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7 Spectacular State Parks You Should Not Miss

AAA/Frank Swanson
By AAA Travel Editor Frank Swanson
February 07, 2022
When it comes to the great outdoors, America’s big, beautiful national parks tend to get all the attention thanks to their millions of visitors and endlessly photographed scenic wonders. But they aren’t the entire story. If you’re yearning to escape into the wilderness but only have time for a weekend jaunt, then consider one of these wonderful state parks in California, Florida, Illinois, Maine, North Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin. They preserve landscapes every bit as spectacular as their larger, federally protected counterparts, but they are often less remote and less crowded.
flickr/Kristin Shoemaker

Camden Hills State Park

Camden, Maine
(207) 236-3109
Just 2 miles north of the picturesque coastal village of Camden, Camden Hills State Park rewards visitors with easy access to panoramas of Maine’s rocky, forested coast. You can drive up to Mount Battie’s 780-foot summit and after a short walk enjoy 360-degree views from atop the park’s stone tower. Or if you’re up for the exercise, tackle the hike up 1,385-foot Mount Megunticook, the park’s highest point. There the view really opens up, taking in the village and the scattering of islands in Penobscot Bay all the way to Acadia National Park.
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Hartstone Inn & Hideaway

2 mi. from Camden Hills State Park in Camden, ME
(207) 236-4259
Hartstone Inn & Hideaway offers luxurious accommodations in the heart of Camden, one of Maine’s most picturesque coastal towns—a destination known for its lovely harbor and nearby hills. Enjoy comfortable rooms in a grand 1835 Victorian mansion that’s just a short walk from Camden’s shopping district. You can spend the day kayaking in the harbor or hiking one of the many nearby scenic trails and then return to relax on the inn’s garden patio followed by a sumptuous gourmet meal in the dining room.
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AAA/Frank Swanson

Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock, North Carolina
(828) 625-9611
Offering sweeping vistas of Lake Lure and the North Carolina mountains, the 315-foot column of hard gneiss stone that’s the centerpiece of AAA GEM® Chimney Rock State Park has been drawing crowds of sightseers for more than a century. Hikers can climb to the top via a trail and a series of stairways. Other park hiking trails lead to vantage points overlooking Chimney Rock itself and to 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls, where scenes from the 1992 movie “Last of the Mohicans” were filmed.
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AAA/Greg Weekes

Highland Lake Inn

23 mi. from Chimney Rock State Park in Flat Rock, North Carolina
(828) 693-6812
Peaceful gardens filled with rhododendrons and mountain laurels, abundant trees and a small lake give the Highland Lake Inn the feel of a retreat deep in the wilderness. Whether you stay in a basic cabin or a more upscale lodge room, rustic decor and well-tended grounds create the perfect setting for a relaxing stay.
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Courtesy of Custer State Park

Custer State Park

Custer, South Dakota
(605) 255-4515
AAA GEM Custer State Park sprawls across 71,000 acres of South Dakota’s scenic Black Hills, but despite its photogenic and distinctive peaks, it tends to attract less attention than its two famous neighbors: the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. But don’t miss your chance to tour the park’s Needles Highway Scenic Drive, named for the narrow granite spires towering above the treetops. The highway leads to Custer State Park’s most photographed spot, Sylvan Lake, where rock formations form a vertical wall along the shore and are reflected in the lake’s clear water.
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Creekside Lodge

within Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota
(605) 255-4772
The lodge is one of five actually within the park, so the location couldn’t be any more convenient. Nestled in a forest of lodgepole pines, the AAA Two Diamond hotel sports a rustic exterior that belies the modern conveniences within.
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Devil's Lake State Park

Baraboo, Wisconsin
(608) 356-8301
Within Wisconsin’s Baraboo Hills, Devil’s Lake is nearly surrounded by 500-foot-high quartzite bluffs dotted with unusual rock formations that look like flat-sided boulders stacked on top of each other. Elephant Rock, Balanced Rock and Devil’s Doorway are some of these odd geological features, accessible by way of the AAA GEM park’s extensive system of hiking trails. The views from high atop the bluffs take in the lake below and the surrounding rolling countryside, which is especially stunning in autumn when the forest’s deep green foliage is replaced by brilliant oranges and yellows.
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Great Wolf Lodge

13 mi. from Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
(608) 253-2222
This modern, family-friendly AAA Three Diamond hotel is done up in a woodsy cabin theme, and it’s less than a half-hour away from Devil’s Lake. The lodge’s indoor water park includes a wide range of kid-pleasing waterslides, rides and play areas.
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Patrick's Point State Park

Trinidad, California
(707) 677-3570
Tucked away along Northern California’s magnificent Redwood Coast, Patrick’s Point State Park packs a lot in a relatively small parcel of land. The park features a re-created Yurok Village, campgrounds, a visitor center and a hiking trail network winding through a lush forest of coastal redwoods, spruce, fir and pine. Some trails lead down to a beach or along the bluffs while one ascends Wedding Rock, revealing a dramatic view from 100 feet above the crashing surf.
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AAA/Frank Swanson

Starved Rock State Park

Utica, Illinois
(815) 667-4726
AAA GEM Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois’ most visited natural areas, and it’s easy to see why: Here 18 canyons have been sculpted out of tall sandstone bluffs along the Illinois River, and after heavy rain, pretty waterfalls spill down the weathered canyon walls. Combined with rustling leaves and the twittering of birds, the sound of splashing water is a potent balm sure to reduce your stress level. More than 13 miles of hiking trails run along the riverbanks and the bluff tops as well as thread into the canyons.
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Brightwood Inn

3 mi. from Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois
(815) 667-4600
This AAA Failed in a previous production cycle country inn just down the road from Starved Rock is within Matthiessen State Park, which offers similar scenery and can be a pleasant alternative if the crowds at Starved Rock State Park are too heavy. Resembling a farmhouse, Brightwood Inn features large guest rooms with fireplaces.
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AAA/Brooke Holt

Wekiwa Springs State Park

Apopka, Florida
(407) 884-2009
This Central Florida jewel on the edge of the Orlando metro area is named for the crystal clear springs that flow into the Wekiva River—pure heaven for canoeing and kayaking. Here you can paddle beneath massive branches of live oaks draped in Spanish moss and glide past half-submerged logs crowded with turtles basking in the sun.
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Courtesy of Hampton Inn & Suites Orlando-North

Hampton Inn & Suites Orlando-North/Altamonte Springs

7 mi. from Wekiwa Springs State Park in Altamonte Springs, Florida
(407) 331-0220
Located just 15 minutes from Wekiwa Springs, this AAA Three Diamond hotel is right off I-4, giving you convenient access to Central Florida’s main thoroughfare and a straight shot to Walt Disney World less than 45 minutes south. After a day of outdoor recreation, guests can relax gathered around the patio’s fire pit or lay out by the pool.
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