When people started looking for options to travel safely in the USA this year, a whole lot of them turned to road trips and camping. As a result, some people found the opposite of what they were hoping when they entered the parking lots and full campgrounds at our nation’s famous national parks. If you’re still looking to avoid the crowds in the months ahead, you might want to check out your nearby options for U.S. state parks instead.
There are fewer than 60 national parks you can drive to in the lower 48 of the continental United States. When it comes to U.S. state parks, however, you’ve got more than 10,000 of them to choose from, with some 217,000 campsites—not counting private campgrounds just outside the borders. Some of those are just day trip places to enjoy, of course, with no overnight camping options, but you’ve still got thousands of them to choose from where you can spend the night.
If Glacier National Park is packed out, Montana has 20 state parks with campsites and some of those have cabin rentals as well. No worries if you find Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks sold out since you’ve got Buffalo Bill, Hot Springs, Boysen, and Sinks Canyon state in the same region.
While they don’t get as many travel magazine headlines or blog posts about them, some of these state parks are truly spectacular. I spent some time in Chugach State Park of Alaska and felt like we were a million miles away from civilization. You won’t have trouble finding a place to get away from humans since it covers 495,000 acres.
That’s not even the largest one though. If you’re not too nitpicky, the clear winner of that crown would be the Adirondack Park of New York state, which totals a massive 6 million acres. It’s a mix of public and private land, so some of it is protected rather than actually owned by any government, but the good news is it has no entry fees, gates, or closing times. There are hundreds of campgrounds surrounding the 46 peaks that range from backcountry sites to glamping to RV parks.
If you’ve got equipment to pull out of the garage or you’re considering renting an RV or camper, here are a few reasons to consider a state park for your next isolated adventure.
State Parks are Often Less Crowded
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets 12.5 million visitors per year—more than all of Colorado’s state parks added together. Grand Canyon National Park gets 6 million. You don’t head to those places to get away from crowds. West Virginia has 27 state parks with overnight camping for its 1.8 million residents though, so “crowded” is not a word you often hear used to describe their wilderness areas.
Sure, some state parks are household names among the locals, especially the ones near a major metropolis. But for every Lake Whitney State Park near Dallas or Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas, you’ve got dozens of unknown gems that are less than a tank of gas away from your home.
If you shoot for a state park that’s far from the population centers, you’re almost sure to find it easy to stay socially distanced from other people you don’t know. This is especially true if the place is not on the way to anywhere else. At 209,000-acre Baxter State Park in northern Maine, for example, you can snag one of 337 campsites and hike 215 miles of trails. Bring a water purifier though and assume you’ll stay dirty. It’s as rough here as the Appalachian Trail—which starts or stops here depending on your direction.
If you’re lucky enough to live in Alaska, you don’t have to try very hard to get away from people: the state has 3.3 million acres of state parks. That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck in more populated states though. Patapsco State Park of Maryland runs for 32 miles, has 200 miles of trails, and has campgrounds. It’s just 13 miles from Baltimore and 41 from D.C. The 22,000-acre Wasatch Mountain State Park of Utah is only 46 miles from Salt Lake City (less from the southern ‘burbs). Most likely you’ve got one or two that close to your city if you start digging around, places you could reach within an hour or two of getting off work.
Some of these lesser-known gems have fantastic scenery of their own and great recreational options. While nearly 5 million people head to Zion National Park in Utah, probably 98% of them zoom right past Snow Canyon State Park, where I took this shot on a hike:
U.S. State Parks Have More Open Campsites
It makes sense that the famous national parks are going to be in high demand with RVers and those with pop-up campers in tow, especially in the summer school vacation season. You can rent an RV locally though and find far less competition for campsites if you take the other fork in the road. It’s always better to reserve ahead, of course, but some of the state parks are half empty on weekdays, so where it’s allowed you can just pull up, pay, and grab your spot.
The state of California alone has more than 15,000 campsites in its vast array of parks, on top of the ones at national parks and available outside the boundaries. Texas has 62 state parks with campgrounds that have water and electricity. There are only so many families and couples setting out to spend their weekend outdoors. If you can go during the week when it’s mostly the retirees and remote workers checking in, you’ll almost never have trouble getting a reservation.
