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Avoid the Crowds and Head to a State Park

Otherworldly rock formations, thundering waterfalls, sea-spray-speckled shores — the scenery varies, but the results are almost always the same: pure awe.

Across America, state parks offer more than just scenery; there are castle ruins to explore, historic lighthouses to climb and dinosaur fossils to touch. And in a season when everyone wants to be outdoors, state parks offer scenic alternatives to many of the national parks that are sure to be crowded with travelers.

In Montana, sculpted spires and canyon cliffs rise to meet the Big Sky. In Missouri, sinkholes, springs and collapsed cave systems typify the karst topography. In Michigan, chiseled bluffs define a stretch of Lake Superior’s shoreline. In these state parks, groups can’t help but enjoy the views — and be inspired to explore their surroundings.

Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Camdenton, Missouri

When Robert McClure Snyder bought Ha Ha Tonka Lake and Spring in Camden County, Missouri, in 1904, the businessman wrote, “Here I will spend my leisure, secure from the worries of business and the excitement of city life. I will fish and loaf and explore the caves of these hills, with no fear of intrusion.”

Those words still hold true nearly 120 years later, drawing visitors to what is now Ha Ha Tonka State Park, which sits on the Niangua Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. The park’s most popular attraction is the towering ruins of Snyder’s stone mansion, a European-style castle he started building in 1905. Though he died in an automobile accident in 1906, his sons were able to complete construction in 1920. The castle was destroyed by fire in 1942.

“Everybody comes to see the castle, but the real reason the castle is there is because of the outstanding natural features,” said park manager Ryan King. “Everybody comes to see the castle and just falls in love with the area.”

Today, groups can start at the visitors center to learn about the park’s unique karst topography and see photos of the castle in its heyday. Motorcoaches can park at the castle, and from there, visitors walk 600 feet to the ruins that overlook Ha Ha Tonka Spring, Missouri’s 12th largest. The Spring Trail, much of which is paved, with a bit of boardwalk as well, leads to the mouth of the spring.

Visitors can also walk over or under the park’s 100-foot-wide natural bridge that the Snyder family originally used as a roadway to the castle. A viewing deck offers expansive panoramas, especially in spring and fall. The park also has two group shelters that can be reserved; one can hold 100 people and the other, 60.

Letchworth State Park

Castile, New York

Letchworth State Park is known as the Grand Canyon of the East. The 14,000-acre state park sits in the northwest part of New York, and the Genesee River roars through the gorge, creating three major waterfalls — as high as 600 feet in some places — surrounded by lush forests.

Many visitors are drawn to the southern end of the park to see the Genesee River. Archery Field Overlook near the Castile entrance gives groups exemplary views of the geography that earned the park its nickname. At Inspiration Point, visitors can take in views of the Upper and Middle falls, as well as the railroad bridge that spans the gorge, said park manager Douglas Kelly.

“The picturesque shot of the two falls and the railroad bridge — that’s kind of the grand view of the gorge,” he said.

Groups can dine at Glen Iris Inn, William Letchworth’s former country manor home that dates to 1828 and overlooks the Middle Falls. Across the road, a museum features exhibits about the area’s indigenous tribes, Letchworth’s history and local Civil War efforts. There’s even a mastodon skull that was found locally.

Groups can arrange guided bus tours with step-on interpreters and can schedule whitewater rafting trips with the park’s concessionaire.

The 5,000-square-foot Humphrey Nature Center opened in 2016 and provides interactive exhibits, a butterfly garden and a bird observation station and also serves as a hub for short hikes on surrounding trails. The park also has a brand-new sugar shack to demonstrate maple syrup production, typically during the last two weekends in March.

Brilliant fall foliage makes fall the park’s busiest season, and the Letchworth Arts and Crafts show is typically held around Columbus Day.

Minnesota’s North Shore

Duluth, Minnesota, sits on the far western tip of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in North America. From Duluth, Highway 61 follows the rugged shoreline north, stretching through a line of state parks and protected natural areas.

