21 Ways to Be One With Nature at a Nearby Park This Summer

You don’t have to be an “outdoorsy type” to enjoy everything the exceptional parks within driving distance of Philly have to offer. You just have to know where to look.

A waterfall at Ricketts Glen State Park. Photography by Steve Boyle

Got an itch to get to the great outdoors? You aren’t alone: Around 39 million people visit Pennsylvania state parks each year. (Visits to national parks have increased by 17 percent since 2013.) And really, that makes sense. Parks give us everything we crave today: heart-pumping exercise, head-clearing space, goal-oriented adventures, and a break from our technology. (Off the grid = no reception.) Here, how to get the most out of local parks this summer:

1. Find a Waterfall

Your very own Blue Lagoon
In everyday life, water cascading from on high is to be avoided at all costs. In nature, it’s something to seek out. Ricketts Glen State Park in Benton has an impressive quantity of waterfalls. Head to Falls Trail, a 3.2-mile loop that winds you through stunning rock formations, to see most of the 22 cascades, including the showpiece 94-foot Ganoga Falls. Swimming in the pools isn’t allowed, but expect to be very, very tempted. (A little toe-dip never hurt anyone, right?)

2. Sleep in A Yurt

Jazz up your Insta feed.
Beyond sounding way cool — “What did you do this weekend?” “Oh, just hung out in a yurt” — the teepee-like canvas tents at French Creek State Park in Elverson have cooking stoves, microwaves, fridges, heat, electrical outlets and fire rings. Reserve them online — they get booked up in advance.

3. Have a Picnic

Alfresco options for two or 200
Got a family that loves to throw down? Lums Pond State Park in Bear, Delaware, is your place. Most of the five picnic zones have rentable pavilions, restrooms, charcoal grills, running water and electricity. (Worth noting: There’s a “carry-in/carry-out” trash policy, so bring garbage bags.) If the potato-sack races aren’t keeping the cousins happy, they can play basketball or disc golf or toss horseshoes nearby. If you’ve got young kids in tow, Tyler State Park in Newtown is a fantastic place to eat en plein air. Head to the Boardwalk Picnic area, with a playground, bathrooms, running water and parking, or the Boathouse zone, where the kids can skip rocks in the Neshaminy Creek.

Climbing in Rocks State Park

4. Climb Some Rocks

Do it for the rush — and the views.
Make like a motivational poster and claw your way up a rock. You’ll feel damn proud. If you don’t know what you’re doing, take a class from Northeast Mountain Guiding at Allamuchy Mountain State Park in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Once you’re ready to earn your stripes, drive to Rocks State Park in Jarrettsville, Maryland, for the King and Queen Seat, a rock outcropping that soars 190 feet up — not too shabby for the East Coast, eh? — and has been attracting daredevils since the 1800s. Vertical climbs range from eight feet to 115 feet. If you’re more into the views than the climbing, get to the top by taking the White Trail, a three-mile hike that has some serious elevation but won’t require ropes. And stop at the Falling Branch area, where a waterfall drops into a pool you’re actually allowed to wade in.

5. Tame the Rapids

Pile your crew into a white-water raft.
Lehigh Gorge State Park in White Haven has a wide river that cuts through 900-foot canyon walls, with lots of places to yell “Wheeeeee!” Jim Thorpe River Adventures offers guided group runs that range from “EasyWater” to “BigTime.” Be prepared to spend the day and get wet.

6. Take A Hike

Trails for all ambitions
If your goal is simply to inhale some of nature’s air, the four-mile trail at Ridley Creek State Park in Media is for you: Ramble over gentle hills, past babbling brooks, and under a canopy of trees. Wee ones will get a kick out of the mini waterfalls, streams and climbing rocks along the 2.4-mile Little Falls trail in Promised Land State Park in the Poconos. (With a huge lake, an eagle observation point and fishing, there’s plenty to make a day out of.) If you prefer to get serious (read: wear hiking boots), it’s hard to beat the Glen Onoko Falls hike in White Haven’s Lehigh Gorge State Park. The three-mile loop ascends more than 1,000 feet and takes you past soaring waterfalls. For a hike that’s all about distance, try two in New Jersey. High Point State Park in Sussex leads you to the tallest point in the Garden State (with gorgeous views and not a mall in sight), while Wharton State Forest in Hammonton weaves you through the Pinelands.

Beach camping at Assateague State Park

7. Pitch a Tent

Not your average campgrounds
It’s almost too magical to be true: Maryland’s Assateague State Park, an island in the Atlantic Ocean, is known for the herds of wild horses that roam about. (Beach, horses, taking in a sunrise in your tent … the only thing missing is Fabio.) If you prefer the classic Girl Scout experience, French Creek State Park in Elverson is your jam. It has virtually everything you need in a campground (showers, toilets, power) and want out of a weekend outdoorsy trip (water sports, hiking, playgrounds, fishing). If you’re looking for an actual roof, there are furnished cabins with private bathrooms, too — but they book up quickly.

8. Take a Nap

Where to hang your hammock
Quiet hideaway? Check. Soft sand? Check. Soundtrack of running water, chirping birds and rustling leaves? Check times three. Amico Island Park in Delran is a 55-acre peninsula that juts into the Delaware River and has two beach landings and wooded areas for a little shut-eye. Plus, there are only three short trails, which keeps the crowds at bay.

9. Float

A creek made for a tube
It’s worth the drive to Susquehanna State Park in Havre de Grace, Maryland, where you can plop a tube into Deer Creek and float under shady trees. (Make sure you’re in the right place; don’t try tubing down the expansive Susquehanna!) You’ll have to bring your own tube, and you’ll want to make sure the water level is high. Oh, and no booze is “allowed” (wink).

