Welcome to our third annual favorites list. These places are not always the best known, but we visited each in 2019 and they all impressed us. You'll notice something about this year's list, four of the five favorites are state parks. It looks like state parks are the hidden gems for the off the beaten track traveler.
1. Lake Leatherwood - Eureka Springs, Arkansas
A short drive from downtown Eureka Springs, but still technically inside the city limits, lies Lake Leatherwood. This 1,600 acre city park has over 25 miles of hiking and biking trails. There is a four mile foot trail around the lake that includes a walk over the dam that created the lake. Depending on the amount of recent rain there could be six additional water crossings, some that may require you to get your feet wet. It's not a strenuous trail, but there are some rocky and slick spots. In fact, a side trail takes the hiker through an old rock quarry. You can cool off after hiking at a swimming beach near the campground.
2. Natural Falls State Park - Oklahoma
The centerpiece of this park is Dripping Springs Falls. The top of this scenic 77 foot waterfall can be accessed from the parking lot by a paved, accessible trail. That connects to a trail that stays on top of the small gorge created by the river and falls. However, the real fun is getting off that trail and hiking to the bottom of the falls. The air temperature drops about 10 degrees as you approach the pool at the bottom. Once you are looking up at the falls you'll also have access to additional trails along the bottom of the gorge. The trail that follows the river takes you back to a wide waterfall that is part of a dam built in the 1920's to create a fishing pond. You also can cross a pretty sketchy looking foot bridge (pictured above) that deposits you on the Bear Trail, which appears to only be traveled by bears and hardy hikers.
3. Indian Cave State Park - Nebraska
How about some hiking, history, and horseback riding along one of the great American Rivers? In the southwest corner of Nebraska, beside the mighty Missouri River, sits a state park worthy of a day trip or an entire weekend visit. Indian Cave State Park gets it's name from a cave along the river that was frequented by Native Americans for centuries. The early inhabitants carved petroglyphs along the cave wall. While dates and origins of the prehistoric carvings are unknown, they are easily recognizable and can be viewed from a wooden boardwalk that extends the length of the wall. The cave is only the most prominent attraction. The park encompasses over 3,000 acres with a wide variety of activities, including picnicking, camping and hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.
4. Fenwick Island State Park - Delaware
It's hard to find out of the way places on the eastern seaboard of the country, but tucked between the tourist seaside towns of Rehobeth Beach, Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland is the comparatively quiet Fenwick Island. The main road through town in full of the tourist trade, but park your car and walk out to the beach. There you'll find the state park - a one mile stretch of sand with little development, save for a beach chair concession on the north end. There is plenty of room to set up an a piece of sand without being elbow to hip with your neighbor. You might also see dolphins and pelicans playing in the surf.
5. Ludington State Park - Michigan
This is one of the most popular state parks in Michigan system, with camping, swimming in Lake Michigan and 21 miles of hiking trails. From the campground parking lot, a flat one mile trail along the sand dunes leads to the Big Sable Point lighthouse. The majority of hikers turn around here. Continuing north along the lake shore takes the hiker through a pristine, undeveloped landscape. After about four miles you arrive at the southern edge of the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area - another undisturbed natural beauty spot with barely another human in sight.