Explore a state park this summer, and leave the overcrowded national parks for another trip
Everyone has a national park on their destination bucket list, and why wouldn’t you? National parks offer some of the most pristine, preserved and iconic landscapes in the country.
The history of our national park system began in 1872 when Yellowstone was established as the first national park in what was still the territories of Montana and Wyoming. Since then, the National Park Service has added 400+ national parks that were visited by over 237 million people in 2020.
But if you are looking for true adventure, it helps to get away from the crowds and find a place where you can enjoy the outdoors in a more intimate setting. State parks offer just that — and with over 6,600 state parks throughout the U.S., there is an adventure out there for everyone. Here are a few state parks located in the Southwest to help you start planning your next adventure.
GOOSENECKS STATE PARK: MEXICAN HAT, UT
The Grand Canyon is visited by an estimated 5.9 million people every year. Goosenecks State Park is just northeast of the Grand Canyon where the San Juan River flows through a canyon with over 1,000 foot walls, exposing layers of rock that tell a story 300 million years old. The park was visited by less than 20,000 people in 2020. That makes it the perfect place for the aspiring photographer to get some epic shots. If you are feeling more adventurous you can head over to the Honaker Trail, which takes you all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, where you can cool off in the San Juan River before hiking the almost 1,700 feet back to the top.
DEAD HORSE STATE PARK: MOAB, UT
Moab is known for its close proximity to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, which have become almost impossible to enter during peak season. The NPS states on their website: “When you visit Arches in the busy season, you can expect long lines, busy parking, and delays. More than 1.5 million visitors come to Arches National Park each year, and that number is growing. Between March and October, you can expect limited parking at all destinations. Parking at popular trailheads are usually full most of the day.” That is not a problem if you head just southwest of Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park, where you can get some of the most spectacular views of the Colorado river and vast canyons surrounding the area. If you are looking for more of a thrill, they now rent mountain bikes on location to get out and explore the area.
NAVAJO LAKE STATE PARK; NAVAJO DAM, NEW MEXICO
Water sports enthusiasts will love spending a weekend at Navajo Lake State Park in northern New Mexico. Navajo Lake is New Mexico’s second largest lake and extends into Colorado and Colorado’s Navajo State Park. It has multiple marinas and boat docks, great camping options and some of the best fishing around, making it a mecca for boaters and anglers alike. Boat rentals are available at the marinas. Whether you are looking for a sailing, motorized, human-powered or wind-powered adventure, Navajo Lake has something for everyone. Guests can even rent a houseboat from the Navajo Marina to really escape the crowds.
SLIDE ROCK STATE PARK; SEDONA, ARIZONA
Slide Rock State Park, located in Oak Creek Canyon between Flagstaff and Sedona, Arizona, is our top pick for family fun. This site was originally a historic apple farm called the Pendley Homestead, and is one of the last homesteads left standing in the canyon. Even more fascinating than the historic homestead is the 80-foot natural water slides that the Oak Creek has carved into the canyon. This makes Slide Rock State Park the perfect place to escape the Arizona heat! There is plenty of camping in the area and tons of activities to do after a day at the park, including some of the Southwest’s best hiking and mountain biking trails. For those more spiritually inclined, there are plenty of Vortexes to go looking for in the area as well.
MANCOS STATE PARK; MANCOS, CO
Located just off the San Juan Scenic Byway in Southwest Colorado, Mancos State Park offers year-round opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. The wakeless Jackson Gulch Reservoir provides an oasis for canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders in the summer. The reservoir is full of perch and trout, offering fantastic fishing. Mancos State Park has plenty of great camping options, making it the perfect home base for exploring the surrounding area and the La Plata mountains. Two yurts are also available as an alternative camping option. The epic peak just north of Mancos State Park is Hesperus Mountain, the tallest mountain in the La Plata range. For the more experienced hiker looking for amazing views, you can hike to the top via a 6-mile trail beginning at the Sharkstooth trailhead that climbs almost 3,000 feet. Make sure you check out Absolute Bakery in Mancos for some delicious treats to reward yourself.
MATT YEOMAN is a Durango, Colorado, based adventurer. When he isn’t working, he is out on multiday rafting or bikepacking trips, escaping the crowds and exploring new places.