In Their Words: State Park Secrets

How to make the most of your local park, according to the experts

From rangers to outdoor rec planners, these sources are the authorities on having a unique, safe, and memorable time in state parks. They know the outdoors like the back of their hands and have spent a good portion of their lives getting to know the terrain we love to hike. Learn their number-one tips for visiting the trails in your backyard.

Ask About the Hidden Gems

“If you’re interested in a hike or backpacking trip and want to avoid the crowds or see something most visitors won’t get the opportunity to, try to speak with a ranger at the park or forest personally. Ask where they would go given the amount of time and the equipment you have. There are things like Native American pictographs, overlooks or viewpoints off the beaten path, abandoned historic buildings, and pretty streams scattered around the parks I have worked at in my career that I would consider special places. 

“I won’t share them in a setting where word can get out to a large population, as too many people can damage the area. But, in a setting where I am speaking to a single hiker or small group, I have pointed them toward these kinds of places. Most of the time, rangers point people toward the hot spots most tourists want to see, but if someone is excited enough about the special places that are out of the way and are willing to put in the work to get there, we love to share that kind of info.” —John Hardcastle, Park Ranger at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

Always Reflect on the Meaning of Your Hike

“Before you set out on a hike you should ask yourself, “Why am I hiking today?” If you do this, you will have a different experience each time you hike. For example, the reasons I hike could be: to relax, to exercise, to find a novelty (a new trail with a view or interesting plants), to learn information about a historical hike, or to make human connections (hike with friends). When I know the purpose of a specific hiking trip, I’ll see things in a completely different way. I might change the gear I bring, the people I hike with, or the time of day I hike. The hiking purpose or the “why”  influences the “what,” ‘where,” “when,” “who,” and “how” thereafter. So, let your hike know why you’re there in the first place.” —Scott Renker, Park Ranger at Vermont State Parks

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Need to Save Cash? Improvise Gear.

“It’s kind of morbid, but sometimes you need to do what you need to do. I’ve always wanted a bivy sack, but when I was a starving student they were way too expensive for me. So I found a cheap alternative by buying an army surplus body bag and coating it with some waterproofing. It’s a nice, fairly lightweight, yet durable alternative if you can get over its intended use.” —Nathan Martinez, Park Ranger in Utah State Parks, Assistant Manager at Goblin Valley State Park

Go Old-School

“Although many people utilize handheld GPS devices and other forms of technology, you should never depend on electronics to get you out of trouble. A paper map and a compass are always a sure-fire way to get you to safety. That being said, even in the most detailed of maps, 100-foot drop-offs may not be shown, so always exercise caution.” —Thomas Crockett, Park Ranger #1, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Be Tick-Aware

“Nowadays, the blacklegged tick, or deer tick, is prevalent in many parks throughout the U.S. This tick has the potential to carry the bacteria that can cause not just Lyme disease, but other diseases such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Though many hikers know the danger of ticks, they aren’t doing enough to stop that danger.

“Bug spray repellent with a high percentage of DEET is as effective for keeping ticks off of you as it is for mosquitoes. If you are going to be in brushy areas of the park, use the repellant multiple times each day. Secondly, using tape or an elastic gaiter at the bottom of your pants to keep the ticks on the outside of your clothing is also effective when combined with the repellent. Permethrin-treated clothing is also, of course, effective. However, it must be allowed to dry on the clothing before hiking in tick-infected areas. Last but not least, remember that you should never forget to do a tick check at the end of a hike. Sometimes, the most experienced of hikers are the ones to neglect this. Don’t.” —Greg Lanners, Park Ranger in charge of Public Service, Itasca State Park, Minnesota

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Talk to a Ranger 

“The worst thing that can possibly happen after completing a successful hike is finding out you’ve missed something at the park that you didn’t know about. Remember, park rangers are dedicated to fulfilling their primary mission of natural and cultural resource conservation, preservation, recreation, and education while ensuring public safety and providing outstanding customer service. They are outdoor enthusiasts and interpreters who know the history, culture, and terrain of the park they’re working in and want to share that information with you!

“They can make sure you hit all the special places. Reach out to a park ranger by calling the park, sending an email, or using social media to learn more as part of your planning process. Many agencies, parks, and rangers are available and active through social media and this may provide quicker response time than traditional communication.

“A park ranger’s education and experience will direct you to the can’t-miss areas and activities you’ll remember forever.” —Toby Velazquez, Deputy Director, New Mexico State Parks 

Study Up on Your Park

“Add depth to your hike. And no, I’m not advocating for hiking more canyons or ravines—though that sounds like decent advice too. Rather, I’m saying take the time to learn about where you hike. Discover the back stories lurking all around you. This applies to hiking in your proverbial backyard all the way to adventurous travel around the globe. You don’t have to major in geology, ecology, archaeology, or any other “ology,” but picking up knowledge from books, videos, websites, or programs helps enrich your communion with the vibrant world around you.

“Those rich moments of introspection hiking provides can be even more powerful when brains swirl knowledge—such as the long migration journey of the warbler heard or the gnawing grind of history exhibited by the rocks underfoot, with the physical stimulus of wind across sweaty skin, the scent of warm earth, and a beating heart. Mixing the intellectual with the physical moves hiking from an activity to a powerful experience.” —Rex Turner, Outdoor Recreation Planner and Former Park Ranger, Maine State Parks

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