Let’s celebrate our parks!

Let’s say you don’t have time for a vacation this year but you want to take some day-trips without spending a whole lot of money. Here’s my suggestion.

Try Pennsylvania’s state parks. Our award-winning network covers 300,000 acres and offers recreational opportunities throughout the state.

Of the 121 parks that comprise our system, you’ll be sure to find several within driving distance of your own back door.

This is the 125th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s state parks. To see how far we’ve come, it helps to look at a little history.

By the end of the 19th century, it was becoming clear that industrialization was stripping the state of its natural resources. The forests that gave the state its name had been virtually denuded. Lakes and streams were polluted, soils depleted, and animal life deprived of its cover and driven in some cases to extinction.

Citizens became alarmed and began pushing for restoration. In 1893 a bill was signed that established the state Forestry Commission. One of its first acts was to purchase 7,500 acres in our own Clinton County to be used to “furnish timber, protect the water supply of Young Woman’s Creek, and provide recreation for citizens.”

Thus began decades of hard work to restore the state’s natural beauty and environmental health. Gradually more and more land was set aside in the form of state parks for reforestation and for wildlife and water protection, with the understanding that such protected habitats would not only provide recreational opportunities but would enhance the health and well-being of Pennsylvania’s residents.

We’ve done so well that in 2009 our system was given the National Gold Medal Award declaring our parks the best in the nation, the highest honor a park system can receive. We can take enormous pride in the fact that Pennsylvania has worked successfully to protect some of the most spectacular natural resources in the country.

Our system hosts over 35 million visitors a year. And my friends and I are among them. A couple of years ago, we decided we wanted to visit every state park within our system.

At each new park, we have our “passport” books stamped and ask to be directed to the spots that are not to be missed. We’ve made it now to 40, so we’re a third of the way toward our goal.

We started with the parks closest to home, but now we’re ranging farther afield, which sometimes gives us the opportunity to stay overnight in a part of the state we haven’t yet explored. Here are some highlights.

Our parks bear witness to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Look for the charming stone pavilions at Black Moshannon and the rustic cabins and CCC museum at Parker Dam.

They offer special places to let the spirit soar. Enjoy the “big view'” of the Susquehanna River’s West Branch from the overlook at Hyner View. Or look out at the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania from the vistas at World’s End.

They feature waterfalls that are not to be missed. Ricketts Glen, a national natural landmark, has 22 named waterfalls, and Trough Creek features the wonderfully photogenic Rainbow Falls located on the other side of a delightful suspension bridge.

They offer the peace of the deep forest. A one-mile trail loops through “The Shrouded Forest” at R.B. Winter, a protected natural area that was last logged in 1850. And at Cook Forest State Park, visitors can experience the wonder of old-growth pines and hemlocks, some of which are 350 to 450 years old.

Our parks provide fascinating glimpses of the past. Walk the boardwalk at Oil Creek and learn about that early community’s frontier struggles as we tried to make sense of and keep ahead of the boom.

And stop at Greenwood Furnace to see remains of the iron-making community that flourished there in the 19th century.

They feature biking and hiking trails designed to accommodate everyone, from beginner to experienced adventurer.

Try out the 15 miles of trails at Blue Knob or the opportunities to mountain bike at Yellow Creek. Or hike the trails at Poe Valley that connect to the Mid-State Trail as well as to the network of trails in the Bald Eagle State Forest.

And finally, the parks’ lakes and rivers offer opportunities for fishing and paddling, whether angling for trout during the mayfly hatch at Poe Paddy or taking an early-morning kayak paddle to look for bird life along the shore of our own Bald Eagle Lake.

As I recall my own experience at our state parks, I think about the way the cares of the day slip away as my kayak is lowered into the water, or as I set off with my walking stick into the woods, or as we prepare a slow meal that always seems especially delicious when it’s eaten outdoors.

And I’m grateful that I live in Pennsylvania where we have a constitutionally-protected right to “clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

Our parks’ green spaces, protected and preserved through hard work and constitutional right, are gifts that offer innumerable benefits, including enhanced health and peace of mind.

They’re beautiful. They’re relaxing. They’re fun.

And they’re free. Let’s go!

The aforementioned list of parks is by no means inclusive. Go to www.dcnr.pa.gov/stateparks for further information.

Karen Elias retired from teaching college English and is now a Lock Haven-based freelance writer. Email her at eliaskaren100@gmail.com.