It’s no secret that the South is a nature lover’s paradise. Our region is blessed with an abundance of natural wonders, many of which can be found in state parks. From majestic views (Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina; Natural Bridge State Resort Park; Kentucky), to spectacular shorelines (Gulf State Park, Alabama), to unique ecosystems (John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida), to unforgettable landscapes (Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee), there are seemingly endless reasons to get outside. Add hiking, biking, fishing, boating, swimming, birding, and even skiing (yes, it does snow in some places!) to the list—there truly is a park for every interest. We asked our readers to share the state parks that they like the best and they delivered a diverse list that includes something in each state. You’ll likely recognize some old favorites, and some that might not be as widely known. Get ready to start exploring!
Alabama: Gulf State Park
With the Gulf of Mexico on its Southern border, 3 1/2 miles of white sand beaches, three lakes within the park, and nine ecosystems on its 28-mile paved trail system, Gulf State Park is popular with anglers, beach bums, and naturalists alike. Visitors can fish, swim, and paddle on Lake Shelby, see native flora and fauna at the Nature Center on Middle Lake, and flit around the Butterfly Garden east of Little Lake. At nearly 2,500 feet long, the Fishing and Education Pier is the largest in the Gulf as well as Alabama’s only public gulf pier, open for fishing or strolling.
Arkansas: Petit Jean State Park
Petit Jean Mountain rises over the Arkansas River valley in the first state park established in Arkansas, offering dramatic overlook views of sweeping vistas. The most famous is Petit Jean’s Gravesite at Stout’s Point, telling the legend of Petit Jean and her ill-fated journey to America. Geological features abound in the park, including an ancient bluff shelter with pictographs and rock art on the short Rock Cave House trail. Petit Jean State Park is also part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, marking the forced migration of five Southeastern Indigenous tribes westward from their lands to Oklahoma.
Florida: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Established in 1963 as the United States’ first undersea park, this unique state park offers a firsthand glimpse of Florida’s Coral Reef, a 350-mile coral reef system that runs from the Dry Tortugas to St. Lucie on the Atlantic coast. For 70 nautical miles around Key Largo, marine life and habitats can be seen in several ways: snorkeling and scuba diving lessons and tours, glass-bottom boat tours, and canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding trails. On land, boardwalks and paths meander through mangroves and tropical hardwood forests, and the visitor center holds six saltwater aquariums for more up-close views.
Georgia: Tallulah Gorge State Park
Tallulah Gorge, a 2-mile long, 1,000-foot-deep canyon, showcases the Tallulah River and a series of waterfalls. Adventurers can take in the views from an 80-foot suspension bridge and hike along the rim of the gorge or even into the canyon itself (a limited number of free permits are available daily for gorge floor access.) For a more casual experience, visitors can gaze at the gorge from overlooks at the Interpretive Center and the Wallenda Towers, platforms used by famed tightrope walker Karl Wallenda to cross the gorge in 1970. In April and November, whitewater rafting is available on dam release weekends.
Kentucky: Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Nestled within the Red River Gorge Geological Area and Daniel Boone National Forest, this park gets its name from the sandstone rock formation that forms an arch approximately 75 feet long, 65 feet high, and 24 feet wide. The bridge is accessible via hiking trail and a seasonal skylift. Once at the base, intrepid visitors can walk across the bridge itself. As a resort park, family attractions abound, including mini golf, an 80,000-gallon swimming pool with a “river” effect of water jets and bubblers at Hemlock Lodge, and weekly square dance and traditional Appalachian clog dance events at Hoedown Island.
Louisiana: Fontainebleau State Park
On the shores of Lake Ponchartrain near the town of Mandeville, Fontainebleau State Park is a natural oasis on the remains of a 19th-century sugar plantation. Paddlers can wind their way via canoe or kayak through Cane Bayou at the park’s edge, surrounded by cypress trees, turtles, waterfowl, and other creatures. On foot, bike, or horseback, the 27-mile rails-to-trails path is another way to spot some of the more than 400 species of wildlife in the park. A lakefront beach and fishing pier at the park visitor’s center are popular spots for taking in the sunset over the lake.
