Over the past several years, national parks have grown quite popular for vacationers. Of course, the Grand Canyon, the Smoky Mountains and Yosemite have long been popular — and for good reason. But, the growing popularity of national parks across the country has created some challenging issues.
On our honeymoon (29 years ago), we visited the Smoky Mountains during high travel season, and made a side trip to Cades Cove. I absolutely loved the trip back in time to see the cabins and fields of that early settlement. The drive, much of which runs alongside Laurel Creek from Gatlinburg to the historic homestead, is simply gorgeous. We enjoyed the winding drive, pulling off to enjoy the river views.
Cades Cove was uncrowded then, filled with a quiet hush.
These days, a visit to Cades Cove is far different. Crowds crawl along that same roadway at a snail’s pace. Parking is hard to come by, and the sounds of travelers — car engines, impatient car horns, and loud voices just don’t fit this quiet space. It’s not that people shouldn’t visit. This is our history. The humble, solid beginnings of brave homesteaders preserved to remind us of our start as a nation.
I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t visit national parks. But, overcrowded national parks are a reality. In part, I think, because we forget there are other places to see. Visit the national parks to see those things that can’t be seen elsewhere, but…
Go other places!
YES, I said it! Go other places!
The United States is an enormous and geographically diverse nation. I think we forget that state parks offer many of the same benefits that national parks do. Sometimes, they’re even better!
- Most state parks have no admission fees. In contrast, about half the national parks require an entrance fee of $15 to $35 per vehicle.
- Most national parks have significant restrictions on dogs, while most state parks allow dogs on leash.
- There are 10,000 state parks across the country which offer stunning views, great hikes, places to camp and much more — all closer to home and less crowded.
One such park is Ricketts Glen State Park in northeastern Pennsylvania, which provides stunning views, great hiking, rock climbing and camping. I visited Ricketts Glen Park last week and fell in love! It was simply gorgeous.
You’ve never heard of Ricketts Glen?
That’s okay. Neither had I until a few weeks ago.
Ricketts Glen State Park is named after Colonel Robert Ricketts, who served in the Civil War and once owned the property where the park now sits. His heirs sold a large tract to the state in the 1920s, the area approved to be a national park site though it never became one. World War II interrupted and ownership was eventually transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Through the years, the state has acquired more and more land, creating many recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
Recreational activities at Ricketts Glen State Park
I visited Ricketts Glen to explore the waterfall trails, but I discovered that there is much more to do. I honestly can’t wait to go back.
Day visitors to Ricketts Glen can enjoy:
- Hiking trails with waterfalls, 22 of them in fact! There are 21 falls in the Glens Natural Area, all of which can be reached on one long loop hike. Just off Hwy 487 a short walk from the Evergreen Parking area is Adams falls, a 36′ fall that spills into beautiful pools below. It’s an easy, two-minute hike from the lot.
- Picnicking, with charcoal grills available near Lake Jean. The park even provides charcoal disposals to prevent forest fires.
- Swimming, from May to September at Lake Jean. There are no lifeguards and swimming is allowed only in designated areas of the park for your safety.
- Fishing, in Lake Jean, not in the Glens area. All PA fishing laws apply at Ricketts Glen, including license and limits.
- Boating on Lake Jean. Boats, including rowboats, paddleboats, kayaks and canoes, are available for rent if you don’t bring one.
- Hunting in designated areas. The park’s hunting areas are well marked. Pennsylvania hunting laws apply, of course.
- Birding, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The park is home to a wide variety of bird species, including bald eagles. As I hiked the Highland Trail, there were so many singing, I had to pause and listen. Not surprisingly, the park is part of the Audubon Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail. Bring binoculars and take time to listen. You won’t regret it!
- Participate in educational activities at the park.
The park is open year-round, providing opportunities for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing and other winter sports. I want to go back to try ice climbing, which apparently involves guided hikes up the frozen falls. EEK!
Camping at Rickets Glen
When visiting Ricketts Glen, camping overnight is an affordable and fun way to enjoy this beautiful area. The park has 120 tent and trailer campsites with showers and flush toilets. Some sites are available year-round.
