Your ambitious checklist for plotting a summer family vacation might read something like this: affordable, engaging, and fun. When the kids aren't looking, a parent might even add educational.
Fortunately, every state in the nation offers one-stop options to fill such demanding vacation requirements: state parks.
From the Okefenokee Swamp's tea-colored water in South Georgia to the twisted Torrey pines overhanging the deep blue Pacific Ocean near San Diego, every state showcases unique public treasures.
And with each state operating under its own rules, and with distinct local flavor, options may range from golf courses and resorts to cabins and trails. A bit of research and planning is all it takes to line up a budget- and family-friendly summer escape.
State parks represent "a collection of pearls for the necklace in each state," says Will La Page, a retired New Hampshire state parks director who lives in Arkansas and writes poetry about parks.
"The thing I like about state parks is that they can be enormously educational about someone's home state," he says. "People always say they're going to take a vacation but end up ignoring the things in their own back yard."
AMENITIES VARY WIDELY
When it comes to preparing for a vacation, the family planner should always remember a key point: each state has different offerings and different rules.
"Some states such as Alabama, Tennessee, and Ohio created resort parks in hope of building money-making tourism destinations," says Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.
While the financial results have sometimes been mixed, the efforts created distinctive stops, McKnelly says. For example, Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail includes 11 public golf courses designed to lure not only in-state residents but also tourists.
Meanwhile, parks in states such as in Montana, Kansas, and Texas put the focus on the land and wildlife, McKnelly says.
Admission can vary widely. Some parks require individual visitors to pay a fee, but others charge one price for each vehicle.
Some states, such as North Carolina, consider parks public spaces and generally require no fee. Other parks might allow a free drive through a park for a quick look but ask those who stop to pay a parking charge, McKnelly says.
With budgets and staffs shrinking, fees are the reality in many states, with exceptions such as Oregon where a state lottery helps support parks.
When compared to visiting an amusement park or other attraction, though, parks can bring real value.
"From a father who has taken kids to Disney World, every time you're at a theme park you're paying for this or that," McKnelly says. "If you go to a state park, you'll find things to do that won't cost money. And because you'll often bring your own food, you can manage your budget more easily, and you can get recreation that's healthy."
Many parks also understand the importance of catering to a gadget-obsessed culture, allowing technology to engage visitors even as park staffs shrink. Instead of a ranger, a hand-held audio device might lead a visitor on a self-guided nature or history tour.
Other parks have tapped into geocaching, a treasure hunting game in which competitors use GPS devices and clues to race to a hidden goal. "It gives the kids a chance to use their gizmos, but it also gets them outside where they can have a healthy activity," McKnelly says.
The abundance of activities and resources creates a blessing and a curse. Many people want to share the fun, making reservations for summer travel critical.
Most states operate websites or phone systems that accept reservations, and popular spots book quickly, McKnelly says. While some parks set aside a portion of campsites for first-come-first-served services, others will reserve every spot.
When in doubt, call ahead to make sure space remains available.
REALIZE THE RISKS, RESPONSIBILITIES
With a cozy, welcoming environment, some visitors might not appreciate the risks and responsibilities associated with visiting a state's outdoor gems. Many parks feature cliff-side overlooks, fast-moving streams, or parching deserts.
McKnelly, formerly director of parks in North Carolina, says a series of deaths from people falling at one park's waterfall prompted installation of a fence and a warning sign.
Generally, pets are welcome, although dogs in campgrounds must remain on leashes, and some cabins might not allow pets, he says.
For a family-friendly vacation, few places offer a more convenient option than state parks. "Every state you can go to," La Page says, "will have superlatives."
Noble Sprayberry writes from Phoenix, Ariz.