If you want to find out which are the best state parks from the point of view of the director of each state park system, check out The Best of the Best State Parks at About.com
Darren Smith sent out a request to each director for his or her top choice. Because many directors turned in more than one offering, Smith included all suggestions. As he points out, a park that’s best for birdwatching may not be best for skiing. What’s “best,” therefore, is subjective. In the case of a best of the best list, the more the merrier.
Subjective or not, what makes these state parks standouts, according to Smith, are their natural beauty and natural resources, as well as, in some cases, their cultural and historical significance. They are also perfect for spotting the wildlife that is native to each state.
What intrigued me about Smith’s list of state parks is that there are many that are often overshadowed by the national parks and monuments that happen to be in that state as well. New Mexico is one such state.
I lived in New Mexico for nine years and traveled to every corner more than once. Although I did take in a few state parks, other travel options kept me busy.
I vaguely remember going to Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park and the City of Rocks State Park— two parks on the Best of the Best list, years ago. Part of the reason for my fuzzy recollection is that New Mexico state parks have plenty of competition with national parks and monuments located there.
White Sands National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park are just a few of the wow factor locations I’ve been to more than once.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, however, is where seeing wildlife native to New Mexico (and elsewhere) is a given. Prairie dogs, mule deer, bison and road runners are part of the critters who live in the Chihuahuan Desert where the park is located. The park is also involved with a program to ensure the survival of the Mexican Gray Wolf. These wolves are native to the southern part of the state.
What Smith was getting at when he compiled his list is that, although national parks often get more attention, state parks deserve notice too. Smith’s list is also a reminder that there are hidden gems worth discovering across the United States.
Sure, a national park is a fine destination, but while you’re on your way, add a state park to the itinerary. Because the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is near Carlsbad Caverns, for example, you can easily take in both on the same trip.
When planning a trip, use Smith’s list as a handy starting point. Each park has a link to its website, plus there are descriptions about why a particular park made the list and the wildlife you’ll see if you go there.
The photo of the fox was taken at Wildlife Prairie State Park near Peoria, Illinois. That park not on the Best of the Best list, but perhaps it should be. Wildlife Prairie State Park features 150 animals that are native to Illinois. The fox is one of them.