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10 top state parks in the Midwest and South

Hiking trails abound in state parks across region, including at Lake Fort Smith State Park. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

While you can certainly enjoy outdoor adventures at state parks any time of year, many shine during the summer months. Flora flourishes and wildlife is more active, making the outstanding parks in the Midwest and South even more appealing.

Whether you’re looking to fish, camp, bird-watch, spelunk, or simply be outside, exploring state parks is a perfect summer pastime. Here are our picks for the 10 best state parks in the Midwest and South.

1. Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Camdenton, Missouri

Woman watching a young child running around stone castle ruins

Explore the ruins of a stone castle at Ha Ha Tonka State Park. Photo courtesy Missouri State Parks

From sheer bluffs to sinkholes, caves, and one of the state’s largest springs, central Missouri’s Ha Ha Tonka State Park showcases natural beauty. Take in lovely Lake of the Ozarks vistas from the ruins of a stone castle, the construction of which started in 1905. Work halted shortly thereafter because of the owner’s death, but his sons completed it in 1922 and later leased it 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. Birds abound here: Up to 170 species have been spotted and recorded in the park. You can also fish and savor gorgeous views while lunching at one of multiple picnic sites.

You may also like: Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

2. Onondaga Cave State Park

Leasburg, Missouri

A group of 3 adults and a child touring inside a cave

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 State Park offers breathtaking underground views. See formations that include towering stalagmites, dripping stalactites, and active flowstones. Mesmerizing tours of this subterranean wonderland show why Missouri is nicknamed “The Cave State.”

Aboveground, explore the nearby Vilander Bluff, Deer Run, Oak Ridge, and Blue Heron hiking trails. Choose among options for all ability levels, from rugged treks to easy strolls. 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 an amphitheater.

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3. Giant City State Park

Makanda, Illinois

Pair of hikers pausing to look at giant rock formations

Discover distinctive rock formations and bluffs on trails at Giant City State Park. Photo courtesy Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Springfield, Illinois

Giant City State Park is situated in the beautiful Shawnee National Forest in southwest Illinois. Its name comes from the unusual rock formations that resemble the towering buildings and winding streets of a mythical giants’ 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 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.

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4. Lincoln State Park

Lincoln City, Indiana

Empty canoes resting in the water

Dip a paddle at Lincoln State Park, which also features trails, a nature preserve, and a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. Photo courtesy Indiana Department of Natural Resources

The 1,747-acre Lincoln State Park in southern Indiana was established in 1932. It not only honors Abraham Lincoln, who spent many childhood hours amid its rolling hills and forests, but also 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 soaking up some 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-motorboating; canoe, paddleboat, and rowboat rentals; and swimming in 2 lakes. Pick up supplies at the general store before camping or bedding down in a cottage or cabin.

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5. Clinton State Park

Lawrence, Kansas

A fisherman drawing up his line while sitting in a red canoe

At Clinton State Park, you can angle for fish, laze on a beach, hike trails, and dine at a floating restaurant. 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 reside. This reservoir at Clinton State Park has multiple boat slips, ramps, and courtesy docks. Set up a tent at one of nearly 500 campsites.

Enjoy long summer days 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, and mountain bikers can use an extensive trail system that welcomes cross-country skiers in winter.

You may also like: A quick guide to Lawrence, Kansas

6. Crater of Diamonds State Park

Murfreesboro, Arkansas

A woman picking through a container of soil in search of diamonds

At Crater of Diamonds State Park, you can dig for gems and keep the treasures that you find. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Along a volcanic crater’s eroded surface in this southwest Arkansas park, you can search for diamonds, minerals, and other gemstones—and keep what you find. Since this area became Crater of Diamonds State Park in 1972, visitors have unearthed more than 35,000 diamonds.

Tools aren’t necessary for spotting diamonds in the 37-acre field, but many people bring trowels and shovels. You can also rent tools from the park. Plus, enjoy trails, a campground, and the seasonal Diamond Springs Water Park. Adult admission to diamond search area, $13.

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7. Lake Fort Smith State Park

Mountainburg, Arkansas

A group of people kayaking

Among many outdoor activities at Lake Fort Smith State Park, you can rent kayaks from the marina. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

In a picturesque Ozarks valley, northwest Arkansas’ Lake Fort Smith State Park attracts outdoor enthusiasts with camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and kayaking. The marina offers boat rentals and has a seasonal swimming pool. Hike the trails on your own or take guided nature hikes and lake tours.

Backpackers will also 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 2 lodges.

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8. Fontainebleau State Park

Mandeville, Louisiana

Sunset casting a warm glow over a tree in the foreground and a pier in the background

Enjoy stunning lakefront sunsets at Fontainebleau State Park. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

A 2,800-acre southeast Louisiana oasis on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Fontainebleau State Park once housed a sugar mill owned by Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. The wealthy 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, now used for cycling, hiking, or in-line skating. Stroll the white-sand beach and long fishing pier. Camping is available, but the park’s cabins are closed for repairs to damage caused by Hurricane Ida in 2021.

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9. Chicot State Park

Ville Platte, Louisiana

A waterfront cabin

Settle into a cabin at Chicot State Park after a day of fishing or hiking. Photo by PJ Hahn Photography/

More than 6,400 acres of rolling hills, bottomland hardwood forest, and inviting water highlight Chicot State Park, Louisiana’s largest state park. This park in the state’s south-central region features a boathouse, 3 boat launches, fishing piers, and boat rentals that 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 includes a visitors center and more than 600 acres of natural growth and indigenous plantings in a mature beech-magnolia forest. Among the many overnight options are campgrounds, cabins, and lodges.

You may also like: Savor the cuisine, music, and history of Louisiana’s Cajun Country

10. Tishomingo State Park

Tishomingo, Mississippi

A stone archway framing a wooden footbridge

A 200-foot swinging bridge ranks among Tishomingo State Park’s most scenic features. Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Steeped in history in the Appalachian Mountain foothills, northeast Mississippi’s Tishomingo State Park was home to Paleo Indians as early as 7000 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 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 runs through the park. American Indians, pioneers, European settlers, slave traders, and soldiers all used the historic corridor.

Lisa Waterman Gray is an eco-focused freelance writer from Overland Park, Kansas.

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