State Park Fall Leaves

Exploring America’s State Parks

Find a state park We are so fortunate to have a great park system in the United States. The natural beauty across our 50 states is amazing, and often times that is exactly where you will find a state park.

Every state is unique and had different characteristics, from the rugged coastline of Maine to the high plains of Wyoming. Wherever you are in America, you are probably just a short distance from one of the thousands of state parks.

In addition to state parks, there are numerous recreation areas to enjoy being outside. Whether you are looking to go bird watching, camping, cycling, or hiking, state parks are a great option for your outdoor activities.

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The biggest challenge may be trying to decide which state park to go to!

“Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.” – L. Wolfe Gilbert

Visiting State Parks

Our goal at America’s State Parks to help you plan your outdoor adventure to enjoy the natural beauty our state parks provide.  Some people come to our site to see their options for a quick weekend trip to a park that is close by. Others come to our site when planning a cross country trip in their RV, or they may be looking for the best places to go camping for their summer vacation. We provide information regarding the different state parks including, activities you can do, camping information, picnic spots, hiking, boating, and more.  There are so many outdoor activities you can do and we want to help get you moving. Make memories of a lifetime with your family and friends during an outing to a state park. You will be glad you did.

Camping Checklist

No need to worry that you might forget something when planning your camping trip.

Following our camping checklist will help you pack everything you need. Hit the outdoors with confidence for your next trip and be prepared. In addition to the list, we provide insight on gear consideration and why certain items may be important. There are also different things to consider when selecting camping equipment, depending on your circumstances. We also provide our recommendation for some items on the list. For your convenience, you will also find a link to a printable pdf file of the checklist to plan when you are not online. Go ahead, and get ready for your adventure now!

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State Park Highlight: Custer State Park

Custer, South Dakota

Custer State Park is a beautiful mixture of rolling plains and granite peaks popping up from the landscape. There are over 71,000 acres in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This makes it one of the largest state parks in the country.

This amazing park is well known for its roaming bison herds, numerous wildlife, beautiful scenic drives, historic sites from the wild west, fishing, resorts, campgrounds and more.

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Hours

The Custer State Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

Directions

Visitors traveling from the city of Custer should take US Hwy. 16 east. Visitors traveling from Hill City should take State Hwy 87 southeast. Visitors traveling from Keystone should take US Hwy. 16A south. Visitors traveling from Hermosa should take State Hwy. 36 west. Visitors traveling from Hot Springs and Wind Cave National Park should take State Hwy. 87 north.


Activities At Custer
bikingboating
campingfishing
hikinghorseback riding
rock climbingsnowshoeing
swimming

So Many Things To Do At State Parks

We encourage people to enjoy the activities and adventures found in and around state parks and other outdoor recreation areas. Every state and each park is in the state is unique to their area. So what are some of the things you can do you in a park, and what sets each park apart? Each park is a little different but here are some of the things to look for.

The size of each state park will differ in how many acres associate with it. Day-use parks tend to be smaller, but not always. Some parks are just a couple hundred acres while others may be more than 100,000 acres.

State Parks Activities

Hiking 

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Hiking and walking trails are a core part of almost all state parks. You will find everything from gentle lakeside trails for an easy stroll to very rigorous and challenging trails. The trails are typically well marked and have signs indicating the start of the trail and length of the hiking trail. If you are going to be hiking or camping in an area with bears make sure you bring the best bear spray with you to help keep you safe. We wrote an article on staying safe around bears to avoid a bear attack. Definitely a good read for anyone heading into the woods.

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Picnic Areas and Group Gatherings

While many people go to state parks for camping, they are also great for day-use activities such as a picnic lunch or dinner with your friends and family. Most parks have a picnic area with tables, sometimes a grill, and usually restroom facilities. I have many fond memories of spending time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, and more.

