It’s hard to narrow down which states have the best outdoor recreation in the United States—but we did it anyway.
It’s important to note that every state in the U.S. has outdoor recreation available, from teeny-tiny Rhode Island to sprawling Montana and Arizona. And with approximately 6,600 state parks in the U.S. and national parks spread from northern Maine to southern California, no one in the U.S. has to travel too far to find somewhere to commune with nature.
However, the states below all have something in common: a fantastic variety of outdoor landscapes that create varied recreational opportunities. In the states below, you can hike one day, go whitewater rafting the next, and go fishing at a luxurious backcountry lodge the next. And because the states below have booming industries to support outdoor recreation, it’s easy to find guides, lodges, outfitters, rental shops, and all the other services travelers will need for a hassle-free outdoor trip.
Though it’s all about outdoor getaways in the states below, you don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie to have a good time. From family-friendly zipline tours to dude ranches to cycle-and-wine routes, the states below have plenty to do (and plenty of outdoorsy places to stay) regardless of how extreme you want to be.
Sure, Utah has amazing ski resorts in the mountains near Salt Lake City, but step away from downtown and you’ll find sprawling desert landscapes containing some of the country’s most otherworldly rock formations. Utah’s “big five” national parks are worth several days of exploring, from the river canyon trails of Zion to the narrow, higher elevation hikes in Arches National Park.
And don’t stop with the national parks. Perhaps you’d like to take a stand-up paddleboard class in a natural underground hot spring, or take a guided llama trek through the mountains, complete with gourmet fireside meals? Utah has outdoor adventure for any activity and any activity level, from experts-only downhill mountain bike lines in Moab to flat slot canyons first-time hikers can explore in less than an hour.
The best time to visit Utah varies drastically on where you’re planning to go, so it’s best to check recommendations for the local town or region you’re interested in visiting.
What’s your outdoor activity of choice? Skiing? Surfing? Rock climbing? Mountain biking? Scuba diving? BASE jumping? Well, it doesn’t matter one bit, because California has it all. And it should—with 840 miles of coastline, an entire mountain range, and both the continental US’s highest and lowest points (Mount Whitney and Death Valley National Park, respectively), it has every type of terrain imaginable for outdoor adventure. It also has the most national parks of any state (nine) and some of the only ancient redwood forests in the United States. If you can’t find something to enjoy outdoors in California, that’s on you—especially since amazing outdoor destinations like Muir Woods and Idyllwild are very close to some of the state’s biggest cities.
California has nine national parks, but Alaska is a close second with eight. And if you look at total acreage, Alaska is far and away the winner, with more than 32 million acres protected in the national park system. From touring glacial fjords to hiking mountain summits, Alaska’s national parks are varied, wild, and vast.
But it’s not just national parks that beckon outdoor enthusiasts to Alaska. Travelers can stay at remote eco-camps to watch grizzly bears in the wild, go dogsledding in Nome, mountain bike through old Gold Rush towns, and see the northern lights from the comfort of a heated geodesic dome.
Alaska’s dramatic landscapes only add to the outdoor adventure. Because travel by car around the massive state can be difficult, travelers hoping to move between parks will likely need to use a combination of seaplanes, trains, and ferries. Note that the most popular time to visit Alaska is late summer (July and August) and many non-snow-related activity operators close between October and May.
It’s not just country music and honky-tonk bars. Tennessee is one of the best slightly under-the-radar states for outdoor adventure, thanks in part to the Great Smoky Mountains. Nature-lovers can chase waterfalls, take multi-day whitewater rafting tours to hidden beachside campsites, or hike sections of the Appalachian Trail. Fly-fishing, too, is popular in Tennessee, thanks in part to the state’s three major river systems (the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee).
Tennessee is probably one of the most family-friendly outdoor states in the country, thanks in part to a variety of kid-friendly outdoor—but not extreme—activities. Families can go ziplining and ride a mountain coaster in Gatlinburg or ride a glass-roofed train through the Hiwassee River gorge. Both glamping and treehouse resorts are big in Tennessee, offering a chance to stay in nature without giving up the amenities of a more pampered experience. Especially unique sleeping options in the state include a Conestoga wagon and a treehouse resort near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
If you love adventuring but hate big crowds and expensive price tags, Vermont may be the summer destination for you. Of course, it’s amazing in winter, too, but the crowds get a little larger since the state is home to some of the biggest and best ski resorts east of the Rocky Mountains.
In the summer, Vermont feels like a non-stop wilderness where you have the woods to yourself. You can hike the 273-mile Long Trail, go paddling on Lake Champlain, or hit the downhill bike park at Killington Mountain Resort. You can road bike between the state’s breweries (of which there are more than 50) or hit one of the hundreds of outdoor festivals in charming downtown Burlington.
