UNDER CONSTRUCTION. This will be replaced with the updated version in the next few months.
Kinds of Outdoor Recreation Facilities
There are many kinds of places to hike, and a huge variety of facilities, information, and experiences you can have in each one. On this page, I'll provide a description of the kinds of facilities you are likely to find in various types of parks, reserve lands, commercial facilities, and private property.
This information applies to the United States, pretty much. Hey, I'm telling you what I know! I have limited experience hiking outside the U.S., so I won't pretend to be an expert outside my home country.
Some national and state parks preserve historical sites rather than natural places. Here, I'm mainly talking about the nature-centered parks.
State parks are more varied than national parks, running the gamut from rudimentary to fully developed. They vary from state to state, and even within a given state. Much of the variation is related to popularity and funding. The places where everyone wants to go are generally well developed with lodging and dining facilities, paved trails and such, while the more out-of-the-way places are almost in their natural condition.
State park and recreation departments have the same conflicting missions as the National Park Service - to preserve and to make accessible. Generally a state has one set of rules for all its parks, but policing and enforcement is inversely related to popularity. For instance, I've never seen a park ranger on the Mount Willard Trail, but it seems there's a ranger around every curve of the trail to The Basin.
Again, the rules exist for good reason, and the uneven monitoring and enforcement also exists for good reason. If everyone who visits The Basin steps over the guardrail to get a closer look, the edges of the pool would be denuded of vegetation and would quickly erode. On the other hand, if everyone who hikes up Mount Willard climbs down the rock face a little way to see the stunted birch trees, there's very little impact because there are so few visitors.
Many state park facilities control access to back-country areas and to very popular sites on a reservation or permit basis, just as the national parks do. Find out before you go! Check your local library or your state's park service Web site to find out about facilities, permits, and reservations.
Most state parks have access fees which are usually considerably less than the national park fees. Many of the less-visited parks are free during the off-season. Camping fees vary widely, depending on the state and the amenities offered, but they are generally slightly less than the fees at national parks.
State park systems do not have any kind of unified fee or permit system with the National Park Service or the National Forests, which sometimes seems confusing. For example, when I camp in Crawford Notch State Park, I automatically have a permit to any fee areas with the park (or, indeed, within any New Hampshire state park), but not to the adjacent White Mountain National Forest. So when I hike up Mount Jackson, much of the trail is within the state park, but I still have to pay for a National Forest pass.
National Forests, under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, run the full gamut. Some facilities are almost indistinguishable from national parks in their amenities, accessibility, and suitably natural condition. Some are truly untouched wilderness with no trails, no roads, and no facilities at all. You will also find commercial activities operating under permit, including mining, logging, livestock grazing, and fully developed ski areas. Most of these permits and concessions give the operators control over access to the national forest, so don't assume that you are free to hike there just because the land is owned by the USDA National Forest.
Apart from commercial concessions and designated special use areas, the National Forests are pretty much the "wild west." Hike where you feel like, camp where you feel like, and do whatever seems appropriate. Of course, there are still regulations regarding hunting and fishing. The special use areas may also prohibit gathering wild fruits, flowers, and mushrooms and such.
Be aware of where you are in the national forest, as the rules may change in the course of your hike. Special use areas are fairly clearly marked, so pay attention to the signs. For example, in the White Mountain National Forest, there are special restrictions on where you may camp in any designated "alpine zone." The only unequivocal way to know when you are entering and leaving the "alpine zone" is to read the signs, and the only way to be sure you'll see the signs is to stay on the trails.
Access fees for national forest areas vary from none at all to nominal. There may be some highly popular and highly developed areas that charge higher fees, but I haven't found any. Fees for camping typically range between those for state parks and those for national parks.
Despite the nominal access fees, it still might be worth your while to consider an annual pass. There are annual passes that cover a particular forest, a particular region, or the Interagency Annual Pass, which allows access to all national forests and all national parks. These passes cover access only, and do not include permits for camping or other special-fee services.
As with the national parks, you may be eligible for free access if you are a senior citizen or disabled.
City parks can range from simply playgrounds and lawns to surprisingly peaceful and natural places. Larger city parks may include all of these kinds of places within a single park. Nashua, New Hampshire's Mine Falls Park is a classic example, encompassing swing sets and jungle gyms, boat ramps, ponds, a river, and a beautiful expanse of forest and natural swampland, all within the second largest city in the state.
