Where can an overheated family with very little vacation time and even less unspoken-for cash go for a short respite from the pressures of daily life? To a state or national park.

With approximately 3,675 State Parks, 58 National Parks, and 333 other protected natural areas scattered across the United States, there’s one “just down the road” from almost everyone’s back door.  These largely undeveloped sites preserve history, natural resources, and wildlife, while providing recreation and solace for visitors.

My home state of Pennsylvania requires no parking or entrance fees at its state parks. Some states levy a nominal charge (usually no more than a few dollars per car). National parks offer an affordable annual pass that entitles you to free admission at any of the country’s national parks, including such giants as Yosemite and Mammoth Cave. 

Streams, lakes, beaches, dunes, rock formations, playgrounds, trails, waterfalls, picnic areas and much more can entertain a family for days.  Overnight accommodation options include roughing it in an inexpensive, rustic lean-to, camping in your own tent, or reveling in all the comforts of home in a moderately priced, well-equipped cabin capable of housing multiple families, or staying at rustic hotel-like lodges.

Boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, walking, horseback riding, even exploring a cave or wading under a waterfall, are just a few of the activities offered at state and national parks across the United States.  To find a national park, click on “Find a Park”.   To find a state park, click on your state.  The Web sites provide information on fees, regulations, activities, current conditions, accommodations, and more. 

Get free admission to a national park this summer.

Discovering the Joys of Parks

We discovered this secret after moving to Pennsylvania. It was a hot, sticky mid-July day and we all were in need of a vacation that wouldn’t break the bank.

I called a new friend from church who described in vivid detail a Pennsylvania State Park only nine miles away from our new home.  We climbed into the stifling car and headed to Tall Timbers.

Soon, the squish of hot asphalt under our tires gave way to the crunch of gravel.  Blissfully, the hot sun was now hidden behind the leafy ceiling and the temperature felt as though it had dropped at least 20 degrees.

Oaks, pines, and towering hemlocks forested the area.  A small clearing with a scattering of picnic tables and a pavilion signaled the end of our drive.

We got out and stretched. Refreshing breezes washed over us.   The spicy fragrance of damp moss, fallen pine needles, and crushed leaves perfumed the air. The canopy of towering old-growth forest filtered the sunlight and created a cool, moist sanctuary that nourished our souls.  We felt like we had wandered into a cathedral, complete with the subtle fragrance of ancient incense.

Fascinated with the gentle brook gurgling through the area, our children urged us to venture across a small footbridge.  The tantalizing sound of rushing water lured us upstream, where we spotted an inviting waterfall. We hurried along the rocky path.  We waded for a while in the water pooling at the base of the falls.  In joyful abandon, the children crouched down and submerged themselves up to their necks— clothing and all.   The cold water cooled their bodies and soothed their spirits.

Tense muscles relaxed.  Frazzled nerves unwound.  Cranky dispositions gave way to laughter and good-natured kidding.  The benefits of a week’s vacation were compacted into a few hours – all for free