Great Alternatives to National Parks

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.

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"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.

National Monuments

For other ideas, Wikipedia has a list of national monuments and their locations.

State Parks

  • 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).

Pricing

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!

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