America’s Best State Parks: Small Places with Big Views

When it comes to the great outdoors, America’s big, beautiful national parks tend to get all the attention thanks to their millions of visitors and endlessly photographed scenic wonders. But they aren’t the entire story. If you’re yearning to escape into the wilderness but only have time for a weekend jaunt, then consider one of these wonderful state parks. They preserve landscapes every bit as spectacular as their larger, federally protected counterparts, but they are often less remote and less crowded.


Camden, Maine

Camden Hills State Park

Just 2 miles north of the picturesque coastal village of Camden, Camden Hills State Park rewards visitors with easy access to panoramas of Maine’s rocky, forested coast. You can drive up to Mount Battie’s 780-foot summit and after a short walk enjoy 360-degree views from atop the park’s stone tower. Or if you’re up for the exercise, tackle the hike up 1,385-foot Mount Megunticook, the park’s highest point. There the view really opens up, taking in the village and the scattering of islands in Penobscot Bay all the way to Acadia National Park.

Stay Here: Inns at Blackberry Common, 82 Elm St., Camden, ME 04843. This AAA Three Diamond property has two charming buildings: an authentic Colonial and a restored Victorian, both surrounded by acres of lovely gardens.


Chimney Rock, North Carolina

Chimney Rock State Park

Offering sweeping vistas of Lake Lure and the North Carolina mountains, the 315-foot column of hard gneiss stone that’s the centerpiece of AAA GEM® Chimney Rock State Park has been drawing crowds of sightseers for more than a century. Hikers can climb to the top via a trail and a series of stairways. Other park trails lead to vantage points overlooking Chimney Rock itself and to 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls, where scenes from the 1992 movie “Last of the Mohicans” were filmed.

Stay Here: The Esmerelda Inn & Restaurant, 910 Main St., Chimney Rock, NC 28720. Guests of this AAA Three Diamond inn need travel no farther than one of the inn’s large verandas for great views of Chimney Rock. The décor is park lodge chic: Picture rough-hewn columns, a stone fireplace and stair railings of gnarled branches polished to a high gloss.


Custer, South Dakota

Custer State Park

AAA GEM Custer State Park sprawls across 71,000 acres of South Dakota’s scenic Black Hills, but despite its photogenic and distinctive peaks, it tends to attract less attention than its two famous neighbors: the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. But don’t miss your chance to tour the park’s Needles Highway Scenic Drive, named for the narrow granite spires towering above the treetops. The highway leads to Custer State Park’s most photographed spot, Sylvan Lake, where rock formations form a vertical wall along the shore and are reflected in the lake’s clear water.

Stay Here: Creekside Lodge, 13389 US 16 A, Custer, SD 57730, is one of five lodges actually within the park, so the location couldn’t be any more convenient. Nestled in a forest of lodgepole pines, the AAA Three Diamond hotel sports a rustic exterior that belies the modern conveniences within.


Baraboo, Wisconsin

Devil’s Lake State Park

Within Wisconsin’s Baraboo Hills, Devil’s Lake is nearly surrounded by 500-foot-high quartzite bluffs dotted with unusual rock formations that look like flat-sided boulders stacked on top of each other. Elephant Rock, Balanced Rock and Devil’s Doorway are some of these odd geological features, accessible by way of the AAA GEM park’s extensive trail system. The views from high atop the bluffs take in the lake below and the surrounding rolling countryside, which is especially stunning in autumn when the forest’s deep green foliage is replaced by brilliant oranges and yellows.

Stay Here: Great Wolf Lodge, 1400 Great Wolf Dr., Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965. This modern, family-friendly AAA Three Diamond hotel is done up in a woodsy cabin theme, and it’s less than a half-hour away from Devil’s Lake. The lodge’s indoor water park includes a wide range of kid-pleasing waterslides, rides and play areas.


Trinidad, California

Patrick’s Point State Park

Tucked away along Northern California’s magnificent Redwood Coast, Patrick’s Point State Park packs a lot in a relatively small parcel of land. The park features a re-created Yurok Village, campgrounds, a visitor center and a trail network winding through a lush forest of coastal redwoods, spruce, fir and pine. Some trails lead down to a beach or along the bluffs while one ascends Wedding Rock, revealing a dramatic view from 100 feet above the crashing surf.

Stay Here: View Crest Lodge, 3415 Patrick’s Point Dr., Trinidad, CA 95570. Just a mile away from Patrick’s Point State Park, this AAA Three Diamond lodge is actually a collection of individual cottages set within manicured gardens. Guests can chill out on private decks with views of the Pacific after a day of exploring the state park.


Utica, Illinois

Starved Rock State Park

AAA GEM Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois’ most visited natural areas, and it’s easy to see why: Here 18 canyons have been sculpted out of tall sandstone bluffs along the Illinois River, and after heavy rain, pretty waterfalls spill down the weathered canyon walls. Combined with rustling leaves and the twittering of birds, the sound of splashing water is a potent balm sure to reduce your stress level. More than 13 miles of trails run along the riverbanks and the bluff tops as well as thread into the canyons.

Stay Here: Brightwood Inn, 2407 N. SR 178, Utica, Il 61348. This AAA Three Diamond country inn just down the road from Starved Rock is within Matthiessen State Park, which offers similar scenery and can be a pleasant alternative if the crowds at Starved Rock State Park are too heavy. Resembling a farmhouse, Brightwood Inn features large guest rooms with fireplaces.


Apopka, Florida

Wekiwa Springs State Park

This Central Florida jewel on the edge of the Orlando metro area is named for the crystal clear springs that flow into the Wekiva River — pure heaven for canoeing and kayaking. Here you can paddle beneath massive branches of live oaks draped in Spanish moss and glide past half-submerged logs crowded with turtles basking in the sun.

Stay Here: Hampton Inn & Suites Orlando-North/Altamonte Springs, 161 N. Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714. Located 15 minutes from Wekiwa Springs State Park, this AAA Three Diamond hotel is right off I-4, giving you convenient access to Central Florida’s main thoroughfare and a straight shot to Walt Disney World less than 45 minutes south. After a day of outdoor adventures, guests can relax gathered around the patio’s fire pit or lay out by the pool.

Leave a Reply