Photo by Roberto Michel/Shutterstock
Photo courtesy Shutterstock
Park yourself for a day—or overnight, in one of the historic cottages—at Gulf State Park in Alabama.
From Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas to Babcock State Park in West Virginia, hikers, campers, and outdoor adventurers will want to add these 14 state parks in the South to their outdoor adventure 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.
The state parks here may be bundled beneath one geographic designation—the South—but they couldn’t be more different from one another, encompassing some of the most mind-boggling features of this country. Just try to compare the bayou-like waterways of Louisiana’s Chicot State Park with the otherworldly desert landscapes of Big Bend Ranch in Texas, or the dark lava rock moonscape of Oklahoma’s Black Mesa with the waterfall splendor that is Tennessee’s Fall Creek Falls.
The best way to understand them, of course, is to visit. So consider this list of the best state parks in the South—encompassing Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas—your starting line.
Fifty acres of white sand dunes. Twenty-eight miles of hiking and biking trails. Nine different ecosystems, with pine forests and freshwater lagoons. Some 6,000 acres of protected land, complete with a Hilton-run lodge, a learning campus, and a renewed focus on conservation: This is what a multimillion-dollar park rehabbed by Deepwater Horizon oil spill reparations looks like, and it’s pretty idyllic.
Life at this park naturally revolves around Lake Ouachita, the deepest and clearest lake in the state. Known for its fishing—mariners can cast for bass and catfish—the lake has hundreds of little islands and inlets, where kayakers and canoers can explore. There’s plenty to do on land, too: sunbathe at one of two swimming beaches, hike the four-mile Caddo Bend Trail, and take a tour to the Audubon-designated Bird Island.
Encompassing 70 (nautical) square miles, Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first undersea park in the United States; it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a glass-bottom boat tour of its famed reef, or DIY with a snorkel or scuba adventure. Kayaking, paddleboarding, and canoeing are available for those interested in exploring the park’s 50 miles of mangrove wilderness trails.
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“My favorite [Georgia] state park right now is Red Top Mountain. It’s very close to Atlanta, only 45 minutes away, so you can easily shoot up there for the weekend or just a day hike. It’s on the banks of Lake Allatoona—you can go swimming or boating or floating—and there are campsites right on the lake. The campsites are very wooded, which makes [Red Top] great in the summer. You can usually get a normal spot a week or two before, but if you want a lakeside spot, you have to book far in advance. The hiking is good, too. There’s a four-mile loop, Iron Hill Trail, where there are a lot of cool bridges you can walk over, and you can see green foliage and the lake through the trees.” —Adriana Garcia, cofounder of LatinXHikers
The view from Eagle Point Overlook alone is worth the trip, but you could also come to play on a nationally ranked golf course or fish the lake for white bass and rainbow trout. Given that this is Kentucky, 24 of the 144 campsites are horse-friendly.
An ecological wonderland, Chicot—Louisiana’s largest state park—is a 6,400-acre mix of swampland, waterways, and hill country. Within the park is Lake Chicot, which has an eight-mile canoe trail and a 600-acre arboretum where indigenous species (sycamores and beech, magnolia and crane fly orchids) are carefully preserved. One of Chicot’s many highlights: the 20-mile backpacking trail that circles Lake Chicot. (There are six first-come, first-serve backcountry sites along the trail.) Walking the lakeside trails in fall, when the cypress trees that seem to sprout from the lake change color, is especially magical.
Named for Chief Tishomingo, who led the Chickasaw nation in the early 19th century, Tishomingo offers a peek at the past: Excavations reveal that native people called Tishomingo home as early as 7000 B.C.E. Extending into the foothills of the Appalachians, the park is thickly forested, with 13 miles of trails. And, with massive stone outcroppings, it’s the only place in the state to rock-climb (by permit only). Tranquil Bear Creek winds through the park; in late spring through late fall, the park offers a two- to three-hour guided canoe float.
You can see Hanging Rock’s namesake long before you reach the entrance to the park: Rising miles out of the Sauratown Mountain Range is the frequently photographed quartzite outcropping that most travelers hike to at least once. Of course, the park is much more than that. Encompassing roughly 9,000 mountainous acres and home to 20 miles of trails—including the 2.7-mile Hanging Rock loop—it’s a hiker’s paradise. Several small waterfalls, a small lake (with a swimming beach), and mountain biking trails are also big draws.
Where else in Oklahoma can you hike across a sea of black lava rock that’s nearly 30 million years old? Black Mesa State Park, which contains the Black Mesa Nature Reserve, occupies 1,600 acres in the Oklahoma panhandle. Visitors can hike the 4.2 lava rock miles to the 4,973-foot plateau—the highest point in the state—or, at night, soak in some of the best stargazing in the Sooner State (thanks to the park’s altitude and remote location).
We have a soft spot for Paris Mountain State Park, five miles north of Greenville, set in the South Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a go-to spot for mountain bikers with 15 miles of trails, as well as families looking for a day hike or picnic on Lake Placid.
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“Growing up, every year my family would go camping at Fall Creek Falls State Park in eastern Tennessee. It’s super green and has a huge campground—the largest I’ve ever stayed in—and there are beautiful waterfalls, which is what it’s known for, [including falls] in the actual campground. As a kid, my parents would just let me roam around. We loved to play in the water and swim. The hiking there is really great—there are several to choose from. You can walk to the base of a waterfall and feel the water coming down on your face or get behind the falls. It’s also a great place for fall foliage. You could probably camp up until November and you’d be fine. Even as adults, we try to go every year.” —Adriana Garcia, cofounder of LatinXHikers
“Big Bend is an otherworldly experience. At more than 300,000 acres, it’s so incredibly vast and the landscape is this mountainous desert—it’s in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. The Rio Grande is its southern border. [The park] is very remote and most of the time, your cell phone doesn’t work, so you have to be up for being off the grid. But it’s just tremendous. There’s backcountry camping, though you can also stay closer to River Road, which has more accessible sites. There’s hiking—one really cool family-friendly trail is Closed Canyon, a slot canyon where you walk in and the walls just get closer and closer and closer. The park is also a mountain biker’s paradise, and you can take a guided rafting trip down the river—and it’s an International Dark Sky Park. I’ve never considered myself a big stargazer, but you go out there and realize, ‘Oh, this is what the sky actually looks like.’ It’s just a sea of stars.” —Courtney Bond, senior editor at Texas Monthly.
As with many other interstate drives, making your way along I-81 in western Virginia can get monotonous. Thankfully, Natural Bridge State Park is just a few miles off exit 175, making it a great pit stop to stretch your legs and enjoy the scenery during a long road trip. To view the park’s namesake 215-tall rock formation carved into the surrounding limestone gorge, take the two-mile out-and-back Cedar Creek Trail from the visitor center.
“Babcock State Park is a must-see vacation destination—especially in the fall. Autumn colors line the historic Glade Creek Grist Mill, and lush, forest-lined hiking trails are at their peak. Visitors to the park can stay in a cozy mountain cabin or explore the charming small towns nearby.” — Chelsea Ruby, tourism commissioner of West Virginia Office of Tourism
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