Photo by Shutterstock/Dana Dagle Photography
Photo by Shutterstock/Faina Gurevich
Harkness Memorial State Park is a 230-acre state park overlooking Long Island Sound.
From Leonard Harrison State Park in Pennsylvania to Watkins Glen State Park in New York, hikers, campers, and outdoor adventurers will want to add these 11 best state parks in the Northeast to their list.
This story is part of our “See America, One State Park at a Time” series. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR is continuing to cover the world, because while you may not be traveling right now, there’s always room for inspiration.
Wild waterfalls. Wilder horses. The Grand Canyon of the East Coast—sorta. You’ll find all that and more in the state parks that span the 11 states of the Northeast, which includes New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. A majority of them are less than two hours from a big city, which means a weekend getaway is not only feasible but also recommended. So what are you waiting for?
Is this the Cotswolds or Connecticut? Harkness Memorial State Park, a 230-acre state park overlooking Long Island Sound, is also the former estate of the Harkness family, and home to their “summer mansion, Eolia.” May we all get to a point where we can have mansions to name.
We’re partial to barrier beaches with a side of history: Cape Henlopen—just 30 minutes from popular Rehoboth Beach—and its Fort Miles played a major role in defending the nation’s coast from WWII through the 1970s. There is now a military museum, as well as a historic lighthouse, alongside the quiet bays for swimming and well-paved hiking and biking paths. (Check out the Borrow a Bike program.)
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About 80 miles north of Portland on Highway 1, you’ll find yourself in the charming waterfront town of Camden. And if you continue a few minutes more, you’ll happen upon Camden Hills State Park, which has 30 miles of hiking trails. On a clear day, hike (or drive) to the top of Mount Battie to take in views of Penobscot Bay all the way out to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. If you time your visit right in the fall, you’ll be treated to panoramas of the surrounding hills at peak color. (According to this map, that should be around the first week of October in 2020.)
Connected by a short bridge to the rest of Maryland, this island park is most well-known for the teams of wild horses that roam Assateague’s beaches. As Maryland’s only oceanside park, Assateague also offers a unique opportunity to canoe or kayak through secluded coves and marshes, surf, swim, or simply spend the day sunbathing.
What do we love about Nickerson State Park? Trout fishing, camping with the family, and “swimming in the beautifully clear freshwater kettle ponds in this Cape [Cod] park—glacial leftovers from the last Ice Age.” —Stephen Orr, editor in chief, Better Homes and Gardens
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In the midst of White Mountain National Forest, along eight miles of I-93, are all the activities you could dream of, packed into one state park: swimming, kayaking, boating, and fishing Echo Lake at the northern end of the park; a two-mile, waterfall-dotted walk through Flume Gorge at the southern end; and a hike along the Appalachian Trail in between. Franconia Notch State Park is also home to the New England Ski Museum, nodding to the area’s legacy of slope success.
It’s not the tallest lighthouse in the state (that’s Absecon in Atlantic City) but “Old Barney” in Barnegat Lighthouse State Park is beloved along the Jersey Shore. Up 217 steps is a view of Long Beach Island and kitesurfers buzzing along Barnegat Bay. The state park is also a great spot for birding: Spot songbirds on spring and fall migrations and winter waterfowl.
Depending on who you ask, the town of Watkins Glen at the southern tip of Seneca Lake is best known for its car race track or the record-breaking crowds at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen rock festival back in 1973. We love it for Watkins Glen State Park, home to a two-mile-long gorge with 19 waterfalls cascading through it. Due to the 1.5-mile (one-way) Gorge Trail’s popularity, the park is asking all guests to wear face masks during their hikes. It also doesn’t hurt to bring a rain jacket and waterproof shoes—you’ll definitely be in the splash zone when you pass behind a few of the waterfalls.
Talk about location, location, location: The 585-acre Leonard Harrison State Park sits smack on the east rim of Pine Creek Gorge, known as Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, which is 800 feet deep and nearly 4,000 feet across. Take the Turkey Trail Path one mile to the bottom of Pine Creek Gorge, which is especially stunning in fall when hardwood trees turn yellow, orange, red, and purple.
At the tip of Newport is another former estate turned state park, the sort of idyllic oceanside spot where flying a kite is practically required. Brenton Point’s location along Ocean Drive, where Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic, ensures a breeze will be waiting.
One of four state parks located within Mount Mansfield State Forest, Smugglers’ Notch State Park is named for the narrow pass in the Green Mountains where Vermonters used to smuggle liquor from Canada during Prohibition. Today, it’s popular for bouldering in the summer and ice climbing in the winter. After you work up an appetite, visit the Alchemist Brewery in Stowe (don’t miss its cult-favorite Heady Topper) or the Ben and Jerry’s factory in nearby Waterbury.
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>> Next: Secrets of the National Parks
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