The National Park System (NPS) includes over 400 areas in the United States and its territories, consisting of over 85 million acres of land. This includes national parks, monuments, historical sites, recreation areas, and scenic rivers. All in all, they are some of the most beautiful and remarkable places in the country.
Then, there are the state parks, which add thousands of other destinations and millions of acres to the list. These are places that have helped define states and regions of the United States, spots of import for locals. They often include popular mountains or waterways, significant spaces in area history, and the best natural splendor a state has to offer.
All of this has been saved for us to enjoy. It’s part of what our government has done for the last century (The NPS started in 1916). And, while we aren’t obligated to visit any of these beloved landmarks, there are plenty of reasons we should:
Hiking up mountains, meandering along streambanks, discovering rock formations, or paddling in beautiful lakes—State and national parks offer up adventures galore. There is no need to travel afar to find adventure, it might just be right in your county. Adventures in these parks are varied and exciting. They can take us to the highest peaks in the country or down into the deepest caverns and, of course, everything in between.
Every state has state parks. Even Nebraska, with the fewest, has eight of them, and California tops the list with over 280. In other words, even if we live in one of the 23 states without a national park, there will still be big swaths of nature at our disposal. If our state doesn’t have an NP, it’s likely a neighboring state does. In short, something is always close enough to enjoy.
Not only does visiting state and national parks celebrate nature, but also it helps to preserve these wild spaces. The money we spend at these parks goes into conserving them for us and future generations. That’s helping to fund over 85 million acres of national parks and millions more in state parks. These parks aren’t just for our recreational use; they are protecting the most treasured places in the United States.
Every park has a wealth of interesting information to learn. We learn about biodiversity in the area, geological history, regional culture, and all sorts of other stuff. These tidbits of knowledge resonate even more because we are often acquiring them with hands-on experiences, such as looking at the actual rock formation or admiring the skilled work and creativity of people from the past.
With so much happening in the world today, visiting national and state parks is the perfect moment to tuning out of it for a while. We can turn phones off. We can look at the landscape in real rather than on a screen. We can get out of the car, out of the office, and stretch our legs a bit. We can spend a morning or weekend without any “breaking news” updates to fret over. This probably provides as many health benefits as the exercise we’ll be getting.
It turns out that a gym membership is not a prerequisite for getting some exercise. It seems before they were all the rage, folks used to get outside to walk and jog in ways that actually took them somewhere, ride bikes that weren’t stationary, climb mountains instead of stair machines, and even row on actual water. We can still do that! Imagine breathing fresh air, flowers, and pine trees—not a sweaty gym—while exercising.
When we take advantage of our state and national parks, we don’t just explore the amazing spaces within the boundaries. We experience the places along the way. With so many parks that a just a drive away, we get a chance to drive along the state highways and through the small towns that once were so revered in the USA. In other words, we explore and appreciate those areas nearest to us, something so many of us forget to do.
Compared to visiting a theme park or going to a movie or even grabbing a bite to eat, the cost of enjoying a state park or national park is next to nothing. In fact, many of them are absolutely free (over 2/3 of national parks), and if they do cost, it’s normally a minimal fee paid by the vehicle rather than individual tickets. We are talking hours upon hours of entertainment. That is harder and harder to find for cheap these days.
In the time of COVID specifically, but anytime as well, the mere fact that our national and state parks are open warrants considering a visit. But, they are also open in other ways: open spaces; mind-opening; open to all races, classes, creeds, and nationalities. These pieces of land are meant for us to enjoy in person, whomever we are. What a tragedy it would be not to take full advantage of that.
Each state park and national park has its own unique features and history, so it is worth visiting as many as possible. They can make for fantastic day trips. They can warrant cross-country road trips. But, rest assured, there will be something different everywhere you go, whether it’s the Smoky Mountains or Arches or Redwood or Hawaiian Volcanoes or Everglades…
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