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Best State Parks in the South—and How to Visit

AFAR logo AFAR 9/15/2020 AFAR Editors

a sandy beach next to the ocean: Best State Parks in the South—and How to Visit © Photo courtesy Shutterstock Best State Parks in the South—and How to Visit

This story is part of our “See America, One State Park at a Time” series. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR is continuing to cover the world, because while you may not be traveling right now, there’s always room for inspiration.

The state parks here may be bundled beneath one geographic designation—the South—but they couldn’t be more different from one another, encompassing some of the most mind-boggling features of this country. Just try to compare the bayou-like waterways of Louisiana’s Chicot State Park with the otherworldly desert landscapes of Big Bend Ranch in Texas, or the dark lava rock moonscape of Oklahoma’s Black Mesa with the waterfall splendor that is Tennessee’s Fall Creek Falls.

The best way to understand them, of course, is to visit. So consider this list of the best state parks in the South—encompassing Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas—your starting line.

a close up of a snow covered slope: Gulf State Park in Alabama has more than three miles of white-sand beaches to explore. © Photo by Roberto Michel/Shutterstock Gulf State Park in Alabama has more than three miles of white-sand beaches to explore.

Alabama

Gulf State Park

Fifty acres of white sand dunes. Twenty-eight miles of hiking and biking trails. Nine different ecosystems, with pine forests and freshwater lagoons. Some 6,000 acres of protected land, complete with a Hilton-run lodge, a learning campus, and a renewed focus on conservation: This is what a multimillion-dollar park rehabbed by Deepwater Horizon oil spill reparations looks like, and it’s pretty idyllic.

  • Nearest city to Gulf State Park: Mobile, Alabama, or Pensacola, Florida
  • Where to stay when visiting Gulf State Park: A series of clapboard cottages that have earned the designation “National Geographic Unique Lodges.”

a tree next to a body of water with a mountain in the background: Lake Ouachita is the largest in Arkansas—and the central feature of the eponymous state park. © Photo by Kat Byrd I/Shutterstock Lake Ouachita is the largest in Arkansas—and the central feature of the eponymous state park.

Arkansas

Lake Ouachita State Park

Life at this park naturally revolves around Lake Ouachita, the deepest and clearest lake in the state. Known for its fishing—mariners can cast for bass and catfish—the lake has hundreds of little islands and inlets, where kayakers and canoers can explore. There’s plenty to do on land, too: sunbathe at one of two swimming beaches, hike the four-mile Caddo Bend Trail, and take a tour to the Audubon-designated Bird Island.

  • Nearest city to Lake Ouachita State Park: Hot Springs is an hour’s drive southeast.
  • Where to stay when visiting Lake Ouachita State Park: Lake Ouachita offers 93 campsites, more than half of which have RV hookups, and 8 fully equipped cabins (fireplaces, full kitchens, TV), which can be rented 365 days a year.

a cactus in a garden: Angel fish are just one of 260 species of tropical fish in Florida’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. © Photo by Off Axis Production/Shutterstock Angel fish are just one of 260 species of tropical fish in Florida’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Florida

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Encompassing 70 (nautical) square miles, Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first undersea park in the United States; it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a glass-bottom boat tour of its famed reef, or DIY with a snorkel or scuba adventure. Kayaking, paddleboarding, and canoeing are available for those interested in exploring the park’s 50 miles of mangrove wilderness trails.

a rocky shore next to a body of water: Some of the campsites in Red Top Mountain State Park are right on the banks of Georgia’s Lake Allatoona. © Photo by Rob Hainer/Shutterstock Some of the campsites in Red Top Mountain State Park are right on the banks of Georgia’s Lake Allatoona.

Georgia

Red Top Mountain State Park

“My favorite [Georgia] state park right now is Red Top Mountain. It’s very close to Atlanta, only 45 minutes away, so you can easily shoot up there for the weekend or just a day hike. It’s on the banks of Lake Allatoona—you can go swimming or boating or floating—and there are campsites right on the lake. The campsites are very wooded, which makes [Red Top] great in the summer. You can usually get a normal spot a week or two before, but if you want a lakeside spot, you have to book far in advance. The hiking is good, too. There’s a four-mile loop, Iron Hill Trail, where there are a lot of cool bridges you can walk over, and you can see green foliage and the lake through the trees.” —Adriana Garcia, cofounder of LatinXHikers

  • Nearest city to Red Top Mountain State Park: Atlanta is 45 miles southeast of the park.
  • Where to stay when visiting Red Top Mountain State Park: In one of the 93 campsites, 20 cottages, or single yurt; in Atlanta, you can’t go wrong with the Whitley.

a large body of water: Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park is on the edge of Dale Hollow Lake, which stretches into both Kentucky and Tennessee. © Photo by Frank W Kany IV/Shutterstock Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park is on the edge of Dale Hollow Lake, which stretches into both Kentucky and Tennessee.

Kentucky

Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park

The view from Eagle Point Overlook alone is worth the trip, but you could also come to play on a nationally ranked golf course or fish the lake for white bass and rainbow trout. Given that this is Kentucky, 24 of the 144 campsites are horse-friendly.

