While national parks get all the fanfare (and throngs of tourists), state parks and national monuments provide similar opportunities for travelers looking for outdoor activities, history, and relaxation. Whether you stick close to home with a day trip or weekend getaway, or venture further afield, you're sure to find a park or monument that fits your travel style in any of the 50 states.
Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates numerous lodging facilities in several national and state parks, says the biggest difference between national parks, monuments, and state parks is the scale.
"State parks are widely dispersed, and quite a bit smaller in scale than national parks," Hartvigsen says, noting Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park outside of Zion National Park, and Snow Canyon State Park, both in Utah, as two interesting options. "National Monuments are smaller still, though there are exceptions," he explains. Below are some more ideas to get you started.
- Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah is the perfect place to visit if you're looking to combine recreation with leisure. To get to the largest known natural bridge, you can backpack across Navajo Nation lands (permit required), or take a private, rented, or tour boat across Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah.
- Nearby Scenic Byway 12 provides plenty of scenery and hiking opportunities inside the nearly 1.9 million acres that make up Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. There's no cost for exploring the area, and lodging opportunities abound in surrounding areas such as Boulder, Cannonville, and Tropic.
- Cedar Breaks National Monument, also in Utah, features similar formations to popular Bryce Canyon National Park, but visitors are able to view more wildlife, as the park is less-frequented than its better known neighbor. To surround yourself with soaring redwoods, visit Muir Woods National Monument in California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, South Dakota offers more than just four presidents' heads carved in stone. The surrounding Black Hills National Forest provides plenty of options for hiking and biking, and the Jewel Cave National Monument, the second longest cave in the world, is also nearby. A two-and-a-half hour drive leads you to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, where rock climbing and eight miles of hiking trails will keep you entertained.
- If you want to experience history, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore all offer a peek into the past. For a look at pre-historical petroglyphs, head to New Mexico's El Morro National Monument, or Bandelier National Monument for Native American ruins.
For other ideas, Wikipedia has a list of national monuments and their locations.
- Baxter State Park near Millinocket, Maine, is the perfect destination for adventurous travelers. Inside the park sits Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine and the northernmost terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The New England Outdoor Center has special packages for travelers looking to explore the area. In nearby New Hampshire, you can visit the Northeast's highest peak, Mount Washington, at Mount Washington State Park. You'll find less extreme weather in the summer months, so hiking to the summit is a viable, albeit grueling, option. The Mount Washington Auto Road and the scenic Cog Railway provide alternate transportation methods to the top.
- South of the Grand Canyon lies Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona, where you may find vortexes, areas believed to have heightened spiritual and metaphysical energy. Other places you may find relaxation at its finest include Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina, Shore Acres State Park and Ecola State Park in Oregon, and John James Audubon State Park in Kentucky.
- Palo Duro Canyon State Park (or the "Grand Canyon of Texas"), just south of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, supplies unique scenery made for photographing and exploring, while nearby Caprock Canyons State Park is home to the official Texas State Bison Herd.
- If trees and forests of ferns spring to mind when you think "park," you've yet to discover John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. Swim, snorkel, or take a glass-bottom boat tour to glimpse the underwater world.
Tips for Booking
If you have your heart set on a particular destination, Hartvigsen says, "Keep calling." Being persistent can pay off, as rooms open up for a variety of reasons and are rebooked daily. Having the slightest flexibility in your schedule–even altering your itinerary by a day–can make all the difference. Last-minute rooms are sometimes available to brave travelers who show up the day they need lodging. Most areas also have free or inexpensive camping options, some which are first-come, first-served instead of reservation based (though it's always wise to verify in advance and make reservations if necessary).
Hartvigsen says that prices at state parks with lodging are generally 25 to 40 percent lower than you'd find at nationals parks, though all concessions at national parks are required to submit a rate proposal to the park service, ensuring prices remain reasonable for both lodging and meals.
Parks usually charge entrance fees per vehicle, and travelers can expect to pay around $10 to $20. Check with the particular state or national monument for details. At $80, the annual American the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a good option for frequent park-goers, though it doesn't cover state park entrance fees.
When to Go
While parks are sure to remain busy all summer, there are times when crowds are a little thinner. Hartvigsen cites Memorial Day through Labor Day as the busiest time, but says the middle of August is a good time to visit, since a lot of kids are back in school. Early June is also a less tourist-heavy time.
For those intent on visiting a national park, Hartvigsen recommends looking to lesser-frequented destinations such as Capitol Reef in Utah, Voyagers in Minnesota, St. Elias National Park in Alaska, or Biscayne in Florida. "Right now, the big name national parks are starting to fill up," Hartvigsen explains, "They're not full yet, but they're certainly full on some days." You can also look for packages that bundle lodging with activities.
What's your favorite state park or national monument? Do you have advice for prospective travelers? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!