Camping

Camping is one of my favorite activities. There is something about grabbing my hatchet, splitting some wood to get a fire going, and then listening to the crackle of the fire as the flames dance around. Camping always provides a great opportunity to clear my mind and forget about the hustle and bustle of life for a while. It just feels adventurous. If you are bringing your whole family, you’ll definitely want the best family tent that fits everyone.  Your campsite can serve as home-base as you go hiking, cycling, boating, fishing, and more. When you are done exploring you can sit back in a comfortable camping chair or camping hammock to relax. When your stomach starts grumbling, you can fire up the camping stove and get things going.

It is great to have options when you go camping. It’s also really nice to be comfortable when you sleep. One thing that can help make your nights under the stars more comfortable is choosing the best camping cot and a great camping pillow. Many people find this much better than sleeping directly on the ground. They work especially well if the ground is hard or is cold and damp. Speaking of being comfortable, it’s always a good idea to bring a poncho with you in case an unexpected rain shower sneaks up on you.

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What Types of Camp Sites Are Available

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Depending on the park, there are different types of campsites throughout the country. The different types of campsites are:

  • Full RV hookups
  • Water and electric only
  • Lodges
  • Cabins
  • Cottages
  • Group facilities

Learn more about camping.

 Wheelchair Accessibility 

Many state parks are wheelchair accessible and have handicapped restrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, especially in group picnic areas with parking lots.

Golf Courses

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Some state parks have golf courses or other recreation facilities. Alabama, for instance, has three state parks with golf courses including The General Golf Course at Joe Wheeler State Park, The Eagle’s Nest Golf Course at Lake Guntersville State Park, and The Oaks Golf Course at Oak Mountain State Park.

Skiing Areas

Many state parks throughout the northern part of the country have cross country skiing trails. It all depends on the climate and geographic location. While you probably won’t find a skiing trail in Florida, Baxter State Park in Maine may be the perfect place for your winter activities.

Bird Watching

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Bird watching is a natural activity for state parks. As you can imagine, the habit and environment are perfect for many different species of birds. Grab a bird guide, a set of binoculars, and head out for a pleasant and relaxing day of bird watching. It truly is one of the most enjoyable outdoor activities for everyone. If you are just getting started you may want to check out our best budget binoculars for birding review to help you get started bird watching without breaking the bank. Birding is a popular past-time for all to enjoy.

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Beaches

Swimming is another great outdoor activity. Or you may just want to set up a beach umbrella, a beach towel, and enjoy the sun. Parks oftentimes have beaches or swimming pools depending on the type of park and the location. Swimming areas are usually roped off. Lifeguards may or may not be available so make sure you check ahead of time. If you have never considered a full face snorkel mask for your swimming adventures when at the beach, we highly recommend them. Another fun activity to spur the sense of adventure is a metal detector for kids. They can spend hours searching for lost treasure which is a lot of fun.

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Boating in the Parks 

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Boating is a staple activity when venturing outside. You will find a variety of boating options, including inflatable kayaks that can go anywhere. Some parks have a full marina or ramps, while others are limited to shore launching of small crafts such as a canoe or kayak. You will need to check with the park staff to see what facilities are available for boating and the regulations associated with specific bodies of water. If you are heading out for a full day of fishing on the water, make sure you have a good trolling motor battery to power your adventure.

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Horseback Riding And Stable Operations

Riding trails on horseback is an amazing experience that you will love. State Parks like Oak Mountain State Park in Alabama have 25 miles of horseback trails that travel through forest, fields and shoreline. You can BYOH, bring your own horse, or you can take advantage of the facilities provided by the parks with guided tours and instructors. They even have pony parties for ages 3-13.

Hunting in State Parks

Every state differs regarding their policy on hunting in state parks. Please check with the parks department and applicable laws associated with hunting on state parkland prior to planning any hunting trips.

Cycling

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Cycling is a great and enjoyable outdoor activity. Many state parks have trails that can be enjoyed by bike. The trails range from easy road riding to more technically challenging mountain biking trails such as the ones at Monte Sano State Park in Alabama or High Cliffs State Park in Wisconsin. You may even want to consider an electric bike as part of your cycling adventures. They are great for assisting with longer trips and conquering the hills. Getting your bikes to the parks or other trails is much easier with a bike rack for SUV or a car. 

