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The Best State Parks in the Northeast—and How to Visit

By AFAR Editors

Sep 15, 2020

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Harkness Memorial State Park is a 230-acre state park overlooking Long Island Sound.

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.

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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?  

Connecticut

Harkness Memorial State Park

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.

  • Nearest city to Harkness Memorial State Park: New Haven
  • Where to stay when visiting Harkness Memorial State Park: Mystic is only a 25-minute drive from the park, so make a weekend out of it and check into the Whaler’s Inn in the center of town.

Cape Henlopen State Park is just 30 minutes from popular Rehoboth Beach.

Delaware

Cape Henlopen State Park

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.)

  • Nearest city to Cape Henlopen State Park: Rehoboth Beach
  • Where to stay when visiting Cape Henlopen State Park: Book one of 12 camping cabins within the state park (they sleep up to six) or sink into the hydrotherapy tubs at luxury boutique Hotel Rehoboth.
Camden Hills State Park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails.

Maine

Camden Hills State Park

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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.) 

  • Nearest city to Camden Hills State Park: Portland
  • Where to stay when visiting Camden Hills State Park: After September 13, 2020, all 107 campsites are first-come, first-serve. Or stay at the Camden Harbour Inn in town.

Assateague State Park is the only oceanside state park in Maryland.

Maryland

Assateague State Park

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.  

Nickerson State Park is close to both Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

Massachusetts 

Nickerson State Park

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

  • Nearest city to Nickerson State Park: Boston or Providence, Rhode Island
  • Where to stay when visiting Nickerson State Park: Grab one of the 418 Nickerson State Park campsites (easily bookable) and you’ll be able to swim from sunrise to sunset.
Franconia Notch State Park is also home to the New England Ski Museum.

New Hampshire 

Franconia Notch State Park 

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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. 

  • Nearest city to Franconia Notch State Park: Hanover
  • Where to stay when visiting Franconia Notch State Park: Lafayette Place Campground is the central camping site; if you prefer a freshly made bed, check into the charming Sugar Hill Inn.
Barnegat Lighthouse in Barnegat Lighthouse State Park.

New Jersey

Barnegat Lighthouse State Park

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.  

  • Nearest city to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park: Atlantic City
  • Where to stay when visiting Barnegat Lighthouse State Park: Vacation rentals are popular down here; consider a spot in Harvey Cedars or Beach Haven. If you don’t want to think about it, go with the boutique Hotel LBI.
Waterfalls abound at Watkins Glen State Park in New York.

New York

Watkins Glen State Park

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 Parkhome 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. 

  • Nearest city to Watkins Glen State Park: Ithaca
  • Where to stay when visiting Watkins Glen State Park: In 2020, reservations are required for the park’s 279 campsites and 9 cabins. No walk-up camping stays will be accepted. 

Leonard Harrison State Park lays claim to Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon.

Pennsylvania

Leonard Harrison State Park

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.

  • Nearest city to Leonard Harrison State Park: Rochester, New York
  • Where to stay when visiting Leonard Harrison State Park: Among the nearest lodging to the Pine Creek Gorge, Rough Cut Lodge offers a number of cabins and suites that are—despite the lodge’s name—clean and spacious.

Brenton Point State Park is an idyllic oceanside spot.

Rhode Island

Brenton Point State Park

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.

  • Nearest city to Brenton Point State Park: Newport
  • Where to stay when visiting Brenton Point State Park: The airy Beach Houses of historic Castle Hill Inn (set right on the edge of Brenton Point State Park) cast a kind of never-leave spell.
Smugglers’ Notch State Park is popular for bouldering during the warmer months.

Vermont

Smugglers’ Notch State Park

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. 

  • Nearest city to Smugglers’ Notch State Park: Stowe
  • Where to stay when visiting Smugglers’ Notch State Park: Book one of the 20 tent sites or 14 lean-to sites. Or stay at the Trapp Family Lodge, which is still owned and operated by the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame.

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>> Next: Secrets of the National Parks

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