Dreaming about your next active vacation but don't want to empty your wallet? Then I’ve got two words for you: state parks. In my view, these are the most overlooked destinations out there. Where else can you get lodging for your whole family for around $100 a night (sometimes a bit more, but often a lot less) with beautiful places to hike, canoe, kayak, swim, and bike, not to mention free nature programs and the best stargazing around?
And I'm not talking tents here (though you can certainly pitch those if you enjoy roughing it). Many parks offer cabins that, amenity-wise, range from bare bones (beds, table, chairs, and fire pit for cooking, with bathrooms and showers a short stroll away) to so well-stocked (bedding, dishes, full kitchen with microwave and refrigerator, shower, heat/AC, fireplace) you'd think you were crashing at a well-off friend's rustic summer home. (Either way, you'll need to bring your own food.)
In recent years I’ve met up with my best friend, Bren, at state parks throughout Alabama and Georgia (our two current home states) for girls’ weekends filled with some of the best hiking I've had the pleasure to experience. (A shout-out here to DeSoto State Park in northeast Alabama's Little River Canyon, whose riverside and waterfall-studded trails are not to be missed.) For two summers in a row, my husband, daughter, and I stayed with my dad at Grand Isle State Park in Vermont; we managed to snag the cabin with the private beach and spent the week swimming, kayaking, and picking black raspberries. And this past summer, some college friends and my little familial trio rented three cabins side by side in the same park. It cost each family about $100 for two nights. You can’t beat that.
So pick a part of the country you've always wanted to visit—or stay close to home if you're looking for a more convenient getaway—and reserve a cabin online at that particular state's parks website. (Find it easily by typing the state name and "state park" into your favorite search engine.) And take my advice: Do it now. Like most secrets, this one's bound to get out.