Escape the Crowds: State Parks as Alternatives to Popular National Parks

MyTriplo
6 min readOct 3, 2023

National parks like Acadia and Zion are bucket-list adventures, but let’s face it, they’re often packed to the brim with visitors. The popularity of these iconic spots can make a visit feel less like an escape and more like a waiting game. But here’s a secret: many state parks offer the same breathtaking views without the long lines.

Dive into our list of hidden gems that rival their famous national park neighbors in beauty but not in bustle.

1. Mount San Jacinto State Park, California: Beyond the Beaten Path

While Yosemite National Park often steals the limelight, there’s a lesser-known gem in California that beckons with its own allure: Mount San Jacinto State Park. As California’s pioneering state park, it’s a testament to nature’s timeless beauty and the state’s commitment to preserving it.

The view of Mount San Jacinto State Park

Nestled near Palm Springs, Mount San Jacinto is a canvas of contrasts. Rugged granite peaks rise majestically, challenging adventurers and seasoned hikers, while serene alpine meadows offer a gentle embrace for nature lovers and daydreamers.

It’s a place where every trail tells a story, from tales of intrepid climbers to the soft songs of birds that call this park home.

But the adventures don’t stop at hiking. The park is a year-round wonderland, offering birdwatching, bouldering, and even the magic of snowshoeing in winter’s embrace. And for those who seek a unique blend of thrill and beauty, the Palm Springs Aerial Tram awaits. As the world’s largest rotating tram car, it promises a journey like no other, soaring through peaks and valleys, revealing the park’s secrets from a bird’s-eye view.

At the summit, the world feels different. The air is crisper, the views more expansive. Whether you’re savoring a meal, toasting to nature’s wonders, or simply letting your soul wander along the trails, Mount San Jacinto offers a slice of paradise, a place where stories come alive and memories are etched in the heart.

2. Maine’s Secret Shores: Beyond Acadia to Roque Bluffs & Camden Hills

Maine, with its rugged coastline and whispering pines, has always been a haven for those seeking a touch of the wild. While Acadia National Park often claims the spotlight, two lesser-known treasures, Roque Bluffs and Camden Hills state parks, offer equally enchanting escapes.

Roque Bluffs, a serene sanctuary just south of Machias, is a geologist’s dream and a traveler’s delight. Spanning 300 acres along the Englishman Bay coast, it’s a place where the land and sea dance in harmony.

The park boasts a unique beach, a blend of soft sand and rustic cobble, offering a tranquil spot to relax and soak in the views.

Unlike some of Maine’s more popular spots, Roque Bluffs promises a more intimate experience, where the sounds of nature take center stage.

Maine, Camden Hill

A short drive west leads to Camden Hills State Park, a destination that marries mountain adventures with coastal charm. Here, travelers can ascend the park’s peak, either by foot or vehicle, and be rewarded with sweeping views of Penobscot Bay. The park’s extensive trail network beckons hikers, while its campsites offer a chance to sleep under a canopy of stars.

But the magic doesn’t end within the park boundaries. The nearby town of Camden, with its quaint shops, delightful eateries, and timeless allure, adds another layer to the experience.

It’s a place where the past and present intertwine, where every corner holds a story waiting to be discovered.

3. Idaho’s Hidden Gem: Land of the Yankee Fork State Park

Nestled deep within the Sawtooth Mountains, about a scenic four-hour drive southeast of Boise, lies the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park. This park isn’t just a mere alternative to the Rocky Mountain National Park; it’s a treasure trove of history, expansive landscapes, and diverse wildlife.

Bayhorse, one of these long-abandoned towns, stands as a testament to the bygone era, echoing tales of the past. The other two, Custer and Bonanza, are equally captivating, preserving the stories of Idaho’s early settlers. As you wander through these sites, you’re not just walking on trails but traveling back in time.

Bayhorse

But the park isn’t all about the past. It’s also a haven for modern-day adventurers. Surrounded by national forests, it serves as a gateway to countless hiking trails and motorsport paths. For those who love to rev up their engines, the park is a popular spot to kick off ATV and UTV adventures. And for a touch of relaxation, the recently added Challis Hot Springs offers a warm, therapeutic soak.

Nature enthusiasts, keep your eyes peeled! The park is home to majestic bighorn sheep, soaring eagles, and other mountain-dwelling creatures.

In the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park, every trail, every corner, every vista tells a story, waiting to be discovered.

4. Goblin Valley’s Mystical Landscape: Utah’s Hidden Gem

Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park emerges as a captivating alternative for those who’ve marveled at Zion National Park. This unique park is christened after its peculiar and fascinating sandstone formations, affectionately termed “goblins.” These hoodoos, with their alien-esque and mushroom-like appearances, stand as testaments to the power of erosion, much like the majestic structures in Zion.

Goblin Valley State Park

Venturing into the heart of the park, you’re greeted with an expansive valley that beckons exploration.

The valley offers three square miles of unrestricted hiking. It’s a place where every step can lead to a new discovery, and every visit feels different.

Whether you’re seeking solitude or an adventure, the park’s vastness ensures each wanderer finds their own path.

Beyond the valley, the park unfolds more treasures. From intriguing caves that whisper ancient tales to the thrill of disc golf, there’s something for every kind of explorer.

For the adrenaline junkies, the goblins serve as perfect spots for rappelling, canyoneering, and climbing. But perhaps the most mesmerizing spectacle is the park’s night sky. Recognized as a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park, Goblin Valley offers a celestial canvas like no other.

For those eager to dive deeper into the park’s offerings, especially group programs, a quick call ahead can unlock a world of possibilities.

5. Tonto’s Majestic Bridge: Arizona’s Hidden Gem

While Arizona’s Grand Canyon, drawing a staggering 4.7 million visitors annually, stands as a testament to nature’s grandeur, there’s another gem tucked away just north of Phoenix: Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. This lesser-known haven offers a unique geological marvel that’s equally awe-inspiring.

The park’s centerpiece is a breathtaking natural bridge, spanning 400 feet and towering at 183 feet high. This isn’t just any bridge; it holds the title of the world’s largest naturally formed travertine bridge. Its sheer size and beauty magnetize a diverse array of visitors, each eager to marvel at its splendor.

For those seeking a relaxed experience, the park has thoughtfully laid out a paved path, leading to four easily accessible viewpoints. But if a bit of adventure is on the agenda, the Gowan Trail is the way to go. This scenic route takes explorers on a quarter-mile journey, culminating in an observation deck with panoramic views of the bridge and its mesmerizing waterfall.

Yet, the allure of Tonto doesn’t end there. The Waterfall Trail, a short but enchanting path with just 105 steps, is a must-visit.

This trail not only offers captivating views but also reveals the fascinating process behind the formation of travertine.

As the mineral-rich water flows, it adds about an inch to the bridge every year, showcasing nature’s persistent artistry. A trip to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a visual feast and a testament to the wonders of the natural world.

While iconic national parks often steal the limelight, state parks, with their unique charms and lesser crowds, offer equally enriching experiences.

Whether it’s the serene beauty of Goblin Valley’s night sky or the awe-inspiring travertine bridge of Tonto, these hidden gems beckon travelers with the promise of adventure and discovery.

So, the next time you’re charting a journey, consider these state park treasures. They might just offer the tranquil escape or thrilling exploration you’ve been yearning for.

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