These Underrated State Parks Are as Gorgeous as the Most Popular National Parks

Avoid the crowds of seven popular national parks and visit these state parks instead.

Aerial shot of green, orange, and red trees surrounding three waterfalls

Blackwater Falls State Park is one of the many underrated state parks in the country.

Photo Courtesy of West Virginia Tourism

The summer months are a wonderful for basking in the beauty of many national parks, including the Grand Canyon and the Grand Tetons. Less grand: the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that want to experience them too. Good thing the roads to equally incredible state parks (there are thousands!) are often far less traveled. They’re fantastic options in case you can’t get a national parks reservation, or in the event of the occasional government shutdown.

Here are state park alternatives to the some of the most-visited U.S. national parks in 2023. These spaces offer room to roam and see wildlife up close. Just make sure you remember to practice “leave no trace.”

Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

  • Go instead of: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Appalachian region is home to the most-visited park in the national park system, the Great Smoky Mountains, which saw a whopping 13 million visitors in 2023. But the beauty of Appalachia is that it’s sprawling, stretching across 13 states, and can be appreciated from a ton of (lesser-crowded) vistas. West Virginia’s Blackwater Falls State Park is a prime example, home to the Allegheny Mountains—a section of the Appalachians—without the crowds of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Blackwater Falls State Park reported about 850,000 visitors in 2015.) Come to Blackwater in the autumn, and you can enjoy fall foliage that’s just as gorgeous as what you’ll find in North Carolina and Tennessee. As you take a photo of the Blackwater Falls against the deep oranges and reds, you may not even have to edit people out of your shot.

Bonus: If you’re looking for a national park alternative, consider Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The park drew in only 1.58 million visitors in 2023, but it’s home to 500 miles of trails in the Appalachian region. Plus, it’s an incredible fall-foliage road trip thanks to the Skyline Drive, which snakes through the park for 105 miles.

Where to stay: Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge

Consider staying in Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge, which had top-to-bottom renovations in 2022. Afar contributor Madeline Weinfield recommends the stay, especially with the views it has to offer: “With just 54 rooms, the lodge feels as close to nature as you can get from the comfort of a real bed. Its location makes for immersive stargazing and—if you wake up early enough—for watching the sun rise over the falls.”

River curving through red rock

Dead Horse Point State Park overlooks Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Photo by Sebastian Modak

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

  • Go instead of: Grand Canyon National Park

The Colorado River etched its way through the Colorado Plateau 5 to 6 million years ago, helping forge the landscapes of the 1.2-million-acre Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. The park drew 4.73 million to its South, North, West, and East Rims in 2023. To see a whole different view of the winding Colorado River with nearly as dramatic geological formations, drive about six hours northeast and admire the scenery of Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. Although it has a less enticing name, Dead Horse Point State Park park sees only around a million visitors annually and also offers views of the Colorado River curving through layers of Southwestern rock (the park overlooks Canyonlands National Park to the southeast). Wheeled adventure abounds here, too, as travelers can get up close to the scenery with its Intrepid Mountain Biking Trail system.

Where to stay: Dead Horse Point State Park

The state park has two campgrounds, the Kayenta Campground and Wingate Campground, to choose from. There are even several yurts that can be booked on the reservation website.

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

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

Courtesy Shutterstock

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

  • Go instead of: Zion National Park

Utah’s “Big 5" parks—Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon—drew in more than 10 million travelers in 2023, and Zion alone welcomed 4.62 million visitors. While the dangerous Angels Landing hike can’t be replicated, many of the park’s features, including sandstone cliffs, slot canyons, hoodoos (rocks that were eroded into top-heavy formations), and arches, can be found throughout the state. The 6,300-acre Goblin Valley State Park, about 280 miles northeast of Zion, is known for its hoodoos and otherworldly hiking trails. And the park’s status as an International Dark Sky Park means that those rocks frame some of the best starry skies in the country, giving more incentive to choose this alternative.

Where to stay: Goblin Valley State Park

Goblin Valley State Park is one of the best state parks in the country for camping. There are 25 sites available at Goblin Valley State Park, as well as two yurts.