10. Bike

Wheel your way through the countryside.
You don’t need a closet full of spandex to enjoy a ride. Belleplain State Forest in Woodbine, New Jersey, has an easy nine-mile mountain-biking trail. If you want to make like Forrest Gump and go, the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Wellsboro’s Pine Creek Gorge (often called the “Pennsylvania Grand Canyon”) has 62 miles of crushed-stone pathways that feature views of water and rock outcroppings. (There are plenty of “comfort stations” along the way.) For more of an adrenaline rush, Allamuchy Mountain State Park in Hackettstown, New Jersey, has miles of technical riding suited to those who like rocky climbs, water crossings and log hopping.

11. Play Golf

The kind with Frisbees
Tyler State Park in Newtown has one of the top-ranked disc golf courses in the country. Helpful signs navigate players through the 36 holes, taking you through the woods, up and down hills, and alongside the Neshaminy Creek.

Horseback riding at Gettysburg National Military Park

12. Ride a Horse

For a different perspective
Kick it like it’s 1863 and traverse the grounds of Gettysburg National Military Park via horseback. The two-hour tours, which are operated by Confederate Trails of Gettysburg and led by official battlefield guides, take you down the paths the soldiers took and offer up colorful stories along the way. (Horse-drawn carriage tours are also available, which is kind of cheating, but who are we to judge?)

13. Set Sail

Be captain of the lake.
The 535-acre lake at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown is a hot spot for all sorts of water activities but is especially appealing to sailors, thanks to scenic views and strong winds. Bring your own boat, rent one of their rigs, or take a private 90-minute lesson that’ll having you working the waters like Moana in no time.

14. Catch Some Fish

Hassle-free angling
Do you find standing on Kelly Drive with a line in the Schuylkill a little underwhelming? Try casting off in the shaded streams and lakes at Hickory Run State Park in White Haven, which are stocked with trout. (There are places for wading in the water and standing on the shore.) If you want to fly-fish, head to Ridley Creek State Park in Media, which has top-notch year-round fishing, though it’s all catch-and-release. At Promised Land State Park in the Poconos, the fishing program for kids includes pint-size poles and bait. (Poles can also be borrowed at the park office.) Worth noting: Kids under 16 don’t need a license to fish; everyone else does. PA residents: You can get a one-day ($11.90) or one-year ($22.90) print-at-home license online.

15. Go for A Run

Trails for shaking up the routine
There’s no need to suffer through another lap around the neighborhood. Ridley Creek State Park in Media has a four-mile tree-lined, gloriously flat loop. Go early, because it gets crowded. For more mileage, Brandywine Creek State Park in Wilmington has the Brandywine Valley Trail, which is part of a 10.4-mile creek-side, river-edging and forest-lined running path.

16. Play With The Kids

Go beyond the playground
Let’s make some real childhood memories, people. Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park has a two-acre play area full of recycled tires for kids to climb on, through and over. You can also catch the Saw Mill Branch trail here — a moderate hike on which you’ll have to hop rocks to cross the stream, just like Huck Finn. For something a little more unusual, head to Bucks County’s Ringing Rocks County Park in Upper Black Eddy, which is endowed with a moon-like field of boulders that ring like bells when whacked with a hammer. (It’s BYO hammer.) For inspiration minus the sweat equity, you can take a ski lift up Camelback Mountain at Big Pocono State Park in Stroudsburg. There’s a restaurant at the top, too.

Lake Jean in Ricketts Glen State Park

17. Take a Dip

Ocean, lake or pool? Your call.
Parvin State Park in Pittsgrove Township, New Jersey, has tree-ringed Parvin Lake, with lifeguards, a concession stand, bathrooms and canoe rentals. Over in Ricketts Glen State Park in Benton, there’s Lake Jean, which has a 600-foot beach for post-swim sunning. More of an ocean person? Don’t miss Lewes’s Cape Henlopen State Park, which edges the Atlantic. Follow signs to McBride Beach Bathhouse. Prefer your water chlorinated? Downingtown’s Marsh Creek State Park has a giant pool and splash zone smack-dab in the middle of nature. Just go early or be prepared to fend off the crowds.

18. Learn Something New

Mother Nature cares about your brain, too.
There are 28 miles of trails, endless greenways and a river in KOP’s Valley Forge National Historical Park, but let’s be honest: The real draw is the history. Take a trolley tour of the many sites scattered along a 10-mile path, work your way through the “secrets and spies” mystery that starts at Washington’s HQ, or plop down to hear a tale at one of the storytelling benches.

19. Swing, Zip And Rappel

Make like the Lost Boys.
Lums Pond State Park in Bear has a high-ropes course, run by Go Ape Treetop Adventure, with rope ladders, Tarzan swings and five zip lines, four of which are — gasp! — over water.

20. Canoe

Paddle around with a group.
You’ll find multiple rivers — the Mullica, Batsto, Wading and Oswego — in Wharton State Forest in Hammonton. Pineland Adventures, located right in the park, can rent you a canoe, point you in the right direction, or take you on a tour complete with history and a lunch break.

21. Kayak or Stand-Up Paddleboard

Paddle around on your own.
The placid seven-mile-long lake in Quakertown’s Nockamixon State Park has many launch points and on-site single or double kayak

» See also:
The Insider’s Guide to French Creek State Park
The Insider’s Guide to Marsh Creek State Park
The Insider’s Guide to Cape Henlopen State Park

Published as “Park It!” in the June 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.