Mississippi: Tishomingo State Park
Named for Chief Tishomingo, 19th-century leader of the Chickasaw Nation, this park within northeast Mississippi’s Appalachian Mountains combines history and natural wonders. Roadtrippers can drive the historic Natchez Trace Parkway directly through the park. Rock climbers appreciate the sandstone cliffs and rock formations—a rarity in the state. The Bear Creek Outcropping Trail starts and finishes with a walk across a swinging bridge built in the 1930s. The bridge is also the final stop on the 6 1/4-mile canoe float trip down Bear Creek offered by the park from mid-April through mid-October, giving an immersive perspective on the area’s scenery.
North Carolina: Chimney Rock State Park
Southeast of Asheville along the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 315-foot spire of Chimney Rock is the main draw for this hiker’s paradise. An elevator offers an accessible option to reach the summit of this ancient rock formation, though visitors are welcome to climb the 500 steps to the top and make their fitness trackers proud. After seeing the 75-mile views to Lake Lure and Hickory Nut Gorge, hikers can set off on one of the many trails around the Rock, including Hickory Nut Falls, where “The Last of the Mohicans” was filmed, and catch a glimpse of the area’s peregrine falcons.
Oklahoma: Beavers Bend State Park
Name an outdoor activity and chances are you’ll be able to find it within Beavers Bend State Park in southeast Oklahoma. Broken Bow Lake and the Mountain Fork River, which winds through the pine and hardwood forests, offer water sports like boating and canoeing, water-skiing, scuba diving, trout fishing, or leisurely river floating. At the Beavers Bend Depot and Stables, kids and families can ride a one-third-scale replica of an 1863 train through the park, or canter on horseback along trails. Birdwatchers can spy eagles in winter months, while golfers can hit the links at the Cedar Creek 18-hole course.
South Carolina: Huntington Beach State Park
Huntington Beach is renowned as one of the best birding sites in the Southeast, with diverse wetland habitats and three miles of beach that are home to a variety of wildlife. Along the causeway that borders both a tidal marsh and freshwater pond, as well as the park’s branching nature trails, visitors can spot more than 300 bird species—and perhaps glimpse alligators or sea turtles. Surf anglers can cast from the beach jetty at Murrells Inlet. Atalaya, the palatial home of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband Archer, is open for tours and hosts an annual arts and crafts festival.
Tennessee: Fall Creek Falls State Park
Atop the eastern portion of the Cumberland Plateau, Fall Creek Falls State Park features 10 waterfall trails among its nearly 30,000 acres. The 256-foot Fall Creek Falls, one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies, is the crown jewel, but with 10 waterfall trails in the park and numerous gorges, caves, and rock formations, there are many other ways for hikers, mountain bikers, and rock climbers to explore. The Canopy Challenge Course offers aerial challenges via zip lines, rope swings, suspension bridges, and more. Golfers can tee off on the public links designed by preeminent golf course architect Gentleman Joe Lee.
Texas: Big Bend Ranch State Park
Texas’ biggest state park is also an International Dark Sky Park, with ample space (300,000 acres) for stargazing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rafting over rapids, paddling along the Rio Grande, and even off-roading. El Solitario is the park’s signature geological feature, a 10-mile-wide collapsed volcanic dome visible from various trail overlooks and via 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Along the trails, visitors can see weathered rock hoodoos, natural springs, Native rock art, and historical ruins of ranches and other structures. The Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest takes place every February, featuring an epic 54-mile loop ride through the rugged west Texas landscape.
Virginia: Smith Mountain Lake State Park
Within the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, Smith Mountain Lake is the second largest freshwater lake in Virginia. This park, on the lake’s northern shore, makes it ideal for people who love being on the water. Fishermen flock here for the large populations of bass, stripers, bluegills, and catfish. Visitors can take their pick of watercraft rentals—including canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, pontoon boats, ski boats, and jet skis—between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Boat docks are available for guests staying in the park cabins. And movie buffs, take note: the 1991 Bill Murray comedy “What About Bob?” was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake.
West Virginia: Blackwater Falls State Park
The namesake waterfall—a 57-footer that’s the highest in the state—is just one of the scenic cascades at Blackwater Falls State Park in the Allegheny Mountains’ Potomac Highlands. The water gets its dyed color from the needles of hemlock and red spruce. The area includes 20 miles of trails, including Elakala Falls and Douglas Falls, for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing year-round. The park also offers an 18-hole disc golf course designed as a pollinator habitat, where visitors can play among butterflies and other buzzy wildlife. In the winter, the longest sled run on the East Coast sends riders down a quarter-mile of snowy adventure.