Our national parks are awesome. Too bad you’re not the only one who knows it! This year, try one of America’s more than 7,000 state parks instead.
To start planning your state park getaway, download the free Pocket Ranger app, says Eugene Swalberg of Utah State Parks. You’ll find maps and info for every state park, as well as trail, activity, and campground suggestions. If you’re going on a prime weekend—like, say, the 4th of July—be sure to make reservations. Some parks accept bookings as far as 11 months out, says Joe Elton of AmericasStateParks.org. It’s also worth seeking out any pass options available for locals. In Idaho, for example, a resident pass is $10 a year and includes some camping fees.
Still need some inspiration? Here are three stunning state parks that give the big names a run for their money.
Adirondack State Park, New York
Cost: Free Entry
At roughly the size of Vermont, this patchwork of state and private lands makes up the country’s largest state park. Another plus: It’s an easy drive or Amtrak ride from most of the Northeast. Rather than heading to pricier Lake Placid, make Saranac Lake your jumping-off point; get a lake-view room at Gauthier’s Saranac Lake Inn starting at $99. Avoid the summer hiking crowd of the High Peaks region by going east to Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest, says InsidetheMap.com outdoor guide Elizabeth Lee.
Crystal Cove State Park, California
Cost: Free Entry; $15 parking
The highlight of this park, located an hour south of Los Angeles, is its 3.2 miles of uninterrupted Pacific coastline. Spend a morning spotting sea lions and bottlenose dolphins, then refuel with some ahi tacos at the Beachcomber café, suggests Janelle Naess of Laguna Beach Walks. Or rent snorkeling gear from nearby Laguna Sea Sports ($20 a day) and try to spot the fluorescent orange garibaldi fish. Avoid the expensive hotels near the park and save up to 84% at the on-site Crystal Cove Beach Cottages (from $42 for two people).
Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming
Cost: $6 entry ($4 for state residents)
This 5.3-square-mile park 30 minutes from Cheyenne is a mountain biker favorite, with more than 35 miles of trails. To explore on two wheels, Wyoming State Parks’ Todd Thibodeau suggests Stone Temple Trail, which winds through lodgepole pines and aspen groves. Rather keep your feet on the ground? Hike the alpine and canyon terrain of Waterfall Trail. Choose from 12 campgrounds (permits from $11) or head east to Terry Bison Ranch, where four-person cabins are $90. Cheyenne has the closest airport, but you could save more than 40% by flying into Denver, two hours south.