From the mountains to the sea, the Southeast boasts a diverse selection of national park lands, roads, and preserves.
From sea to shining sea, the diversity of America's landscapes is magnificently vast: mountains, prairies, oceans, rivers, forests, wetlands, and more. With its collection of more than 400 national parks, preserves, historical trails, and other protected places, our National Park Service has safeguarded these natural and cultural treasures and made them accessible for all of us to share and enjoy. The Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, was founded on Aug. 25, 1916, and is celebrating a century of stewardship all year long.
In the Southeast alone, there are several national parks and two national parkways under Park Service jurisdiction. In addition, outdoor enthusiasts can find dozens of national preserves; wild and scenic rivers; historical parks, trails and monuments; military parks; and heritage areas. Together, they boast a wide range of ecosystems, habitats, and historical stories that rival the national lands found in the rest of the country.
Here are seven Park Service sites in the Southeast United States we recommend for exploration.
The Everglades National Park
Not far from the bustling streets and beaches of flashy Miami, Fla., the numerous examples of unspoiled nature in the Everglades seem to be a world away. Classified as a subtropical wilderness, this 1.5 million-acre park is the largest such area in the country.
From its open expanses of water dotted with swaying sawgrass to its secluded mangrove swamps and estuaries, the Everglades is home to some of the South's most interesting – and endangered – animals, including the gentle manatee and the American crocodile, as well as more abundant creatures like turtles, dolphins, even pink flamingos. Explore on a bike, in a canoe, or hike up to the top of the 65-foot-high observation tower at Shark Valley to get a bird's-eye view of it all.
While it's a favorite piece of the Park Service puzzle with an average of 1 million visitors each year, this park isn't just protected and popular in the United States; it's also designated a World Heritage Site, Wetland of International Importance, and an International Biosphere Reserve.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The crest of the Great Smoky Mountains forms the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, bisecting the national park that bears the range's name. This unbroken chain of peaks rises more than 5,000 feet for more than 36 miles.
A sense of calm permeates the peaks and valleys of this park. Its shady streams and sun-dappled woodlands, majestic mountains and thundering waterfalls, and glimpses into the lives of the people who once inhabited the area are just a few of the things that make it the most visited national park in the country. Eight to 10 million visitors come to the national park each year.
It claims another title too: The bio-diversity in the 800-square-mile park is unmatched anywhere else in the United States. More than 17,000 species of flora and fauna have been documented there, and some scientists believe many more are yet to be found. Walking any of the park's 150 well-maintained trails – ranging in difficulty from short, flat treks to long, more vertical walks across rocky terrain – offers a truly intimate inspection of all it offers.
But the aspects of the park that outshine all others are its stunning, panoramic views, and you'll find one of the best at the park's highest point atop Clingmans Dome. Once you reach the parking area, the hike is only a half-mile up to the top and the observation tower. But, be warned. This walk is straight up with a steep incline. While your calves will make you pay for this trip later, the vista from 6,643 feet is worth every ache. Look out over lesser mountains, their rounded tops swathed in patches of green as pale ribbons of cloud move with the wind. From this elevation, you can see into four other states. Two other can't-miss areas are the lush green fields of Cades Cove and the inspiring views from Newfoundland Gap.
Hot Springs National Park
The search for a cure for a multitude of ailments first drew folks to the mineral-rich, thermal waters bubbling beneath Arkansas up to the surface via the 47 springs inside this park. This 5,500-acre park was set apart in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation, the first national lands to be so designated.
You can hike shady trails, picnic by a stream, camp out – as you can do at other national parks – but only here can you indulge in the relaxing warmth of a natural spring in a private tub. At Buckstaff Bathhouse, in business since 1912, you can “take the waters” the same way visitors did 100 years ago.
Tour other bathhouses in the Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District, and don't miss the park's informative and entertaining video, Valley of Vapors, shown at the historical Fordyce Bathhouse in the park.
The Natchez Trace National Parkway
Take a leisurely drive back through time amid tranquil scenery on the 444-mile Natchez Trace National Parkway that winds through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. A major thoroughfare for millennia, the route was traveled by Native Americans, settlers, soldiers, and more. Along the Trace, you'll find historical homes and buildings, mysterious Native American mounds, cypress swamps, and thick woods.
There are no gas stations or restaurants located anywhere on the actual Trace, but multiple exits will get you to surrounding communities with access to these services. And if you're up for expending more energy than a car ride requires, the parkway is a designated bike route. Cycling is a popular activity on the Trace, thanks to its bike- only campgrounds.
Little River Canyon National Preserve
Start your journey at the Little River Canyon Center in Fort Payne, Ala., to learn about the area's natural heritage before checking out the wonders of Little River Canyon National Preserve. The Little River is the centerpiece of the 15,000-acre site in the northeast corner of the state. As one of the longest rivers in the country to flow atop a mountain (Lookout Mountain), the river slowly cut through sandstone over eons to create Little River Canyon – one of the deepest this side of the Rocky Mountains – and pours itself over a craggy ledge to form the foamy torrent of Little River Falls.
Get a good look at the canyon with a drive along state Highway 176, also known as Canyon Ridge Drive, and stop for photos at the many well-marked overlooks. Another waterfall on this drive is Grace High Falls, but it only appears when there's been enough rain. Farther into the preserve, the Canyon Mouth area has picnic tables and access to trails that weave through the lower canyon's boulders and rushing creeks.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Experience the Gulf Coast the way it was centuries ago, before crowds and condos, at the Gulf Islands National Seashore's sparkling white-sand beaches, wind-swept barrier islands, maritime forests, marshes, and historical forts.
Stretching 160 miles and including 12 distinct areas in Mississippi and Florida, these pristine environments are perfect for fishing, boating, and just exploring on foot. Camping out on the beach is also a favorite family activity.
Atchafalaya National Heritage Area
Established in 2006, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area covers 14 parishes in south-central Louisiana. This area is home to the country's largest river swamp, as well as the music and foods of the Cajun culture. Its name may be difficult to pronounce (A-CHA-fa-lie-a), but it's not hard to see why the area's wild spirit and rich traditions deserve to be conserved and celebrated.
Home to alligators, black bears, and hundreds of bird species, Atchafalaya's secrets can be uncovered by paddling, hiking, or biking, but consider a swamp tour by boat to get a close look at the unusual plants and animals that live on and around the waters, including bald cypress trees, the state tree of Louisiana.
No matter what part of the Southeast you explore, set aside time this summer to discover a few of these Park Service spots.
Jennifer S. Kornegay is a contributor from Montgomery, Ala.
May/June 2016 Issue
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