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Exploring a State Park or a National Park: What’s the Difference?

July 30, 2019 4 min read 0 Comments

Exploring a State Park or a National Park:  What’s the Difference?

There’s one thing you know for certain: you’re looking to get away, get outdoors, and go exploring. But where are you going? Chances are you want to visit a place where the natural world is front and center, which means state parks and national parks are probably your two best options. So, what’s the difference? How do state parks differ from national parks, and which of these protected lands is likely to make the ideal exploration destination? Taking some time to compare the two should make it clear whether a state park or a national park will provide the right setting for your upcoming trip.

What Is A State Park?

A state park is an area of land protected and managed by the government of a particular state. Lands are designated as state parks in the interest of preserving their natural beauty, historical significance, or utility for outdoor recreation. In other words, the state chooses to protect their availability to the public because they’re beautiful, fun, and interesting places to explore!

What is a National Park?

Like state parks, national parks are land areas which are protected by the government in order to preserve their significant cultural, recreational, and aesthetic value (again, they’re areas which are incredibly unique and offer endless opportunity for adventure!). The essential difference is that national parks are managed by the federal government, meaning they’re operated by the resources and personnel of the US government rather than the government of the state in which they’re located.


Both State Parks and National Parks…

1. ... Are Protected Areas.

Meaning, both state parks and national parks are established for the purpose of conservation – protecting and preserving the lands, ecosystems, and natural resources within their borders. When you visit either kind of park, you’re exploring an area which is specifically designated as a location deserving of care and respect. Although it’s always important to follow good environmental practices and leave no trace principles, protected parks require special attention – these natural areas of increased usage are particularly susceptible to human impacts, so we need to be especially mindful of our ecological practices within them.

2. ... Are Unique Environments.

A large part of the reason why parks are protected is because they’re extremely distinct environments with histories and natural features that can’t be found anywhere else. In state parks and national parks alike you’ll find things like caves and waterfalls, mountains and valleys, wide-open fields, and pristine lakes. You’ll be able to view wildlife that isn’t seen just anywhere, and learn about the history, science, and environmental significance which characterizes the unique world around you.

3. Provide Opportunities for Exploration

And of course, there’s the reason you want to visit a park in the first place – these special, protected environments are available to public use and offer plenty of opportunity for exploration, recreation, and adventure. Whatever outdoor activities you’re enthusiastic about, it’s guaranteed that both national and state parks afford plenty of access to a variety of great places to pursue them.


Naturally, there are some major differences between national parks and state parks that will help you to determine which would be best for your next visit –

1. Size and Number

National parks are usually much larger than state parks – they cover larger areas and include more distinct features, regions, and access points than singular state parks do. But as a result, there are much fewer of them. It’s much more likely that you live somewhere close to a state park (or multiple state parks) specifically because of their smaller size and larger quantity. For some perspective: the 58 national parks cover 84 million acres while more than 8500 state parks cover about 18.7 million acres (still not a small number!).

2. Popularity

Though national parks are much larger in terms of land mass, they can often seem to be more crowded than state parks. This is because not all of the land that they cover is equally accessible, and many of the most accessible landmarks are extremely popular destinations for tourists and sightseers. Of course, this is because those landmarks are exceptional – massive cliffs, wild rock formations, exploding geysers, etc. These things are undoubtedly worth seeing (even at the cost of bumping shoulders) but be aware that you’ll almost certainly be sharing the sights with others, especially at the more popular and well-known parks and landmarks.

3. Access V.S. Immersion

Because of their smaller size and larger number, state parks tend to be cheaper and easier to access for the majority of outdoor enthusiasts. They also usually have many available amenities like campsites, picnic tables, and access points to recreation. Because they’re so easily accessible (and less crowded) chances are you’ll be able to spend a weekend in a state park without too much planning in advance. But if you’re looking for more undeveloped wilderness and immersion in nature, national parks are the way to go – once you get away from the most popular spots, there are millions of acres to explore (though doing so might require some advanced planning and permits).

Which to Explore?

Your main considerations when choosing whether to visit a state park or national park are your trip time, your planning time, and your priorities and objectives. The more time you have for your trip and the more time you have to plan it out, the more likely it is that you’ll have the best experience exploring a national park. If you have less time to work with or feel like having a more spontaneous adventure, a state park is likely your best option. You should also consider whether your priorities are amenities or outdoor immersion – depending on your specific objectives and circumstances, either a state or a national park could provide you with the highest degree of seclusion and solitude.

But in any case, you have no bad options! No matter which type of park you choose to visit, you’ll be able to explore endless trails, campsites, and outdoor adventure opportunities. So make your choice and get out there!

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