A herd of bison on grassy land

Custer State Park is home to more than 1,000 bison.

Photo by Anh Luu/Shutterstock

Custer State Park, South Dakota

  • Go instead of: Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park

As the first national park in the United States, Yellowstone receives a lot of fame—and visitors: The park had about 4.5 million visitors in 2023. Similarly, the neighboring Grand Teton National Park received a lot of attention from travelers, attracting 3.4 million people to its incredible mountainous landscapes in 2023.

As an alternative, check out Custer State Park, a spot some 430 miles east that receives only half the travelers. Much like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, its wide-open spaces and wildlife make it one of the best state parks in the region. Custer covers nearly 71,000 acres of rolling plains, and the 1,300 or so bison that roam through these parts can be spotted without binoculars (you can see them up close on routes like the Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway). Sure, Yellowstone’s geothermal features (like Old Faithful) aren’t found here. But this park has some gems, too: granite rock spires and pillars reaching thousands of feet into the sky. And one of the country’s most famous rock formations, Mount Rushmore, is merely 20 miles north.

Where to stay: Under Canvas Mount Rushmore

Glamp at Under Canvas’s Mount Rushmore outpost, less than four miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument and about 30 minutes from Custer State Park. The stay offers nine different tent options, including a Stargazer Tent, which comes with a viewing window above the king bed.

Sunset over a tree-covered mountain

Golden Gate Canyon State Park is only around 30 miles from Denver and 25 miles from Boulder.

Photo by Andreas Gamst Laursen/Shutterstock

Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Colorado

  • Go instead of: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is famous for the scenery, spanning more than 60 peaks that reach at least 12,000 feet in height—one is a “fourteener’’ (a mountain peak over 14,000 feet)—and alpine lakes. The park draws quite a few visitors, with about 4.1 million coming to hike, bike, and explore the 266,000-acre park; it’s even implemented a reservation system to keep crowding to a minimum. If you want to enjoy the uncrowded landscapes of the Rockies, head to the 12,000-acre Golden Gate Canyon State Park, which had only 1.58 million visitors in 2021. The park is a 25-mile drive south of Boulder and has more than 35 miles of hiking trails, with plenty of places to see the aspens change colors in the fall.

Bonus: Beyond the state parks, wilderness areas also encompass pretty hiking trails and views comparable to a national park. (Wilderness areas are federally owned land, but different from national parks in that they’re intended to remain relatively untouched.) Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado is one of them, just outside of Aspen, and is home to multiple fourteeners, including Castle and Maroon Peaks.

Where to stay: St. Julien Hotel & Spa

While there are a ton of campsites available at Golden Gate Canyon, drive back to Boulder and spend the night in one of the best hotels in the state. The St. Julien Hotel & Spa has a 10,000-square-foot spa (no wonder spa is in its name) as well as great views of the neighboring mountains.

Boardwalk going through tall trees

Pfieffer Big Sur State Park is home to redwood trees and waterfalls.

Photo by BDLane/Shutterstock

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California

  • Go instead of: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, located in the middle of California, drew 3.9 million visitors in 2023 thanks to its towering sequoias and waterfalls. (Fun fact: Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the continent.) But drive some 215 miles west to the Pacific Coast, and you’ll find the lesser-visited Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which travelers have nicknamed “mini Yosemite” because of its diverse landscapes and tranquil atmosphere. The approximately 1,000-acre park also has its share of gorgeous waterfall action, like the 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls.

Bonus: Plenty of national forests in the state offer scenery similar to Yosemite National Park, including Sierra National Forest. The forest is less than a 10-minute drive from Yosemite and is home to parts of the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail (which overlap). Given that both areas include stretches of the Sierra Nevada, visitors will find many similar geographical features, from lakes and waterfalls to granite peaks and pines, with a touch more ruggedness.

Where to stay: Post Ranch Inn

Five miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Post Ranch Inn sits on a cliff more than 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Afar contributor Kathryn Romeyn writes that wellness plays a huge role in the hotel’s experience, with offerings that range from shaman healing sessions to meditation sessions in the nearby forests.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
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