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.
How to Help: Make a donation to the Bodie Foundation, specifying that you'd like the money to go toward Mono Lake (bodiefoundation.org).
Park Info: 1 Visitor Center Drive, Lee Vining, Calif., 760/647-6331, parks.ca.gov, hours vary (call the park in advance to check), admission free, parking $3.
Niagara Falls State Park
Niagara Falls has an image problem. Really. Start with the fact that almost no one knows that this crown jewel of the state park system is a state park—not to mention that, at 127 years old, it's also the nation's oldest. The American side has long played second fiddle to the casino-and-hotel-lined Canadian section, due in part to New York State's $1 billion park-repairs deficit, which has left its falls in desperate need of pedestrian bridges, railings, walkways, and upgraded water and electrical systems. Last year, the New York Times had one word to describe the 400 acres surrounding Niagara: "shabby."
But even in reduced circumstances, Niagara is worth the trip. There's actual nature on the American side—it feels like a park, not a Vegas Strip knockoff. And that nature has a pedigree: The park was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind New York's Central Park. In April, the state launched a $25 million project that will address the park's urgent infrastructure needs as well as restore elements—native plantings, intimate overlooks—outlined in Olmsted's plan. Today, prime viewpoints can be found on Goat Island, which sits between the American and Canadian falls. But the best bang for your buck is the $1 elevator ride up the Observation Tower at Prospect Point, which yields a priceless view from 220 feet. No raincoats necessary.
Where to Stay: The 39-room Giacomo, in a 1929 Art Deco building, opened three years ago with modern furniture and abstract art; rooms also have free Wi-Fi, Keurig coffeemakers, and refrigerators (thegiacomo.com, doubles from $139). The Giacomo is two blocks from the park, and you can see the rapids from the hotel's 19th-floor Skyview Lounge.
While You're There: If you've brought your passport, the Butterfly Conservatory at Canada's Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens is worth a border crossing. Its 2,000 airborne inhabitants (from 45 species) have been known to alight on certain lucky visitors (niagaraparks.com, admission $13, parking $5).
How to Help: Donate to any New York state park via the Natural Heritage Trust (nysparks.com), the Alliance for New York State Parks (allnysparks.org), Parks & Trails New York (ptny.org), or any individual park's website.
Park Info: First St. and Buffalo Ave., Niagara Falls, N.Y., 716/278-1796, nysparks.com, open 24 hours daily, admission free.
Ludington State Park
Michigan's Recreation Passport Program, a $10 annual park pass, has pumped $6 million into the state and local parks system since it launched in 2010. The bad news: Collectively, parks around the state still need more than $300 million in repairs. The roof at Ludington's nature center buckled under heavy snow in 2009, and it still hasn't been fixed. Now the entire building has to be torn down. Sadly, there's no money for that either.
Ludington deserves better. Snug between Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, the nearly 5,300-acre park has seven miles of sandy, dune-strewn beaches, a historic lighthouse you can climb, more than 20 miles of hiking trails (plus paths for biking and cross-country skiing), and the shallow, clear Big Sable River, which is perfect for drifting down in an inner tube. No wonder Ludington has been a Great Lakes-area favorite since it was established 76 years ago.
Where to Stay: Ludington's four campgrounds fill up quickly; reserve campsites six months in advance or cabins and yurts one year out, when openings are posted (midnrreservations.com, camping from $16). You can also try the Lamplighter Bed & Breakfast, an 1892 home with an original oak banister, leaded-glass windows, and a porcelain-tiled fireplace (ludington-michigan.com, doubles from $115).
While You're There: Explore downtown Ludington, a onetime logging-town-turned-beach-retreat, or go further back in time at Historic White Pine Village, two miles south. The site has a collection of 29 restored (or re-created) 19th-century buildings, enhanced with educational exhibits (historicwhitepinevillage.org, adults $9).