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

Elephant Butte Lake State Park: Paradise in the Chihuahuan Desert

If you like camping, fishing, boating, or just being outdoors, Elephant Butte Lake is for you

Seventeen of New Mexico’s 35 state parks are based around an artificial lake of which by far the largest is Elephant Butte, a 40,000-acre expanse formed by a concrete dam (completed 1916) across the Rio Grande River, a few miles north of Truth Or Consequences and 80 miles from Las Cruces.

The park contains 200 miles of shoreline and over 40 miles of the river valley including a band of marshland several miles upstream of the lake’s high water mark extending almost as far as Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge though most visitor activities are concentrated in a five mile section along the southwest shore and include marinas, boat launch ramps, campsites, picnic areas, and beaches.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is plenty of water and plenty of beach room at New Mexico’s largest state park. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats. Besides sandy beaches, the state park offers restrooms, picnic area, playgrounds, and developed sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs.

Elephant Butte Lake is one of the most visited state parks in New Mexico, popular because of the abundant water recreation and the easy access, just a few miles off Interstate 25.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This part of the Rio Grande valley forms the northernmost tip of the great Chihuahuan Desert so summer temperatures are hot and the vegetation includes several types of cactus. The lake itself is named after a strangely-shaped remnant of an ancient volcano now forming an island just opposite the dam.

The visitor center and state park headquarters are reached by State Routes 179 and 195; near the junction, a spur road leads to facilities including a launch ramp near Marina Del Sur and to a number of picnic areas and overlooks. The scenery here is typical of the whole lake—earthen hills sloping quite gently down to the water, sparsely covered with straggly bushes and cacti, many small bays and inlets, several islands, and a higher range of hills along the inaccessible east side of the reservoir.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main shoreline access is a little further north via Rock Canyon Drive forking off SR-195 in the middle of Elephant Butte, a small village offering all kinds of boat-related businesses. This paved road follows close to the water’s edge for 8 miles before turning inland and meeting Interstate 25 at exit 89. En route are many side roads, some paved with facilities and self-pay fee stations, others unpaved and free to enter.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Before the dam was built the Rio Grande River flowed through on its way to Mexico. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation received approval from the United States Congress to construct Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway to provide flood control and irrigation downriver. Construction of the dam started in 1911 and was finished in 1915. Materials and supplies were brought in by rail and transported to the dam by a 300-horse-power electric-motor-powered cable system.

Upon completion, the dam had a 1,674-foot crest, a spillway, and a road running across the top. The channel and the downstream concrete-lined chute weren’t completed until 1922. In 1940, a 23,400-kilowatt hydroelectric power plant connected to the dam began operating. One year later, the spillway was used for the first time and then not used again until 1985 when the lake reached its record high.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most common misconception visitors have of the lake is that the water levels have become dangerously low. However, even at its current level, water in the lake is up to 30 feet and in places 60 feet deep.

During the late 1980s to mid-1990s the water levels were at their highest. It even flowed over the floodgates of the dam. Before then it looked just like it does today. Even at its lowest levels Elephant Butte Lake can support boating, fishing, and many other types of aquatic fun.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun on the water

Speaking of fun, there is a lot to be had on the water. Bring your watercraft whether it’s a houseboat, yacht, speed boat, fishing boat, rowboat, jet-ski, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard.

Don’t have your own? Don’t worry! There are numerous places to rent your toy of choice for a few hours, the day, or the whole weekend.

Fishing is another popular activity at the lake and a fishing license is required to cast your line. You can get them at Zia Kayak Outfitters or Walmart in Truth or Consequences.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake is known for record-breaking black, white, and striped bass as well as crappie and bluegill. The lake is stocked with all kinds of fish including four species of bass, catfish, carp, salmon, pike, walleye, and sunfish.

There are fun landmarks to explore while on the water like Kettle Top Mountain which avid lake-goers use as a geographical reference. Pirate’s Cove is a great place to anchor, go for a swim, and mingle. Castle Rock is a popular . . . well . . . rock in the middle of the lake that people climb and jump off. And, most famous of all, the elephant: a volcanic core that looks like an elephant lying down. You’ve likely already guessed that’s how Elephant Butte acquired its name!

