7 Hidden Gems in the West's State Parks

These extraordinary natural wonders might surprise you.

Water rushes down Burney Falls in McArthur Memorial Park, California.
Burney Falls in McArthur Memorial Park, California.
Zachary Frank / Alamy

From the Grand Canyon to Half Dome, some of the West’s most iconic features can be found within national parks. Yet, the region’s often-overlooked state parks hide natural wonders just as spectacular as their national park counterparts minus the crowds. While they may not end up on a mug or t-shirt, some of the sights awaiting you include breathtaking waterfalls, gleaming subterranean caverns, and even trailside dinosaur fossils. Here are eight state parks with extraordinary natural attractions that might surprise you.

Burney Falls, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, California

Little can prepare you for the thundering curtains of water gushing from Burney Falls, the awe-inspiring focal point of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Situated in California’s Cascade Range, roughly 40 miles north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the 129-foot waterfall consists of numerous cascades fed primarily by underground springs, guaranteeing a steady flow of roughly 100 million gallons each day. Visitors can venture directly to the falls or follow the mile-long Burney Falls Loop Trail alongside Burney Creek before descending to the fall’s misty base. Adjacent Lake Britton offers swimming, kayaking, and boating. The park is open year-round, but during summer, you’ll want to arrive early as parking is limited and fills up fast.

Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California

Located within Redwood National and State Parks, home to the tallest tree in the world, you’ll discover lush Fern Canyon set deep within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Encompassing a shallow pebbled streambed, the verdant gorge is flanked by 50-foot steep walls shrouded in leafy ferns dripping with spring-fed trickles. The mini canyon was formed via rushing waters over a millennia, and is recognized as a World Heritage site with some of its fern species reaching back millions of years. It’s little wonder Steven Spielberg chose it for a scene in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” Today, visitors can follow the 1-mile Fern Canyon Loop Trail from Gold Bluffs Beach to the canyon, and cautiously explore its fragile environs. Just remember to pack waterproof shoes, and, from May through September, reserve a free parking permit to access the trail.


Caves, Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona

The wondrous limestone chambers located underneath Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns State Park are true hidden gems, originally discovered in 1974 by two amateur spelunkers and only accessible to the public since 1999. On a variety of guided tours, including one illuminated solely by headlamps, visitors descend into pristine rooms and passageways composed of fantastical limestone and quartz formations as well as subterranean pools. In addition to recognizable stalactites and stalagmites, guests will observe less common formations such as “turnip” shields, “birdsnest” needle quartz formations, and a massive, 58-foot column dubbed Kubla Khan. Tours are offered year-round and can be reserved online

Pink Canyon formations seen from White Domes Scenic Byway in Valley of Fire State Park.
Pink Canyon seen from White Domes Scenic Byway in Valley of Fire State Park.
mauritius images GmbH / Alamy

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Located 46 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park lends even more desert dazzle with its many flame-red Aztec sandstone formations. The most prominent is The Fire Wave, a vast landscape seemingly painted with red and tan swirls—the result of oxidizing iron and manganese alongside weather-bleached sandstone—and reached via the eponymous 1.5-mile Fire Wave Trail. Yet, there’s an unmarked gem worth seeking out. Located toward the park’s northern edge, The Pink Canyon (aka Pastel Canyon) is a narrow slot canyon whose expanse immerses visitors in undulating, pastel-hued striations that extend overhead. The canyon can be accessed by carefully walking south from the Fire Wave parking lot alongside Mouse Tank Road where the canyon’s entrance is visible roughly .7 miles on the eastern side of the road. Note that summer temps can peak over 100 degrees, so plan your visit in the morning or evening, and pack lots of water.

Dinosaur Fossils, Makoshika State Park, Montana

A Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops are just two of the many dinosaur fossils unearthed and on display at Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Montana. The park sits within the Hell Creek Formation, an internationally-renowned rockbed that holds some of the most dinosaur remains on the planet. To date, 10 species have been found within the park. In addition to fossils exhibited at the visitors center, guests can see a hadrosaur vertebrae impression fossil still embedded in rock on the .9-mile Diane Gabriel Trail. Along the way, you’ll also marvel at the park’s sculptural badlands—Makoshika is an anglicized version of the Lakota word for “bad earth”—teeming with caprocks, pedestals, and natural bridges.

Sinks and Rise, Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming

Though it’s easy to overlook given its Yellowstone and Grand Teton national park neighbors, Wyoming’s Sinks Canyon State Park is home to a curious phenomenon unlike anything in the state. As the Popo Agie River flows against a limestone wall, its waters disappear into fissures—the Sinks—and reappear in a large pool—the Rise—a quarter mile down the canyon. Yet, while aboveground water would take a few minutes to flow from the Sinks to the Rise, dye tests have shown that the subterranean waters’ journey can take up to two hours. No one is quite sure why, but geologists speculate that the water travels through an elaborate underground maze. View the process at each locale via the fully paved half-mile Sinks to Rise trail.

Hoodoos in Utah's Goblin Valley State Park on a partly cloudy day.
Hoodoos in Utah's Goblin Valley State Park.
IrinaK / Shutterstock

Hoodoos, Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

While you’ll find hoodoos, the mesmerizing column-like sandstone formations, at many of Utah’s national parks, Goblin Valley State Park stands out with thousands of distinctive hoodoos whose expressive features resemble the park’s namesake creatures. The goblins contribute to the park’s otherworldly landscape which doubled as an alien planet in the 1999 film “Galaxy Quest.” See for yourself at The Valley of Goblins, a three-square mile expanse where visitors can roam at their leisure. The park is also a popular canyoneering destination, and first timers can join park concessionaire Get In The Wild Adventures in rappelling 90-feet into the Goblin’s Lair, a slot canyon covered by rockfall (regular tours run March through November). The park is open year-round, but you’ll find the best weather—and the most crowds—during spring and fall.