It’s never easy trying to create a list of favorite destinations. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. But no matter how much that parent may opine about never being able to pick just one, in the back of their mind they do have a favorite. And so following on that bit of human nature, I guess I can create a list of favorite state parks I’ve visited so far.
Of course, that initial list was fifty strong. I’ve visited over 150 state parks in more than a dozen states. I visit them as frequently as national parks and big cities and beaches and mountains. Now, I had to whittle the list down to just my favorite.
My ten favorite state parks so far.
Grayson Highlands State Park
There is only one state park in the country where visitors can safely park a car overnight, hop on the Appalachian Trail to see the infamous wild ponies, and spend the night camping near the tallest mountain in the state with dark skies and countless stars. But that doesn’t even begin to describe what Grayson Highlands State Park has to offer in Southwest Virginia (especially since all that is actually outside the park).
Inside the park boundaries you’ll find gorgeous waterfalls along easy to hike trails, an historic homestead village to explore near a picnic area, and a comfortable campground with all the amenities you need for a great weekend escape in the great outdoors. There are also facilities for horseback riders to bring their own horses and ride the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail through and around the park. An observation deck near the very top provides a breathtaking view of the local mountain scenery and the Big Pinnacle Trail will give you that physical challenge you didn’t know you wanted.
Grayson Highland Lane, Mouth of Wilson, VA | 276-+579-7092 | www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/grayson-highlands
Watkins Glen State Park
I had never been so happy to make a wrong turn in my life. The sun was already low and the gorge shrouded in shadow but that didn’t take away from the sheer magnificence of countless cascades, waterfalls, stone staircases, and carved tunnels at Watkins Glen State Park. While on a road trip from Syracuse to Chattanooga I was supposed to have taken a road from Seneca Falls to Ithaca to spend the night. I missed that turn, however, and instead found myself in Watkins Glen and suddenly all my plans changed.
I returned to the state park first thing the next morning. It was raining but I didn’t care. I grabbed my photography gear and started at the bottom of the gorge. The staircases and bridges are made of the same stone as the gorge so it all blends seamlessly. Tunnels have been carved in places to allow passage through the bedrock walls. I think there is an exact count of the waterfalls in the park, and all of them have names, but I’m just going to stick with “there’s a lot”. Towering waterfalls falling about fifty feet echo off the rock walls, cascades gently tumble alongside the stone path, and one stunning vista after another greets you around every bend in the path.
1009 North Franklin Street, Watkins Glen, NY | 607-535-4511 | https://parks.ny.gov/parks/142/
Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon State Park has one of the most intact and awesome Civil War-era forts to explore in the country, and now they have a beautiful new visitor center to go along with it. Carved into the sand dunes at the tip of an island the park includes a wide beach and a short hiking trail, but the real attraction is the fort. A wooden bridge takes you across the mote and into the brick fort where you can meander through various rooms, some with modern displays and others left unfinished. It’s some of the best access to a fort anywhere.
Climb atop the fort’s walls to see the view across the ocean and down the island. Head into the mote to find the hidden magazines built into the outer walls and, yes, explore those as well. Look for the staircase inside the fort where a cannonball came down just perfectly enough to leave a tiny indentation in each step. Stick around for a rifle firing demonstration. Watch a video on the history of the fort. But whatever you do, be sure to enjoy the absolute beauty and freedom while exploring this brick and earthen fort.
2303 East Fort Macon Road, Atlantic Beach, NC | 252-726-3775 | www.ncparks.gov/fort-macon-state-park
Huntington Beach State Park
This state park has long been my favorite place to photograph some wildlife. For one reason it’s ridiculously easy to get into a good position to capture photos of great egrets, blue herons, snow egrets, woodstorks, and even alligators. But another is the sheer abundance of wildlife. At some points during the change in tides (low to high tide is the best time) there can be hundreds of birds of nearly a dozen species spread across the salt water marsh immediately adjacent to the road through the park.
Some of the birds like the egrets and herons stick around all year. But one of the biggest draws for bird watchers and wildlife photographers to this park is that it’s a layover for many migrating birds. Spoonbills, with their unique bill and vibrant pink feathers, will stop in a couple of months each year for a spectacular show. Just across the road in the brackish ponds about three or four dozen alligators live, swim, and occasionally snag a blue crab. And just in case wildlife isn’t your sort of thing there are two big, beautiful beaches, a jetty for excellent fishing on the ocean, and Atalaya Castle to explore.
16148 Ocean Highway, Murrells Inlet, SC | 843-237-4440 | https://southcarolinaparks.com/huntington-beach
Chimney Rock State Park
On July 4, 1916, Dr. Lucius Morse opened the Chimney Rock Nature Park. The grand opening was marked by the unfurling of a 375-square-foot American flag attached to a 60-foot pole on the Chimney Rock. The pole has changed, and the flag is replaced as needed, but the concept is still the same today – and it creates one of the most iconic vistas in North Carolina.
