State Parks and National Parks: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

A comprehensive guide to choosing the perfect camping experience

State parks and national parks offer standout RV camping experiences, each set in unique, natural landscapes. While there are key differences between them, the main distinction comes down to ownership.

National parks, large areas of untouched nature, belong to all Americans. Because of this, any changes or developments in these parks require federal government approval. Essentially, every citizen has a say in how these parks are managed.

On the other hand, state parks are owned by the residents of a specific state and are managed by that state’s government. They are funded by the state which also sets the rules for the park’s use. This includes who can use the park and how it can be used. A recent example of this is a law in Florida that prioritizes state residents over visitors from other states when making camping reservations in Florida State Parks.

Considering these basic differences between the national and state park systems, it’s clear that each can offer a unique camping experience. Each type of park has its pros and cons, so understanding these can help you plan a great RV camping trip. Use this article as a guide in your decision-making process, helping you plan a wonderful camping experience.

Lovers Key State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks

Advantages

State parks offer a host of appealing benefits for families seeking a retreat from the daily hustle without the need for a substantial road trip. With more than 6,600 state parks scattered across the U.S., chances are there’s one conveniently located near you. This proximity to home can often make camping at a state park more cost-effective than venturing to a national park. Additionally, state parks tend to charge lower fees and in some cases entrance is free.

In terms of amenities, state parks typically offer more developed facilities than national parks. You’re likely to encounter well-maintained camping sites, picnic tables, and multiple access points. What you probably won’t find, however, are massive crowds vying to witness one of the iconic natural wonders often protected within national parks.

Palmetto State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disadvantages

On the downside, state parks, as a general rule, are smaller than their national counterparts. Their compact size and easy accessibility can make them popular camping destinations so depending on the park and the season you might need to book your spot several months or more in advance.

The smaller scale of state parks also means they house fewer unique ecosystems or natural attractions. Multi-day back-packing expeditions may be off the table but you can still expect a range of wonderful trails and spectacular sights that can be explored within a few hours.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks

Advantages

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But 424 NPS units across the country also include national monumentsnational seashoresnational recreation areasnational battlefields, and national memorials

All told, national parks span thousands of acres and sometimes cross multiple state borders. Depending on where you live, a national park may take longer to get to than a state park. However, chances are, it will have at least one or two spectacular and unique attractions within its expansive boundaries.

Because of their size, you’ll find amazing, epic experiences in national parks that you won’t find anywhere else. From wildlife viewing opportunities to multi-day hikes or horseback riding trips through a variety of ecosystems, national parks provide many activities that you won’t find in state parks.

In addition, national parks often provide educational opportunities and visitor programs. For example, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, you can book a guided tour of the massive cave.

U.S. national parks frequently make it onto the bucket lists of people from around the world. There’s a certain prestige to ticking a park such as Joshua Tree or Zion off your to-dos. Expect them to be popular and you won’t be disappointed.

If you are looking for a back-to-nature camping experience, you can find it in a national park. Campsites at national parks are basic so you can unwind in a beautiful and peaceful natural environment without interruption.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disadvantages

Undoubtedly, each national park with its unique features and attractions offers a spectacular and singular experience. However, it’s important to consider some potential drawbacks of these awe-inspiring locations.

For instance, they are typically more expensive to visit compared to state parks due to their remote locations resulting in greater travel distance and higher entrance fees. This distant placement could deter campers with limited vacation time.

Furthermore, the qualities that make national parks so endearing also render them exceedingly popular. This popularity can make securing a campsite during the busy season from May to October particularly challenging. National parks tend to offer limited camping, if at all.

Some campers may also perceive the lack of amenities at more rustic national park campsites as a disadvantage. If you’re hoping for comprehensive facilities such as hookups, you’re not likely to find it here.

What you should consider when choosing between state parks and national parks

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How much time do you have?

Your choice between a state park and a national park for your RV camping trip will hinge on several considerations. Firstly, how much time can you allocate?

If you have only a week of vacation, the journey to a national park might not be feasible. In such cases, a local state park could present the perfect getaway. Conversely, if you have the luxury of several weeks or more, an RV camping trip to a national park can create memories that will last a lifetime.

What’s your budget?

Inevitably, money also has to factor into your decision-making process. What’s your budget including travel expenses, park entrance, and camping fees? If you’re on a tighter budget, camping at a state park makes better sense than traveling to a national park and paying higher fees when you get there.

Gulf State Park, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s important to you?

