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

By AFAR Editors

Sep 15, 2020

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Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park is as ethereally spooky as its name implies.

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Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park is as ethereally spooky as its name implies.

From Cerrillos Hills in New Mexico to Kachemak Bay State Park in Alaska, hikers, campers, and outdoor adventurers will want to add these 13 best state parks in the West to their outdoor adventure 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.

There are so many reasons to go park-hunting out West. Under-the-radar rock formations in Utah. Moss-draped rain forest in Washington. Soft sand dunes, not along the coast, but deep in Idaho—perfect for late-season exploring. Read on to learn more about the best state parks in the western states of California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, Arizona, and New Mexico. And then book a campsite—or maybe a yurt! or a cabin!—whether for a late-fall getaway or as a reason to dream about spring 2021.

Kachemak Bay, Alaska’s first state park, is home to the 11-mile-long Grewingk Glacier.

Alaska

Kachemak Bay State Park

Abutting the southern end of Kenai Fjords National Park, Kachemak Bay State Park consists of around 400,000 acres of mountains and glaciers. Its coastal location means it’s a great place to head out on the water to spot whales and sea otters. But don’t forget to look up: There’s plenty of bird-watching to do, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a puffin or two—or even a bald eagle. 

  • Nearest city to Kachemak Bay State Park: Homer, AK
  • Where to stay when visiting Kachemak Bay State Park: Book one of the six cabins within the park via reserveamerica.com. Or stay at Tutka Bay Lodge, located on the edge of the park and accessible by a 25-minute water taxi ride from Homer.

Tucson, Arizona, has the largest saguaro cacti in the country—and nearly 5,000 of them grow in Catalina State Park, 30 minutes from the city.

Arizona

Catalina State Park

“Catalina offers a wide variety of programs that are free to the public: These include nature walks, star parties, and more. In addition to the free programs, Catalina State Park has great camping, plenty of hiking, as well as backpacking Mt. Lemmon—and cooler weather!” —Amy Ewing, Outdoor Women’s Alliance 

  • Nearest city to Catalina State Park: Catalina—located in the Catalina Foothills—is just a 30-minute drive from Tucson.  
  • Where to stay when visiting Catalina State Park: The park has 120 campsites. Travelers can easily stay in Tucson—we like Hotel Congress—or drive a little farther west to stay in Posada by the Joshua Tree House, one of AFAR’s 2020 best new hotels.

In Montaña de Oro State Park, located on California’s Central Coast, travelers can hike along the bluffs or climb to three different peaks.

California

Montaña de Oro State Park

Finding a smoke-free place to get outdoors in California at the moment is a tall task, but Montaña de Oro State Park, just six miles southwest of Morro Bay, fits the bill. The park gets its name from the mountains of golden wildflowers that bloom each spring, but its secluded beaches and trails that follow the rugged coastline make it a picturesque destination to visit year-round. 

  • Nearest city to Montaña de Oro State Park: San Luis Obispo, CA
  • Where to stay when visiting Montaña de Oro State Park: Currently the Islay Creek campground and the park’s environmental campsites are closed. However, this Airbnb guesthouse (with hot tub access!) is just a 15-minute drive up the coast.

Colorado’s State Forest State Park is a popular place for trout fishing.

Colorado

State Forest State Park

For travelers who want the full Colorado outdoor experience, State Forest is it. The park’s 71,000 acres contain mountains and alpine lakes (State Forest stretches into both the Medicine Bow Mountains and the Never Summer Range), sand dunes, and wildlife. Moose are the big draw, with some 600 ungulates (hoofed mammals) calling the park home. There are 90 miles of hiking trails—the six-mile Gould Loop takes you past moose habitat—and 130 miles of mountain biking trails. Keep in mind that elevation ranges from 8,500 to 13,000, so visitors unused to the high-country life should give themselves time to acclimate.

  • Nearest city to State Forest State Park: Fort Collins is a little over two hours away.
  • Where to stay when visiting State Forest State Park: Book one of the park’s 158 campsites, or snag one of the six rustic cabins or 11 yurts sprinkled throughout the park. (The North Park Yurts, which have solar-powered lighting, can sleep up to nine people.)