See Our Recommended Best Beginner Mountain Bike

See Our Recommended Best Electric Bikes

Fishing In State Parks

America’s state parks have some of the best fishing, with a wide variety of species for anglers. You will find both freshwater and saltwater fishing depending on the state. Gulf State Park is a great place for saltwater fishing. All fishing requires adherence to the state licensing and regulations for the state. Several state parks host fishing tournaments throughout the year. It’s a great way to make memories of a lifetime with your friends and family.

ATV and Off Highway Vehicle Trails

Some parks do have ATV trail system that are accessible through the park. Please check with the specific park to see if trials are available for ATVs.

Geocaching

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Geocaching is a fun family activity, adding extra adventure to your outside journeys. There are many state parks with geocaches just waiting to be discovered. It is like a modern-day treasure hunt. It is best done with a GPS, but with the right app, you can use your smartphone to help locate the geocache. 

Exploring Caves

Some state parks have caves and caverns that are open for exploration such as the Florida Caverns State Park or the Onondaga State Park.

State Park Historical Sites

State parks are often used to preserve historical sites throughout the United States. History buffs can enjoy places such as Oil Creek State Park or James Buchannan’s birthplace in Pennsylvania. You will find a point of interest with significant historical value in many state parks.

State Park Rock Climbing Areas

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Rock climbing has become increasingly popular over the past two decades. It requires both strength and endurance for rock climbing, especially in your forearms, hand, and fingers. No need to worry though, you don’t need to be superman to get started. We reviewed the best rock climbing shoes for beginners if you are interested in getting started. There are numerous state parks through the country for rock climbing such as:

  • Thatcher State Park in New York
  • Castle Rocks State Park in Idaho
  • Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania
  • Stauton State Park in Colorado
  • Snow Canyon State Park in Utah
  •  Hanging Rock State Park in North Carolina

Special Events & Special Programs

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Various state parks will have special events or special education programs throughout the year. Check each park’s calendar of events to see what programs and events are offered.

Weddings At A State Park

Many state parks allow wedding ceremonies, but these need to be planned ahead of time. The best thing to do is reach out to the individual state park directly to see what is available and if there are any restrictions.

Orienteering Courses

Orienteering is a fun and challenging activity where you use a map and compass to complete a course where you navigate to various checkpoints. Many state parks, such as the Kentucky State Parks system are actively involved in orienteering courses. Check with your local state park to see if they have orienteering courses or events. 

Playgrounds

Most state parks have a playground area set up for kids to play and enjoy themselves. You will often find play equipment such as swings, slides, teeter-totters, merry go rounds, monkey bars, and more. 

State Park Restaurants And Dining

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State parks such as Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park and the Allegheny State Park are just a few of the parks with restaurants and dining facilities. If you are looking to grab a bite to eat while you are out exploring, you may not even need to leave the park. Of course, it’s always a good idea to bring a cooler and snacks with you while out on your adventures.

Winter Activities

In the northern states of the United States, winter activities such as cross country skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing, winter camping, sledding, and snowmobiling can be enjoyed. Baxter State Park in Maine has a great trail system and is perfect for winter activities. Parks in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Colorado, Wyoming, and more have many winter activities. If you are anything like me you love being outside in the winter but hate the cold. Having the best heated jacket can keep you toasty warm and happy all day long, even when the temperatures really start to dip. Ladies, there is no need to worry about having to choose between fashion and function because the best heated jacket for women not only keeps you warm, but it looks good too. Not to mention there are vest options as well.

Pet Policy

Humans are not the only ones that enjoy the outdoors, so grab Fido and head outside. Most state parks in the United States allow dogs on a leash, although there are a few that do not allow pets. Please check the policy of the individual parks to see if special restrictions apply. 

Special Use Permits

If you have a large group, want to plan a special activity or an event in one of the state parks, you will need to inquire about getting a special use permit. 