  • Nearest city to Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park: Bowling Green
  • Where to stay when visiting Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park: The Dale Hollow campground has plenty of options for tents and RVs, and the Mary Ray Oaken Lodge offers respite atop a bluff, with private balconies overlooking the lake.

a tree in the rain: Cypress trees are one of the hallmarks of Chicot State Park in Louisiana. © Photo by IrinaK/Shutterstock Cypress trees are one of the hallmarks of Chicot State Park in Louisiana.

Louisiana

Chicot State Park

An ecological wonderland, Chicot—Louisiana’s largest state park—is a 6,400-acre mix of swampland, waterways, and hill country. Within the park is Lake Chicot, which has an eight-mile canoe trail and a 600-acre arboretum where indigenous species (sycamores and beech, magnolia and crane fly orchids) are carefully preserved. One of Chicot’s many highlights: the 20-mile backpacking trail that circles Lake Chicot. (There are six first-come, first-serve backcountry sites along the trail.) Walking the lakeside trails in fall, when the cypress trees that seem to sprout from the lake change color, is especially magical.

  • Nearest city to Chicot State Park: Lafayette is an hour’s drive southeast of the park.
  • Where to stay when visiting Chicot State Park: Chicot has 198 standard campsites, open year-round, as well as 15 deluxe cabins (including several on stilts along the lake) and dorm-style lodges for larger groups.

a long bridge over a body of water: Tishomingo State Park in Mississippi contains the 45-acre Haynes Lake, a popular swimming spot. © Photo by Traveler Jordan/Shutterstock Tishomingo State Park in Mississippi contains the 45-acre Haynes Lake, a popular swimming spot.

Mississippi

Tishomingo State Park

Named for Chief Tishomingo, who led the Chickasaw nation in the early 19th century, Tishomingo offers a peek at the past: Excavations reveal that native people called Tishomingo home as early as 7000 B.C.E. Extending into the foothills of the Appalachians, the park is thickly forested, with 13 miles of trails. And, with massive stone outcroppings, it’s the only place in the state to rock-climb (by permit only). Tranquil Bear Creek winds through the park; in late spring through late fall, the park offers a two- to three-hour guided canoe float.

  • Nearest city to Tishomingo State Park: Tishomingo is located in the northeast corner of the state, 94 miles east of Oxford.
  • Where to stay when visiting Tishomingo State Park: Campers can book one of 17 primitive sites and RV-ers can call one of 61 sites home. The park also rents out six rustic cabins and a more modern cottage that sleeps four. In Oxford, we recommend either the Chancellor’s House or the Graduate Oxford.

a view of a large rock: The meandering Hanging Rock loop trail takes hikers over creeks and through forest and meadow on their journey to this high point in North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park. © Photo by Chansak Joe/Shutterstock The meandering Hanging Rock loop trail takes hikers over creeks and through forest and meadow on their journey to this high point in North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park.

North Carolina

Hanging Rock State Park

You can see Hanging Rock’s namesake long before you reach the entrance to the park: Rising miles out of the Sauratown Mountain Range is the frequently photographed quartzite outcropping that most travelers hike to at least once. Of course, the park is much more than that. Encompassing roughly 9,000 mountainous acres and home to 20 miles of trails—including the 2.7-mile Hanging Rock loop—it’s a hiker’s paradise. Several small waterfalls, a small lake (with a swimming beach), and mountain biking trails are also big draws.

  • Nearest city to Hanging Rock State Park: The cities of the North Carolina Triad area—Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point—are all within about an hour’s drive.
  • Where to stay when visiting Hanging Rock State Park: In the park’s 73 campsites or 10 cabins equipped with central air and full kitchens, or in one of the Triad area’s many hotels.

a person with a sunset in the sky: Black Mesa State Park offers campers some of the best stargazing in all of Oklahoma. © Photo by John A Davis/Shutterstock Black Mesa State Park offers campers some of the best stargazing in all of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma

Black Mesa State Park

Where else in Oklahoma can you hike across a sea of black lava rock that’s nearly 30 million years old? Black Mesa State Park, which contains the Black Mesa Nature Reserve, occupies 1,600 acres in the Oklahoma panhandle. Visitors can hike the 4.2 lava rock miles to the 4,973-foot plateau—the highest point in the state—or, at night, soak in some of the best stargazing in the Sooner State (thanks to the park’s altitude and remote location).

  • Nearest city to Black Mesa State Park: Boise City is 27 miles away; Oklahoma City is about 350 miles southeast.
  • Where to stay when visiting Black Mesa State Park: Camping is best if you want to stargaze—snag one of the 25 primitive sites.

a close up of a flower garden: From the eponymous peak in Paris Mountain State Park, hikers can look out at the Greenville, South Carolina, skyline. © Photo by Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock From the eponymous peak in Paris Mountain State Park, hikers can look out at the Greenville, South Carolina, skyline.

South Carolina

Paris Mountain State Park

We have a soft spot for Paris Mountain State Park, five miles north of Greenville, set in the South Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a go-to spot for mountain bikers with 15 miles of trails, as well as families looking for a day hike or picnic on Lake Placid.

