By Jeanine Barone
Domestic and international visitors alike have long placed U.S. national parks such as Bryce, Zion, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon on their bucket lists. With iconic landmarks galore, their fame can sometimes overshadow the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the thousands of state parks throughout the country. It’s no wonder these lesser known sites often don’t get the attention they deserve, despite their wealth of botanical, geological and historical features. Here are seven state park treasures that will delight members of your family with opportunities not only to hike, bike or swim, but also to stargaze, fish, kayak or even learn about history. Please note: Parks require facial coverings or masks inside buildings. Each park’s hours of operation may be impacted by COVID-19. Please visit each park’s website for the latest updates.
Leaf peepers and photographers seeking dramatic fall foliage should turn their sights to Torreya State Park in Florida, a state hardly noted for brilliant autumn colors. The cooler climate and cold fronts in Northern Florida explain the park’s distinctive plant life, which includes sugar maple, hickory, sweetgum, poplar and sycamore. This provides autumnal hues reminiscent of the Northeast. The park is named for the Florida torreya tree, a now highly endangered evergreen that was mentioned (by its other name, gopherwood) in the Bible as what Noah used to build his ark. Characterized by very un-Floridian steep ravines and limestone bluffs, this more than 14,000-acre park has some challenging topography. Ascending the demanding seven-mile Torreya Trail, hikers will be treated to curious outcroppings and impressive views of the Apalachicola River from Rock Bluff.
Astronomical activities are a highlight at Staunton River State Park, which is designated as an International Dark Sky Park. Because of light pollution, opportunities for nighttime stargazing are a diminishing resource in the United States. Here, the staff is dedicated to environmentally friendly outdoor lighting to preserve the darkness of the night sky. Overnight guests can explore the heavens with a rented Dobsonian telescope from the visitors center. (The park staff will get you started with hands-on instruction and a star map.) In the autumn, you can spot Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia and Pegasus, to name a few constellations. For those more interested in angling than stargazing, fishing opportunities abound on the Dan and Staunton rivers, as well as Buggs Island Lake which both rivers empty into. Even if you cast your line from the lakeshore, you have a good chance of hooking largemouth bass, striped bass, blue catfish or black crappie.
Fans of wildflowers will delight in exploring Holly River State Park in hopes of spotting Jack-in-the-Pulpit, trillium violets, flame azalea and other colorful blooms. Nowhere near as dramatic, but equally exquisite, are the numerous fern species blanketing the forests, thanks to the streams and tributaries of the gently flowing Laurel Fork of the Holly River, for which the park is named. Its waters have also given rise to a half dozen waterfalls, including Tecumseh Falls, named for the legendary Shawnee chief. This popular cascade is accessed from the Reverie Trail, a moderate, approximately 2.5-mile, woodsy route that wanders along a creek. For a refreshing dip, you can hike the Potato Knob Trail, where a walkway leads to the Upper Falls, the only waterfall with a pleasant swimming hole. (It can also be accessed by car.)
Coursing through Smithgall Woods State Park is Dukes Creek, a crystal clear trophy trout stream that’s an angler’s paradise. This catch-and-release creek is populated with rainbow and brown trout — big ones, even a 29-incher, have been snagged. Fishing is permitted three days a week (Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday), October to May, with a reservation. For those more keen on amphibians, a frog identification brochure is available at the visitors center. With brochure in hand, visitors often head off along the easy, half-mile Wetland Loop Trail that meanders past a wetland and a beaver pond. The boardwalk is a good vantage point to listen for spring peepers and a variety of tree frogs. A lovely picnic spot can be found beside a covered bridge along the trail. Equally delightful is the abundance of butterflies and wildflowers in this sunny wetland.
Anyone who enters the Dismal Swamp, dense with grand cypress trees, will quickly discover that the name is an ill fit. A peaceful, winding elevated boardwalk roams through this attractive wetland on the Turkey Call Trail, where you may catch sight of an Acadian flycatcher, Carolina chickadee or barred owl. Birdwatchers should also train their binoculars on the swampy areas and small lakes of the park’s flood plain, a habitat for water birds such as green backed herons and mallard ducks. If you brought your mountain bike, you can pedal along the Horse Trail that circles the expansive Travis McNatt Lake. You’ll find freshwater springs, stands of oak trees and maybe even feral pigs. To reach a park highlight, the 70-foot-high fire tower, leave your bike on the side trail and then walk a short way. From there, you may spot an eagle soaring above the treetops.
In the 19th century, canals were a major part of commercial transportation. The well-preserved remnants of one of these canals is found at Landsford Canal State Park. Along the 1.5-mile interpretive Canal Trail, signage provides information on the waterway’s features and history, including the mill industry’s direct link with the canal and how locks allowed boats to deal with elevation changes so they didn’t have to negotiate the rapids. (You can inspect two sets of locks that once equalized the water.) Make a reservation to explore the old lockkeeper’s house that’s now being restored as an information center. There, a map points out the locations of other canals in South Carolina. In the spring, the botanically inclined flock to this park where the Catawba River is coated with a blanket of white from the blossoms of the rocky shoals spider lily. (This river is home to one of the world’s largest populations of this luxurious plant species.)
At this scenic state park, it’s well worth bringing a canoe or kayak and following the color-coded buoys marking the paddle trails of the placid millpond that dates back 200 years. (It’s referred to as a millpond because lumber and grain milling predominated here in the 19th century.) Gliding along the murky brown flatwater, where twisted bald cypress trees are draped with feathery Spanish moss, you might be lucky enough to see turtles perched atop logs; beaver, mink or otter skittering on the shore; snakes curled in branches; or great blue heron, green heron or other water birds. For those who prefer navigating on land, there are a variety of bucolic hiking trails. The Bennets Creek Trail wends through a captivating landscape of thick moss, shaded tree canopies and creek and swamp habitats. A boardwalk lets you peer out over the namesake creek where you might spy pileated woodpeckers and wood ducks.