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Splash Down

Abundant water recreation found throughout the South
will keep you cool this summer.
Story and Photos by Carolyn Thornton

Back in the day, water recreation was granddad’s rubber tire on a rope at the old swimming hole. But families today have numerous choices for fun at the water’s edge.


Above: Alabama’s Orange Beach has miles of soft sand and turquoise water to enjoy. Carolyn Thornton photo

Below: Robert Dixon introduces Estuarium visitors to sea creatures. Carolyn Thornton photo

Robert Dixon

“Families want to do more than lie on the beach and shop,” said Tom Schlinkert of Schlinkert Sports Associates, an Elberta, Ala., company that developed a zip line at Alabama’s gulf coast (see related story).

Exciting and educational diversions flow through the South’s lakes and rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. So grab your swimming suit and jump in. The water’s fine.

Rolling on our rivers

Natural thrills are abundant while floating beautiful rivers. In Arkansas, discover a whitewater playground near the town of Malvern on the Ouachita River. At Rockport Ledge, practice kayak rolls and other skills thanks to the scheduled releases of water from Lake Catherine.

The Arkansas Ozarks claim the 150-mile-long Buffalo National River, a geologic time trip that features bluffs, caves, waterfalls, natural bridges, springs, rapids, and swimming holes. Incredible scenery is along the the 25 miles between Ponca and the state Highway 7 crossing. In this stretch, floaters can take a short hike from the river to Hemmed-in-Hollow and view its 200-foot waterfall.

Families might try the Tyler Bend-to-Gilbert float in the river’s middle section. Another option for families is the Buffalo Point-to-Rush float in the lower section.

Mississippi canoeists and kayakers enjoy the Okatoma Creek near the tiny town of Seminary, as well as Black Creek at Brooklyn. If a float trip seems like too much work for you, explore the Pascagoula River–one of the last free-flowing rivers in the contiguous 48 states–with McCoy’s Swamp and River Tours that depart from the Audubon Center in Moss Point. The canopy-covered boat putters past shore and water birds, alligators, and fish.

Tubing is another relaxing way to spend a day on the river, and Louisianans take tubing seriously. Float through St. Tammany Parish on Bogue Falaya. At Bogue Chitto State Park near Franklinton, adventurers can rent tubes with back rests and cup holders.

Should vacation plans put you far from a natural river, don’t despair. Many Southern resorts and water parks have a manmade water attraction called a “lazy river,” a concept that pushes a soothing current of water through serpentine, shallow pools.

“It takes you back to when you were a kid tubing along a river,” said Kent Lynam, describing the lazy river at The Oasis at The Wharf in Orange Beach, Ala. Some condo resorts in the area–including Caribe Resort and Turquoise Place in Orange Beach and Crystal Tower in Gulf Shores–also offer guests a lazy river float.

Go for the Gulf

Sun worshipers flock to Mississippi’s 26-mile-long beach to rent jet skies, water bikes, and umbrellas in Biloxi. Ship Island Excursions depart from Gulfport and dock at Mississippi’s largest barrier island. The gulf side of Ship Island has the best surf, while the National Park Service maintains Fort Massachusetts, a cool tour alternative if you want to get out of the sun for a little while.

Along the gulf coast of Alabama and Mississippi, visitors can find dozens of tours that will put them on the water. In Orange Beach near Wolf Bay, Sailaway Charters have eco-tours that explain the life cycles of oysters, shrimp, and crabs.

Everything in Texas is billed as bigger, taller, or in the case of its gulf beaches, longer. Texas has 600 miles of coastline, but you will find some of the state’s most pristine white sand at the southern tip of tropical South Padre Island. Go ocean kayaking, snorkeling, or diving. Beachcombers enjoy the five-mile stretch of Mustang Island State Park near Port Aransas where sand dollars routinely wash ashore.

Trendy Fun

A new sport is skimming the bayous of urban New Orleans and back bays off the gulf. Stand up paddle boarding is “like riding a bicycle,” said Jessica D’Aleo, instructor at YOLO (You Only Live Once) Board Adventures in Sandestin, Fla. “Momentum makes you more stable.” With feet spread on a board that’s longer and fatter than a surfboard, muscles get a workout using a single, sculpted paddle.

“It’s a great family sport,” said D’Aleo. “You see everything standing up in the gulf, from manta rays (to) fish, dolphins, and turtles.”

The newest craze around Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish is wakeboarding. Using a board with fixed positions for feet, wakeskaters crisscross the Tchefuncte River, jumping waves from a towboat.

Wacky Water Parks

Those who love looking at the beach but hate sand in their blankets can slide into a water park. Cool off in Arkansas at Wild River Country in North Little Rock, or Magic Springs & Crystal Falls–which opened Splash Island this summer–in Hot Springs. Check out Big Kahunas in Destin, Fla.; Waterville USA in Gulf Shores, Ala.; Gulf Island Water Park in Gulfport, Miss.; or Blue Bayou in Baton Rouge, La.

In Texas, Schlitterbahn first opened in New Braunfels and features The Falls, a 3,600-foot-long water park ride. At South Padre Island’s Schlitterbahn, Rio Aventura is a lazy river ride that connects key park areas. The Boogie Bahn wave machine keeps the fun rocking, while Sea Trek offers an underwater helmet diving experience. The newest Schlitterbahn in Galveston in winter can convert to Wasserfest Indoor Waterpark.

This summer, these ideas for regional water recreation can keep you laughing at high temperatures. Just remember to pack the waterproof sunscreen.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Jul/Aug 2013 Issue


For more information, contact:

Alabama Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, (800) 745-SAND (7263),

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, (800) NATURAL (628-8725),

Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, (888) 467-4853,

Texas Economic Development and Tourism,

Before you splash down this summer, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Ask about AAA discounts to water or theme parks in the South.

Order free information about Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas through the Free Travel Information Card found online.


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