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State parks tend to be underappreciated when it comes to the American park system.
They showcase some of the best natural features and serve as fantastic educational resources, but can be overshadowed by national parks. Luckily, visiting many of these locations is relatively budget-friendly. But are state parks free?
Today, we’re diving into the state park fees. We’ll even share some of the best states to visit with parks that won’t break the bank.
Keep reading if you’re ready to take your adventures to the next level and save a few bucks. Let’s get started!
What Are State Parks?
State parks are public lands set aside for education, recreation, and conservation.
They’re managed and maintained by state resources and typically preserve and protect historical, natural, and cultural resources. At the same time, they’re fantastic for outdoor adventures and enjoyment by the public.
There’s no uniform look or feel to state parks. Tennessee’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park sits in downtown Nashville. On the other hand, South Dakota’s Custer State Park lies in a more rural and rugged environment.
But both parks present fantastic opportunities to learn about the area’s history and explore a natural environment.
What State Has the Most State Parks?
California takes the prize as the state with the most state parks. Many travel to the Golden State to visit national parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, or Joshua Tree. However, they miss out on the opportunity to visit the astonishing 280 state parks throughout the state.
These areas cover some of the most fantastic lands in the state. California State Parks combine for a total of 1.4 million acres, including 340 miles of coast, 15,000 campsites, and approximately 5,200 miles of trail systems. If you want an adventure, you’ll easily find it when you visit these spots.
Are State Parks Free?
Unfortunately, most state parks come with an access fee. These can vary by state and by park. Some units have premium fees for out-of-state guests.
However, many offer annual passes that can give you access to any units in the system. Depending on how often you visit, these can be worth the investment.
Luckily, not all state parks come with a fee. Eight states offer access to their parks for free. We’ve visited some of these units, and we found many well worth it. Even though they’re free, they’re still worth seeing.
States with Free State Parks
Don’t let these eight states’ inexpensive price tags scare you away. You’ll discover some of the best parks in the country. Let’s dive in and see which states offer a free park!
Arkansas has 52 state parks, which feature 55,00 acres, 1,800 campsites, and 208 cabins. They welcome more than eight million visitors each year.
In 1923, with motivation from National Parks Director, Stephen Mather, the park system came to be. Over the last 100 years, it’s grown tremendously. The more parks you visit, the more you appreciate the beauty of this state.
The Land of Lincoln has 41 state parks, 17 state wildlife areas, 11 state recreation areas, and six state forests. Combined, they’re an impressive 475,000 acres of land. In a given year, the park welcomes approximately 44 million visitors.
Whether you want to hike through a forest, ride a bike trail, or enjoy aquatic activities, you’ll find plenty of opportunities in Illinois.
If you want to visit some of Illinois’s best free state parks, we suggest you visit Cave-in-Rock State Park, Starved Rock State Park, Matthiessen State Park, Castle Rock State Park, or Chain O’Lakes State Park.
The Hawkeye State of Iowa has 53,000 acres of land throughout its 83 state park units. This includes 62 campgrounds, which combine to offer approximately 5,700 campsites.
You’ll discover fantastic places to rest and relax while you explore the beautiful landscapes. If you like aquatic activities, 24 parks feature artificial lakes, which typically have beaches for swimming.
Some Iowa State Parks we recommend visiting include Backbone State Park, Ledges State Park, Pikes Peak State Park, Maquoketa Caves State Park, Palisades-Kepler State Park, and Lacey Keosauqua State Park.
The Bluegrass State of Kentucky is home to 44 stunning state parks. The park system offers everything from golf courses to campgrounds. You’ll find hiking trails, historic sites, and incredible views.
If you want to make the most of your time, they have 17 resort-style parks and 31 campgrounds. While several stay open year-round, most only open seasonally.
The Missouri State Park System is one of the top state park systems in the country. There are 92 state parks, which combine for 150,000 acres.
These sites include Civil War battlefields, covered bridges, and even the homes of famous Missourians. The system has approximately 3,500 campsites, 2,000 picnic sites, and more than 1,000 miles of trails.
They welcome more than 20 million visitors through their gates each year. If you want to visit the best sites, we suggest Pershing State Park, Bennett Spring State Park, Castlewood State Park, Elephant Rocks State Park, and Shepherd of the Hills State Park.
Keep in Mind: Looking to go camping on a budget in Missouri? Check out these 9 Free Camping Spots in Missouri!
The Buckeye State has 75 state parks open every day, and they are always free. They encompass over 170,000 acres of land and welcome 31 million visitors annually.
You’ll find plenty of options if you want to boat, hike, camp, or fish. We recommend starting with Maumee Bay State Park, Geneva State Park, Alum Creek State Park, Hocking Hills State Park, or Katy Trail State Park.
Pennsylvania has an incredible 124 state parks spanning over 300,000 acres. Those who enjoy hiking, picnicking, camping, fishing, hunting, and boating will enjoy exploring these parks in Pennsylvania.
You can quickly fill your schedule by exploring the forests, mountains, and water bodies running through these parks. Whether you want to exercise or relax in nature, Pennsylvania state parks make it easy.
Last but certainly not least, the Volunteer State of Tennessee is on our list. It’s home to 57 state parks, which won’t cost you a penny. They offer roughly 1,100 miles of trails, 36 campgrounds, and over 80 waterfalls.
If you want to go chasing waterfalls, here’s your chance. The views throughout the more than 29,800 acres stun any time of year, especially during the fall foliage. You should check out Rock Island State Park, Fall Creek Falls State Park, Burgess Fall State Park, Pickwick Landing State Park, and Cumberland Mountain State Park.
Keep in Mind: These Tennessee state parks are 100% worth visiting, but what about the national parks? Read on to see which national parks are worth visiting in The Volunteer State!
Are State Parks Fees Worth It?
Today, we’ve shared some fantastic free state parks. However, we find some state parks worth the price of admission. Parks like Dead Horse Point State Park, Custer State Park, and Castle Rocks State Park are just a few of the possibilities.
While we understand trying to keep costs down, many fees are inexpensive. We like to pay and encourage travelers, if they can, to pay state park fees to help contribute to conservation efforts.
What about you? Do you hate paying state park fees? Or do you see it as a way to support the park?