From Kokee State Park, hikers can peer out at Kauai’s Waimea Canyon.

Hawaii

Kokee State Park

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“Kokee State Park is the backyard of many of [Kauai’ s] westside towns and many people use the forest for hunting and gathering. So it is a traditional space for many. There are hiking trails in the forests and view trails that look over remote parts of Waimea Canyon or the Na Pali [Coast]. There are stands of trees that were planted in the ’30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps: redwoods, sugi (a Japanese cypress), pines with cones, California cypress, and of course, the native trees (koa and ʻohiʻa). At 3,500- to 4,000-foot elevations, it is like being in a different world, yet you are still on Kauai. The nicest thing is that you can spend the day there and do nothing but a picnic in the meadow at park headquarters to reset your mind and relax. You don’t have to do anything, or you can do a lot.” —Chris Faye, director of the Kokee Natural History Museum

  • Nearest city to Kokee State Park: Waimea and Kekaha are the two closest towns.
  • Where to stay when visiting Kokee State Park: “If you are planning to stay at Kokee, you can only use designated campsites and they require state parks or forestry permits,” Faye says. “The handful of State Cabin rentals are booked out far in advance, so you have to do that ahead of time.”

Climb to the top of the aptly named Big Dune, a 470-foot sand mountain in Idaho’s Bruneau Dunes State Park.

Idaho

Bruneau Dunes State Park

There’s one sand dune that rises above the rest in Bruneau Dunes State Park: the 470-foot Big Dune, aka the tallest freestanding dune in North America. Climb the beast and sandsurf down—in normal times, the park rents snowboardlike boards for $15/day. Or take a hike through the desert landscape (the six-mile park trail summits Big Dune) or float in one of the two small lakes. The park comes particularly alive at night, when the park’s observatory opens for stargazing sessions and scorpion walks, during which rangers use UV lights to hunt for the nocturnal creatures.   

  • Nearest city to Bruneau Dunes State Park: Boise; Bruneau is about an hour’s drive southeast.
  • Where to stay when visiting Bruneau Dunes State Park: The park’s camping season—from March through late fall—is one of the longest in the state. There are a handful of campsites, as well as two one-room cabins with charming porch swings. You can also overnight at the Modern Hotel, a former Travelodge that’s now a midcentury inn with some of Boise’s best food.

The Badlands in Montana’s Makoshika State Park are dotted with juniper trees—and fossil remains.

Montana

Makoshika State Park

Montana’s largest state park, Makoshika contains a magnificent, 11,000-acre stretch of Badlands. Amateur geologists take note: Rocks in the park date back to the Cretaceous Period (a mere 65 million years ago), their history visible in striated layers of sediment. Dino fans will do well here, too—there are T-rex and triceratops fossils on display at the recently renovated visitor center. Hunt for fossils along one of the park’s three trails, or let the park’s geological magnitude settle in as you play a round of disc golf.

  • Nearest city to Makoshika State Park: The park abuts the town of Glendive; Bozeman is a five-hour drive west and the North Dakota border is 30 minutes east.
  • Where to stay when visiting Makoshika State Park: Overnight at Makoshika’s Cains Coulee campground, which has 28 campsites and is open year round. Glendive has a smattering of affordable motels and hotels.

In Cathedral Gorge State Park, adventurers can hike the only slot canyons found in Nevada.

Nevada

Cathedral Gorge State Park

Located a 2.5-hour drive northeast of Las Vegas, Cathedral Gorge State Park has 2,000 acres of slot canyons and cathedrallike spires that have been carved out of bentonite clay over tens of millions of years by erosion. Access the Miller Point overlook from the picnic area via a one-mile trail, or discover the more remote reaches of the park on a four-mile loop trail. Its remote location in the middle of the desert also means it’s a great spot for stargazing. 

  • Nearest city to Cathedral Gorge State Park: Las Vegas, NV
  • Where to stay when visiting Cathedral Gorge State Park: The 22 campsites are first-come, first-serve.

Cerrillos Hills, New Mexico’s newest state park, is an excellent spot for a late fall or early winter hike.

