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10 top state parks for hiking, fishing, kayaking, camping, and more

A boardwalk beckons visitors to explore Louisiana’s Fontainebleau State Park. | Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism A boardwalk beckons visitors to explore Louisiana’s Fontainebleau State Park. | Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

You can enjoy outdoor adventures at any time of year. But as the warmer seasons breathe new life into nature and spur wildlife into becoming more active, state parks in the Midwest and South become even more appealing.

Whether you’re a birdwatcher or cave explorer, fishing enthusiast or camping fan, exploring these top state parks is a perfect spring and summer antidote to months spent largely indoors. Here are some of our favorites.

Top state parks in the Midwest

Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Camdenton, Missouri

Ruins of a castle overlook the Lake of the Ozarks at Ha Ha Tonka State Park near Camdenton, Missouri. | Photo by Eifel Kreutz/stock.adobe.com

Ruins of a stone castle at Ha Ha Tonka State Park near Camdenton, Missouri, overlook the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks. | Photo by Eifel Kreutz/stock.adobe.com

From sheer bluffs to sinkholes, caves, and one of the state’s largest springs, this central Missouri park exudes natural beauty. Enjoy beautiful Lake of the Ozarks vistas from the ruins of a stone castle, construction of which started in 1905. Work halted shortly thereafter because of the owner’s death, but his sons completed it in 1922. Later leased as a hotel, a fire gutted the building in 1942. Admire oak woodlands, rocky glades, and a natural bridge as you hike along trails and boardwalks. Love birdwatching? Up to 166 species have been recorded in the park. You also can fish and savor gorgeous views while lunching at one of multiple picnic sites.

Info: (573) 346-2986; mostateparks.com/park/ha-ha-tonka-state-park.

Onondaga Cave State Park

Leasburg, Missouri

Tours at Onondoga Cave State Park near Leasburg, Missouri, showcase fascinating subterranean formations. | Photo courtesy Missouri State Parks

Tours at Onondoga Cave State Park near Leasburg, Missouri, showcase fascinating subterranean formations. | Photo courtesy Missouri State Parks

A National Natural Landmark about 85 miles southwest of St. Louis, Onondaga Cave offers breathtaking underground views that include enormous stalagmites and stalactites. Mesmerizing tours of this subterranean wonderland illustrate why Missouri has been nicknamed the Cave State. Aboveground, explore the Vilander Bluff, Deer Run, Oak Ridge, and Blue Heron hiking trails that range from rugged to handicap accessible. The area’s 200-foot-tall bluffs are among the highest along the Meramec River, which is popular for canoeing and fishing. In addition to campgrounds, there’s a playground and amphitheater.

Info: (573) 245-6576; mostateparks.com/park/onondaga-cave-state-park.

Giant City State Park

Makanda, Illinois

Visitors will marvel at the hiking trails in Giant City State Park in Makanda, Illinois, that showcase massive sandstone bluffs. | Photo by Jason Lindsey / Alamy Stock Photo

Visitors will marvel at the hiking trails in Giant City State Park in Makanda, Illinois, that showcase massive sandstone bluffs. | Photo by Jason Lindsey / Alamy Stock Photo

Nestled in the Shawnee National Forest, this southwest Illinois state park takes its name from the unusual rock formations that resemble towering buildings and winding streets of a mythical giant’s town. Sandstone bluffs dating back 12,000 years complement lush ferns and moss, hundreds of wildflower species, and dozens of tree varieties. Popular activities include hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and rock climbing. A visitors center provides interpretive displays about the park’s natural elements and its history. Overnight guests can choose from campgrounds and cabins. In season, the Bald Knob dining room welcomes guests in a rustic lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Info: (618) 457-4836; illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/GiantCity.aspx.

Lincoln State Park

Lincoln City, Indiana

A series of plaques and pedestals in Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City, Indiana, celebrate pivotal moments in President Abraham Lincoln’s life. | Photo courtesy Indiana Department of Natural Resources

A series of plaques and pedestals in Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City, Indiana, celebrate pivotal moments in President Abraham Lincoln’s life. | Photo courtesy Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Established in 1932, this 1,747-acre southern Indiana park honors Abraham Lincoln, who spent many childhood hours amid its rolling hills and forests, and his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Plaza illustrates pivotal moments from the president’s life in Indiana on plaques and limestone pedestals. After delving into history, you can hike along 10 miles of trails, duck into the Nature Center, and explore the Sarah Lincoln Woods Nature Preserve, which is dedicated to Lincoln’s sister. Other highlights include fishing and electric motor boating; canoe, paddleboat, and rowboat rentals; and swimming in two lakes. Pick up supplies at the General Store before camping or bedding down in a cottage or cabin.

Info: (812) 937-4710; in.gov/dnr/parklake/2979.htm.

Clinton State Park

Lawrence, Kansas

Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kansas, provides plenty of fishing opportunities for catfish, walleye, crappie, and more in Clinton Reservoir. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kansas, provides plenty of fishing opportunities for catfish, walleye, crappie, and more in Clinton Reservoir. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Four miles and a world away from bustling Lawrence, this 1,500-acre northeast Kansas park flanks Clinton Reservoir, where channel catfish, walleye, and crappie swim. The reservoir has multiple boat slips, ramps, and courtesy docks. Reserve a picnic shelter or one of nearly 500 campsites. Or hang out at the beach and take advantage of playgrounds, a sand volleyball area, and an archery range. When hunger strikes, dine at the Clinton Lake Marina’s floating restaurant. Hikers, photographers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers also can use an extensive trail system.