Generally, because of heavy usage, any hiking trails in city parks are well maintained and clearly marked. They will usually include improvements like bridges over watercourses and muddy areas.
Camping is out, with no exceptions that I am aware of. Most city parks do not allow people in the parks after dark. Many permit cooking in designated fire pits and grills, but don't expect to light a campfire in a city park.
Access to city parks is free, and in many cases, well worth it.
Don't overlook the city park as an opportunity to get out into the woods and watch the birds and wildlife. It's not the splendid near-wilderness you'll find in a state or national park, but for most people, you can get there with far less travel time. In my own case, I don't have time to go to the White Mountains every weekend, but I can jog through the woods every morning in the spring and summer, or take an hour to watch the birds after work almost any day.
Other Public Reserve Lands
Many states and municipalities have other kinds of reserve lands that are not parks, but are protected from development and available to hikers. Generally, the difference between these lands and parks is that parks have some kind of staff and facilities, while other reserve lands are undeveloped and unstaffed.
There are both good and bad consequences of the undeveloped and unstaffed nature of these reserves. On the one hand, they are often left in a thoroughly natural state and visited only by people with a genuine interest in the natural world, and by fairly few people. On the other hand, the lack of staff sometimes means that they serve as a haven for illicit activities and attract uncaring and belligerent visitors.
In considering hiking on a non-park reserve land, take a look at the condition of the place. Litter and trampled vegetation invariably indicate the kind of place you really don't want to go.
Commercial Recreation Facilities
Commercial outdoor or natural recreation facilities run an even wider spectrum of quality and preservation of nature than any public park or reservation. Of course, they tend farther into the over-developed carnival atmosphere than the parks do. You can usually tell from the promotional literature whether this is a place you want to bother with.
I know of a few excellent commercial facilities, especially concessions on national forests and similar facilities. The terms of the concession restrict just how much the operator can develop the area. One fine example is the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia. There is a pay-to-enter museum, a canoe rental with a nicely built boat basin and launch ramp, the canals themselves (a failed land-development enterprise dating back to the 19th century), and not much else. It provides convenient and high-quality access to a natural area, much as a national park might do.
There are other places - you see their signs along the highways for miles - that go to the other extreme. Wade through the crowds, try to ignore the vendors of souvenirs and snacks drowning out any semblance of natural ambience. If you're lucky, you might find the natural attraction - cave, unusual rock formation, or whatever - that gave rise to all the nonsense around you.
In recent decades, an interesting phenomenon has developed where the operators of ski areas use their lifts - especially enclosed gondolas - in summer to transport people to the tops of the mountains to enjoy the outdoors. I haven't done this myself, but from what I've heard, such places seem to be well worth the trip, especially for those with mobility problems who otherwise might not be able to enjoy a mountaintop. I've even heard that one particular ski area in New Hampshire is the best place to see bears in summer.
Look at the literature carefully, and try to place the attraction you're considering on the scale from Suwannee Canal to "Carnival Cavern," and decide whether it's worth checking out.
Naturally, the fees for such facilities are higher than you'll find at publicly owned parks and such. And there are fees for everything, from access to parking to using the toilet. Plan your trip carefully, and expect to pay more than you first thought.
Farms, woodlots, and other undeveloped lands can be excellent places to hike. There are no facilities, of course, but these are places where you wouldn't expect to spend too much time anyway. Be sure to introduce yourself to the landowner and find out if you are permitted to hike there. Many farmers and other private landowners lease their land to hunting clubs and such, and they may not be able to allow you to hike on their land, especially in certain seasons.
There are also private reserve lands that are set aside for outdoor recreation, but that are not really commercial enterprises. (Frankly, I wasn't sure where to put this type of hiking place. For a good example of the kind of place I'm referring to, see my page about Beaver Brook.) Such private but not-for-profit operations not only offer private outdoor recreation activities, but many opportunities to share the outdoors with others, taking guided nature walks, etc. They are usually also eager to have people volunteer to help. You can help clean up after the thoughtless, maintain trails, and maybe even guide a few hikes yourself. Thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers, many of these private trusts offer the same quality of trails and trail guides as you might find in a national park, but with a much more homey kind of feel to the experience.
Most of these private lands do not charge an access fee, but they nearly all solicit donations.