With such a varied natural landscape — from bayous and deserts to mountains and boreal forests — it’s no wonder the U.S. is home to thousands upon thousands of state parks. Recreation and outdoor adventure are at any travelers’ fingertips, and groups can find several ways to adventure through the nation’s beautiful and protected lands.
State parks have been especially enticing lately due COVID-19; fresh air and outdoor spaces offer safety, and many groups are taking advantage of this. California, Michigan and Alabama state parks are a great place to start and draw millions of visitors every year — including nature lovers, history enthusiasts and outdoor adventure seekers alike
California is ranked No. 3 for states with the highest percentage of state and national park coverage. At 280 state parks alone, it’s no wonder groups travel to California regularly for its natural scenery.
“California’s state park system has something for every outdoor enthusiast,” said Jorge Moreno, information officer at the California Department of Parks and Recreation. “Whether visitors want to hike or camp with friends or family; ride horses along designated trails or beaches; swim in rivers, lakes or beaches; view wildlife; ride off-highway vehicles in the state vehicular recreation area parks; or tour a historic building, our state parks are iconic and unforgettable destinations to create memories.”
Moreno said that some of the more popular parks are located along the coast, although park locations are spread throughout the state — each with something different to offer.
Watch a beautiful sunset in Orange County at Bolsa Chica State Park or opt for a more secluded coastline adventure at Mendocino Headlands State Park — with miles of trails winding along coastal cliffs in Northern California.
Guided tours of Mitchell Caverns at Providence Mountain State Recreation Area offer a look into ancient limestone cave formations in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve.
Looking for a little more history? Schedule a tour at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and discover early life in the Mexican and early American period between 1821 to 1872. The park boasts restored original historical buildings that groups can tour.
Many of California’s state parks are rich in Native American heritage. Make a reservation for a guided tour at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park’s museum, complete with a Miwok village and ceremonial roundhouse. Chumash Painted Caves State Historic Park outside of Santa Barbara features some of the finest remaining rock art created by the Chumash people.
Groups can’t leave California without seeing some of nature’s biggest giants, coastal redwood trees. Redwood National Park is cooperatively managed with the state, as it shares land with Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek redwoods state parks. Take a guided hike or discover the several outfitters that operate more exnihilating adventures within these northwestern parks.
“California’s diverse ecosystem has something for everyone to enjoy,” Moreno said. “From the ancient redwoods along the north coast state parks, the elephant seal tours in the Santa Cruz area, the majestic sequoia forest along our central parks, the state beaches along the southern coast and the desert wildlife in our largest state park — Anza-Borrego State Park — these various locations are beautiful and pristine for group tours.”
California Department of Parks and Recreation
Michigan can credit several of its state parks to its namesake — coming from the Ojibwe word mishigami, meaning “large water” or “large lake.” Unsurprisingly, many of Michigan’s 100-plus state parks feature water, being a huge recreational draw to the state.
“State parks are at the heart of a true Michigan experience,” said Stephanie Yancer, social media coordinator at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “[Groups] have a chance to experiences the Great Lakes State and all the other great freshwater resources. The state parks are able to accommodate larger groups. Folks can get their heart pumping on a trail, explore historic sites or just relax at the beach.”
Home to one of Michigan’s most alluring attractions, Palms Book State Park’s Kitch-iti-kipi (located in the Upper Peninsula) is Michigan’s largest freshwater spring. The waters of the spring are crystal clear and offer a gorgeous view of the features below. Take a self-guided observation raft and see ancient tree trunks, lime-encrusted branches and fat trout.
Tahquamenon Falls State Park — also located in the Upper Peninsula — features one of the largest falls east of the Mississippi River. Several accessible overlooks offer views of both the upper and lower falls and trails run throughout the surrounding forest.
Dunes, forests, marshlands and an iconic lighthouse — Ludington State Park in lower West Michigan is a great destination for a beach day and some history, too. Tour on-site Big Sable Point Lighthouse and climb to the top for a unique view of Lake Michigan.
On the other side of the state just outside of Detroit is Belle Isle Park, located on the Detroit River between the U.S. and Canada. In addition to watercraft activities, the park features an aquarium, conservatory and much more.
For groups seeking a wider variety of thrilling adventures, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the northwestern Upper Peninsula is the place to be. As Michigan’s largest state park, groups will love climbing Summit Peak to get views of the Lake of the Clouds, Lake Superior and the 35,000-acre old-growth forest. The visitor center offers interpretive programs, an exhibit hall and more. Fort Wilkins Historic State Park is another great option for outdoor enthusiasts and history lovers.
Yancer suggest groups make the most of Michigan’s hidden gems like Rockport Recreation Area on Lake Huron or Sterling State Park on Lake Erie. “Each park has its own individuality,” Yancer said. “You won’t find the same thing in every park, but there’s something unique about every one.”
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
During the pandemic, the Alabama State Park system saw a record number of visitors to its state parks — increasing from 5 million guests per year to 6.2 million.
Alabama’s 21 state parks offer groups 48,000 acres of land and water to play in, from the sunny Gulf Coast beaches to the towering Appalachian Mountains. It’s no wonder these lands provided a respite for so many travelers looking to get away while staying safe over the last year and a half.
“From the lower Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf Coast, Alabama is home to the fifth largest number of plant and animal species in the United States,” said Jerry Weisenfeld, advertising and marketing manager at the Alabama State Parks Division. “The geologic variety, widespread water resources and suitable climate of the state all play a part in this biodiversity, and we encourage you to experience it firsthand in Alabama state parks.”
Off the beaten path lies Cathedral Caverns State Park in Woodville. With an entrance measuring 126 feet wide and 25 feet high, groups will enjoy a guided tour of the cave to see its marvelous interior formations.
“One of our most popular state parks is Gulf State Park located on the beach in Gulf Shores,” Weisenfeld said. “With two miles of beaches, a spacious campground and a new lodge and conference center, there is always something new to explore.”
Another popular park is Lake Guntersville State Park — located on the top of a mountain on the banks of the Tennessee River. The on-site zip line course offers adventurous opportunities for groups.
Travelling from Birmingham? A short drive from the city, Oak Mountain State Park is Alabama’s largest park with outdoor activities to boot. The on-site interpretive center features interactive exhibits, too.
Lakepoint State Park in Eufaula, “The Bass Capital of the World,” borders a 45,000-acre lake and boasts a full-service restaurant and lounge. After a long hike, groups can sit down and relax with a hearty meal.
“Many parks have naturalists on staff to share information about the state’s rich natural history,” Weisenfeld said. “The Alabama state park system is 80 years old, and we strive to be recognized as one of the leading state park systems in the nation in providing quality outdoor recreation services and resources to the public.” From lodging located right on the park to accessible outdoor amenities like rental kayaks and canoes, Alabama’s state parks are a convenient way to plan outdoor-themed itineraries.
Alabama State Parks Division