Check For Firewood Policies

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Many state parks and state-managed forests have policies against bringing outside firewood in for campsites. There are many diseases that can be spread by transporting firewood from one area to another. Please check with your local state park regarding their firewood policy. Don’t forget you are going to need a hatchet or ax for splitting your firewood. You can check out our best backpacking hatchet review to help choose the right one. If outside firewood is not allowed, you should be able to purchase bundles of wood from the park itself.

See Our Recommended Best Backpacking Hatchet  

Park Maps

Check the individual park’s web page to see if they have a map to guide your trip to the park. The maps will typically show where you can find restrooms, parking areas, trailheads, and more. The visitor center or park entry gate may have printed copies for you. 

Recreational Equipment

Want to rent a boat or other recreational equipment? Check with the park rangers to see what options are available and what equipment they may have for rental. Some equipment is free for use but will need to be signed out. 

Educational Programs

Nature makes a great classroom and many state parks offer education programs including field trips, junior ranger programs, museums, and historical site tours. Check with your local park to see what educational programs are available.

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What is a State Park

State parks are established to preserve the natural beauty, historic sites, and provide outdoor recreational activities across the United States. State Parks as the name implies, are managed at a State level as opposed to a federal level like the National Park System. In many regards State Parks are very similar to National Parks. The real difference is in who manages and maintains the parks. State Parks tend to be smaller than National Parks, but that is not always the case.

History of State Parks

It all started with Niagara Falls State Park in New York and dates back to 1885. While that is the first official state park, there were several other parks that were maintained at a State level. Many State Park systems were established in the 1930’s. This came about through a federal jobs creation program which resulted in around 800 new state parks.

State Park Facts

According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there were over 807 million visitors who spent time in America’s State Parks. That is a significant number considering it is more than double the entire population of the United States. Our park system is a huge draw for tourism.

Of the visits to state parks, more than 90% of them day time uses. Overnight users of the state parks still represent over 66 million people each year. People are drawn to state parks as outdoor recreation areas. While the parks only represent 2% of the total recreation space in the US, the state park systems claim more than 30% of recreational visitors.

Here are the 2018 Statistics from the State Park Operations AIX 

  • 8,565 state park areas comprising 18,694,570 acres
  • 14,672 trails over 52,603 miles total length
  • 221,367 campsites ranging from those with multiple hookups to primitive sites in remote locations
  • 8,909 family cabins & cottages; plus 856 group facilities
  • 156 lodges in 27 states with 6,483 rooms
  • 122 golf courses
  • 149 ski slopes
  • 304 marinas
  • 285 swimming pools
  • 392 stable operations
  • 807,264,826 annual visitors; 66,769,502 overnight visitors
  • 57.4 million campers
  • 1.7 million lodge guests
  • 4.8 million cabin guests
  • 19.2 million campsites nights rented
  • Operating expenditures totaling $2.636 billion — less than 50% from the general fund of states
  • $755.6 million expended for capital expenditures
  • Average share of the state budget — 0.156%
  • 18,489 full-time personnel and 51,055 total personnel (including part-time and seasonal)
  • Average starting ranger salary — $33,813

What can you do in a state park

So what can you do in a state park? State parks are all about outdoor recreational activities. Here is a quick list of things you can do in state parks: 

Camping, hiking, trekking, boating, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, sailing, skiing, snowshoeing, skating, snowboarding, snowmobiling, caving, water sports, water skiing, water jets, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, paddle boarding, wake board, surfing, windsurfing, spearfishing, running, rock climbing, mountaineering, fishing, RV park camping, resorts, golf courses, biking, ATV, hunting, backpacking, horseback riding, outdoor recreation, picnicking, bird watching, orienteering, and visiting museums.

Why are state parks important

State parks are important for many reasons including economic value to the communities, health benefits to improve the quality of life, environmental protection and preservation of some of America’s most beautiful areas, social connection and the quality of the communities.