It’s a question as old as the first national park itself – what the hell is the difference between a national park and a state forest? 

Both have trees, most have campgrounds, but the purpose of each and the rules surrounding them are drastically different – and sometimes you find them side by side! Let’s unpack what makes each unique and what adventures can be had in both state forests and national parks. 

What is a national park?

Ultimately a national park is an area of land that’s been declared environmentally or culturally significant and is granted government protection and preservation. This may be because it’s home to a unique ecosystem, an abundance of native flora or fauna, a specific species not found elsewhere, cultural sites, whether Indigenous or colonial, or a striking and significant natural landscape. 

National parks are created as an indication of the land’s national significance and for the enjoyment of everyone. They’re protected from urban development, land clearing, mining, invasive species and other factors that would damage the area and its flora and fauna.

Who manages national parks?

I’ve always found the term ‘national park’ to be a confusing one, as each state and territory has its own government department that manages its corresponding national parks.

In Australia we’ve got; 

There’s only a handful of national parks that are nationally managed by the Commonwealth through a department called Parks Australia. These include; 


Exploring Uluru in the van, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park | @elishadonkin


So although national parks are for national heritage and enjoyment, most of them are created, managed, and conserved by each individual state and territory. 

National park departments also often strive to work in conjunction with the Traditional Custodians of the land on which national parks fall. This may be through consultation and management of culturally significant and sacred sites, best caretaking practices for the land, and other decision making including the naming of national parks. 

In some cases, the Traditional Custodians are the main caretakers of the land, like in Kakadu National Park and soon to be in the Daintree National Park too. 

What can I do in national parks?

As a national park’s primary purpose is to conserve and protect the environment, history, culture, flora and fauna, not all outdoor activities are permitted there. Any campgrounds, walking trails, or other official activities, have been specifically and carefully created with the surrounding nature in mind. 

It’s incredibly important to stick to the designated areas for public use while in a national park, as spots outside of these may be fragile. 

Some specific national parks do allow off-track hiking and camping, for example Kosciuszko National Park, however this is rare and relies on Explorer’s having apt knowledge of the area, Leave No Trace principles, and safety measures. 

Generally, national parks are beautiful places for camping, hiking, swimming, wildlife and bird watching, 4WDing, kayaking, mountain biking, and in some national parks – snow or ocean activities!

They’re also usually full of scenic picnic areas, lookouts, and sometimes a really beautiful road begging you to drive it. 

Some national parks also have a range of facilities on offer, like guided tours, visitors centres, cafes, and equipment hire, but this differs depending on the size, location, and popularity of the park.

What is a state forest?

State forests are a bit more of a mixed bag. A state forest isn’t a declared protected area in the same way a national park is. In fact, a state forest may not even be a native forest, but a plantation instead. 

A state forest is crown land that’s been set aside either for environmental conservation and recreation, timber production, or sometimes both. 

Some state forests have campgrounds and walking trails for public use, others are simply for growing certain kinds of trees, knockin’ em down, turning them into stuff and replanting them again.


The Best Day Trips From Melbourne, Arden Haar, Toolangi State Forest, trees, ferns, forest, mist

Toolangi State Forest, VIC | @_ardenhaar

Who manages state forests?

State forests are also managed state-by-state, (a bit more obvious that one) but not necessarily by a government department. 

The management of state forests differs in every state and territory, with some governments contracting sole, or multiple commercial companies to manage different aspects of the forests and government departments, sometimes the national parks or environment departments, responsible for other aspects. 

For example, Forestry Corporation NSW is the main commercial manager of NSW’s state forests for both recreation, preservation, and timber production, while Victoria’s state forests are jointly managed between VIC Forests & Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Parks Victoria. Yeah, it can get confusing. 

In Australia, we’ve got;

(The management groups for NT and ACT state forests prove particularly tricky to track down.)

What can I do in a state forest?

State forests don’t have the same environmental protections as national parks, which means different activities are allowed. 

For example, if you’re looking for dog friendly camping spots, a state forest is the place to go. Dogs aren’t prohibited from entering state forests like they are in national parks, so are often popular with families and other people who want their four-legged friend to be part of the holiday. 

Read more: Dog Friendly Adventures Around Australia


rebecca d'arcy, wingello state forest, dog, camping, dog friendly walks

Wingello State Forest, NSW | Photo by Rebecca D’arcy


On the other hand, hunting is permitted in some state forests. It’s not a free-for-all, with time and area restrictions in place, and hunters are of course required to have a valid licence and written permission to do so. But some state forests allow it and there’ll be signs saying so. 

On top of camping and hiking, state forests are also popular places for 4WDing, mountain biking, horse riding, trail bike riding, fossicking, rock climbing, foraging, and fishing. They offer the opportunity to take part in a variety of activities that national parks don’t allow. 

However you should also be aware that state forests are work sites, with machinery and trucks often moving throughout, and areas and roads closed at times due to work taking place. Signs will be out to let you know what’s going on, but this may minimise the serenity juuuust a little bit, so it’s worth checking the relevant website before heading out.

