5 Mid-Atlantic State Parks Worthy of a Detour

Jan 18, 2023 | Campgrounds

5 Mid-Atlantic State Parks Worthy of a Detour

These state parks fuse the tranquility of nature with surprises like wild horses, natural caves, and even an abandoned theme park.

By Karuna Eberl & Steve Alberts

Assateague State Park. | Photo: Karuna Eberl

The deep history and wild nature of the Mid-Atlantic region never ceases to amaze. From quiet woodlands to sunny shorelines, here are some of the top state parks in the region.

A sun sets over the water casting an orange glow.
Sara’s Campground. | Photo: Liz & Jake

1. Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania

The Keystone State has a 50-mile stretch of coast along Lake Erie, part of which is in Presque Isle State Park. This 3,200-acre sandy peninsula includes 13 beaches, making it a refreshing spot for swimming, boating, paddling, fishing, and soaking up rays. There are also 11 miles of hiking trails and a 13-mile bike loop, plus you can even hang ten at three surfing beaches.

Presque Isle is also a favorite stop for migrating birds, and you can learn about them, along with the area’s diverse ecology and history, at the state-of-the-art Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Other activities include a guided lighthouse boat tour, inline skating, and coveted sunset viewing. In winter, there’s also cross-country skiing, ice skating, and educational films in the environmental center’s IMAX-like theater. Nearby attractions include the port city of Erie, with its breweries, covered bridges, and Centennial Tower.   

Where to Camp

There is no camping in the park, but the adjacent Sara’s Campground on the beach has around 70 RV campsites, about half with water and electric, and the rest with the addition of sewer. There is also beach camping and wooded sites for tents. All tent camping is first-come, first-served. Some RV sites are reservable through email, which is highly recommended, especially in summer. Your furry friend is welcome at the bayside campground, but not at the beachside. In the park, dogs are allowed within the wooded areas, but not on the beach. Both are open year round.

Wild horses graze in a field at a state park in Maryland.
Wild horses at Assateague State Park. | Photo: Karuna Eberl

2. Assateague State Park, Maryland

The origin of the wild horses of Assateague Island remain a mystery, but some recent compelling DNA tests suggest the legend may be true that they came from a Spanish warship that wrecked here in 1751. Today the wild ponies are easy to find at Assateague State Park. 

Related The Chincoteague Ponies Make Their Annual Swim Across the Channel from Assateague Island

The park is situated on a barrier island, bordered by the Atlantic on the east and the Sinepuxent Bay to the west. Two miles of pristine oceanside beach provide an idyllic setting for swimming, boating, fishing, and beach combing. The bayside is an adventure in itself, with paddling through hidden coves, birdwatching, and watching the feral horse herd, which numbers around 150 strong. Nearby attractions include Assateague Island National Seashore, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and the resort town of Ocean City.  

Where to Camp

There are 342 sites in the park, complete with a fire ring and picnic table. The sites in G and I loops have electrical hookups. Pets are welcome in the G, H, and I loops and adjoining beaches. Reservations are highly recommended in the summer months, and the park is open seasonally from April to October.

Railroad tracks lead the way into a darkened tunnel.
Natural Tunnel State Park. | Photo: YACKSpeed

3. Natural Tunnel State Park, Virginia

Hop on a chairlift for a ride up to an 850-foot-long, 10-story-high rock tunnel in the Virginia wilderness. The natural cave was formed over tens of thousands of years by water percolating through the limestone and dolomite bedrock, and is so large that it has been used as a railroad tunnel for the last 170 years. 

Beyond that geological wonder, Natural Tunnel State Park has seven short but scenic hiking trails, most of which are also open to mountain bikes. There are also self-guided tours of the historic Wilderness Road Blockhouse and interpretive exhibits at the visitor center. Nearby attractions include canoe trips on the Clinch River, rafting on the Pigeon River, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center (a satellite location of Natural Tunnel State Park), and the town of Duffield.

Where to Camp

The park has 34 sites, some with power and water, split between two campgrounds, plus a primitive area for tent camping. Other amenities include four yurts, 14 cabins, a lodge, camp store, and gift shop. The campsites are open from early March until December, while the park and its other lodging are open year round. The park and lodging are pet friendly. Reservations are recommended, especially during the summer.

People stand on a sandy beach looking out at the water.
Beaver Pond Campground. | Photo: Anne H

4. Long Pond Ironworks State Park, New Jersey

Explore the remnants of a more than 250-year-old iron works settlement, including old water wheels, stone furnaces, and a recently renovated country store. Founded by a German ironworker in 1706, laborers here provided iron for the armies of the U.S. Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.

Today you can also mountain bike miles of trails within Long Pond Ironworks State Park, including through the abandoned 1970s-era Jungle Habitat theme park. Other activities include boating on the Wanaque River, angling in the trophy-producing Monksville Reservoir, bird watching, hiking, and interpretive exhibits at the visitor center and museum. Nearby attractions include Dater Mountain Nature Park, the towns of West Milford and Hewitt, plus New York City, which is an hour or two away depending on traffic.

Where to Camp

Some of the nearest camping to the park is about 13 miles away at Harriman State Park in New York, which has several campgrounds, plus lean-tos (some of which even have a view of the New York City skyline). The Beaver Pond Campground can accommodate RVs, but none of the sites have hookups. The lean-tos are first-come, first-served, but otherwise reservations are recommended. Lean-tos are open year round but the campgrounds close from mid-October until April. Both Long Pond and Harriman are dog friendly.

A gentle waterfall cascades down jagged rocks.
Watkins Glen State Park. | Photo: enerserve

5. Watkins Glen State Park, New York

Visiting Watkins Glen State Park feels like stepping into a fantasy world. Walk through a 400-foot gorge and past 19 waterfalls, along a 2-mile trail accented by stone staircases and arched bridges, lush foliage, fairy pools, and potholes. 

Beyond water majesty, the park has forests to explore and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The stone and mortar work is also considered one of the stars in the cap of the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps building projects. Nearby attractions include Seneca Lake, numerous wineries, and the town of Watkins Glen. 

Where to Camp

There are 275 campsites in the park, all with electricity. Other amenities include cabins, showers, a dump station, a gift and food shop, and playgrounds. Two pets per campsite are allowed, and the park is generally pet friendly as well. The park, plus the north and south rim trails, are open year round, but the waterfall trail and campground are closed from roughly November through late May. Reservations are required.