Ricketts Glen cabins are also available to meet a variety of camping needs, from basic to deluxe. Some are ADA compliant, and a few are dog friendly.
In fact, that’s another reason Ricketts Glen is a great alternative to national parks, you can bring your dog! Most national parks do not allow dogs (except for service animals).
Crazy story! I went to Ricketts Glen to see it for myself so I could write this post. That evening, my son got to join me — his day off from life as a camp counselor fitting with my schedule. YAY! Guess what? He camped at Ricketts Glen the night before I went! He never saw the falls, as they were there to teach kids about tent camping and stars. Our paths almost crossed in the Pennsylvania Mountains! He says it’s a great place to camp, and highly recommends it. No photos because he’s not allowed to take pictures of his campers with his own phone. Anyway… if you like to camp, this is a great spot. Ben approved!
For more information on camping at Ricketts Glen, click here.
But is it really as good as a national park?
I started this post with a bold statement, suggesting that Ricketts Glen State Park is a good alternative to visiting national parks. I meant it!
Ricketts Glen is known for its waterfall trails, particularly the Ricketts Glen Falls Trail, a strenuous 7+ mile trail that takes you past 21 waterfalls. Some are larger, like Ozone (60′), Erie (47′) and Ganoga (94′). Others are smaller, but still stunning, like Onondaga (15′) and Seneca (12′). I hiked the Highland trail, which wanders through the hemlock forest, through some stunning rock formations and the Midway Crevasse, to the Onondaga Falls. Of hiking trails with waterfalls this one is fairly easy, though the trail gets more difficult as the falls get near. I didn’t have time to complete the whole loop, but I sure will the next time I visit.
The trails at Ricketts Glen Park are well-marked and easy to follow. There are many beautiful areas along the trail, including boulders and rocks, the hemlock trees and, of course, some of the most beautiful waterfalls in PA!
Beyond that, the park was not crowded. I visited on a Tuesday, and there were plenty of places to park in the lots at the trailheads. The bathrooms were clean — yes, I checked! And, so were the trails. No litter. No crowds. Beautiful scenery. And birds.
On the roads leading to Ricketts Glen State Park, I didn’t get caught in bumper to bumper traffic. I did see a few cars and one brave bicyclist.
Further, I didn’t have to pay a national park admission fee or pay for parking.
Really, what else could you want?
I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon (yet), and I understand it’s a view that can’t be put into words. I have been to Half Dome at Yossemite. It’s beautiful.
But, for hiking, camping and waterfalls, give me Ricketts Glen.
You can have the crowds!
Psst! Stop to see Adams Falls
If you don’t have time — or the inclination — to hike to the waterfalls, stop at Adams Falls which is near the Evergreen Trail parking area on PA Route 118. The falls are only a couple minutes from the parking lot down, with easy access by stairs. In three minutes, you’re there!
I stopped at Adams Falls on my way to Tunkhannock (where I stayed that night), and met a mother and son who were sitting on the rocks overlooking the falls, chatting about life as they enjoyed their afternoon. It’s the kind of place where the worries of the world slip away and relaxed conversation can happen.
They said they live about an hour away and enjoy coming up to the falls regularly. It was wonderful to see a mother and her teen enjoying each other’s company. Without crowds and chaos, well…. you know!
Plan your visit to Ricketts Glen
Ricketts Glen State Park is located in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Mountains, about three hours from Philadelphia and less than two hours from State College. If you’re within three hours of the park, it’s worth a day trip!
Pin it to plan your adventure to Ricketts Glen
Further away? Plan a weekend and bring a camera. It’s simply beautiful.
These websites can help you plan your visit:
- The Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau of Northeast Pennsylvania — with resources on where to stay, what to do and even where to eat in the tri-county area.
- The PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources official page for Ricketts Glen — with links to camping reservations, driving directions, park maps and information.
- The PA State Parks reservations website — for easy and direct rental links to camping sites across the state, including Ricketts Glen.
- Hiking 101: Hiking tips for beginners — what to wear, rules of the trail, and safety tips.
So tell me, have I convinced you that state parks — some of them, anyway — can be an answer to the overcrowding problem at national parks? If you have a favorite state park that should be on people’s radar, please leave a comment! Let’s make a list people can use!