New Mexico

Cerrillos Hills State Park

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Cactus. Sagebrush. High desert sunsets. Turquoise mines. At New Mexico’s newest state park, Cerrillos Hills, the views are like a scene straight out of an old western—but that may be because a number of them, like Young Guns, were in fact filmed here. Visitors can explore this western wonderland by hiking, mountain biking, or yes, even horseback riding with the experienced guides at Broken Saddle.

  • Nearest city to Cerrillos Hills State Park: Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
  • Where to stay when visiting Cerrillos Hills State Park: Camping isn’t allowed at Cerrillos but you can continue to connect with nature by booking a room at Los Poblanos Inn and organic farm in Albuquerque or Japanese onsen-inspired Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe.

Sitka Sedge, a 365-acre state park on the Oregon coast, is home to wetland, mud flats, and sand dunes.

Oregon

Sitka Sedge State Natural Area

Just five miles north of one of our all-time favorite Oregon coastal towns, surf idyll Pacific City, is one of the state’s newest parks. Sitka Sedge is a “wonderful little slice” of coastal forest, dunes, and wetland—if 375 acres is little—in “an area that hasn’t seen a lot of development,” Chris Havel, a spokesperson for Oregon State Parks, told Portland Monthly when it opened in 2018. Don’t forget to look south from the beach: Cape Kiwanda (another stellar state park) and its towering sea stack, Chief Kiawanda Rock, loom large. 

Marking the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park in Utah are a line of the park’s eponymous main draw: sandstone hoodoos, or “goblins.”

Utah

Goblin Valley State Park

You may know Utah for its sunset-hued slot canyons and arches, but at Goblin Valley State Park, tall, mushroom-shaped rock formations known as hoodoos are the main attraction. Locally referred to as goblins, these hoodoos create a strange, moonlike landscape (the movie Galaxy Quest was filmed here) that you can explore by hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, or canyoneering. 

  • Nearest city to Goblin Valley State Park: Hanksville, UT—but 1.5 hours from Moab.
  • Where to stay when visiting Goblin Valley State Park: You can make this a pit stop between Moab and Escalante, but stargazers will want to make a reservation at their campground and enjoy some of the darkest night skies in the country.

Bogachiel State Park, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, comprises 123 acres, including old-growth rainforest.

Washington

Bogachiel State Park

Olympic National Park, which includes the Olympic Mountains and the Hoh Rain Forest, occupies most of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And that makes Bogachiel, a state park on the peninsula’s western edge, the perfect home base. Both the Pacific Coast and the Hoh are within an hour’s drive. The riverside park is “beautiful on its own,” says Dan Moore, an advisor for Roam Beyond, “but what is most spectacular is the access it provides for other incredible hiking, such as Bogachiel River Trail.” Plus, it’s “in the heart of the temperate rain forest, and humongous trees in the forest will blow the mind of any visitor.”

  • Nearest city to Bogachiel State Park: Forks, WA (yes, the Twilight town)
  • Where to stay when visiting Bogachiel State Park: Bogachiel has 35 campsites, some of which are right on the river. Travelers can also book one of the luxury cabins at Quileute Oceanside Resort, run by the Quileute Tribe, in nearby La Push.

Over centuries, mineral-rich waters in Wyoming’s Hot Springs State Park formed the park’s popular Rainbow Terraces.

Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park

Healing waters are the big draw in the petite Hot Springs State Park: More than 8,000 gallons of 128-degree mineral water flow through the park every day. Soak in them at the free public bathhouse (the water is kept at a cooler 104 degrees F), or view them at Rainbow Terraces, a ledge over the Big Horn River formed by the water’s minerals. And no need to deal with Yellowstone crowds to see bison: the state’s largest herd—all two dozen of them—call Hot Springs home. If you go during the late fall or winter, you can catch the daily 8:30 a.m. feeding.

  • Nearest city to Hot Spring State Park: The park is part of the town of Thermopolis and a two-hour drive northwest of Casper, WY.
  • Where to stay when visiting Hot Spring State Park: Hot Springs is a day-use park with no overnight camping, but Thermopolis has plenty of hotel and motel options. Casper’s plentiful campgrounds are close enough to make a day trip to the park.  

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>> Next: The 14 Best Road Trips in the U.S. to Take in 2020

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