If you do plan to visit in the winter and need a break from skiing or snowboarding, you’re in luck. You can cross-country ski and snowshoe, take snowmobile tours, learn to tap trees for maple syrup, learn to carve ice in Stowe, or try fat-biking, which is sure to get your blood pumping on a chilly day. You can even stay at the Trapp Family Lodge, owned by the Trapps of “The Sound of Music” fame.
There’s no place like Washington State, the dreamy northernmost state in the Pacific Northwest. From the eco-lodges and whale watching opportunities in the San Juan Islands to the river floating and mountain towns of the northeastern part of the state, it’s a stunning place for true outdoor adventurers to spend a week.
Hikers will be thrilled to learn that Washington has three national parks and one of them (Olympic National Park) contains within its boundaries the Hoh Rainforest. It’s one of the continental U.S.’s very few temperate rainforests and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
North of the Hoh Rainforest is the San Juan Islands, known for orca sightings, island eco-lodges, and remote fishing and paddling camps accessible only by seaplane or ferry. Head east from there, and you’ll hit North Cascades National Park or the Mount Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest, both of which are ripe with multi-day backpacking routes and plenty of peak-bagging opportunities. On the other side of the mountains are plenty of hiking, biking, fishing, and camping opportunities with generally smaller elevation changes, making it an excellent place for beginner athletes to play outside.
Colorado is known for some of the most amazing skiing in the country, especially since it has dozens of massive ski resorts—Vail alone covers more than 5,200 acres. Colorado gets very cold, and since more than 20 ski resorts have top elevations above 10,000 feet, the snow stays very dry and fluffy. That makes powder days a common occurrence, and some resorts average more than 400 inches of snow per year. Skiing through July 4 is common at Arapahoe Basin. And Ouray has a reputation for world-class ice climbing.
Summer visitors have just as much to look forward to, from living the wild west life at a ranch near Durango or Crested Butte to walking around historical cowboy towns like Tin Cup and Silverton. Many of the ski resorts transition to mountain bike and hiking resorts in the summer, and the area around Grand Junction is a popular place to rent bikes and cycle between wineries and orchards.
If you’ve got a national parks pass, you might as well pay a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, which has more than 350 miles of hiking and backpacking trails (and stunning high-altitude campsites.) Oh, and skiers don’t have to change gears in the summer; sandboarding is a popular activity at the state’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. And the little-known Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is rarely crowded, even on summer weekends.
It’s not called the “Land of Enchantment” for nothing. New Mexico has no shortage of geological wonders for travelers to explore.
The state’s Guadalupe Mountains house Carlsbad Caverns National Park, an epic site for cave exploration. It’s where you’ll find the largest cave chamber in the country at 4,000 feet long. Because the cave system is so huge, even guests with a touch of claustrophobia will find plenty of areas to explore. If you don’t mind a tighter squeeze, take the more strenuous tour through Slaughter Canyon.
Don’t want to go underground? Head to Taos for skiing or hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing in the summer, or spend the day soaking and swimming at a natural hot springs resort in Santa Fe. There’s no shortage of golf in New Mexico, and the state’s several internationally recognized Dark Sky Parks host astronomy events and moonlight hikes all summer long. New Mexico is a true year-round destination, though it can be exceedingly hot in the summer for hiking and camping at lower elevations.
Home to the country’s newest state park, a relatively small population, affordable hotels, and plenty of remote places to play, it’s no surprise that the secret is out about how fantastic West Virginia is for outdoor activities.
Aside from the hiking, whitewater rafting, and camping available in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia’s small towns offer a plethora of outdoor experiences. Rock climbing and paddling (including kayaking, paddleboarding, and rafting) are popular sports in the state, and there are plenty of places for beginners to get outside.
West Virginia is also home to a huge variety of eco- and nature resorts, from those focused on paddling (like Adventures on the Gorge or ACE Adventure Resort) to resorts focused on blending luxury into the outdoors, like the Greenbrier. Because the state is relatively uncrowded, peaceful activities like bird watching, foraging, forest bathing, and fishing are also big draws.
Michigan gets most of the love in the Midwest when it comes to outdoor travel, but cross the border into Wisconsin and you’ll find a second outdoor wonderland ripe with things to do. The college town of Madison is one of the most active cities in the Midwest, with more than 200 parks in town, several long running and cycling paths, and kayak/paddle trails on the river through the heart of downtown.
Head north from Madison and you’ll find Door County, which covers a peninsula in Lake Michigan. It’s made up of charming waterfront villages like Egg Harbor and Sturgeon Bay, and if you go even further north, you’ll reach Apostles Island National Lakeshore. It’s world-famous for its cliffside kayaking and island campsites, many of which are only accessible via canoe or kayak.
Wisconsin’s heartland offers plenty as well, from fishing and ATV tours to hiking trails, wilderness resorts, and plenty of farms and orchards where families can get their hands dirty in the great outdoors. You’ll want to visit between late spring and mid-autumn unless you want to contend with snow.