In 2015, for the first time in eight years, the National Park Service increased prices by as much as 150% at some of its parks. Cost is just one good reason to consider choosing state parks, which tend to be less expensive and smaller—but are often no less awe-inspiring. Here are a few standouts across the country.
Itasca State Park, Northern Minnesota
Witness the slow-moving band of water rushing over a pretty line of rocks to merge into the starting point of the Mississippi—and journeys along its 2,552-mile trip to the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors often inch across the slippery markers, wade in the first, slow-moving section of the river or cross with the help of a small footbridge.
You might come for the headwaters, but you’ll stay for Itasca’s 32,000 acres packed with towering pines and more than 100 lakes, with a paved bike trail, nearly 50 miles of hiking trails and lots of historic sites to explore. Keep your eyes and ears open for deer, wolves, black bear and the haunting whistle-warble of the loon, Minnesota’s state bird.
Costs: Vehicle permits cost $5 per day or $25 per year. Rustic backpack campsites start at $19 a night, plus an $8.50 online reservation fee. Rooms in the historic 110-year-old Douglas Lodge start at $80 a night.
Baxter State Park, Northern Maine
The literal highpoint of this wild and rugged state park is 5,267-foot Katahdin, Maine’s highest point, as well as the northern end of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, one of the world’s longest footpaths. About half of all visitors to the park are set on summiting the peak—a difficult climb that generally takes dedicated and well-prepared hikers 8 to 12 hours roundtrip.
The other half of the park’s visitors admire Katahdin from afar while adventuring at their own pace within Baxter’s 209,000-plus mountainous, river-webbed acres. The park holds 46 more manageable peaks and ridges, plus 225 miles of trails for all skill levels, promising tumbling waterfalls and perhaps a moose, if you’re lucky. Baxter offers hourly canoe rentals and pretty picnic and swimming spots, too.
Costs: Vehicle entrance fees are $14 per day or $39 for a season pass (free to Maine residents). Reserved parking in Katahdin-specific lots costs $5 and the lots fill quickly. Canoe rentals run $1 per hour. Some of the park’s 10 campgrounds include offer lean-tos for $30 per night. Backcountry campsites are $20 a night, and a spot in the bunkhouse costs $11 a night.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Northern Texas
Explore the second-largest canyon in the country, yawning 120-by-20 miles across the Texas Panhandle. Most visitors simply drive 500 feet down to the canyon floor, where 35 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking await. Keep an eye out for wild turkey, rattlesnakes and coyote, or even the threatened Palo Duro mouse or Texas horned lizard, sometimes spotted among the wildflowers, cacti and 250-million-year-old stratified rock.
The park hosts activities including horseback tours and ranger-led programs on the canyon’s rich history, wildlife and more. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of the annual summer production of TEXAS, a vibrant musical history of the state with a fireworks finale, performed in an amphitheater on the canyon floor.
Costs: Entrance to the park is $5 per person, and kids 12 and under are admitted for free. Primitive campsites start at $12 a night and cabins at $60 a night; naturalist programs are free. Adult tickets to the TEXAS musical start at $17.