Skip the headaches at the big, national attractions and head for these three just-as-impressive spots.

National parks are wonderful places, but they can also be inundated with visitors. In 2017, the National Park Service reported more than 330 million visitors, with 42 out of 385 parks experiencing record-breaking visitation. In the last two years, some of the country’s most popular national parks, including Zion and Yellowstone, have experienced epic traffic jams, maxed-out septic systems and multiple days when visitors were simply turned away because the parks had reached capacity.  

If incredible outdoor experiences, awe-inspiring scenery and solitude away from those headaches are what you seek, head for a state park. While many of them have also seen an uptick in visitors, especially as national parks suffered in the wake of the partial government shutdown, they remain committed to preserving unique landscapes, wildlife and recreation a bit under the radar. Start with these three stunning “local” parks. 

Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado

For Those Who Love: The long tradition of technical rock climbing at Zion or Yosemite national parks

Why Visit? Eldorado Canyon, located just outside of Boulder, Colorado, is a hidden gem known among rock climbers as a playground full of challenging, technical trad routes. Eldorado boasts sheer walls of reddish granite and sandstone conglomerate that are fun to climb, hike and see. The climbs tend toward the advanced, but they also hold fun beginner routes.

Not a climber? Picnic by the river and watch the climbing action, or take a hike. Rattlesnake Gulch Trail offers elevation gain, views of the canyon and surrounding plains, and a chance to explore the ruins of the Crag Hotel, which burned in 1912.

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

For Those Who Love: The whimsical red rock towers of Bryce Canyon National Park

Why Visit? The San Rafael Swell is a singularly unique geological feature made of hundreds of red buttes, canyons and mesas that thrust up from the desert landscape. Goblin Valley State Park sits at the Swell’s southern end, known for its Mars-like landscape littered with narrow, eroded towers up to 50 feet tall known as hoodoos.

You can camp in this unearthly terrain (or rent a yurt), hike amongst the towers, mountain bike, access a slot canyon, ATV and even play disc golf on a nine-hole course. The park provides a good example of the expanded recreational opportunities state parks can offer. “We often say that national parks are meant to go and see, while state parks are meant to go and do,” says Eugene Swalberg, public information officer for Utah State Parks. “That’s certainly the case at Goblin Valley.”

Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming

For Those Who Love: The geological features at Yellowstone National Park

Why Visit? Just south of Lander, Wyoming, and butting up against the Wind River Mountains, Sinks Canyon State Park is somewhat of a local secret that impresses lucky visitors who stumble across its charms. Its main attraction is the Sinks, where a rushing river roars into a cave, disappears, and bubbles back up into a gentle spring a few hundred feet farther on.

“It’s called the sink and the rise, and we still don’t really know where the water goes. It’s a geological wonder,” says Casey Adams of the Wind River Visitors Council.

Depending on time of year and water level, at times the river covers the mouth of the cave, while other times you can venture into the chasm. For the adventurous, the park also offers guided caving expeditions into larger caves. From the park, you can day hike, backpack into the rugged, peaceful Wind River Range, rock climb and mountain bike. Combine Sinks Canyon with a visit to Hot Springs State Park one-and-a-half hours north in Thermopolis, where you can soak in the free state-operated hot springs.

—Melanie Wong