With thousands of parks comprising nearly 14 million acres, America's state park systems boast a myriad of vacation options ripe for discovery.
From Arkansas' Crater of Diamonds, where you can hunt for real diamonds and keep any you find, to California's giant 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with its magnificent spring wildflowers, to New Hampshire's Mount Washington State Park, where you can climb the tallest mountain in the Northeast and enjoy views of up to 130 miles, state parks offer great opportunities for outdoor recreation.
"Many state parks rival the more famous national parks in terms of beauty, cultural and historical significance, though many of these parks are not well known to the general public," says Darren Smith, author of the Parks Directory of the United States.
Every state in the nation boasts some combination of state parks, recreation and natural areas, fish and wildlife refuges, historic sites and forests-more than 6,600 in all.
Some parks are tiny, such as the 4.5-acre Berkeley Springs (W.Va.) State Park, where visitors can soak in the warm mineral waters that bubble up at the rate of 2,000 gallons a minute. On a grander scale, the 1.6-million-acre Wood-Tikchik State Park, near Dillingham, Alaska, is the nation's largest state park.
So, instead of being tourists on your next family vacation, assume the role of intrepid explorers and discover some of the nation's less renowned-but no less distinctive-destinations. To begin your quest online, visit www.stateparks.com, which offers park information for every state. If you need help narrowing your choices, consider these five parks the next time the travel bug bites.
Fall Creek Falls State Park
Featuring the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States, Fall Creek Falls State Park offers a wealth of family recreation and natural beauty in every season. Mountain laurel and rhododendron bloom in the spring, the park's Olympic-size pool lures swimmers each summer, oak and hickory forests burst into color each autumn, and log fires burn during the wintertime.
No matter the season, golfers can enjoy the park's championship 18-hole course, a three-time selection by Golf Digest as one of the top 100 public places to play. Horseback riding, fishing, hiking and bicycling are among the activities enjoyed throughout the park's 20,000 acres.
For overnight accommodations, take your pick from campsites, two-bedroom cabins, three-bedroom villas and the lakeside Fall Creek Falls Inn. Campsites cost $8 to $25 a night. In-season rates are $79 for inn rooms, $134 for cabins and $180 for villas.
Call (800) 250-8610 for lodging reservations or (800) 250-8611 to
book space at the campground.
Priest Lake State Park
Priest Lake, Idaho
Priest Lake State Park, 30 miles from the Canadian border in the shadow of mile-high mountains, hugs the eastern shores of Priest Lake, which is 19 miles long and more than 300 feet deep. Not surprisingly, water sports, including boating and fishing, are popular during the warmer months. Other activities include picking huckleberries beginning in mid-July, biking, bird and wildlife viewing, hunting and golf. Snowmobilers enjoy more than 200 miles of marked, groomed trails in the winter. The park offers 151 campsites, five cabins and a group camp.
Campsites are $12 to $22 per night; the group camp is $200, plus hookup and vehicle fees; and cabins rent for $45. Call (866) 634-3246 for reservations. Off the park property-and mostly on the west side of the lake-are some private vacation rentals, inns, marinas and recreational-vehicle parks.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
In America's heartland is a 700-acre park touted as "ultra modern," and its facilities live up to the billing. At Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, the summertime draw is the Family Aquatic Center, featuring two water slides and a swimming and wave pool. An activity center is open year round and features an ice-skating rink and an indoor playground.
The sprawling park offers a wealth of recreation and entertainment opportunities, including pedal boats, a toboggan run, a miniature golf course, and the Denman and Mary Mallory Kountze Theater.
The park's centerpiece is the Peter Kiewit Lodge, with a restaurant overlooking the scenic Platte River. All 40 guest rooms have private baths and some have fireplaces. Rates range from $75 to $90 per night. Cabins are available during the summer for $110 to $440 . Two campgrounds are located among mature shade trees near the park's marina; rates are $19 and $23 nightly. For reservations, call (402) 471-1414 weekdays.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur, Calif.
Near California's rugged central coast, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a nature lover's haven, with towering redwoods, open meadows, black-tailed deer and water ouzels, songbirds that dive into the Big Sur River. A walk along the river-or a swim in its waters-offers spectacular views of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Although lightning-sparked wildfires swept through portions of the park last year and prompted some trail closures, the park's facilities were untouched. Big Sur Lodge features 61 cottage-style rooms, each with a deck or patio, and includes a restaurant, grocery store and seasonal heated pool. Rooms range from $149 to $359 per night, depending on the season, room size and amenities, which may include kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces. A stay at the lodge includes free access to several nearby state parks. For reservations, call (800) 424-4787.
Cape Henlopen State Park
The waves of the Atlantic Ocean meet the waters of Delaware Bay at Cape Henlopen State Park, which features a pristine 4.5-mile beach. Two designated swimming areas offer lifeguard patrols from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Nature trails wind through the pinelands and sand dunes of the 5,193-acre park, which features the Great Dune rising 80 feet above sea level. Visitors can climb to the top of a renovated World War II-era U.S. Army observation tower for a panoramic ocean view. Families shouldn't miss the environmental education programs at the Seaside Nature Center.
More than 150 spacious campsites are nestled beneath the pines; call (877) 987-2757 for reservations. Campsites are $26 to $32 per night. For those who appreciate modern amenities, try Delaware Seashore State Park 15 miles to the south, where beachfront cottages are available. Delaware's pristine state beaches are open all year from 8 a.m. to sunset, so don't discount a winter visit-and a walk along the beach after a snowfall.