“We call it ‘the string of pearls,’” said Cheri Zeppelin, northeast region information officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Those “pearls” include three state parks: Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and Tettegouche, all within a 20-mile stretch.

At Gooseberry Falls, tea-colored water cascades through a series of waterfalls before reaching the lake. Gooseberry Falls is popular because it’s free and because the trail to the falls is both paved and short — not even half a block. Groups can also explore the visitors center that has a small interpretive museum and a gift shop.

Just six miles north of Gooseberry Falls is Split Rock Lighthouse, perched atop a 160-foot cliff overlooking the lake. A fierce storm in 1905 damaged 29 ships on Lake Superior and prompted construction of the lighthouse, which was completed in 1910 and has been restored to its 1920s appearance. The lighthouse, grounds and visitors center are open for tours, often led by guides in period costume.

Tettegouche State Park’s 11,000-square-foot visitors center opened in 2014 and includes interpretive displays, an indoor fireplace, a gift shop and an outdoor amphitheater. There, groups can arrange for a naturalist to do a custom program for them at the amphitheater or walk a few blocks to a gravel beach where the Baptism River meets Lake Superior.

Groups can also view the sights of the shoreline during Vista Fleet’s narrated sightseeing and dinner cruises or on a North Shore Scenic Railroad train ride from Duluth.

Makoshika State Park

Glendive, Montana

With more than 11,000 acres, Makoshika is Montana’s largest state park, and its name —pronounced Mah-koh-shih-ka — is derived from a Lakota phrase meaning “bad land” or “bad earth.”

In addition to dramatic badland formations, the park is known for its dinosaur fossils. In the prehistoric era, the region was a tropical rain forest, and now it’s a badlands wilderness and high plains desert where “we have come across at least 10 different types of dinosaurs,” including Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, said park manager Chris Dantic.

The visitors center features a revamped exhibit hall where guests can touch fossils, Dantic said. The park converted the basement’s fossil collection room into the Paleo Lab, giving visitors even more up-close access to fossils.

Every Saturday, the park offers a paleo experience with a tour through the visitors center and Paleo Lab. Park rangers can do the paleontology experience for tour groups but can also customize programs.

The Diane Gabriel Trail is a 1.5-mile loop that introduces visitors to the badlands’ geologic features, such as sod tabletops and sinkhole caves that form in the hillsides from erosion, and leads to a series of partially exposed Hadrosaur vertebrae.

Cap Rock Trail is also popular because it’s only a half-mile long and has a large natural rock bridge that people can walk across.

Motorcoaches can drive about two miles into the park but have to turn around in the parking area before the switchback. Group leaders can choose to arrange vans or minibuses to take their groups farther into the park to take in the panoramic views.

Hunting Island State Park

South Carolina

Hunting Island is a 5,000-acre barrier island on the coast of South Carolina, just east of Beaufort. The island has been designated as a state park since 1935, and its five miles of beaches, thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, a saltwater lagoon and an ocean inlet are among the park’s natural features that attract over a million visitors every year.

Groups are welcome, but they need to be navigated into the park on a separate route, so group leaders should contact the park directly before visiting.

One of the most popular attractions in the park is the lighthouse, the only one in the state that is publicly accessible. Visitors can climb 167 steps to the top of the 130-foot lighthouse, where the observation deck offers views of the barrier island, palm forests and surrounding seascape. Only six visitors may enter the lighthouse at a time; staggered entrance times are by reservation to help preserve the historic structure.

Groups can stop at the visitors center or explore the nature center, where people can walk on the pier and see animal exhibits featuring alligators, snakes and diamondback terrapins.

Coastal Expeditions offers boat tours from the nature center to St. Phillips Island, another South Carolina state park property. The naturalist-led ecotour cruises along the Story River to the St. Phillips Island dock, where a park ranger welcomes passengers before they board the tram to the beach. Once there, groups will have time to beach comb, hike interior trails or relax on the beach with a picnic. The outfitter also offers dolphin tours that explore the salt marsh estuary.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.