Have you ever thought about being a tourist in your own local area? While traveling across the country is exciting and exploring international landscapes can be thrilling, most of us have hidden gems right under our noses in nearby state parks. Typically, they have family-friendly features, such as hiking trails, designated picnic places, and in some cases, swimming. Some states don’t even charge an entrance fee (though it is good to check to see if you still have to make a reservation). It can also be a relatively inexpensive overnight getaway, with some campground reservation fees for as low at $10 or $15 per night.
Whether interested in a day trip or overnight, check out these ideas for how to begin, where to go and tips for enjoying these treasures.
Where to begin
If you do a quick online search for “state parks near me” you may be surprised to find how close the fun is to where you live. Your state government’s website can provide you with a full list of locations and details about each park’s hours of operation, costs and highlights.
One of the best ways to explore a state park is to pack up and go camping there. Most state parks have campgrounds where you can pitch a tent to spend some time in the great outdoors, communing with nature, sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag. Like a few more creature comforts? Bring your own RV for “glamping” with full hook-ups. Each state runs their campgrounds a little differently: some are “first come, first served;” while others require reservations as much as 6-12 months in advance. By doing a little online research on how your state operates their campgrounds, you can plan ahead and be on your way to finding fun in your own backyard.
To camp in a state park, you’ll need a reservation. One of the best insider tips we can provide is to check out the Reserve America website, which is the most widely used reservation system for state park campgrounds in 48 states. If you aren’t able to find the dates that you are looking for right away, you might try requesting help from a service like Wandering Labs, which can alert you when it finds the availability you’ve requested.
Where to go
Each state park is unique and has something to offer. From the smallest state park in the U.S., Berkeley Springs in West Virginia in the heart of an historic town, to Adirondack Park in New York (though technically, only 3 million of the 6 million acres are state park, you get the point). There is something for everyone.
Take a quick look at 10 of America’s best state parks to get a taste for what they have to offer:
Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park near Tuscaloosa sits on 1,500 acres in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It boasts hiking trails, a miniature railroad, craftsmen who demonstrate blacksmithing, candle-making and other trades, as well as an historical museum plus 19th-century stone furnaces that were confederate iron forges during the Civil War. There are also nearly 200 full service camping sites for RVs and another 100 tent camping sites available.
Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro is the only state park that is also an active diamond mining location in the U.S.A. You can reserve one of 1,500 spots available each day for the opportunity to dig for your own diamond in the rough! With 47 reservable full service sites that can accommodate RVs or tents and 5 walk-up tent sites you’ll be able to stay onsite while you try your luck.
If you’re looking for a place to get away from the rush while still being close to the action, Cherry Creek State Park in Denver is the park for you. With trails for hiking and biking, and a lake for water sports such as kayaking and sailing, there are plenty of recreation options at this oasis within the city. There are also 135 spacious campsites in small loop settings, which makes it the perfect get-away with a group of a few friends or families.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is considered by many to be the premier Florida state park. With only 39 campsites available in this park in Key Largo, it requires advanced planning, but once you are there it is worth that effort. Kayak and paddle board among the mangroves. Take a glass-bottom boat tour or go snorkeling at the coral reef. Rent a boat to go deep sea fishing - or simply relax on the beach. There is something for everyone.
If you’re in New England and haven’t visited Cape Cod, try a getaway to 1,300 acre Nickerson State Park. There you can explore the seashore and, depending on the season, enjoy: fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding or cross-country skiing. With over 400 campsites, you can find the perfect spot to get away and stay close to home.
If you live in the Great Lakes region you already know that heading north in Michigan provides lots of opportunity for fun. One of the best to check out is Tahquamenon Falls State Park in the Upper Peninsula for boating, fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hunting. There are three campgrounds with nearly 400 campsites available and a hike-in location. You can even enjoy winter camping here, if that’s your thing!
Waveland, Mississippi is home to ground zero of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005, which changed the landscape of the region. Since that time the Mississippi coast has been rebuilt to be even better than it was before - and Buccaneer State Park is proof of that. Sitting on the Gulf of Mexico, you can choose either primitive beach camping or full hook-up premium sites in the newly rebuilt campground with nearly 300 sites for RVs and tents. In addition to the ocean access, the park also offers disc golf, nature trails, and a 4.5 acre waterpark open seasonally.
While you may have seen the Great Salt Lake before or may have even visited it, did you know that you can camp on its shores in Antelope Island State Park? Though the park has places for hiking, mountain biking and kayaking, one of the biggest attractions is the opportunity to check out the North American Bison and other wildlife that call the park home. Then return to your tent or RV in this park’s campground, just a stone’s throw from Salt Lake City.
There’s no place on earth like the Oregon coast. Beverly Beach State Park near Newport is one of the state’s largest state parks, tucked into a forest with ocean front and mountains. Enjoy hiking, biking, whale watching, clamming, and exploring life in the tidal pools. There are several options for camping - including accessible spots with yurts!
Everything’s bigger in Texas and their state park system is no exception. You can find almost any landscape that you are looking for from beaches to woodlands - and everything in between. But there is one Texas state park that stands out: Monahans Sandhills State Park near Odessa. These sand dunes rise up out of the west Texas landscape and you’ll find over 800 acres to explore on foot or horseback. You can rent or bring your own sleds to slide down the dunes and picnic at the foot of the dunes. There are 26 campsites available to pitch your tent or park your RV to get some rest after a day of dusty exploration.
Picking your place
With over 10,000 state parks across the U.S., there is probably one not too far from you (and maybe more!) So make a plan. Check the park out online and see what it has to offer. Take the weather for your region and time of year into account (and check if there are limitations at the park based on the season). Then take a day trip or pack your camping gear. Your next favorite adventure may be closer than you think.
Need some ideas for food to take along for your day trip or camping? Check out this article. Don’t forget these cargo straps to help keep your stuff organized for your adventure.