State Parks are Often Less Expensive
When I visited Big Arm State Park at Flathead Lake, Montana last year (pictured at the top), the entrance fee was $0 for state residents, $8 per carload for others. The people camping there had awesome lake views, nice trails to hike, and a boat ramp. The overnight campground fees top out at $34 per site for ones with electricity. Cabins and yurts are $54 to $72.
While visiting national parks can be quite reasonable if you purchase an annual pass and use it a lot, many state park systems are downright cheap. It’s typically $3 to $10 per carload for in-state visitors to enter one of the state parks that aren’t free, while very few top $20 per carload for out-of-state visitors. There will be some outliers on the camping rates, but most of them fall in the range of $15 to $35 per night. You’ll pay less for pitching a tent on a “primitive” campsite than you will pulling up with a 40-foot-long RV that will connect to electricity and running water. In some states out west, however, this is literally half what it costs to stay at the national park down the road, or at a private campground.
These reasonable prices tend to flow all the way down the menu of services once you’re there, whether that’s bike rental, canoe rental, cabin fees, or buying firewood. State park campgrounds are priced for families on a budget, not for big spenders. You can often rent a camper van or RV for less than $100 a night, including insurance, so getting into the great outdoors at these places for the weekend can end up costing less than what you would spend to stay in a hotel in the crowded city.
Be advised that not all states treat nature with the same level of importance though. Since 2008, Georgia has cut its budget for the Division of State Parks and Historic Sites by half. Five of the parks with lodges are now run by a private for-profit company, which has naturally led to some of the highest rates anywhere. (At Amicalola Falls, lodge rooms start at more than $200 per night, cabins top $300, and there’s a dreaded $15 resort fee on top. Campsites start at $42.) Residents of states with poorly funded or privatized parks may want to drive to a more desirable neighboring state instead. When Tennessee’s governor tried to privatize Fall Creek Falls State Park a few hours from Nashville, fierce opposition scuttled the plan and it is still in public hands, along with the rest in the state.
Park Visit Planning Advice for Turbulent Times
With American leadership bungling the virus response so badly and so many selfish Americans still refusing to do what’s needed to stop the contagion, state and local governments are sometimes resorting to drastic measures on their own. New Mexico closed all its state parks to out-of-state visitors in July of 2020 and many ones that are located in beach areas closed their parking lots after idiots showed up in party sized groups without wearing masks. For much of this pandemic, the state of Maine has insisted you must either get tested before arrival or go into quarantine for two weeks.
Some New Jersey state park campgrounds are just now starting to open back up for camping as I write this and many California ones are still closed. New York ones won’t let you camp without an existing reservation.
In light of these restrictions, it pays to do some research on what’s open and what’s not. RVshare maintains a great resource page that has a state-by-state rundown on which state and national parks are open. Depending on how things are playing out in your region, you may need to stay within your own state or choose one that isn’t trying to close its borders to “outsiders.” That’s not so hard in some states. Minnesota’s parks are so numerous that they claim there is a state park within 50 miles of every resident. The largest one, St. Croix State Park, has 211 campsites and more than 100 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and snowmobiling.
Sometimes you get an incentive for staying within your own state since your tax dollars support the parks system. Admissions are sometimes half price for day trippers and West Virginia residents get a 30% discount on campsites, for example.
Each state has its own website for campground reservations and they’re generally good about telling you which ones can accommodate RVs and which cannot. You can find all 50 U.S. state parks systems listed, broken down, and linked from this handy Wikipedia page.
Even in cases where there are no facilities in the park itself, you can often find a private campground from the likes of KOA or other organizations nearby. In places where backcountry camping is allowed, bring everything you need and be prepared to carry what you don’t use back out. Whether you get super-rustic or bring a home on wheels along, the lesser-known U.S. state parks stay are probably the safest option available right now to get out of your home and breathe some fresh air with a change of scenery.
This post was made possible via the financial support of our RV rental partner RVshare. They are the first and largest peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, with more than 100,000 vehicles available. As always, all opinions are my own.