In 2008, I drove past this park hours after the gates had closed for the day. All I could do was admire the flat fluttering in the wind from the side of the road far below. But in 2021, I finally visit Chimney Rock State Park. Riding an elevator through a shaft blasted through solid rock, climbing a staircase into the Opera Box, I captured a photo I had wanted for years.
The state park features miles of hiking trials, including one to a waterfall tucked into the side of the mountain. The gift shop offers movie theater quality food with tables outside to enjoy the view. For the ultimate adventure, you can try rock climbing.
Cheaha State Park
I stopped at the interstate welcome center as I left Georgia behind and entered Alabama. I asked the lady at the desk if there was anything cool to see nearby. “Well, the highest point in the state is nearby.” That’s how I discovered Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in Alabama at 2,411′.
Cheaha State Park is built on top of the mountain. The Bunker Observation Tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, offers a spectacular view from the summit of the mountain. The Bald Rock Trail and Pulpit Rock Trail offered different views of the landscape surrounding the mountain.
The campground is wonderfully peaceful, but the lake at the bottom of the mountain is the epitome of solitude. It only took two nights at this park to fall in love, and many more nights to rediscover over and over again.
19644 Highway 281, Delta, AL | 256-488-5111 | www.alapark.com/parks/cheaha-state-park
Fort Loudon State Historic Park
I guess I keep coming back to this amazing little state park in the rolling hills of Tennessee because I have a personal connection. The first time I ever visited the friendly park ranger told me a story about how the fort in this park was the sight of the only time in history a British controlled fort was captured by Native Americans led by a Cherokee chief named Oconastota. I looked at the ranger and replied, “Oconastota is my twelfth great grandfather.” The look on his face was priceless and I’ve been coming back to this park ever since.
But why should you visit? How about the most impressive recreation of a British-era fort in the country? Or maybe the stunning views along the Little Tennessee River? It might be the ruins of the blockhouse across the river where traders and frontier settlers used sought protection during their journey. I think it’s watching the warm colors of sunset splash across the sky with a view of the Great Smoky Mountains behind the river.
338 Fort Loudon Road, Vonore, TN | 423-884-6217 | http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/fort-loudoun
Natural Bridge State Park
Over millions of years, Cedar Creek slowly carved away limestone to create the 215 foot tall Natural Bridge. In 2016, the private attraction became Virginia’s 37th state park. And in 2021, I visited for the first time.
From the gargantuan visitor center, the 1.6-mile out and back Cedar Creek Trail passes beneath the limestone span, leads to Monocan Village, and ends at the 30-foot Lace Falls. It’s an easy hike that begins on pavement and ends on a well-maintained dirt path. Other trails in the park lead to caverns and scenic overlooks.
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
The first time I ever visited this state park on the Cumberland Plateau the lady in the gift shop asked me a question that would change everything, “Have you seen the Moonbow yet?” It was later that afternoon when I returned to the land of reliable cell signal before I learned what the Moonbow was and immediately plans began to form. The Moonbow is a monthly event at the state park during the full moon when the light of the moon creates a rainbow effect in the mists of Cumberland Falls. Of course it has to be a clear night and the more mist from the “Niagara of the South” the better. It took me a year before I finally saw the event for myself.
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park has more to offer than just this monthly event better suited for night owls like myself. The waterfall is a gorgeous thing to behold with an observation area above the falls, below the falls, and about a half mile downriver. The trail continues awhile along the Cumberland River leading past a wide sandy beach perfect for a little getaway in the mountains. The lodge is a great place to spend a few nights and the restaurant has some pretty good food. Along with a few other hiking trails, a campground, and activities for kids this is a park I keep coming back to year after year.
7351 Highway 90, Corbin, KY | 606-528-4121 | http://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/cumberland-falls/
Hickory Knob State Resort Park
The resounding thunk of a heavy club striking a golf ball broke my reverie. I was sitting in a golf cart in the shade of a massive deciduous tree enjoying the utter peacefulness of the lake. A moment later, I saw the tiny white dot bounce and roll across the manicured grass. Golf is a big reason why people travel to Hickory Knob State Resort Park, but I was there for something else entirely.
Two nights in the comfortable lodge, the only lodge in a state park in South Carolina, kept me plenty rested. I spent my days shooting archery, exploring the golf course, and watching boats pass along Thurmond Lake. It was just about as peaceful as I could have ever hoped.
1591 Resort Drive, McCormick, SC | 864-391-2450 | southcarolinaparks.com/hickory-knob