Many of us have been postponing or rescheduling travels in 2020. If we didn’t outright cancel plans, we might have restructured our vacations to focus on closer to home or outdoor locations.
I’m sure you’ve heard of some of the most popular National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but did you know that there are over 6,600 state park sites in the United States? The vast array of outdoor spaces we have access to in the US is astounding and fortunate during a pandemic. That way, we can still get outside and avoid the crowds, but we have to be willing to look beyond the most well-known parks and places.
To help you narrow it down, we put together some lesser-visited yet epically spectacular parks to add to your bucket list.
5 Bucket List State Parks
1. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Location: Overton, Nevada
Best Time to Visit: October – April
Must-Do: Prospect Trail
Camping: 72 sites (RV hookups available)
Drive through the Valley of Fire State Park, and it will make you think that perhaps you are on Mars. The unique red rock formations and indigenous history within the park have been a focal point for numerous Hollywood productions, festivals, and countless weddings.
The stunning colors of the landscape come from the Aztec sandstone against the backdrop of limestone mountains. Beyond the geological history, this land is rich with other natural histories, including petroglyphs carved into the rocks by the Basketmaker culture, Early Pueblo, and the Paiutes.
You can drive through the park and stop at overlooks and enjoy short walks from your car, or you can stay and camp in the first-come, first-serve campground. The campsites are spread out in rocky outcroppings giving you a sense of solitude.
2. City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico
Location: Deming, New Mexico
Best Time to Visit: Spring / Fall
Must-Do: Camping among the rocks
Camping: 41 sites (with showers / RV hookups)
City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico is located in the Southwest corner of the state. What makes this park unique is the volcanic rock formations. This is a great place to stop over for a relaxing overnight or weekend camping trip.
All of the campsites are spread out among the volcanic rock formations. The park itself is relatively small, only about one square mile. So, there is some hiking available, but it is limited. If you do plan to hike, make sure to pack a bluetooth portable speaker that will fit right in the slot of your backpack.
The park’s name, City of Rocks, comes from the geological formations that make up a “city” of rock pinnacles that rise to 40 feet in height and are separated by paths. From a distance, the spread of pinnacles resembles a city in the barren Chihuahuan desert.
Beyond camping and hiking, City of Rocks is a spectacular place for stargazing, birding, and mountain biking. Faywood Hot Springs are also within 5 miles of the park to add some relaxation and adventure to your visit.
3. Custer State Park, South Dakota
Location: Custer, South Dakota
Best Time to Visit: May-October
Must-Do: Kayaking on Sylvan Lake
Camping: 9 scenic campgrounds spread throughout the park
Located in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, Custer State Park offers various year-round adventures that anyone can enjoy. While they are open in the winter months, the warmer months tend to be a more popular time to visit the area.
Depending on the activity, you will have access to several different camping experiences. All camping areas, even dry camping, will have access to a bathroom of some kind, even if they are just pit toilets. There are also cabins available for rent and a resort within the park if you are looking for a more luxurious getaway.
Hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, paddleboarding, and horseback riding are just a few of the most popular things to do within the park. During the winter months, many visitors enjoy snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
4. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
Location: Ontonagon, Michigan
Best Time to Visit: September – November
Camping: Backcountry sites, campgrounds, Yurt rentals, and cabins
Michigan’s largest state park is located on the scenic Upper Peninsula and includes the Porcupine Mountains. This park is home to over 90 miles of hiking trails and 60,000 acres of land, some of which stretch along the shoreline of Lake Superior. That isn’t the only lake on the horizon, though.
One of the most famous portions of the park is Lake of the Clouds. This lake is tucked in a valley accessible when backpacking but is visible from a few different overlooks. One of the overlooks is ADA accessible as well. Be warned that the hiking trails are notorious for being muddy, flooded, and buggy so bring proper gear.
Other popular activities beyond backpacking and camping include fishing, boating, and biking. During the winter months, both cross country and downhill skiing are available in the area.
5. Merchants Millpond State Park, North Carolina
Location: Gatesville, North Carolina
Best Time to Visit: Year-Round
Camping: Hike-in, paddle-in, and 20 drive-up sites
Located in the Northeast corner of North Carolina is a hidden gem of a swamp. Now, a swamp park doesn’t sound all that fun, but if you are a fan of paddling, this Southern swamp and hardwood forest is a wonderland.
There are no entrance fees to enter the park, but you have to set up reservations for overnight stays. While you can reserve drive-up campsites, some of the most coveted spots are the ones you have to backpack or paddle to. Although there are alligators and other swamp critters around, they generally avoid visitors paddling through the waters. Be sure to respect their boundaries as well.
Besides paddling, you can also enjoy some biking/hiking trails, fishing, and picnic areas.