5 Bucket List Hikes in State Parks

Skip the national park crowds and adventure in your own backyard.

No matter how you slice it, we love our state parks. 807 million visitors explored forests, canyons, beaches and deserts at more than 8,500 state parks in 2018, according to the National Association of State Park DirectorsAnd those parks comprised of more than 18.6 million acres, which hosted 14,672 trails covering more than 52,000 miles in total length (more than two trips around the Earth’s equator).

With so many trails and so much beauty, it can be tough to know where to start. Fortunately, you don’t have to. We’ve rounded up five of the best bucket-list hikes in state parks throughout the U.S., from the Kauai coastline to the rainy Oregon forest to the South Carolina wilderness.

1. Kalalau Trail 

  • Location: Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, Hawaii
  • Length: 19.1-mile loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Difficult

Visiting Kauai without hiking at least some of the Kalalau Trail is akin to visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower or New York City without passing through Times Square. The Kalalau Trail unfurls the best of Hawaii’s world-famous beauty; the trail gains more than 5,000 feet over 19.1 miles, all of which parallels Kauai’s coastline.

Beyond the trailhead at Hāʻena State Park, enjoy panoramic ocean views, rugged cliffside, cascading waterfalls, all manner of flora and fauna, a relaxing stop at Hanakpai Beach (an ideal turnaround point for day hikers), and perhaps a wild goat or two.

2. Trail of Ten Falls

  • Location: Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
  • Length: 7.8-mile loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate

Every year, more than 1 million visitors descend on Silver Falls State Park to horseback ride, mountain bike, camp and hike. Spend a few minutes on the Trail of Ten Falls and you’ll understand why. The well-maintained singletrack, which promises 1,062 feet of elevation gain, delivers close-up views of—you guessed it—10 waterfalls. 

Along the way, pass a number of canyon viewpoints and follow North Fork Silver Creek under a thick forest canopy. Visitors will notice numerous shades of green all year long, but the spring blooms and fall foliage are especially captivating.

Note: You’ll find plenty to love about the Trail of Ten Falls during any season, but it’s especially beautiful in early- to mid-spring; all of that winter runoff means the falls are booming.

3. Lighthouse Trail

  • Location: Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
  • Length: 6.1-mile loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate

Palo Duro Canyon State Park sits 600 miles from the nearest seaport in Houston, but it nevertheless gives hikers the chance to see a lighthouse up close. The Lighthouse Trail does not, in fact, end at a working lighthouse. But the 310-foot stone pillar for which the trail is named—by far, the most popular, recognizable destination in the park—is no less spectacular, and makes for a satisfying reward at the end of the  hike. (The views of the surrounding canyon are an added bonus.)

The mostly flat trail follows Sunday Creek at times and traverses a few small ridges, all through an arid desert setting. You’ll see several sun-stained rock formations and thick brush before arriving at the Lighthouse; at this point, you can approach the base of the pillar, but doing so requires navigating a small rock scramble. Be careful here, especially if it’s rained recently.

Palo Duro State Park’s Lighthouse Trail ends at a 310-foot rock formation known as the Lighthouse. Photo: Todd Shoemake, Flickr

4. Raven Cliff Falls Loop

  • Location: Caesars Head State Park, South Carolina
  • Length: 7.8-mile loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/difficult

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The Raven Cliff Falls Loop in Caesars Head State Park is a challenging hike. But the payoff is worth the sweat.

Early on, the trail actually drops 1,300 feet (don’t forget about that on the return trip) before gaining most of that back and leveling out for the duration of the 7.8-mile hike. Fortunately, Caesars Head State Park offers plenty of natural beauty to offset the punishing terrain. The centerpiece of the hike is Raven Cliff Falls, which plunges 400 feet over a sheer rock face.

The falls are far from the park’s only natural attraction, though. Along the way, take in the thick forest canopy (visit in autumn for fall foliage displays), the 150-foot rock formation known as the Cathedral (the name will make sense at the base), and the always-bubbling Matthews Creek.

5. Black Elk Peak Loop

  • Location: Custer State Park, South Dakota
  • Length7.9mile loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate

The heart of the Black Elk Peak Loop is Black Elk Peak, the highest natural point in South Dakota. That’s certainly enough of a draw, but the surrounding beauty and wildlife make this a majestic must-hike in Custer State Park and the Black Hills National Forest.

Long before arriving at Black Elk Peak, stroll through quiet woodlands, with views of the rolling Black Hills region and rock formations (including Little Devils Tower). Though you may already expect wildlife on your hikes, Custer State Park ups the ante: Wild bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk and several species of deer may be spotted along the trail.