State parks are Pennsylvania’s ‘welcome mat’
My son Brook pulled his family car into western Maryland’s Swallow Falls State Park and was greeted with a toll both. The weekday state park entry fee – $5 per person — not per vehicle. Our van was next. Veterans and youngsters in a car seat were free, but that still set us back $35 for our families to spend less than two hours walking a trail to see three waterfalls. And to top it off, the restrooms were out of order.
State park entry fees are not new to me. I have paid them before in other states – however, they had always been per-vehicle fees. In Delaware, for example, you pay $10 for an out-of-state vehicle to enter any ocean park, $8 for an inland park. New York’s prices are about the same. None of these fees are budget busters, but I imagine that they make some families think twice before heading to a state park for a picnic.
While I was in Cleveland on business a number of years ago, it was nice to be able to spend time in a nearby state park for free. Entry to all 74 Ohio state parks doesn’t cost a dime.
Like Ohio, Pennsylvania is one of the few states that charges no entry fee to state park users. The Keystone State has 121 state parks — some big, some small.
State parks have so many different things to offer. You can paddle a kayak through a sea of water lilies at Black Moshannon, and fish for bass, crappies, catfish and bluegills at Bald Eagle. Visit a restored caboose and grist mill at Little Buffalo. Why not explore history at Greenwood Furnace or Canoe Creek? Camp or cast a line into two excellent trout streams at Poe Paddy. Experience the opening day of trout season on Poe Lake. Hike the Butterfly Trail or check out the birds around Frog Pond at Bald Eagle. Visit Balanced Rock at Trough Creek. Sample part of a large bog complex from the accessible Bog Trail boardwalk at Black Moshannon. View elk at Kettle Creek.
This is just the start. A few individuals have taken up the challenge in the Pennsylvania State Parks and Forests Passport and visited all 121 state parks. I feel fortunate to have experienced many, but not all. Of course, I have favorites out of the 41 that I have visited. It is hard to beat seeing 22 named waterfalls while hiking the rugged trails in the Glens Natural Area at Ricketts Glen State Park (Luzerne County). Another favorite is walking through the old-growth white pines and hemlocks at Cook Forrest State Park (Clarion County).
Kinzua Bridge State Park is steeped with family memories. My father first took my brother John and me to see this amazing 301-foot-tall railroad bridge. It was a thrill for us young boys to walk to the middle of the bridge and peer at the forested valley floor below. When the bridge was constructed in 1882, it was the longest and tallest railroad bridge in the world. At the time I first visited (about 1961), it was in the wilds of McKean County and not yet a state park.
I visited the bridge twice after it became a park in 1963. Unfortunately, most of the 2,130 foot-long bridge collapsed during a freak storm in 2003. The remaining bridge towers were turned into the Kinzua Skywalk and reopened to the public in 2011.
State parks and forests became even more important for outings following the arrival of COVID-19. However, due to the pandemic shutdown as well as limited Department of Conservation and Natural Resources budgets, our parks have a large backlog of infrastructure needs that should be addressed.
State park entry fees have been proposed, but along with the income those fees would bring, DCNR would need to spend money on toll booths, people to staff those booths and extra park rangers to enforce the law.
I am not opposed to pay-as-you-go user fees. Drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike — pay tolls. Hunt, fish — you need a license with the money supporting those agencies. However, as a big user of our state parks, I am glad that they remain free.
Another funding solution would be tapping into Pennsylvania’s remaining $125 million in the American Rescue Plan funds. A recent survey of likely Pennsylvania voters found that 67 percent agreed with this proposal — using some of this money for improvements to state parks and state forests. Two bills, SB 525 and HB 2020, would address these needs. If you agree, please let your elected representatives know how you feel.
I hope that we can keep Pennsylvania’s state parks free — for both residents as well as for out-of-state visitors. Afterall, they are “Pennsylvania’s welcome mat.”