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I’ve been to over 100 state parks across a dozen states in the country. It’s really hard to sit down and try to figure out which ones are my favorite. But then I think about seeing wild ponies on the Appalachian Trail, watching storms while standing on the tallest mountain on the east coast, and exploring the most complete Civil War-era fort in the country. I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in state parks across the country and it turned out easier than I thought to make a list of my ten favorite. So far.
Grayson Highlands State Park (Virginia)
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 (New York)
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 (North Carolina)
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
Rock Island State Park (Tennessee)
This state park isn’t actually an island in the middle of Tennessee, but that shouldn’t stop you from wanting to visit immediately. The campground is covered in a canopy of leaves and cabins await your arrival. A long sandy beach gives you a chance to take in some rays while dipping into the cool mountain river. Hiking trails wind around and throughout the park.
But my favorite part about this state park is the waterfalls. Great Falls greets you from an observation point high above the river while a trail leads to a beach far below. The biggest, and by far most dramatic, waterfall in the park is Twin Falls located just a little further down river. A 1.5-mile trail on the opposite side of the river leads to several overlook area and even down to the river, but the best vantage point is just half a mile from the small parking area. You won’t soon forget the majesty of this waterfall as it tumbles down the side of a gorge into the river.
82 Beach Road, Rock Island, TN | 931-686-2471 | http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/rock-island
Huntington Beach State Park (South Carolina)
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
Fort Loudon State Historic Park (Tennessee)
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
Hunting Island State Park (South Carolina)
This is the most popular state park in South Carolina for a reason. Actually a few reasons. It has the only oceanfront lighthouse still open for the public to explore. The beaches are wide, long, clean, and beautiful. There are a few hiking trails, a fishing pier, and a really nice oceanfront campground.
But for me the draw of this state park is the scenic coastal beauty. The view from the top of the lighthouse on the wrap-around deck is pretty spectacular. Deadwood trees decorate the beach like a Southern Living showcase. The Marsh Boardwalk is a short trail that extends across a couple of level wooden boardwalks to a scene across the marsh toward sunset for a spectacular view.
2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island, SC | 843-838-2011 | https://southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park (Kentucky)
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/
Mount Mitchell State Park (North Carolina)
This is the only state park in the country only accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway, and that’s not a bad thing at all. The drive along the Parkway is beautiful leading up to the highest mountain on the east coast. Along the way to the top is a restaurant with a stunning view of the mountain and pretty good food, a campground that is open spring, summer, and fall, and a few hiking trails.
At the very top the large parking lot has room for lots of visitors and a very nice gift shop is loaded with books, clothing, and gifts. For people who aren’t able or willing to embark on the somewhat strenuous hike to the very top the view here is good enough. For those wanting to reach the top the paved path to the top is less than half a mile and only moderately steep but it’ll still take your breath away (both the hike and the view). The observation tower at the top has an uninterrupted panorama view along the mountains of North Carolina. It’s an impressive sight and I keep coming back every time I’m near Asheville; the first time I visited a cold front was moving in from the west and the clouds “hit” the mountain ridge and came to a dead stop, leaving the other side completely sunny, and I’ve been trying to catch that moment again ever since.
2388 NC-128, Burnsville, NC | 828-675-4611 | www.ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park
Roan Mountain State Park (Tennessee)
I will admit Roan Mountain State Park is better because of its location rather than the amenities and activities. Don’t get me wrong, though; the park still has a few neat things to offer. A homestead village to explore, a few nice scenic overlooks, nice fishing, and gorgeous rental cabins for comfortable nights. But I prefer to spend my nights at the cabins and my days atop the Roan Highlands just fifteen minutes from the park.
The Appalachian Trail crosses the road at Carver’s Gap at a small parking lot with a single privy and small campsite. It’s a great place to embark on day trip hikes along the bald mountains of the Roan Highlands. Round Bald, the first of these mountains, is just a twenty minute hike and offers stunning vistas in all directions. The Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens is run by a division of the national forestry service and offers a couple of hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail, along with a concrete path winding through hundreds of rhododendron bushes. These bushes bloom in brilliant colors each year around the first week of June (depending on the weather).
527 TN-143, Roan Mountain, TN | 423-772-3303 | http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/roan-mountain