May 24, 2006
Filed under Camping Destinations, Midwest Camping, Northeast Camping, Southeast Camping, Southwest Camping, West Camping

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At last count, there were 5842 state parks in the United States, and according to the National Association of State Park Directors, these parks received 826.5 million visits during 2004. It’s not surprising then that state parks continue to be a favorite among Camping Life readers. There are plenty of them; many are close enough to home for weekend trips, and they all offer something special. While each state park is different — and some are better than others — the best are those with a unique combination of land, water, flora, fauna, vista, legend and lore. Using these points as a guide, we picked our top 10 favorite state parks in America.

Hike Arkansas’ Love Story:

Petit Jean State Park

Adrienne Dumont was a beautiful French maiden engaged to Chavert, a French nobleman set to explore the New World in the early 1700s. Without Chavert’s knowledge, she disguised herself as a cabin boy named Jean and won passage on his ship. Sailors dubbed her Petit Jean (French for “Little John”). They sailed up the Mississippi River, and then up the Arkansas River, where they stopped at the foot of a beautiful mountain for the summer.

The night before Chavert’s party was to set sail for home, Petit Jean became desperately ill. With death imminent, she confessed her deception to Chavert and begged forgiveness. She asked to be taken to the mountaintop she had learned to love, and with Chavert at her side, died there at sunset. Years later, a low mound of earth was found on the mountaintop that is now the park’s main attraction — Petit Jean’s Grave.

About 65 miles northwest of Little Rock via I-40, Petit Jean State Park today is a day-hiking paradise. A diverse system of over 20 miles of interconnecting trails winds through the forest and along Petit Jean Mountain overlooking the Arkansas River. Cedar Falls, Seven Hollows and Cedar Creek Trails are designated as National Recreation Trails because of their rich history and beauty. The park offers 126 individual campsites (including 37 pull-through sites) with full hook-ups. The sites are divided into four areas with bathhouses. Visit petitjeanstatepark.com or call 501/727-5441.

Wildflowers and Waterfalls:

DeSoto State Park, Alabama

Most wouldn’t know it, but northeast Alabama is home to pine and hardwood forests alive with mountain streams, waterfalls and more than 900 species of wildflowers. This is where you’ll find DeSoto State Park.

The springtime floral display ranges from the prevalent Bluet to the uncommon Catesby’s Trillium to the striking orchid-like Pink Lady Slipper. In addition to the fantastic flora, there are gushing streams and numerous waterfalls, and a camping experience that features secluded sites nestled in wooded privacy. There are 78 improved sites available — most with full hook-ups — plus 20 primitive sites.

Make sure to see Laurel Falls, Lost Falls, Azalea Cascade and the park’s namesake, DeSoto Falls. The state park is approximately 50 miles southwest of Chattanooga via I-59. Click on desotostatepark.com or call 800/760-4089.

California Redwoods:

Big Basin State Park

Established in 1902, and home to the largest, continuous stand of ancient coastal redwoods in central California, Big Basin Redwoods is our favorite among California’s 265 state parks. While all routes into this 18,000-acre park northeast of Santa Cruz are winding and curvy, the effort is worth it. Route 1 is probably easiest to navigate.

The park stretches almost 9 miles inland from the coast into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Environments vary with elevation and proximity to the ocean. Plan on foggy and damp weather near the ocean, and hope for sunny and warm conditions on higher ridges. The park combines dazzling waterfalls, a wide of array wildlife and 80 miles of trails. Be sure to place the Redwood Loop Trail on your must-see list. Docent naturalists conduct guided tours of this loop on weekends from March through November. See the tallest trees in the park, with names like Mother and Father of the Forest.

Big Basin camping takes you back to an earlier camping period. Each of the park’s 146 family campsites (located in four campgrounds) is equipped with a table, fire-ring, and — you have to love this — wooden storage cupboards. Some sites are tent-only, but many are RV-friendly. Firewood is available for sale at park headquarters. Go to bigbasin.org or call 831/338-8860.