Info: (785) 842-8562; stateparks.com/clinton_state_park_in_kansas.html.

Top state parks in the South

Crater of Diamonds State Park

Murfreesboro, Arkansas

At Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, visitors can dig for diamonds and keep the gems that they find. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

At Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, visitors can dig for diamonds and keep the gems that they find. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Along a volcanic crater’s eroded surface in this southwest Arkansas park, you can scour the ground for diamonds, minerals, and other gemstones—and keep what you find. Since this area became a state park in 1972, visitors have found more than 34,000 diamonds. Tools aren’t necessary to spot diamonds in the 37-acre field, but many people bring trowels and shovels; the park suspended tool rentals due to COVID-19. You can also enjoy trails, a campground, and the seasonal Diamond Springs Water Park. Daily admission is limited, so purchase tickets in advance.

Info: (870) 258-3113; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/crater-diamonds-state-park.

Lake Fort Smith State Park

Mountainburg, Arkansas

When not kayaking at Lake Fort Smith State Park in Mountainburg, Arkansas, visitors can hike, go mountain biking, fish, and camp. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

When not kayaking at Lake Fort Smith State Park in Mountainburg, Arkansas, visitors can hike, go mountain biking, fish, and camp. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

In a picturesque Ozarks valley, this northwest Arkansas park is an inviting place for camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and kayaking. The marina offers boat rentals, and there’s a seasonal swimming pool. (The pool isn’t part of the marina.) Hike the trails on your own or take guided nature hikes and lake tours. Backpackers also will appreciate the easy access to the 270-mile Ozark Highlands Trail. History buffs can explore a replica pioneer log cabin and covered wagon at the visitors center. Accommodations include 30 campsites, 10 cabins, and two lodges.

Info: (479) 369-2469; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/lake-fort-smith-state-park.

Fontainebleau State Park

Mandeville, Louisiana

Guests at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, Louisiana, can settle into cabins that sit atop stilts in Lake Pontchartrain. | Photo by PJ Hahn Photography/pjhahnphotography.com

Guests at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, Louisiana, can settle into cabins that sit atop stilts in Lake Pontchartrain. | Photo by PJ Hahn Photography/pjhahnphotography.com

This 2,800-acre southeast Louisiana parkland on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain once was home to a sugar mill owned by wealthy Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. The swashbuckling gambler named his large landholding Fontainebleau after the beautiful forest near Paris. The mill’s crumbling brick ruins remain near this gorgeous sailboat-dotted lake. An old railroad track that runs through the park has become the Tammany Trace for cycling, hiking, or in-line skating. Stroll the white-sand beach and long fishing pier. Then find a camping spot or spend the night in a cabin that sits atop stilts in the lake.

Info: (985) 624-4443; lastateparks.com/parks-preserves/fontainebleau-state-park.

Chicot State Park

Ville Platte, Louisiana

Home to the Louisiana State Arboretum, Chicot State Park provides fishing piers, boat rentals, hiking trails, campgrounds, cabins, and more. | Photo by PJ Hahn Photography/pjhahnphotography.com

Home to the Louisiana State Arboretum, Chicot State Park provides fishing piers, boat rentals, hiking trails, campgrounds, cabins, and more. | Photo by PJ Hahn Photography/pjhahnphotography.com

More than 6,400 acres of rolling hills, bottomland hardwood forest, and inviting water fill the state’s largest state park, located in south-central Louisiana. A boathouse, three boat launches, fishing piers, and boat rentals facilitate fishing for largemouth bass, crappie, and other species. Hike on trails that encircle Lake Chicot, and enjoy a playground, splash pad, and picnic areas. The Louisiana State Arboretum, located within the park, features a visitors center and more than 600 acres of natural growth and indigenous plantings in a mature beech-magnolia forest. You’ll find many overnight options, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges.

Info: (337) 363-2403; lastateparks.com/parks-preserves/chicot-state-park.

Tishomingo State Park

Tishomingo, Mississippi

 Dating the 1840s, a log cabin in beautiful Tishomingo State Park in Tishomingo, Mississippi, is open for visitors to explore. | Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Dating the 1840s, a log cabin in beautiful Tishomingo State Park in Tishomingo, Mississippi, is open for visitors to explore. | Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Steeped in history in the Appalachian Mountain foothills, this northeast Mississippi park was home to Paleo Indians as early as 7,000 BC. The park’s name honors Chickasaw leader Chief Tishomingo. Delicate ferns and wildflowers, plus massive moss-draped boulders and sandstone cliffs, flank 13 miles of trails. The Outcroppings Trail starts at a swinging bridge; the Bear Creek Trail ends at a pioneer cabin. Fish in Haynes Lake, swim in the pool, or book a canoe trip on Bear Creek. You’ll also find disc golf courses, campgrounds, and cabins. A portion of the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway—a historic corridor used by American Indians, pioneers, European settlers, slave traders, and soldiers—runs through the park.

Info: (662) 438-6914; mdwfp.com/parks-destinations/state-parks/tishomingo.

An eco-focused contributor from Overland Park, Kansas, Lisa Waterman Gray writes about travel and food for dozens of national publications.

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