10 Endangered State Parks
They're beautiful, they're close to home, and they're steeped in history. But the best reason to vacation in one of our state parks? They're fast becoming an endangered species.
California's Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve has made big news twice in the past two years. The first time came in December 2010, when scientists thought they'd discovered an unusual form of bacteria that devoured arsenic while it lurked in the mud around the lake's knobby limestone spires. But it was the second headline, five months later, that was really scary. That was when California's state parks department announced that Mono Lake itself was about to be wiped out—though by a far more mundane force.
Mono was one of 70 parks targeted by the state in an effort to cut $22 million from California's budget gap, which totaled $9.2 billion at the time. Also on the list: Jack London's former home and writing studio in Sonoma County and a handful of old-growth redwood forests along the northern coast. All told, California was talking about mothballing about 25 percent of its 278 parks. The news hasn't been much better elsewhere. New York, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Virginia, and Idaho have contemplated closing parks in recent years; Ohio has considered leasing some state park lands for oil and gas drilling to help raise money; and Virginia has explored corporate partnerships to keep park gates open.
What gets lost in this game of budgetary Russian roulette is how precious these lands can be. State parks, such as the ones you'll see here, often rival their national-park cousins in sheer beauty: Did you know that Niagara Falls is actually a New York state park? Last year, the nation's 6,624 state parks attracted 720 million visitors, more than twice what the national parks see, and they do it with almost $1 billion less in annual operating revenue. "Some states have had cuts of 30, 40, 50 percent or more in their operating budgets, and some budgets have been cut twice in one year," says Rich Dolesh, the vice president for conservation and parks at the National Recreation and Park Association.
Yet, true to their more-with-less ethos, state parks are finding imaginative ways to hang on. Michigan has seen some success selling annual passes to its parks system, and other states have made arrangements with communities and nonprofits to share the financial burden—at least for a while. In April 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged $89 million for repairs and improvements to his state's parks. As for California: As of press time, 65 of the 70 endangered parks had been temporarily spared—including Mono Lake—thanks to help from the communities that depend on them. They've cobbled together private donations, volunteer staffing, and funding by city and county governments and nonprofits to try to bridge the gaps. We may not be out of the woods yet, but we're certainly sniffing out the trail.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
This park's namesake tufa towers, limestone formations that rise from its 65-square-mile lake, are impressive from wherever you're standing. But to fully apprecate them, you've got to approach like an osprey might: coming in low over the water. Can't fly? Then bring a canoe. Up close, the spires resemble white-chalk skyscrapers, a kind of surreal city that's visited by more than a million migratory birds each year. Just don't get too close to the ospreys themselves. From April through August, the birds nest on the towers, and it's forbidden to come within 200 yards.
Like anything else this old—the lake has been around for anywhere from 760,000 to 3 million years—Mono Lake endured its share of woe long before the latest California budget struggle. Between 1941 and 1981, Mono lost half its volume and doubled in salinity after four of its five tributaries were diverted to supplement Los Angeles's water supply. Even now, it's almost three times as salty as the ocean. Yet, thanks to the Mono Lake Committee, which rallied to reclaim those lost streams in 1978, the lake is slowly filling up again. And now that the nonprofit Bodie Foundation has stepped in to help keep Mono Lake open to the public, you'll be able to witness the lake's gradual climb back to a healthy level—however long that takes. Let's hope we can say the same for the rest of California's parks.
Where to Stay: There's no camping at Mono Lake, but you'll find a range of accommodations in Mammoth Lakes, a ski town 40 miles south. The pet-friendly Mammoth Creek Inn Hotel and Spa has a new spa and fitness center and 26 renovated rooms (themammothcreek.com, doubles from $109).
While You're There: You can't very well travel to Mono Lake and not tack on a visit to Yosemite National Park, just 13 miles west. Although, with nearly 12,000 square miles to explore, you'll need more than a brief detour to tackle it all (nps.gov, admission $20 per car).