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Roadtrip through the Top-Reviewed State Parks in the West
Got a wanderlust for the West? We can’t blame you. There’s something about those majestic mountains, desolate deserts, and rugged rock formations.
Memorial Day is coming up—not to mention June is National Great Outdoors Month—so we’ve put together an epic road trip idea for all the die-hards out there looking to become wardens of the West.
The 9,282-mile trip takes about 166 hours—without counting how much time you’ll spend in each location—so if you’ve got an upcoming sabbatical, work remotely, or have summer vacation, see if you can squeeze in this master plan.
And if you don’t have that much time, you can still get some insight into a few locations that could spur a weekend-warrior trip with your friends and your family—or you can fly solo too.
*Note: Moran Park was left off because it requires ferry access, which is a bummer for road trippin’.
There are a lot of state parks to choose from. In fact, there are 956 in total between the western states.
California has the most state parks (no surprise, since it has the most land mass of all western states). Wyoming has the fewest, which by no means discounts it. Wyoming’s parks cover over 100,00 acres of land, and the state also contains most of Yellowstone National Park.
The parks in the western United States provide a great variety of sights and activities, and you may be wondering where to start. We’ve narrowed down the top three parks in each state according to reviews on Google Places. Let us know where you’ve been or where you’re going in the comments below. And remember Tolkein’s sage words, “not all those who wander are lost.”
Let's hit the road . . .
With this trip, you get giant redwoods, natural hot springs, caverns, beaches, canyons, and the sweet open road.
To make your drive more musical, check out this playlist featuring a variety of western vibes. You’ll have fun singalongs, chill drifts through space, and even some good ol’ country jams to put you in the mood.
. . . but where to begin?
We'll highlight seven of our favorite spots. Depending on where you’re starting from, you may want to follow a different course, but since we wanted to feel the summer heat right off the bat, we started in Arizona.
First stop: Desert daze
Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden is full of vibrant colors and vivid wildlife, and the beautiful desert flora will make you want to bust out your camera and snatch some shots. Sitting below the peak of Picketpost Mountain, this desert plant park serves a beautiful oasis about an hour east of Phoenix.
You’ll find saguaro and prickly pear cacti flowering along the walking trails and paths, and the technicolor shades stand out against the desert sand and rocks. You can take guided bird, lizard, and butterfly walks, or wander around the 320 acre garden on your own.
Need a little indoor recovery after being out in the heat? Check out the World’s Smallest Museum five minutes away for a quick reprieve from the sun.
Next stop: Beautiful beaches and lovely lakes
Have you ever experienced a crazy pink and orange alpenglow sunset while surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges over clear blue water? It’s life-changing. Tahoe has some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve seen.
You’ll catch world-class views with small-town vibes. And if you’re looking for good eats or drinks, check out Uncommon Kitchen or Bridgetender Tavern nearby.
You can swim, kayak, scuba dive, boat, water ski, and fish—and plenty of beaches allow dogs. Hiking and climbing are big out there too. Or you can relax in the forest meadows in the shade of cedars and pines.
Next stop: Fantasy forests
Oregon is the place to go for misty forests lush with life, and Silver Falls is about as dreamy as it gets. You’ll see ten different waterfalls waiting to be the background of your smiling selfies.
We’re big fans of seeing life growing just about everywhere. Silver Falls has that perfect serene green look. And it’s up to you how you get around if you wanna walk, bike, or ride on horseback pretending you’re part of Lord of The Rings. We won’t judge.
Plus, your pups are welcome. The park’s dog-friendly trails include an unfenced, off-leash area, too. And don’t worry, all the bears and cougars are in remote areas of the park.
Next stop: Coastal capes
If you’ve ever wanted to stare out into the sea and monologue about the meaning of existence, then you’ll love the looming lighthouses that watch over the windswept cliffs of Cape Disappointment.
Perhaps the most misleading name on our list, Cape Disappointment allows you to explore beautiful old-growth forests, ocean tidelands, and overgrown ruins of military bunkers. Talk about spooky cool. While photographers will love the breathtaking views, adventurers may want to go boating, clam-digging, or fishing in the Pacific Ocean.
Feel free to camp out in a yurt, cabin, or a historical vacation home while you catch major old-sailor-life vibes. The awe-inspiring location is great for just wandering, too. Maybe you’ll find buried treasure on the beach, or maybe you’ll find . . . yourself. (Cue Bill and Ted–era Keanu Reeves saying “Whoa.”)
Next stop: Places to ponder and relax
While we love a good adventure like anyone else, we also love the idea of getting away from it all, sippin’ on cool drinks in the shade, and feeling the summer warmth. Ponderosa State Park is a pretty place among the pines to clear your head and let go of your daily stresses.
Don’t get us wrong, Ponderosa has plenty in the way of staying active, too, like off-road vehicles, biking, boating, climbing, disc golf, and fishing. And when you’re done with all that, you can camp out with your lamps out under the starry sky.
However, if you want to max out and relax, then this might be the perfect spot to re-tune yourself with nature and all that jazz. Soak in the tranquility, listen to the birds sing, and enjoy being alive. Pure and simple.
Next stop: Mythical mountains
Talk about dramatic sunsets! Between the rushing waters, thriving forests, and cloud-brushed skies, Eldorado lives up to its name (loosely translated from the Spanish word for “Golden”). This hidden gem features sandstone cliffs, sheer golden walls, and picturesque trails for all levels of hiking.
You’ll enjoy the quiet solitude this park offers, especially if your family’s into fishing. Or go birdwatching for golden eagles and prairie falcons while you sip on some lemonade, and enjoy a chill stroll through the fir forests, Ponderosa pine savannas, prairies, and mixed shrubland.
It’s a great place to climb, too, so grab your bouldering buds for a weekend in the mountains. You’ll come across wildlife ranging from deer and elk to bobcats and coyotes. You might even run into a black bear or two.
Next stop: Red rocks and cool canyons
Anyone who’s been to Southern Utah’s parks can attest to the clear skies, dramatic sunrises and sunsets, and overall grandeur and beauty. While Moab is known more for Arches, we wanted to highlight Dead Horse Point State Park, famous for its oxbow-bent views of the Colorado River.
Views, views, views. If you’re prone to vertigo, don’t stand too close to the edges, but you can still get great panoramas with casual walks that don’t approach the danger zone. With all the vast chasms, you’ll have plenty of photo ops against the gorgeous ridgelines with snow-capped mountains in the back.
Soak up the sun while taking a run or have a nice picnic by the canyon, surrounded by nature—all while avoiding the crowds.
Gear up and get out there
In many ways, the West remains wild, perfect for exhilarating adventures and exploring the vast expanses of beautiful landscapes. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find some of the most relaxing places on earth, either. Whether you’re looking to repel into a ravine or lounge near a lake, you’ll discover new things about the world (and about yourself) by traveling across these one-of-a-kind state parks.
Let us know where you’re thinking about going this summer. Drop your own maps, playlists, and favorites spots to see in the West in the comments below!