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two marinas to serve boaters:

  • Dam Site Marina, near the rock formation for which the lake is named, is also within view of the Elephant Butte Dam. The marina has a store and offers kayak and standup paddle board rentals.
  • Marina del Sur is located at the main entrance to Elephant Butte State Park and offers boat rentals, slip rentals, dockside facilities, and a convenience store.

Fun on land

How about some lakeside hiking and nature observing? West Lakeshore Trail is a six-foot-wide hiking and biking trail with a gravel surface that spans 12 miles through the desert along the lake. It can be accessed from six different trailheads including Overlook Trailhead and Sailboat Cove Trailhead. Dirt Dam Trail is 1.5 miles of fully paved road that is closed to traffic making it a safe spot for hiking with children and pets. Use the restroom and pick up snacks first as there are no facilities along the trail.

The Paseo del Rio Interpretive Trail is a one-mile loop, half gravel and half paved. This trail features great views and restrooms at the trailhead and midway point of the loop.

The closest hiking trail to Marina del Sur is the Lucchini Trail, a sandy 1.5-mile loop that can be accessed near the Elephant Butte State Park Visitor Center and the Desert Cove Campground where you will also find restrooms.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding

This park is a prime area for waterbirds and shorebirds. The best birding is between September and May. At the lake, you may see American white pelicans, thousands of western and Clark’s grebes, several terns, and unusual gulls. Some of the better birding spots are at the marinas at Long Point, Three Sisters Point, and South Monticello Point (check for shorebirds, gulls, terns, waders, and ducks). Loons are more common at the southern end of the lake. Birding on land is best from Rock Canyon south where tall scrub and houses with plants and feeders attract numerous species. Check migrating horned lark flocks for longspurs. 

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Camping is available in various designated areas located throughout Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Despite its large size, the park has an elaborate system of roads within it that makes the park reasonably easy to navigate—SR-181, SR-195, SR-171, and SR-51 all wind through parts of the park. Inside the campgrounds, visitors can make use of sites that accommodate rigs of up to nearly 90 feet long with a mix of pull-through and back-in options.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park has plenty of campsites to offer guests with 173 developed campsites, 144 water and electric sites, and eight full-hookup sites spread across four campgrounds and multiple primitive camping areas.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Cove Campground is in the southern half of the park, just north of the Visitor Center and offers 16 reservable sites with water and 50-amp electric hookups. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 50 feet in length.

South Monticello Campground is home to 15 reservable sites and even more first-come, first-served sites. The campground is located in the far northern area of the park past many of the primitive camping areas. These sites can accommodate vehicles up to 87 feet in length and offer water in-site, electric hookups, a table, canopy, and fire ring. Some of these sites also offer views of the lake. Guests at South Monticello Campground can also make use of the RV dump station located near the entrance to the campground, the restrooms, and showers located in the campground, and easy access to both hiking trails and a boat ramp.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Run Campground is located next to Desert Cove Campground and has an additional set of RV campsites, two of which can be reserved ahead of time. These sites offer 20- to 30-amp electric hookups and can accommodate rigs of up to 73 feet in length. Some of the sites offer pull-through access and stunning lake views depending on the water level. Each site has a table, canopy, and fire ring. Visitors can also make use of the restrooms located in the campground and the dump station located at Desert Cove Campground. Guests staying at Quail Run Campground will be about one mile away from the lake and a half-mile from a playground. Guests can also enjoy easy access to nearby Luchimi Trail.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just northeast of Desert Cove Campground, Lions Beach Campground offers 25 sites which feature water and 30-amp electric hookups. Many of these sites offer stunning views of the lake and most have a table, canopy, and fire ring. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 70 feet in length. Visitors can also make use of the modern restrooms with running water and an RV sanitation dump station located in the campground. Guests staying at Lions Beach Campground can enjoy very easy access to the lake and nearby access to hiking trails. Some of the sites at Lions Beach Campground can be reserved ahead of time, while others are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Southern New Mexico, 80 miles north of Las Cruces

Elephant Butte Lake surface area: 40,000 acres

Park Elevation: 4,527 feet

Daily entrance fee: $5/vehicle

Annual pass: $40/vehicle

Maximum RV camping length: 87 feet

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe