When people talk about public lands for recreation, what you hear about is Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Smokey Mountains and the like. In other words, National Parks. I have RVing friends who have challenged themselves to visit every single one. Everyone talks National Parks but you don’t hear nearly as much talk about State Parks. I love the State Parks and today I’m going to share a bit of history as well as reasons why I love them.

A Few Interesting Facts About the National Park System

If you haven’t seen Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, you must. Yes, I realize this post is about State Parks. But this PBS series is a great place to start if you want to understand the background and history of the US Parks System.

More than anything else, our youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt is known for setting aside land for public use. By the end of his presidency, Roosevelt put 230 million acres under public protection. He signed into law the creation of five National Parks as well as established the National Forest System, establishing 150 National Forests. And many other land and habitat protections.

However, in 1916, it was Woodrow Wilson who signed the “Organic Act” thus establishing the National Parks system to manage the National Parks and other important land. Currently 85 million acres fall under the direction of National Parks.

Today, National Parks manages 419 units, as they are called. I was interested to know what that meant so I thought you’d like to know too. Here’s what those units entail:

  • 25 Battlefields, Battle Sites and Military Parks
  • 134 National Historic Sites and Parks
  • 13 Lakeshores and Seashores
  • 15 Rivers and Riverways
  • 113 National Monuments and Memorials
  • 4 National Parkways (you might remember I learned my lesson on this one back during my visit to the mother nest)
  • 3 Scenic Trails
  • 18 National Recreation Areas
  • 21 National Preserves and Reserves
  • 11 Other (many in and around Washington DC)
  • 62 National Parks

State Parks Systems

State Parks, as the name implies, are protected and managed by the particular state. Typically, it is the state that establishes an area or site for such protection in order to preserve natural beauty, historic interest or as a place for people to recreate.

Okay, now that we’ve covered a little history let me share the five reasons why I love State Parks.

White Oliver Travel trailer parked on a strip of blacktop with lots of green trees all around.
Tucked in nicely at Davy Crockett State Park in Tennessee. You cannot see it in the photo but just a skip away to the left is a river flowing by.

Number of State Parks

As indicated above, there are 62 National Parks. California has the most with nine followed by Alaska with eight. Then there is Utah with five and Colorado with four. Two are in the US territories of Samoa and Virgin Islands. Twenty-nine US states have at least one National Park but this means that 21 states don’t have a single National Park.

On the other hand, there are more than 10,000 State Parks in the US. That’s a lot. It should be noted that not all in the number will come with the designation “state park” as it may also include state recreation sites, state beaches, historic sites and state natural reserves. No state is without a state park.

As a traveler, it means I am never very far from one. As a traveler, it means there are many to choose from and that I will never run out.

I recently met a solo woman RVer who loves State Parks as much as I do. (I mentioned her in my post on vegan products non-vegans should try and vegan snacks.) In fact, her entire RV life is solely visiting State Parks. She explores for one week then moves on to the next one. Her travel days are never very long since another State Park is always close by. Her one rule is that she can never visit one she’s already visited. And with 10,000 State Parks and 52 weeks in a year, you can do the math. In her lifetime, she’ll never risk a repeat.

State Parks are Smaller

One of the reasons I love State Parks is their size. Of course, park to park, you’ll find a huge spectrum when it comes to size. But, in general. State Parks are pretty small compared to National Parks. Wikipedia told me that two notable exceptions are the Adirondack Park, which is part of New York States Forrest Preserve, with 6.1 million acres and Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California with 600,000 acres.

So far, every state park that I’ve visited, I have driven all the roads within the park. I have visited the various buildings (if they were open) such as the Visitors’ Center, little museums, camp stores as well as pull-out or viewpoint areas, outdoor bird areas (of injured birds who couldn’t be released back into the wild), information plaques, and paved walking paths. I haven’t gone on every hike because some State Parks have many of them and in buggy season, I don’t like it. Plus, some hikes are hard or long and when I hiked with my dog, she was too old for up and down of hiking.

