In stunning natural areas of the United States, they provide resort-like rooms with a view at a surprisingly low price
Sometimes you find travel's biggest bargains all but hidden right under your nose. I did when I belatedly discovered a few years ago that I could vacation cheaply in cozy cabins and lodges in several state parks not far from my home. Now I'm convinced they are America's best budget-priced rooms with a view. Since then, I've checked into park lodges in West Virginia, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Alabama, among others. But even I was surprised to learn that more than half the states-my unofficial count is 32-maintain similar accommodations for locals and visitors alike.
I've always been a big fan of the country's famed national park lodges, such as Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone and Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon. But there aren't very many of them, and most are located in the West. For many of us, state park lodges and cabins are closer to home. Not only are they convenient-one reason I rank them as "best"-they occupy some of the prettiest places in the state.
I live not far from ruggedly beautiful West Virginia, home to nine parks with inviting, well-maintained lodges. Five of the parks, boasting 18-hole golf courses, qualify as "resorts." Nineteen parks offer cabins that can house entire families.
When I want to get away, I head for the 54-room Lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park. Its guest amenities-including a good restaurant-rival those of a national park lodge, and the views are almost as spectacular. Wrapped in dense woods, it clings to the edge of the deep canyon of the Blackwater River. In the summer, I go to hike, horseback ride, and swim in the nearby lake. In winter, I ski cross-country trails or soak in the heated indoor pool. The easy tab: just $80 a night for two in peak season.
Neighboring Virginia maintains an impressive collection of state park cabins. My favorite park, because it seems so remote and wild, is 4,493-acre Douthat State Park set deep in the Allegheny Mountains. Outdoorsy families come here to fish, hike, canoe, and swim, staying in 32 fully equipped cabins tucked into shady woods. The easy tab: $76 a night for two or $455 for a week.
State information offices can provide details on reserving park lodge rooms and cabins. To get you on your way, here are ten states offering some of the best park accommodations. (Listed are beginning rates for two people during the summer. Weekends may be slightly higher.)
Mountain Fun I'm a hiker, so Blackwater Falls State Park (54 lodge rooms, $80)-one of nine parks in West Virginia with lodges-keeps me returning. Mountain biking on old forest-service roads is also a big deal here. Elsewhere, check into Canaan Valley Resort State Park (250 rooms, $89) for golf. Greens fees are just $35 per person for 18 holes. Stonewall Resort (198 rooms, $109), located in Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park, the state's newest, features a full-service spa. Raft the New River from Pipestem Resort State Park (142 rooms, $77). Nineteen parks offer cabins. Info: 800/225-5982, wvstateparks.com.
Historical Gems Like West Virginia, Alabama operates what it calls six "resort" state parks. Most have swimming pools; four boast 18-hole golf courses. When I visited, historical sightseeing was on my agenda. Near Lakepoint Resort State Park (101 rooms, $60), I sought out Tuskegee Institute National Historical Site, where in 1881 Booker T. Washington founded a school for rural African-Americans. I also toured Russell Cave National Monument, an archaeological site north of Lake Guntersville State Park (100 rooms, $62) where Native Americans camped more than 10,000 years ago. Eleven parks offer cabins. Info: 800/252-7275, dcnr.state.al.us.
On the Lake Idyllic is an overused word, but it's the one that best describes three Virginia state parks where you can rent a cabin by a lake. Douthat (32 cabins, $76), as I said above, is my favorite. But two oddly named parks aren't far behind. Fairy Stone State Park (24 cabins, $68) is named for the little cross-shaped stones found in profusion there. High, forested hills ring Fairy Stone Lake like the protective walls of a castle. Hungry Mother State Park (20 cabins, $89), draped at the foot of mountain ridges, recalls a tragic legend of pioneer hardship. Ten parks offer cabins. Info: 800/933-7275, dcr.state.va.us.
Wild Water I was introduced to Kentucky's park lodges at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park's DuPont Lodge (52 rooms, $74), where-just steps from the lodge-you can splash down the Cumberland River for five miles on a wild water raft ($55). In all, Kentucky operates lodges in 17 parks, all of which provide a swimming pool, a lakeside beach, or both. Eight offer 18-hole golf courses, including Pine Mountain State Resort Park (30 rooms, $74), set atop a mountain overlooking Kentucky Ridge State Forest. Greens fees are a bargain: $25 weekdays/$30 weekends per person, including a cart. Sixteen parks offer cabins called "cottages." Info: 800/255-7275, kystateparks.com.
By the Beach A yurt is a circular, domed tent, and there's no bathroom. So it really doesn't qualify as a cabin. But Oregon's yurts are the next best thing; also, they're cheap and most are beautifully situated on the beach. Spend a week yurt-hopping down the coast from Fort Stevens State Park (15 yurts) in the north to Harris Beach State Park (six yurts) in the south. Bring sleeping bags.
Currently 180 yurts can be reserved in 19 state parks, 14 on the coast. They rent for $27 to $29 a night, sleeping up to five people. Each comes equipped with bunk beds for three, a pullout futon for two, a lockable wood door, electricity, heating, and a skylight. At many, hot showers are a few steps away. Info: 800/452-5687, oregonstateparks.org.
Great Plains South Dakota's premier park is Custer State Park, where the famed Black Hills rise out of the Great Plains. It offers 82 rooms in four lodges and 107 cabins. At the 68-room State Game Lodge, rates begin at $80. Three other parks also feature lodges.
The state's best bargains are its log-style camping cabins (similar to yurts) located in 27 state parks. Sleeping four, they provide electricity but no private bathrooms. Rates are $32 to $37 a night. Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, which has 13 cabins, is a favorite of water skiers. Lodge info: 605/773-3391, state.sd.us. Camping cabins: 800/710-2267, campsd.com.
Woodland Comforts Eight Ohio state parks maintain modern lodges with adjacent cabins called cottages. Rates begin at $75. Some parks have cheaper rates for yurts, tepees, and camping cabins.
Among the resort parks, Burr Oak Resort (60 rooms/30 cottages, $75) sits atop a wooded hill overlooking Burr Oak Lake. Hardy guests hike the 22-mile trail circling the lake; most relax at the glass-enclosed pool. Info: 800/282-7275.
Red-Rock Spires Indulge me here. Only one Utah state park, Kodachrome Basin, provides cabins-and it has only six. But the park, set in the heart of red-rock canyon country, is so scenically spectacular and the modern cabins at $65 are such a bargain that I can't leave them out. Go for the views, horseback riding, and hiking. I like the Panorama Trail, an easy three-mile path that wanders among red-rock spires. Beautiful Bryce Canyon National Park is just down the road. Info: 435/679-8536, brycecanyoninn.com.
Island Adventure Arkansas operates four state park lodges, the largest of which-DeGray Lake Resort State Park (96 rooms, $83)-occupies a slender island on DeGray Lake. In the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, the 13,800-acre lake is a water playground with sandy swimming beaches and a full-service marina. Join a park interpreter on a snorkeling trip or sunset cruise, or play 18 holes of golf. The island is linked to the mainland by a causeway. Eight of the state parks offer cabins. Info: 888/287-2757, arkansasstateparks.com.
Misty Ridges At dawn, when misty clouds climb the forested ridges of Brown County State Park, you might think you were in the Great Smoky Mountains. The park's Abe Martin Lodge (84 rooms, $69), appropriately rustic in wood and stone, is one of seven park lodges in Indiana. Hiking and horseback riding draw the athletic. Arts lovers browse the crafts galleries of nearby Nashville, Indiana. Ten parks offer cabins. Lodge info: 877/563-4371, state.in.us. Cabins: 866/622-6746.