South Central State Park Campgrounds Worthy of Detours

Oct 31, 2022 | Campgrounds

South Central State Park Campgrounds Worthy of Detours

From dinosaur tracks to outlaw hideouts, here are some of the best state parks in the region for campers.

By Karuna Eberl & Steve Alberts

Clayton Lake State Park. | Photo: Karuna Eberl

The South Central U.S. celebrates diverse landscapes and culture, with everything from desert canyons to sprawling lakeshores and swampy forests. If you’re hitting the road to explore, you’ll find no shortage of adventures in this region. 

a backpacker stands at the entrance to a rock cave
Robbers Cave State Park. | Photo: Karuna Eberl

Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

A maze of rock formations that form natural corrals and hideouts is the hallmark of Robbers Cave State Park. Set in the San Bois Mountains of eastern Oklahoma, the area has been a sacred hunting ground for Native Americans. After the Civil War, it lured outlaws like Jesse James, the Daltons, and Belle Star, before being turned into one of Oklahoma’s original seven state parks with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). 

Beyond captivating hikes, the park comes abuzz in the warmer months with boating on several lakes, swimming, mini golf, paddleboat rentals, ATVing, and a nature center with ranger programs and exhibits. Nearby attractions include the expansive Eufaula Lake and the town of McAlester, Oklahoma, with a few boutique shops and museums, featuring Native American art and vineyards.

Where to Camp

Within the state park, there are 22 RV sites with full hookups and another 92 sites with water and electric hookups, spread between two loops (Whispering Pines Campground is by the dam, and the CCC-designed Old Circle Campground is located in the woods). There’s also an equestrian campground with corrals. 

Other accommodations include 86 primitive tent sites, a lodge, yurts, and historic cabins. There’s a restaurant, a camp grocery store with souvenirs, and bathhouses. Note: RVs should go directly to their site because of height restrictions at the park office. The park and campground are dog-friendly and open year-round. Reservations are recommended during the summer and can be made online.

the rocky shore of a lake with hills in the background
Lake Ouachita State Park. | Photo: Steve Alberts

Lake Ouachita State Park, Arkansas

Water sports are the major draw at Lake Ouachita State Park, which is set on a peninsula at Arkansas’ largest lake. The twisting shoreline also makes for intriguing exploration by foot, through forests, boulder gardens, and atop quartz formations that resemble petrified wood. 

Popular activities include water skiing, scuba diving, paddling, and fishing. Boat and kayak rentals are available at the marina, along with year-round interpretive programs like eagle cruises, kayak tours, and guided hikes. Nearby attractions include Hot Springs National Park and the historic town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. 

Related A City Within a Park: Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park Turns 100

Where to Camp

There are 93 RV sites along four loops—58 “Class AAA” (full hookup) sites and 23 “Class D” (no hookup) sites—plus 12 walk-in tent camping sites that are located near the water. Other amenities include cabin rentals, bathhouses, and a small store. The park and campground are dog-friendly and open year-round. Reservations are recommended during the summer and can be made online.

a scenic view of trees and water from a mountain top under a clear blue sky
Mount Nebo State Park. | Photo: Steve Alberts

Mount Nebo State Park, Arkansas

Perched atop the dramatic knob of 1,350-foot Mount Nebo, this state park is best known for its miles of hiking and forested single-track mountain bike trails, as well as its views of the Arkansas River valley. For CCC fans, there are ample stone bridges, pavilions, and cabins to admire. The park is part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and there’s also a local history museum. 

The park shares its expanse with private cabins, so the feeling resembles a rustic resort community. Facilities include a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a large visitor center with a gift shop. Nearby attractions include Dardanelle State Park, the Arkansas River, Arkansas Wine Country, and the town of Dardanelle, Arkansas.

Where to Camp

The road leading into the park is steep and windy, and as such, there’s a 24-foot vehicle length restriction. The campground is small but scenic, especially if you can get a spot at the edge of the bluff. There are 24 “Class B” (partial hookup) sites with water and 30-amp power, plus 10 hike-in tent sites. There’s no dump station on the mountain. Cabins with bluff-top views are also available, including Cabin 1, the first-ever Arkansas state park cabin rental. The park and campground are dog-friendly and open year-round (but beware of the road if there is a possibility of snow or ice). Reservations are recommended during the summer and can be made online.

a rocky expanse with dinosaur tracks and a wooden walkway
Clayton Lake State Park. | Photo: Steve Alberts

Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico

Crowned by one of the country’s best-preserved and largest set of dinosaur tracks, Clayton Lake State Park is an obscure jewel. Take a pleasant, short hike to an interpretive walkway, which points out the remnants of some of the various carnivores and plant-eaters that roamed here more than 100 million years ago. 

The park, which is close to the borders of Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma, also holds a 170-acre reservoir that allows boating at trolling speed, fishing, and paddling. An on-site observatory enhances stargazing, which is spectacular thanks to the lack of light pollution in the surrounding remote high-plain grasslands. Nearby attractions include the Capulin Volcano National Monument, the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grassland, and the Herzstein Memorial Museum in the town of Clayton, New Mexico. 

Where to Camp

There are 26 developed campsites spread out around the lake in five loops, and most have a view of the water. Nine of the sites have water and 30-amp electric, seven more have just water. There’s also a bathhouse and a small visitor center. The park and campground are dog-friendly and open year-round. Reservations are recommended during the summer and can be made online.

an aerial view of a campground in the desert
Palo Duro Canyon State Park. | Photo: Jimmyzshack

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

If you’re headed west but can’t make it all the way to Utah or Arizona, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a good place to get your fix of red rock spires and desert canyons. It’s actually the second-largest canyon system in the country, stretching 120 miles, and you can explore it by horse, mountain bike, foot, or car.

Related Why Texas State Parks Are Great for RVers

Besides 250 million years of geology, CCC history, and wildlife such as turkeys, coyotes, and longhorn cattle, the park offers a number of ranger and interpretive programs. Nearby attractions include the town of Canyon, Texas, and its Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, and the city of Amarillo, Texas, with its many restaurants and attractions, including Cadillac Ranch and a portion of Route 66.

Related Where to RV Camp Along Route 66

Where to Camp

There are three campgrounds with 20- and 30-amp electricity and water, for a total of 95 sites, some of which are big rig friendly. There are also equestrian campsites as well as 24 tent sites, but note that the tent sites are not located near bathhouses. The park and campground are dog-friendly and open year-round. Reservations are recommended during the summer and can be made online.