There is something intimate about the small size of State Parks. I feel like I have the opportunity to get to know them better during my stay more than I would be able to in the bigger National Parks.

Barn owl is corner of photo at an enclosure. It is sitting on the top of a little house. A tree branch crosses the front of the photo.
An injured barn owl who cannot be released back into the wild at Davy Crockett State Park in Tennessee.

Less Crowded

I’ve seen videos and photos and read blog posts about other RVers adventures in National Parks. And, while they may not necessarily comment on the number of people around them, you can see the crowds.

In general. State Parks that offer a variety of recreation such as a lake, pool, hiking, golf, outdoor games, etc. will draw more people than, say, one that is simply a calm quiet place to park. But even so, it just doesn’t seem like the crowds are as big as the ones you see at National Parks.

Black and brown cat asleep on a wooden picnic table, trees in the background.
At a State Campground, the cat decided to take a nap on the picnic table. Can you see my nearest neighbor in the background? Lots of room between sites.

Staff Are Locals

If you aren’t from an area, when you arrive at a State Park it is nice to talk to the person at check-in or at the Visitors’ Center to get the scoop on great places to eat, to shop, to see, walks to take and generally all the things to do and see while you are visiting. They’ll also know local resources to recommend such as grocery stores, doctors and RV supply places. Well, if those people are locals, the information you receive will be vastly superior from that of a college kid from another state or country who has a summer job at a National Park.

More often than not, State Parks are staffed by locals. I’m not talking about workamping camp hosts, however, as those tend to be a mix of local(ish) folks and full-time RVers from everywhere. Likewise, more often than not, National Parks are not staffed by locals.

Volunteer Opportunities

And the final reason on this list of reasons why I love State Parks is because there are so many volunteer opportunities. I workamped at Heceta Head Lighthouse and, while there, stayed at the Washburne State Park Campground.

This may not be true 100% of the time, but similar to what I said in “staffed by locals,” it seems like the National Parks for the most part hire nearly all of their seasonal help. Last year I looked into working or workamping at Yellowstone and I only found work-for-pay opportunities, few of which had camp spots. But I didn’t see any workamping opportunities. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working for pay. Obviously. But the expectations in terms of hours are higher which is one of the reasons I choose workamping.

I’ve looked at volunteer opportunities primarily in Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and the Dakotas but I suspect what I learned applies to other states as well. If you are not an RVer, there are many state parks that look for volunteers where the job doesn’t come with a campsite. I’m guessing mostly locals apply for those. But there is tons of volunteer opportunities in exchange for a campsite at some pretty great places.

The other thing that’s probably obvious is that even if State and National Parks used volunteers equally, simply because of the number of State vs. National Parks it means thousands more opportunities to find a perfect volunteer position for you with a State Park.

Twisty tree and a lot of greenery. The sun is coming through the branches.
A great tree find at Washburne State Park. This one was in the campground so I walked passed it most days.

Bonus Interesting Fun Facts

One of the things I love is when I visit a place or topic and end up finding threads that connect it to other places or topics I’ve written about. Here’s one that came up during my research for this post.

Since I mentioned Teddy Roosevelt….

Teddy Roosevelt resigned his commission as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American war in Cuba where he co-founded a regimen known as the Rough Riders. What does this have to do with a previous post? Fort Bayard in New Mexico was established as a military hospital to treat the many men who returned from Cuba after the Spanish-American War who caught tuberculosis.

Bonus Fun Fact About State Parks

The oldest State Park in the US is Niagara Falls State Park which has had the designation since 1885.

And the state with largest State Park system is my state of Alaska with 100 different sites covering more than 3.3 million acres. Makes sense just on its shear size alone. Then add in a low population.

One final note about state parks relevant to RVers. Not all state parks will have camping facilities. Some are solely for recreating during the day. Some will have hook ups, many will not. But the great news is that with 10,000 to choose from, I have no doubt you’ll find ones that are perfect for you and your recreation style.

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