Delaware’s Pine-Forested Beach:

Cape Henlopen State Park

When William Penn acquired Delaware, one of his first acts was to proclaim the nearly 5200 acres of Cape Henlopen and all its resources to be used solely for the common good of the local citizens. By doing so, Penn’s proclamation made these shifting, pine-covered sand dunes (some 80 feet high) strategically located at the mouth of Delaware Bay one of the young nation’s first public lands.

Today, Cape Henlopen attracts beach-loving visitors who enjoy sunbathing and swimming in the ocean. If you desire a little more activity, you can hike or bike along the 3-mile paved trail that loops the park. You also can try your luck at surfing around the park’s quarter-mile-long pier. Fishing and an 18-hole “disc-golf” course round out Henlopen’s activity package. Lifeguards, as well as kayak and fishing gear rentals, begin Memorial Day.

Its location has played a significant role in shipping and military history; concrete observation towers were built along the coast to spot enemy ships. Several camouflaged World War II bunkers provide perfect scenic overlooks. One of the towers has been renovated to provide an impressive panoramic view of the park.

One hundred and fifty spacious campsites are nestled in Cape Henlopen’s pine-covered dunes. Camping is available March 1 through November 30. Showers and laundry facilities are always a plus, too. Visit destateparks.com or call 302/645-8983.

Bio-Abundance Abounding:

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida

An abundance of everything natural is what you’ll find 10 miles south of Gainesville. This part of Florida is a sinkhole-rich region — not fun for homeowners, but great for bio-diversity. The area’s richness has resulted in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 21,000-acre habitat showcasing more than a dozen biological communities, including wet prairie, pine and swamp. The land is home to more than 800 species of plants, 430 species of vertebrates and 271 species of birds. Waterfowls, alligators, hawks and turtles are common animals found roaming the preserve. So rich is the biota that Paynes Prairie, Florida’s first state preserve, is now a National Natural Landmark.

Activities are nearly as plentiful. Bicycling on numerous park trails; fishing, canoeing and kayaking on Lake Wauberg; horseback riding and a wide array of nature trails from easy strolls to 4-mile walks are all part of the park’s agenda. Full facility camping is available from walk-in tent sites to RVs up to 40 feet. Each site has a lantern post and picnic table with nearby water and electric service. Visit floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie or call 352/466-3397.

Sailing and Windsurfing… in Kansas? Cheney State Park

“Toto, is this really Kansas?” you ask. Yes it is — and it’s windy. Located 20 miles west of Wichita, you’ve got to like wind if you’re going to try Cheney State Park. And if sailing or windsurfing is on your outdoor to-do list, then blow on in to this Kansas hot spot.

With abundant Kansas prairie winds, this park on the shores of Cheney Reservoir offers the best access to one of the top sailing and windsurfing lakes in the U.S.; it was rated one of the windiest lakes in the country. Check out the non-profit Ninnescah Sailing Organization that promotes sailing and makes its home here.

A 2000-acre park along a 10,000-acre lake best known for its large-scale regattas, Cheney also attracts fisherman. Catches include channel catfish, white bass, crappie, striped bass and walleye. Cheney is a young park — completed in 1964 — that has grown mostly by word of mouth to more than 200 campsites with water and electric hookups. Campsites range from water’s edge to grassy, tree-covered areas along a quiet spring-fed creek. For more information, visit kdwp.state.ks.us. For reservations, call 316/542-3664.

Massachusetts’ First:

Mount Greylock State Reservation

As Massachusetts’ first state park, Mount Greylock, located in Lanesborough, is truly a pristine preserve full of nature’s wonders. As you sit atop Mount Greylock — at 3491 feet, it’s the highest peak in Massachusetts — witness five states in a full panoramic view: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. View the changing foliage as it shifts from a bare winter to a lush-green spring as you hike along an extensive 70 miles of trails. Also be sure to make a stop at the Veteran’s War Memorial Tower on Mount Greylock’s summit, a 93-foot-tall granite structure dedicated in 1933 to the state’s men and women who have given their lives in time of war.

There are more than 100 species of birds making their home at Mount Greylock, including hawks, ravens, owls, thrushes, warblers and game birds. View some of these migratory birds at the Hopper, a unique valley full of old-growth red spruce forest that is over 150 years old. There are 35 campsites available off Sperry Road, which is conveniently located next to some of Mount Greylock’s most beautiful hiking trails that take you through streams, waterfalls and up to the summit. Call 413/499-4262 or visit mass.gov/dcr.