What do you want from your camping experience? Are you simply looking for a base camp while you explore nearby attractions? Do you want to immerse yourself in the wonders of nature for a few days or a week? Do you want state park amenities like a playground or splash park for the kids or a cafe where you can enjoy an icy cold brew coffee or ice cream? State parks will give you more amenities while national parks offer a more immersive natural experience. Consider what’s important to you before you book a vacation at either a national or state park.

Conclusion

Choosing between national parks and state parks for your camping trip involves considering various factors. Let’s organize these considerations for each.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks

  • Size and experience: National parks are vast areas of protected land that provide unique and immersive experiences with nature. Despite a higher cost, the exceptional sights and features usually justify the expense.
  • Amenities: National parks generally offer fewer amenities than state parks.
  • Crowds: Popular park attractions often draw large crowds during the summer months leading to potential traffic jams and challenges in finding parking or a campsite.
  • Mitigation strategies: You can avoid the crowds by traveling during off-peak seasons or using less crowded access points. Additionally, consider exploring less popular attractions within the park.
Vogel State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks

  • Accessibility and variety: State parks are generally easier to access than national parks and can offer a wide range of natural experiences at a lower cost.
  • Park rules: Since each state manages its parks differently, rules can vary from park to park.
  • Amenities: If amenities are a priority, state parks usually offer a broader selection. It’s recommended to check with the specific park for available facilities.

One of the fantastic aspects of the U.S. is the ability to choose from diverse camping experiences. The vast expanses of national parks offer unforgettable adventures while state parks provide convenience and a distinctly regional experience. Exploring both allows for a broad spectrum of camping experiences, each with its unique charms.

State parks to visit

When most people think about America’s parks, they think of national parks like Zion and the Grand Canyon but many state parks can rival even some of the best national parks. The U.S. is home to more than 6,600 state park sites which protect over 14 million acres of diverse landscapes from arid deserts to coastal forests and soaring mountains. If you were to explore one every day, it would take you over 18 years to see every state park. Don’t know where to start? Check out these five standout state parks around the country and the features that make them well worth the visit.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Many visitors come to Custer State Park—covering over 70,000 acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills—to swim, paddle boat, fish, or simply admire the view of the incredibly picturesque Lake Sylvan. However, the park is perhaps best known for its herd of approximately 1,500 free-ranging bison, one of the world’s largest bison herds. Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and there is a good chance you’ll come to a halt when bison cross in front of you. Watch out for wild turkey, deer, elk, wild burros, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, too.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky

One of Kentucky’s more quaint state parks, this site centers around the former plantation that inspired the imagery featured in My Old Kentucky Home which is recognized as the official state song and arguably best known for its ties to the Kentucky Derby.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park offers tours of the historic Federal Hill mansion, though tickets are required ($16/adult; $14/senior). Guests can also hit the links on the park’s 18-hole golf course and in the summer visit the outdoor theater to catch a production of The Stephen Foster Story music which features more than 50 songs from the creator of My Old Kentucky Home.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

Hunting Island State Park is a popular vacation destination located in the South Carolina Lowcountry and attracts nearly one million visitors a year. The park features five miles of beachfront, a saltwater lagoon, and the state’s only publicly accessible lighthouse.

Located on 5,000 acres of the barrier island, Hunting Island State Park offers a variety of activities. In addition to the beach, you can enjoy hiking trails, fishing, and boating. The park also includes a visitor center, a theater, and interactive exhibits.

Hunting Island State Park campgrounds feature full hookups, water, and electricity. Some sites feature gravel pads while others are paved. There are also cabins available. There are also restroom facilities, a shower house, a grocery store, and a dump station.

The campground has an excellent range of sites with campsites able to accommodate RVs from 28 to 40 feet. However, a two-night minimum is required. Most sites are located near the beach and are easy to maneuver.

Hunting Island State Park also features a fishing pier. The pier extends 1,120 feet into Fripp Inlet. You can fish in the saltwater lagoon, Johnson Creek, and the harbor river.

Dead Horse Point Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Dead Horse Point is located at the end of a mesa 2,000 feet above the Colorado River on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. Many excellent photos are taken here. It’s also a certified International Dark Sky Park.

There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Nestled within a grove of junipers, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and tent pads. All sites are also equipped with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). Modern restroom facilities are available, and hiking trails lead directly from the campground to various points of interest within the park including the West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Wingate Campground, or the Visitor Center.

New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains thirty-one 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV campers while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground.

Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.

Worth Pondering…

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

—Lewis Carrol