and visit 57-foot Blackwater Falls, which can be reached by stairs that allow for enjoying the scenery at various stops on the way up. Don't miss Elakala Falls or Pendleton Falls, and be sure to catch the view at Lindy Point and the Pendleton Point Overlook, which features a vista of the deepest and widest part of Blackwater Canyon. No matter the time of year, curl up with a good book by the fireplace at Blackwater Falls Lodge, where you can also take advantage of the property's indoor fitness center and pool.