Minnesota’s Prairie Home Companion:

Blue Mounds State Park

In the southwest corner of Minnesota, 38 miles east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a 2000-acre fragment of what once was a vast tallgrass prairie is being preserved and restored. Grasses sway in the prairie wind at Blue Mounds State Park, a place where big blue-stem grass grows an inch a day and can reach seven feet tall. A Sioux quartzite cliff rising 100 feet from the plains is the park’s primary feature. A bison herd grazes here and prickly pear cacti blooms in June and July.

Walk along the same paths Plains Indians used while hunting bison to survive. A large rock outcrop, known as “Blue Mound,” juts into the sky. At the mound’s southern end is a mysterious 1250-foot-long line of rocks aligned in an east-west direction. It is unknown who built this arrangement, but on the first day of spring and fall, the sunrise and sunset line up on this strange alignment.

Fishing, swimming, rock climbing and bird watching are key activities. Stop by the interpretive center, once the home of author Frederick Manfred, to discover the natural history of the area. Year-round camping is available at 73 drive-in sites (RVs up to 50 feet) — most with electricity. Carts provided for 14 walk-in, tent-only sites. Campground loops are located near a wildlife-viewing pond. For more information visit dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/blue_mounds or call 507/283-1307.

Coal and Butterflies?

Sugarite Canyon State Park, New Mexico

Sugarite (pronounced “sugar-reet”) Canyon State Park is situated on the Colorado/New Mexico state line in the heavily wooded mountains and meadows that was once a booming coal camp. The historic remains of Sugarite coal camp are located near the visitor center. History buffs and newcomers alike are able to get a taste of the old coal camp by hiking along the Coal Camp Interpretive Trail. Metal wheels and brick ovens are still standing among the 4000 acres of oak and ponderosa pine forest.

The variety of terrain and plants in the park — think Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains — has allowed for an abundance of wildlife to flourish. Mule deer, turkeys, black bear, elk, red-tailed hawks, blue jays and a variety of butterflies are just some of the many common sightings upon visiting Sugarite Canyon. In fact, many biologists have named the Sugarite Canyon area as one of the best places to spot a wide diversity of butterflies in their natural habitat. For butterfly admirers, be sure to plan your camping trip to Sugarite Canyon on a sunny day from May to July when the butterfly season is at its prime. Gorgeous butterflies, such as Capulin Mountain Arctics, Silvery Blues, eight different species of duskywings, and many others, grace the grassy foothills and forests.

Sugarite Canyon State Park offers two campgrounds: Soda Pocket Campground, perfectly suited for tent campers, and Lake Alice Campground, for RV campers who need utilities. For more information about Sugarite Canyon State Park, visit newmexico.reserveworld.com or call 877/664-7787.

Ride the Raging Rapids:

Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania

Add some thrills to your camping trip by riding down a rapid in a raft, kayak or closed-deck canoe. Fourteen miles of the Youghiogheny (“pronounced yaw-ki-gay-nee”) River Gorge passes through the park and offers some of the most exciting whitewater boating in the eastern United States. Class III and IV rapids rage through the lower Yough (pronounced “yawk”); inexperienced whitewater boaters should not attempt to ride down it alone. Guided and outfitted trips are available.

If you prefer to slow down and view the river from the shore, then hike to Ohiopyle Falls, a 20-foot waterfall that is a central attraction in the park. Other powerful water attractions include the Cascades, Cucumber Falls and Jonathan Run Falls. Or sit in a creek and ride the water at Meadow Run Waterslides, a natural waterslide perfect for younger children.

Modern camping sites, some with electricity, are available at Kentucky Campground. There are 226 campsites available, 27 of which are walk-ins, and each has a picnic table and fire ring. Washhouses with hot water and flush toilets are located near the campground, as well as four children’s play areas and a sanitary dumping station. There are three pre-pitched platform tents that have electric hook-ups, dining canopy, mattresses and picnic tables. Call 724/329-8591 or visit dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks.

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