Those who know my family well know we’re a family that loves and enjoys camping and appreciates the outdoors.
I wasn’t always that way. When I was a kid, our family tried camping twice during my adolescence, both times with limited success. When I met my husband, it took several years of him talking about all of his family memories of camping trips to convince me that this was an activity that we could do together once we got married.
Our family love affair with vacationing outdoors started eighteen years ago when Jeff and I traveled to Colorado to visit my sister-in-law the summer before we got married; they took me on my first real camping trip, complete with all of the outdoor cooking equipment, campfire building, and struggle with the dropping nighttime temperatures in the Rocky Mountains. Jeff gleefully watched me fall in love with everything about camping. When we came out of the mountains to settle into my sister-in-law’s condo for a couple days, we spent an afternoon registering for all of our wedding gifts at a local Target, spending a significant amount of time in the camping section selecting everything that we thought we would need to get a start on our own equipment so that we didn’t have to travel from Michigan to Colorado every time we wanted to go camping.
Since we had a December wedding during a Michigan snowstorm, we didn’t get to try out our new camping equipment until several months later, but as soon as the snow melted we headed straight for the Michigan state parks. When we moved to northern Indiana that summer, we expanded our state park experiences to include Indiana state parks and once, Illinois. For the next seven years, state parks became our go-to whenever we wanted to get out of the city and back into nature, only once breaking that unwritten rule when we spent a week traveling out to Yellowstone National Park and back, choosing to stay at KOAs the whole way there and back so that we could make easy reservations and be guaranteed places to pitch our tent as we traveled across the country.
When we finally got back into camping after Jeff convinced me to buy our very first camper, we quickly fell back into the same rhythm of our tent camping days. By that time we had moved from the west to the east side of Indiana and we had many more state parks that we wanted to try. We were also close to Pokagon State Park, one of Jeff’s favorites from his childhood. Within the first three months of owning a camper, we visited at least four different state parks, three in Indiana and one in Michigan.
We are now on our third camper in six years (our first upgrade happened less than a year after our initial purchase) and state park exploration has become one of our favorite activities. During the two years of camper ownership while we lived in Indiana, we took our kids all over the state, only returning to a select number of our favorites because they were close and easy to get to. When we moved to Texas four years ago, finding new state parks became a game as we measured out the distances from the Houston area to the various parks, calculating our ability get there in a single day. When we went to the Big Bend region for Christmas break, selecting Davis Mountains State Park, about three hours north of the national park, was a no-brainer. Since we are relatively close to Arkansas and Louisiana, we’ve also made specific trips to state parks in both of those states, stretching the distance of our short family get-aways for both spring break and Thanksgiving.
State parks have become our preferred go-to for road travel as well.
It took time and increased internet savvy to come to that realization, but after six years of traveling through fifteen states with our camper, I’ve discovered that more often than not, state parks are our favorite camping stops regardless of the purpose. We’ve made the overnight stops at roadside campgrounds and occasionally RV resorts, but we’ve found that overnight stays at state parks are usually cheaper, more refreshing, and more enjoyable than the alternative.
We’ve made stops at state parks in Illinois while on our way home to Michigan, state parks in Mississippi and Alabama on our way to and from Disney, and last summer I managed to reserve state park sites nearly the entire way from Texas to Wisconsin and back while we were vacationing on our way to my cousin’s wedding in Iowa, with only a few necessary stops at private campgrounds when we would have to travel too far out of our way for an overnight stop at a park. And as I planned out our family vacation for this year’s trip to Arches National Park and back, I successfully found state parks for five out of our eight stops and we are eager to add those parks to our growing list of places visited.
Why do we love them so much? For one, they are affordable. Overnight stays at an RV park (depending on the location and quality) can cost anywhere from $35 to $75 or more a night. Our most expensive state park stay ever? Thirty dollars for a single night. Additionally, state parks are usually safe places designed for outdoor activity for the whole family. Many parks offer decent playgrounds for kids to stretch and play after a long day in the car. The roads weaving through state park campgrounds are perfectly safe for kids to bike while waiting for dinner and sometimes the campgrounds, like our first Missouri stop last summer, offer bike paths for family recreation. If you have the ability to stay for longer than overnight, ranger programs can be a fantastic summer learning experience for kids of all ages. One of our preferred Indiana state parks was one of many around the country that have swimming pools and many other parks are located on lakes and rivers that provide swimming. There are things to see, places to explore, and usually fairly decent restroom facilities. With some careful planning, you can even find a state park campground that provides laundry facilities (the two state parks we’ve stayed at in Louisiana have provided free use of washers and dryers).
And state parks aren’t just for campers. Some older locations have historic lodges within the parks, cabins, and one of the Missouri parks we stayed at last summer even had yurts in our loop*. If you are traveling in the middle of the week, most spots should be readily available, and with enough planning, you could get more functional accommodations than most roadside hotel rooms (with kitchen facilities that allow you to save money on food) and the outdoor recreation that your family might need.
As we move into summer vacation, don’t forget the natural resources that we have available, often within an hour drive of our homes. Check out your state park website and see what the closest parks have available for you and your kids. And if you are hitting the road, don’t forget to check out the state parks along the way. You may discover cheaper lodgings that force your family to become one with nature instead of stuffed into a roadside hotel room hooked to electronics, and I think that’s a win.
*Links to examples of lodges, cabins, and yurts included.