As the United States’ love affair with its national parks endures, destinations like the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion are flooded with tourists “finding their park.”
There’s no doubting the natural beauty and cultural significance of the national parks, but they are only a sliver of the natural and cultural treasures preserved in the US. To get away from the crowds and off the beaten track, consider these five state parks just as incredible as their national park brethren.
1. Gulf State Park, Alabama
This region of the southeast is called the “Amazon of North America” due to its rich biodiversity, nine different ecosystems and more plant and animal species than anywhere in the United States.
Alabama invested $85 million in settlement funds from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster to develop sustainable tourism facilities in Gulf State Park, including the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism & Sustainability. The world-class ecotourism and experiential learning facility was created in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society.
The center launched a Gulf Coast Ambassadors of the Environment program to students in grades 4-12, housed at the Gulf State Park Learning Campus. Future Environmental Ambassador programs will include college students as well as adults.
2. Letchworth State Park, New York
Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” western New York's Letchworth State Park is a scenic area where the Genesee River flows over multiple waterfalls. Over 400 million years, the river carved a deep gorge with 600-foot walls made of layered shale mixed with limestone and sandstone.
The Seneca, stewards of the land for centuries, believed the beauty of the falls inspired the sun to stop at midday in admiration. The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps left its mark on Letchworth State Park from 1933-1942 constructing multiple camps, roads, bridges, shelters and cabins still in use today.
One of the most scenic areas in the eastern US, Letchworth State Park contains more than 66 miles of hiking trails, whitewater rafting and kayaking and hot air balloon rides.
3. Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Located an hour south of Portland, Silver Falls State Park is called the “crown jewel” of the Oregon State Parks system. Waterfalls are the highlight of Silver Falls State Park and the Trail of Ten Falls is designated as a “National Recreation Trail” by the American Trails nonprofit agency.
This nine-mile backcountry forest trail follows the canyon rim past 10 different waterfalls. At times the footpath leads hikers into caves carved out behind some of the larger cascades.
Dedicated as a state park in 1933, Oregon entered an agreement with the National Park Service and US Army to create a master plan and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program in the park. The CCC built trails, bridges, walls and buildings from 1935-1942, many still standing in the Silver Falls Historic District in the South Falls area of the park.
4. Custer State Park, South Dakota
As South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer State Park stands as a 71,000-acre wildlife preserve known for its free-ranging bison herd. The park includes a number of historic lodges including Sylvan Lake Lodge which was built in a spot designated by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright for its scenic beauty.
The State Game Lodge was built in the 1920s and served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady for three months in 1927. The Civilian Conservation Corps worked on multiple projects throughout Custer State Park, most notably completing Iron Mountain Road connecting State Game Lodge with Mount Rushmore National Monument (President Coolidge dedicated the inaugural work on Mount Rushmore during his stay in 1927).
Today, in addition to accommodations, the State Game Lodge serves as the departure point for Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours – 90-120 minute rides into the park for viewing of buffalo, pronghorns and elk.
5. Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming
In the southwest corner of Wyoming, 11,000 acres are preserved and named for long-time sportscaster, outdoorsman and native son, Curt Gowdy.
Only 25 miles from Cheyenne, Curt Gowdy State Park is nestled in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains with reservoirs and trails. However, what sets this state park apart from others is its award-winning mountain bike trails. Designed using a ski-area model, mountain bike enthusiasts can enjoy a range of routes for all abilities including easy (green), intermediate (blue) or advanced (black).
The 35 miles of mountain bike trails connect two of the reservoirs and have four designated play areas for riders to perfect skills and technique.