Too many people at national parks can spoil the fun for everyone, but there’s definitely a silver lining. Think of these overcrowded parks as an opportunity to visit other places instead – including the many incredible state parks.
While national parks get more limelight, these state-run facilities often remain quietly in the shadows. That’s a shame because they have a lot to offer. We’ll shed some light on what state parks have to offer as an alternative to national parks.
What Is a National Park?
National parks are areas that Congress has preserved for public enjoyment because of their importance. Often their value is scenic, but it could also be historical or ecological.
The National Park Service (NPS) oversees 423 protected places in the U.S., and 63 of them are officially designated national parks.
The other 360 properties are sometimes called national parks, but that’s not exactly the case. These so-called “NPS units” include things like national parkways, national monuments, national seashores, and national recreation areas.
Keep this in mind when you see statistics about visitation at national parks. The numbers may include visits to these other national park service sites that aren’t, strictly speaking, national parks.
What Is the Most-Visited National Park?
Of the 63 national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wears the crown as the most visited. The park service reports that a staggering 14.1 million people toured this magnificent area in 2021.
Eight other national parks had at least 3.2 million visitors during the same period. Zion National Park, in Utah, was the second most popular, with 5 million visits. The next most-visited national parks, in order, were Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Indiana Dunes.
Pro Tip: Don’t get stuck in line behind big crowds when visiting the most visited park, Great Smoky Mountains. Instead, try this Secret Entrance You Should Use to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
How Many People Visit the National Parks?
These are big numbers, but they tell just part of the story. In all, according to the NPS, there were 297,115,406 “recreation visits” to NPS units in 2021.
These statistics include all of the NPS properties, not just those officially designated parks. Topping their list of visitors for the year is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 496-mile scenic roadway near the Smoky Mountains.
Why Are So Many People Visiting National Parks?
You can trace much of the influx of visitors to national parks directly to the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, shutdowns led to the smallest crowds in decades, and then came the surge. After being shut inside for a bit, people rushed to get outdoors – and they just kept doing it.
But even before the pandemic, national park visitation was on the rise. International tourism also contributed to the rise in numbers. Thanks to social media and posting of beautiful pictures in iconic scenes (frequently in places of natural beauty like you’ll find at national parks), marketing for this type of vacation has been rampant. And can you blame them?
→ Did You Know? Many homeless people live in campsites and makeshift homes in national parks. Read more about this unfortunate housing crisis here.
What Is Problematic About Overcrowded National Parks?
Overcrowding at national parks can give you a claustrophobic feeling, and there are other problems, as well.
If a park is too crowded, sometimes you’ll get stuck in slow-moving traffic just to get inside the gates. You may have to wait in long lines to get tickets or see particular attractions. Even worse, you may have driven hours or even days only to find the parking lot is full.
Too many people at parks means excessive littering, vandalism, and damage to nature and wildlife. Even if people aren’t intending to do damage, increased foot traffic on paths and off impacts the environment.
Many national parks require advance reservations or timed-entry admission to alleviate some of these problems. However, it may not be enough. Unless people find other places to visit to get their nature fix, our national parks will continue to be overrun. And that, friend, is where state parks may be able to help.
What’s the Difference Between a State Park and a National Park?
State and national parks have a lot of things in common, but there are some differences, too.
The biggest difference is which agency funds and maintains them. Individual state governments are in charge of their parks, while the federal government oversees national parks.
You can expect a pretty standardized level of amenities at national parks. On the other hand, they can vary pretty widely at state parks. Sometimes they are pretty bare-boned, but some states spend more lavishly on their parks and regularly refurbish them.
Another big difference is the size. While many national parks cover millions of acres, state parks are typically much smaller in comparison. (There are notable exceptions, though, such as Adirondack Park in New York, a state park that totals about 6 million acres.)
Pro Tip: You’ll love visiting these 8 State Parks That Are Just as Good as National Parks (or Better).
Why Should You Visit State Parks Instead?
Just because they are likely to be less crowded isn’t the only reason to visit state parks, but it’s a big one. Here are some of the other terrific things that make state parks worth your time.
Closer to Home
We are willing to bet that you have a state park not too far from your house. While some states don’t have national parks, even the state with the fewest state parks has 15! Rhode Island has 15, and when you consider its size, that’s still an impressive number.
Some of the bigger states have over 100, and California has 270 state parks. With that kind of density, you’re guaranteed to have a state park nearby.
Great Hiking Trails
Some of our favorite places to hike are in state parks because, simply put, they are trails less traveled. Having fellow hikers directly in front of you and behind you definitely takes a lot of enjoyment from the experience. We like to set our own pace, whether it’s a brisk one or has frequent stops to savor the sites.
Spacious and Private Campsites
That feeling of having a little extra elbow room may also extend to the state park campgrounds. State parks vary widely, but in many cases, the individual campsites are in forest settings with a comfortable distance between them. Don’t expect luxurious accommodations, but in state parks with few visitors, you may feel you have the campground to yourself.
Junior Ranger Programs
But what about those patches, badges, and certificates? Many state parks participate in the popular Junior Ranger Program for youth who love the outdoors. Just because they aren’t visiting national parks doesn’t mean they have to put the brakes on their education. Don’t worry – there’s a lot to learn!
Free or Cheap to Visit
If you visit national parks regularly, you’re accustomed to usually spending around $20 to $35 per vehicle to get in. There are often additional fees once you’re inside the park. State parks, by comparison, can be dirt-cheap. Many have nominal admission fees of just a few dollars, and some are absolutely free if you’re a resident of the state.
While many national parks have become too popular for their own good, some state parks are almost starving for attention. For those who crave solitude, the parks with lower attendance rates are a much better bet. With no one else at arm’s length, you can better experience all the park has to offer.
Just as Beautiful or Historic
Many state parks are just as good as or better than national parks for beauty or historical significance. For example, Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas is the second largest canyon in the country to the Grand Canyon, and it’s gorgeous! Valley of Fire in Nevada will blow your mind, and Custer State Park in South Dakota will teach you about important events in the United States’ history. If you skip these parks, you’ll seriously be missing out!
What Is the Most Famous State Park?
This depends a bit on the region where you live, but Niagara Falls is probably one of the most famous state parks on a national and international scale. Niagara Falls State Park is located in New York state, at the meeting point of Lake Eerie, Lake Ontario, New York, and Canada. They reported over 9.5 milion visitors in 2016, which is a lot of people!
While this state park is very famous and popular, most state parks are not this crowded.
Avoid the Crowds: Support Local State Parks and Enjoy the Outdoors
Fighting a traffic jam to get in is no way to start a vacation. Thankfully, there’s a solution for those who love the outdoors but hate the crowds.
While many national parks see millions of people, it’s a perfect time to visit state parks instead. They’re affordable, and they are wonderful places to enjoy amazing scenery and a variety of recreational activities.
Which parks would you love to visit? Tell us in the comments!
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Sunday 11th of December 2022
We are on our first leg of what we hope is many years of traveling. We are at Picacho Peak RV Resort, right next-door to Picacho Peak State Park! That is where we want to visit first, so we can hike to the top of the peak!