State Forests Worth a Visit

Some state forests don’t provide any recreational facilities for the public as they’re exclusively for timber production, however there are plenty of state forests worth exploring with stunning campgrounds and little-known swim spots and hikes. 

State Forests of NSW

  • Yadboro State Forest 
  • Meryla State Forest
  • Cumberland State Forest
  • Belangalo State Forest

State Forests of VIC

  • Tallarook State Forest
  • Tarago State Forest
  • Pyrenees State Forest
  • Toolangi State Forest

State Forests of QLD

  • Beerburrum and Beerwah State Forests
  • Benarkin State Forest
  • Cordalba State Forest
  • Imbil State Forest

What about other kinds of protected land?

When it comes to land set aside for recreation and protection, there’s way more than just national parks and state forests. With differing titles comes different levels of protection offered to these areas, and for different reasons.

For example, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing some areas that are not national parks at all, but are still of environmental, historical, or cultural significance and need to be protected. 

You might find;

  • Nature Reserves
  • Regional Parks
  • State Conservation Areas
  • Aboriginal Areas
  • Historic Sites
  • Karst Conservation Reserves
  • Community Conservation Areas
  • Wilderness
  • Wild Rivers
  • Flora Reserves
  • Assets of Intergenerational Significance
  • Coastal Parks
  • State Parks
  • Marine Sanctuary
  • World Heritage Area

In one way or another, these areas have all been declared of national significance and deserving of protection. Some are specific to the type of landscape being protected while others are more about the cultural or historical value of the area. Some of these areas have slightly more relaxed rules surrounding recreation, for example some regional parks allow dog walking, which is prohibited in all national parks. 


Sand Dunes and Lunch Views at Dark Point Aboriginal Place, Joelle Barallon, sand dune, beach, clouds, hike, 4WD, cars, ocean

Dark Point Aboriginal Place, NSW | @curious.joe

FAQs About National Parks and State Forests

Can you camp in state forests?

Yes, you can camp in some state forests, but this will differ state to state.

Currently in NSW, camping is permitted in all state forests, with the exception of Cumberland and Strickland State Forests. There are 34 state forests with designated campgrounds which often accommodate tents, camper trailers and some allow caravans. 


Yadboro State Forest, NSW

Can dogs go to state forests?

Yes, dogs are allowed in most state forests but it depends on the state or territory.

Dogs are allowed in all NSW and VIC state forests (except Murrindindi Scenic Reserve), but this may not be the case in every Australian state and territory.

Are state forests crown land?

Yes, state forests are crown land that’s used for a combination of timber production, conservation, and recreation.

Can you hunt in state forests?

Yes, some state forests allow hunting, but not all and it will depend on the state or territory you’re in as well as current closures.

Currently in NSW, there are over 200 state forests where hunting is permitted. This may change depending on risks and closures. In NSW, hunters are required to have a valid licence and written permission every time they wish to hunt in a state forest.

In Victoria, hunting is currently permitted in all state forests, but restrictions apply. A Game Licence isn’t needed if you’re planning on hunting pest animals, but if you’re hunting with a firearm, you’ll certainly need a valid Firearms Licence.

In QLD hunting is not permitted in any state forests.

Which national parks allow dogs?

As a blanket rule, dogs are not permitted in national parks. However this depends on what state or territory you’re in.

Dogs are not allowed in any NSW or QLD national park, however in Victoria, there are a small number of national parks with areas where dogs are permitted on-lead. 

Can you hunt in national parks?

Generally no, but this depends on the state or territory.

Hunting in NSW and QLD national parks? Absolutely not. Nope, nada, no way, never ever ever.

Hunting in VIC national parks? Usually it’s not permitted, but there are some parks that allow it with very strict regulations about when, how, and what you hunt.

Are national parks free?

Some national parks are free to enter, yes, however not all. Some national parks may require an entry fee, parking fee, campground fee, day walking fee or a combination of these. 

It’s important to check the relevant state or territory parks website before heading to a national park.


Columbia’s Grand Trek Down Jacket Is Affordable, Toasty and Waterproof, boen ferguson, columbia, kosciuszko national park, alpine, nsw, snow, seamans hut

Kosciuszko National Park, NSW requires a park specific pass to enter | @boenferguson

What are the major differences between state forests and national parks?

  • National parks are created for preservation and protection. State forests are often created for timber production and recreation
  • National park campgrounds in NSW need to be booked ahead of time, however this may differ state to state. State forest campgrounds don’t need to be booked 
  • National parks are supposed to be all native flora and fauna. State forests are often specifically foreign species or a mix
  • As a blanket rule, dogs are not allowed in national parks. Dogs are generally allowed in state forests
  • National parks are managed by the government. State forests may be managed by a commercial company or the government or jointly


So there you have it! National parks and state forests each have their own purposes, protocols, and places for us to enjoy. Next time you’re out for an adventure, you’ll have a better idea of the place you’re looking for and what to expect when you get there. 

Oh and no matter where you adventure, always treat nature with the utmost respect and leave no trace. Just because a natural space isn’t granted the highest government protections doesn’t mean Explorers don’t have a responsibility to look after it.


Feature photo thanks to @brookebeyond_