15 State Parks That Give the National Parks a Run for the Money
It’s been more than a year since the pandemic halted and then drastically changed our travel plans (among other things!). As the country begins to reopen, the desire to stay away from crowds and seek new experiences in the great outdoors will continue to be the focus of summertime getaways in 2021. But you aren’t the only one with that idea and our national parks are experiencing a surge in visitors. Yellowstone, for example, welcomed 3.8 million visitors in 2020.
You can still experience America’s great beauty with far fewer crowds by skipping the big names and instead of visiting a state park – many of which could and probably should get national park status. What’s even better is entrance fees to the state parks are less than the national parks, so you can save some money while you travel.
Here are 15 parks that should be on your radar.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida
Planning a trip to Florida means plenty of beach time but for those who want to experience the Sunshine State’s unique ecosystem, they often head to the Everglades. But the national park is not the only place you can explore swamps and see alligators.
Northwest of Gainesville, Florida, you can explore the lush forest and bogs of Ichetucknee Springs in what is referred to as the Real Florida. You won’t find amusement parks, tourist-filled beaches, or chain restaurants. Here, you will sample quiet, relaxed Old Florida as you wind your way down its waterways in a kayak, swim in secluded watering holes, and hike in the 2,669-acre park filled with waterfowl and wildlife. You can even scuba to underwater caves and slowly tube down the crystalline waters of the river.
- Closest city: Fort White
- Entrance fee: $6 per vehicle ($4 solo-passenger vehicle)
Chicot State Park, Louisiana
If seeing swampland is high on your bucket list, Louisiana aims to please as well. While Chicot State Park’s 2,000-acre lake is manmade, the entire 6,400-acre park is filled with an environment unique to the Bayou State. The lake is stocked for those wanting to spend a day on the lake searching for largemouth bass, or simply enjoy boating and swimming in the cool waters – it’s plenty big enough!
The forest and bayou areas are ripe for exploring and spotting wildlife, and if that’s not enough for you, the Louisiana State Arboretum is located adjacent to the state park. Book a cabin or a campsite and stay awhile.
- Closest city: Ville Platte
- Entrance fee: $3 per person
Waimea Canyon State Park, Hawaii
When watching movies with sweeping views of lush rainforests and waterfalls, oftentimes you are seeing Waimea Canyon State Park on the island of Kauai. (Jurassic Park is one example.) At 14 miles long and 3,600 deep, this colorful canyon is nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and offers tons of hiking trails and a scenic overlook drive.
Make your way along the 3.4-mile Canyon Trail, which is the most popular of the park for its up-close view of the 800-foot Waipo'o Falls.
- Closest city: Waimea
- Entrance fee: $5 per person or $25 per car
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
The dramatic landscape found in the southwestern deserts of the U.S. fills the feeds of Instagram. From Utah’s arches and hoodoos to Arizona’s world-wonder, the Grand Canyon, the national parks see visitors from around the world wanting to witness the beauty from sunrise to sunset. Yet, an hour from Las Vegas, where the Strip’s neon lights keep the energy going 24/7, is the Valley of Fire, which highlights the energy of the earth.
Aptly named for its red petrified sandstone, this 40,000-acre park’s landscape changes color with the sun and shadows. You may find petroglyphs and see petrified trees in this land that was shaped more than 2,000 years ago. You can camp here to see the real stars of Nevada, and some areas welcome rock climbing.
- Closest city: Overton
- Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle
Baxter State Park, Maine
Sure Acadia National Park is gorgeous, but its island setting makes it difficult to span out or find accommodations. Instead, head inland and give Baxter State Park a peek. This is the home of Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail and the highest peak in the state at 5,267 feet.
You’ll find 215 miles of trails in the park that spans over 20,000 acres. While less than half the size of Acadia, there are more than 300 campsites and a more secluded getaway. If you are up for it, hike to the peak, although it is a full-day excursion. (Permits are required to protect the mountain from crowds so be sure to get one well in advance.)
- Closest city: Millinocket
- Entrance fee: $8 per car
Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
If you thought the Land of Lincoln was nothing but cornfields, you’ll be more than surprised by Starved Rock. This state park has 13 miles of trails and 18 canyons filled with beautiful waterfalls. While the park’s name comes from a tragic Native American tale, it is a National Historic Landmark with ample camping and free park tours.
Pioneer Cabins, also on the Historic Register, are as pet-friendly as the rest of the land. As you make your way around the park, follow the Green Interior Canyon trails to visit French Canyon Falls, Wildcat Falls, Ottawa Falls, and a slew of other waterfalls.
- Closest city: Utica
- Entrance fee: Free
Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia
When it comes to falls, you’ll find more in West Virginia where Blackwater Falls State Park features a 57-foot cascade. Hike along any of the 21 trails in a park that has welcomed adventure-seekers since the 1800s. When the park became a state property with 446 acres overlooking Blackwater Canyon, it added a lodge that still offers daily dining.
While camping or enjoying the park’s cabins, your visit is like a 2-for-1. Just 7 miles from the park is another fabulous state park and wildlife refuge, Canaan Valley.
- Closest city: Davis and Thomas
- Entrance fee: Free
Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
Deep within the White Mountains of New Hampshire is the state’s most popular park. This mountain pass was home to the state’s Old Man of the Mountain granite rock face that, well, looked like an old man surveying the land. It became a symbol of the state and was immortalized by Revolutionaries Nathaniel Hawthorne and Daniel Webster. Alas, it recently crumbled but the beauty of the mountains, trails, and lakes aren’t still up for grabs.
Ride the aerial tram to 4,080-foot Cannon Mountain, where you can have views as far as Canada and New York. Then head into the depth of the Flume Gorge found at the base of Mount Liberty. You’ll be 90 feet deep into the granite-walled gorge. You can even spend a day at the beach of Echo Lake.
- Closest city: Davis and Thomas
- Entrance fee: $16 Gorge; $19 Tram, $4 Beach
Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho
You’ve never seen dunes this tall in the U.S. This park is home to the tallest dunes in the United States – so high you can sand surf down them! The park rents sand boards to give you a chance to surf down its peaks, the tallest of which is 470 feet.
Visit the dunes for camping, horseback riding, and lake fun with sandy beaches and fishing. The Bruneau Dunes Observatory and its telescopes give visitors an even deeper look into the darkened Idaho sky so free of light pollution you’ll be stunned even without telescopes.
- Closest city: Bruneau
- Entrance fee: $7 per vehicle
Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia
Georgia is home to two of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Tallulah Falls, at 1,719 feet, can be found within a 2-mile gorge. But the 729-foot Amicalola Falls is the heart of a state park that features a lodge with unbelievable park views.
Found within the Chattahoochee National Forest, you won’t have to rough it at the lodge. You’ll enjoy guided hikes, zip lines through the trees, GPS scavenger hunts, and 8 miles of forest trails providing more stunning views of the North Georgia Mountains. The falls are a part of Springer Mountain and its 8.5-mile trail for experienced outdoor lovers.
- Closest city: Dawsonville
- Entrance fee: $5 per vehicle
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California
Sure, you can go to Redwood National Park and places like Muir Woods National Monument to see California’s ancient and towering redwood trees. But the state is filled with parks that are home to “nature’s skyscrapers.” Big Basin, for example, is one such heavenly place that happens to be the oldest state park in California.
There are more than 80 miles you can hike in this forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with elevations spanning from sea level to more than 2,000 feet. You’ll also find waterfalls and canyons for a variety of different Instagram-worthy shots.
- Closest city: Santa Cruz
- Entrance fee: $10 per vehicle
Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky
Continuing with the waterfall theme, witness a 125-foot wide waterfall dropping 60 feet from Kentucky’s stunning state park, which is home to one of only a few places that create a moonbow – a colorful reflection of light from a full moon bouncing off the mist of the falls. It’s a rare phenomenon that should be on your Bucket List.
No need to wait for nightfall to experience Cumberland Falls, however. This “Niagara of the South” is pretty any time of day in a park offering ample swimming, rafting, hiking, and horseback riding activities.
- Closest city: Corbin
- Entrance fee: $18 per person
Niagara Falls State Park, New York
Or, you could experience the real Niagara Falls, which is surprisingly not a national park. Sharing the falls with Ontario, Canada, the New York side gets you so close to the massive collection of waterfalls that you can stand beneath parts of it at the Cave of the Winds. From whirlpool boat rides to the famous Maid of the Mist cruises, you can see the falls from all angles during your visit.
The state park is such an allure there are multiple attractions within feet of it to make it worthy of spending a week. Visit Fort Niagara, sample local wineries, camp, travel through the lock of the Erie Canal – this is a must-visit destination.
- Closest city: Niagara
- Entrance fee: $10 full-day parking; attractions have their own set fees
Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania
More than 13,000 acres in size is a state park that provides 22 named waterfalls with a special loop trail that will take you past them all. While some areas can be slippery and tough to manage, it’s more difficult to trek this 7.2-mile hike quickly because you’ll be stopping for more photos and a chance to take a dip in some areas.
The park is more than its falls – the tallest of which is 94 feet. There are 20 additional miles of trails and two lakes to explore during a visit to this popular Northeastern Pennsylvania state park.
- Closest city: Benton
- Entrance fee: Free
Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
Ohio’s best gem is the waterfall-filled Hocking Hills, where more than 25 miles take visitors through gorges, along cliffs, and through old-growth forest that becomes especially breathtaking in the fall.
The park has hike-in camping as well as cabins from rustic to glam available at this year-round hotspot. Spend time exploring the caves deep within the park, most particularly the recessed Ash Cave – the largest in the state.
- Closest city: Logan
- Entrance fee: Free
Tips for saving for an outdoor getaway
State vs national
If the pictures don’t convince you to try a state park this summer, consider the price: $35 per vehicle is a typical entrance fee per national park. The busier parks may charge more, such as Zion, which charges $20 per person, and Grand Canyon’s West Rim, which starts at $56 per person to enter and visit its Skywalk.
If you want to visit national parks, consider purchasing an annual park pass. This pass allows one car entry to all national parks for a full year (from date of purchase) for $80. If you are planning on visiting multiple parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton are neighboring parks, for example – it is worth it to purchase the pass.
Besides spending time in nature and getting away from noise, technology, and other distractions, state parks are a budget-friendly travel option. With low-priced entrance fees aside, camping is one of the cheapest means of overnight accommodations available. You won’t need to save much for a state park retreat – a 3-day camping weekend for a group of 5 or less often hovers near $100. Even if you don’t want to rough it, rustic and minimalist cabins are often priced well below hotel rates.
You will need the right gear for camping – tent, sleeping bags, flashlights, etc. – and even if you are starting with nothing you can find good deals on gear at discounters like Walmart or on Amazon. Look to online sellers on Craigslist and eBay, where someone may be unloading camping stoves and good tents, as well. Once you have what you need, you’ll be able to store it for future trips and may make camping a regular part of your vacations.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.