It’s likely that this will be the summer of the outdoor vacation, one that allows us to splash in waterfalls, hike rugged mountain trails and savor every scenic overlook along the way. Many will look to check off visits to national parks that have sat on bucket lists for years. As our national parks re-open one by one, the crowds have already begun to return in droves.
For a summer vacation that allows for outdoor adventures minus the long lines and crowded hiking trails, look to less-visited, but equally beautiful, state parks, recreation areas, and national monuments. Here are 10 fantastic destinations for soaking up nature that are more than worthy of a spot on your go list for this summer.
1. Colorado National Monument – Colorado
A short 30-minute drive from Grand Junction sits one of the state’s best-kept secrets, Colorado National Monument. The towering red rock spires and deep-cut canyons are beyond spectacular and can be admired on foot, by bike or from the comfort of your vehicle as you meander along 23-mile Rim Rock Drive. There are plenty of scenic pull-outs, too. Hike the short one-mile Canyon Rim Trail for sweeping views across Monument Canyon.
2. Snow Canyon State Park – Utah
Set in the high desert of Ivins, Snow Canyon State Park stuns with striking red rocks and towering sandstone cliffs. Here you’ll find easy parking, panoramic landscapes, and a fraction of the visitors of nearby Zion National Park (an hour’s drive). Take in the park’s open lava tubes, petrified dunes and scrubby lowland brush on the Butterfly Trail, then scramble to the top of the Lava Flow Overlook for 360-degree views of the black lava fields.
3. Bear Creek Lake State Park – Virginia
Less than one hour from Richmond, Bear Creek Lake State Park has something for everyone, including a shady campground by the 40-acre lake (Acorn Loop). Bring your own kayak or canoe to put in the water or rent one for the hour or half-day. The park has four-person pedal boats for rent, too. There are several fishing platforms around Beaver Creek Lake, which is home to largemouth bass, crappie, and channel catfish. Kids will love cooling off on the guarded swimming beach. There’s even a 10-lane archery range at this state park.
4. Presque Isle Park – Michigan
Set on the craggy shores of Lake Superior, Presque Isle Park in Marquette is a dreamy gem that’s at its very best in summer when you can delight in the gentle breezes as you settle in at a picnic table overlooking the lake. This 323-acre forest-covered peninsula awes with vista-laden hiking trails, like the two-mile Presque Isle Park Loop, which snakes along the outer perimeter of the peninsula. A courageous few may wish to jump from Black Rocks into the chilly waters of Lake Superior. Kayaking and geocaching are big here too.
5. Crooked River State Park – Georgia
Just a few miles from I-95 on the southernmost tip of Georgia’s Colonial Coast sits Crooked River State Park. Just 20 minutes from uber-popular Cumberland Island National Seashore, this state park has a lot to offer on its own, like four miles of nature trails, guided kayak trips, mini-golf, and bike rentals. Stop in the nature center for a look at wildlife native to coastal Georgia, like fiddler crabs, egrets, and herons. In the evening, settle in at your campsite, surrounded by palmettos and Spanish moss-draped live oak trees.
6. Cedar Breaks National Monument – Utah
Like hoodoos? Of course, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for them, but just over an hour southwest is Cedar Breaks National Monument, which wows with iconic spires and hoodoos as far as the eye can see. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, the park has a limited window in which to welcome visitors, thanks to an average yearly snowfall of 250 inches. From late-May to mid-October, hike on stunning trails, like the easy, two-mile Sunset Trail. Dramatic views wow in all directions, particularly from the colorful Sunset Overlook.
7. Trough Creek State Park – Pennsylvania
The lion’s share of visitors to Pennsylvania go west to Pittsburgh or east to Philadelphia, leaving gems in Central Pennsylvania, like Trough Creek State Park, to remain thankfully light on crowds. This gorgeous state park set on 541 acres wows with 12 miles of hiking trails, wildlife (black bears, white-tailed deer), waterfalls, and a suspension bridge to cross Great Trough Creek. This state park is also home to impressive geological features, like Balanced Rock, which sits precariously on a ledge, as if it may fall at any moment.
8. Valley of Fire State Park – Nevada
While everyone else is at the casinos now that they’ve re-opened, make the one-hour drive northeast to Valley of Fire State Park in Overton. As Nevada’s largest and oldest state park, you may feel as though you’ve stepped foot on Mars as you explore its other-worldly landscape made up of orange, pink, and red sandstone rocks. The 1.5-mile Fire Wave Trail is one of the most impressive hiking trails in this geologically wondrous state park. Its striped landscape easily rivals that of The Wave in Arizona. Even better, no hiking permit required.
9. Pillsbury State Park – New Hampshire
For those eager to get back to nature (after months spent in the house), Pillsbury State Park is the place thanks to its unspoiled landscape in southern New Hampshire. Heavily wooded, this state park is home to a variety of wildlife, like moose, otters, loons, and beavers. There are numerous hiking trails that cut across Pillsbury State Park, as well as four small ponds for fishing and paddling. Given its more primitive nature (i.e., no hook-ups, pit toilets), this park has long been considered a hidden gem for only those keenest to be at peace in nature.
10. Peninsula State Park – Wisconsin
The picturesque lake towns that dot the coastline in Wisconsin’s Door County offer visitors a pleasant escape, particularly in summer. Whether you prefer to paddle or pedal, look to Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek. Bring your own bike or rent one near the park entrance for a shady ride along the 10-mile Sunset Trail. Inside the park, at Nicholet Beach, rent a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard to get out on beautiful Green Bay. Horseshoe Island is a one-mile paddle from Nicolet Bay. Tie up your watercraft to walk the one-mile hiking trail that circumnavigates the 38-acre island.