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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

State Parks That Rival National Parks

For a budget vacation in a stunning location, many state parks offer amazing value and are less crowded than their national counterparts. 

Oh my, it’s hot! And oh my, travel is expensive, what with sky-high gas prices and soaring airfare. Older adults on limited budgets are getting hit hard by inflation. But have you considered getting away to one of America’s state parks, either locally or as a destination vacay? These gems are sprinkled throughout the country, and often offer scenery every bit as stunning as the national park system, but they can be much less crowded and very affordable. 

Embrace the Outdoors

If you camp, state parks are a true bargain. Remember that nobody says you can’t use an air mattress, either in a roomy, lightweight tent or the back of your car. Many state parks offer hot showers in their campgrounds, which can make all the difference for tent campers. Recreational vehicle owners can google state parks with laundry facilities for longer stays. Most state parks offer online registration for camping sites, often with a layout of the area and photos of individual sites. Some reserve a number of spots as first come, first served for those with a vagabond spirit. If that is you, plan to arrive in the morning between 8 am and 11 am, when other campers are usually leaving.

If you are willing to spend a bit more, many state parks have cabins that can be reserved. Or for a more upscale experience, rent a place near the park on Airbnb or VRBO and travel in to enjoy scenery and hiking. Remember that parks are usually fullest on weekends, so go during the week for the best availability.

What to Bring

Travel with a cooler to cut costs on food, which can otherwise kill your budget. Find that cooler at a thrift store or garage sale instead of forking out big bucks for a new model. Bring insect repellant, preferably one of many DEET-free alternatives on the market. Pack loose, comfy clothing and shoes or sandals that won’t make your feet blister. And don’t forget the sunscreen!

So, where to go? If you would like to stay local, google state parks in your state and take your pick. There are parks for anglers, for kayakers (often with rental available), for bird watchers and for those of us who just want a scenic view with the opportunity to take a leisurely stroll or short hike. Check out the amenities and see if they align with your interests. Parks can appeal to very different people, so it is worth checking out prospects online before you book a spot. 

Maybe you’re willing to travel to experience something truly unique. We’re kicking off your search by listing some of our favorites that are definitely worth the drive. Here are just a few of the marvelous state parks that are great budget destinations for older adults.

  • Eldorado Canyon State Park, CO Experience the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains while you watch rock climbers scale iconic routes, some of which start right along the gravel road that winds through the canyon’s heart. Hike through pines under sandstone cliffs or check out the old resort at the canyon’s base. Note that overnight stays are not available. 
  • Ichetucknee State Park, FL Grab a tube and enjoy the clearest managed spring in the state, or opt for a kayak or canoe. You’ll enjoy abundant wildlife while you float along lush forest or sand hills. Snorkel in the Blue Hole, which stays 72 degrees year-round. Showers are available, but not camping.
  • Starved Rock State Park, IL  Take a free, guided hike through November among sandstone canyons and deciduous forest. Seasonal waterfalls run after heavy rain, and you may be lucky enough to see a resident bald eagle. Rent a cabin or stay in the lodge to enjoy this park overnight. 
  • Backbone State Park, IA  Bring your bike and your fishing pole to Iowa’s first state park, dedicated in 1920. A unique ridge of rock forms the “Devil’s Backbone” complete with caves, or spend your time at the river or on the beach at Backbone Lake. There is also a museum featuring the Civilian Conservation Corps. Camping and cabins are available.
  • Cumberland Falls State Park, KY  This is one of the few places you may catch sight of a pileated woodpecker, among dozens of other birds. You can fish in the Cumberland River, horseback ride, or hike along 17 miles of trail that connect with larger systems. Check out the falls, one of the few places in the world that makes a “moonbow” or white rainbow that appears when the moon is full. If that’s not enough, you can go gem mining near the gift shop. Stay at the campgrounds, in a cabin, or go luxe at the lodge.
  • Valley of Fire State Park, NV  More than 40,000 acres of stunning red sandstone filled with hiking trails are open to you at Valley of Fire State Park. You will also be able to view petroglyphs that are more than 2,000 years old, and ancient, petrified trees. Note that all camping is first come, first served.
  • Oswald West State Park, OR  Wind your way along 13 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail in some of the best preserved coastal rainforest in the state, or for an easier day, hike in a half mile from a parking lot to a popular beach. Four miles of coastline give you the choice of retreating to a more secluded cove where you can listen to the ocean. Easily accessible from Highway 101, this park does not offer overnight stays.
  • Custer State Park, SD  Free-roaming bison dot the park, where you can camp, bike, hike, climb, or fish in 71,000 acres in the rolling Black Hills. Plan your visit for September 29 to October 1 for the annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival.
  • Caprock Canyons State Park, TX  Speaking of bison, you can pitch a tent in the campground of this gorgeous park and awaken to find a herd member not 10 feet away in the morning, munching on prairie grass. You are likely to encounter members of the herd sooner or later as you hike miles of trail in a stunning setting of deep red caprock hills in the Texas panhandle. The park sports a bat cave, plus a lake for no-wake boating, fishing, and swimming.
  • Island Beach State Park, NJ  Beach, beach, and more beach are what this well-preserved barrier island park is all about. In fact, there are almost 10 miles of shoreline for swimming, surfing, or fishing. The island is home to foxes, ospreys, and other wildlife. You’ll get a view of Barnegat Lighthouse and be able to enjoy plenty of walking along the shore, although there are no overnight stays.

These are just a handful of state parks open to the public across America and part of our national heritage. Enjoy them, explore them, and remember to leave no trace so they are clean and beautiful for the next visitor. Public lands get passed down to our children and our grandchildren, so teach them to take care of this precious resource we all share.