State parks across the nation are facing budget shortfalls just at a time when their affordable activities are in demand by a public that may not be able to afford an across the country vacation and are opting to stay closer to home. State park systems have always had to work within tight budgets, however, and are determined to maintain the natural beauty and wonders of their individual states.
If you have never been to a state park in your own state, let alone another state, you have missed out on some wonderful natural treasures across our country. There’s more than camping and hiking at state parks. In every state, you’ll find unique activities and events, pristine natural wonders and lots of healthy outdoor fun.
What can you do in a state park?
Walk a trail
Simple walking may seem like a boring activity or even a challenging one if you’re older or have health issues. But in most state parks, the trails are designed and rated to fit various skill levels. Ask for the park map when you enter the park and study the trails. In Indiana, they are clearly described and marked for difficulty level and length. At Mounds State Park in Indiana, these vary from a seven-mile round trip hike that encompasses the entire park including the Native American Mounds and the White River, the two key natural features of this state park, to a short 15-minute stroll down a wide, gentle path that leads to a scenic view of the river or another 10-minute walk to view one of the historic Mounds. Trees, meadows, wooded rest stops, benches, walking through rushing creeks, steep climbs up and down ladders and cliffs, or beautiful easy walks through wild flower meadows are all trails that can be found in Indiana State Parks.
Rent a canoe or boat and go paddle
Many state parks have some form of water area. It could be a river, lakes, streams or an Olympic Size swimming pool. In those with lakes and streams, you can often rent a canoe or some form of boat to explore the waterways of that park. Turkey Run State Park in Indiana has amazing Sugar Creek running right through it, complete with lazy floating down the stream areas and fun mini falls and rapids that, in canoe season (usually in the spring), can provide a short hour or two of canoeing up to the entire day for a longer run that takes you through the park and down Sugar Creek to the pick-up point.
Take a swim at a pool or beach
Most likely the number one activity for kids in state parks is the swimming fun. And many have swimming facilities, especially is there is a campground in the park. Again, it might be on a beach at a lake, or in the cold clear waters of swimming pools and splash parks but it’s wet and it’s fun.
Have a simple picnic and play on the playground
There was a time in American life when the summer Sunday picnic was a classic event. Mom would pack fried chicken and potato salad in real picnic baskets with plastic divided plates and silverware. The family would pile in the car and drive to the nearest city or state park for an afternoon of playground and picnic fun. It was just simple joy. You can still pack a picnic at all state parks. Bring in your own picnic basket and enjoy Mom’s fried chicken or the Kentucky Colonel’s. Just don’t feed the animals! And take your trash out with you when you leave. Throw a blanket on the ground and take a nap in the summer sun while the kids play on the playground nearby or toss a Frisbee on the wide expanse of grassy lawn.
Ride a bike
Take your own bike or rent one in the park and ride the paved roads and trails for a healthy physical and fun activity. Make it a family trip or just a solitary run and wear your helmet for safety. It’s a safe place to ride with wonderful scenic views.
Buy a GPS and go on a geocache
This activity may have peaked somewhat from its height of popularity about five years ago, but it’s still a lot of fun with millions of people world wide participating. The idea is that people participating in Geo Cache hunts that are like mini treasure hunters. You can create your own Geo Cache and hide it in a state park. It’s legal in Indiana and most state parks as a fun activity. You then enter the coordinates into the world wide computer system and this is where the fun begins. You can access the coordinates of other Geo Caches around the world and go looking for them and other people can look for yours. When you find a Geo Cache you are allow to remove one item from it and replace it with something that you have brought to add to it. We’re talking very small items here and finding something clever to add is part of the fun. Plus tracking your item as it moves around the world. People on the site can leave notes about their finds and virtually track their treasures. Obey park rules about where off the trail you hide your geo cache and don’t trample park lands and destroy nature by digging, etc. as you search and hide.
It’s as simple as that. From easy sit on the bank, toss in a line and lazily monitor it, to serious get in the boat, travel the lakes and streams to find the perfect spot to catch catfish or blue gill or any native fish in your state, fishing is one of the most popular activities in a state park. You have to have the proper fishing licenses and follow the rules, but anyone can find fish in state park waters.
Attend one of the many state park naturalist activities and programs sponsored by various parks
In Indiana there are sponsored naturalist activities around the clock at many state parks. You can attend nature hikes, go caving, participate in an archaeology dig, attend a dramatic play, tour historic buildings and sites, learn a craft, and go birdwatching. And that’s just a tiny fraction of the unique state park activities sponsored in just our state alone. You can find out about all these activities at your state’s DNR website. Most state parks also publish a state recreation guide with every bit of information you might need to explore one of their state parks or recreation areas. It comes out new every year.
Take a lawn chair or blanket and just sit and be still or read and relax
Because we purchase a state park family pass every year, we can journey to any state park we want at any time and get in free. State parks all have their own little precious spots of nature that we find to be our favorites. Usually something quiet and off the beaten path. Take a blanket, book or chair and just go relax. Do nothing but absorb the sounds and smells of nature outdoors. It will replenish your soul when the world gets your down and you just need some solitude or quiet.
This is the activity that most people think of when they think a state park. And most state parks and recreation areas offer some form of camping. It varies from primitive no electricity take a tent to full fledged RV hookup sites with all the amenities of home. Either way, the goal is the same. Get outdoors, enjoy the park, vacation, relax, sit around the campfire, roast some marshmallows, take a short hike, play with the kids and my favorite. Turn off the TV and just be out in nature.
Additional State Park resources
Falls Creek State Park in Tennessee (one of my favorites)
Vermont State Parks (another favorite)
Turkey Run State Park in Indiana (our family’s favorite place to camp close to home)
Indiana Recreation Guide (printable from online) Check for one in your state