  • Nearest city to Paris Mountain State Park: Greenville, SC
  • Where to stay when visiting Paris Mountain State Park: Camping in Paris Mountain State Park couldn’t be easier, with 39 paved campsites and five sites along the North Lake Trail Loop. The complete opposite? The gilded Westin Poinsett on Greenville’s Main Street.

a large waterfall in a forest: Fall Creek Falls is the 256-foot waterfall after which Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee was named. © Photo by Dan Lewis/Shutterstock Fall Creek Falls is the 256-foot waterfall after which Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee was named.

Tennessee

Fall Creek Falls State Park

“Growing up, every year my family would go camping at Fall Creek Falls State Park in eastern Tennessee. It’s super green and has a huge campground—the largest I’ve ever stayed in—and there are beautiful waterfalls, which is what it’s known for, [including falls] in the actual campground. As a kid, my parents would just let me roam around. We loved to play in the water and swim. The hiking there is really great—there are several to choose from. You can walk to the base of a waterfall and feel the water coming down on your face or get behind the falls. It’s also a great place for fall foliage. You could probably camp up until November and you’d be fine. Even as adults, we try to go every year.” —Adriana Garcia, cofounder of LatinXHikers

  • Nearest city to Fall Creek Falls State Park: Chattanooga is a little over an hour’s drive south of the park.
  • Where to stay when visiting Fall Creek Falls State Park: In one of the 250 campsites or 30 cabins. If you overnight in Chattanooga, both the Dwell Hotel and the Edwin Hotel are good options.

a canyon with a mountain in the middle of a dirt field: Get (totally) off the Texas grid in Big Bend Ranch State Park, where the cell service is spotty and the stargazing ridiculously good. © Photo by jesmo5/Shutterstock Get (totally) off the Texas grid in Big Bend Ranch State Park, where the cell service is spotty and the stargazing ridiculously good.

Texas

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend is an otherworldly experience. At more than 300,000 acres, it’s so incredibly vast and the landscape is this mountainous desert—it’s in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. The Rio Grande is its southern border. [The park] is very remote and most of the time, your cell phone doesn’t work, so you have to be up for being off the grid. But it’s just tremendous. There’s backcountry camping, though you can also stay closer to River Road, which has more accessible sites. There’s hiking—one really cool family-friendly trail is Closed Canyon, a slot canyon where you walk in and the walls just get closer and closer and closer. The park is also a mountain biker’s paradise, and you can take a guided rafting trip down the river—and it’s an International Dark Sky Park. I’ve never considered myself a big stargazer, but you go out there and realize, ‘Oh, this is what the sky actually looks like.’ It’s just a sea of stars.” —Courtney Bond, senior editor at Texas Monthly.

  • Nearest city to Big Bend Ranch State Park: Presidio
  • Where to stay when visiting Big Bend Ranch State Park: Bond says the Lajitas Golf Resort is just a mile away from the park’s eastern entrance, off River Road: If [Big Bend] gets too rough for you, you can go stay there.” Or stay near the Terlingua, about 11 miles to the east. “Picture this tiny cluster of buildings in the desert,” she says.“There are a couple restaurants and a general store with a long front porch where dogs and guitar pickers hang out most of the day.”

a stone path in a park: At Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia, travelers can walk beneath a natural limestone bridge created centuries ago by Cedar Creek. © Photo by jayaprakash S R/Shutterstock At Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia, travelers can walk beneath a natural limestone bridge created centuries ago by Cedar Creek.

Virginia

Natural Bridge State Park

As with many other interstate drives, making your way along I-81 in western Virginia can get monotonous. Thankfully, Natural Bridge State Park is just a few miles off exit 175, making it a great pit stop to stretch your legs and enjoy the scenery during a long road trip. To view the park’s namesake 215-tall rock formation carved into the surrounding limestone gorge, take the two-mile out-and-back Cedar Creek Trail from the visitor center.

  • Nearest city to Natural Bridge State Park: Lynchburg
  • Where to stay when visiting Natural Bridge State Park: There are no overnight facilities at the park, but you can book a night in a converted train caboose on Airbnb a few miles away.

a large waterfall over a body of water surrounded by trees with Babcock State Park in the background: Glade Creek Grist Mill, a recreation of the mills that once covered West Virginia, is one of the most iconic spots in Babcock State Park. © Courtesy of the West Virginia Office of Tourism Glade Creek Grist Mill, a recreation of the mills that once covered West Virginia, is one of the most iconic spots in Babcock State Park.

West Virginia

Babcock State Park

Babcock State Park is a must-see vacation destination—especially in the fall. Autumn colors line the historic Glade Creek Grist Mill, and lush, forest-lined hiking trails are at their peak. Visitors to the park can stay in a cozy mountain cabin or explore the charming small towns nearby.” — Chelsea Ruby, tourism commissioner of West Virginia Office of Tourism

  • Nearest city to Babcock State Park: Charleston, the state’s capital city, is 60 miles northwest of Babcock State Park.
  • Where to stay when visiting Babcock State Park: In one of the 52 campsites or 28 cabins, 13 of which are situated along Glade Creek.

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