Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Overview

Crossing the Tennessee – Kentucky border, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River cuts a 90-mile long gorge that was spared damming in 1974 when 125,000 acres were set aside by the federal government.  The area is renowned for its Class IV rapids and 400 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.  Seasonally, a concessionaire runs the Big South Fork Scenic Railway from Stearns Depot to the Blue Heron Mining Community, an outdoor museum.

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Highlights

Natural bridges, waterfalls, whitewater, train ride, trails, new film

Must-Do Activity

The film shown in the 6 visitor centers was released in 2016 and provides an excellent overview of the area.  You might want to ask for the subtitles to be turned on so you can understand the regional accents.

Best Trail

We enjoyed our 2-mile hike to Twin Arches (which are actually natural bridges formed by water).  We look forward to returning to this park to explore its other trails and waterways, especially to see Wagon Arch, Yahoo Falls, and Devil’s Jump Rapids.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Of the two Twin Arches, North Arch (93-foot span) is easier to photograph than South Arch (135-foot span) because there are fewer trees in the way.

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Peak Season

Summer, though the Spring Planting Festival (April) and “Haunting in the Hills” Storytelling Festival (September) offer many free activities.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/biso/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm

Fees

None, except to ride the concessionaire-operated Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

Road Conditions

The dirt roads we drove (Divide Road and Twin Arches Road) were passable for any vehicle.

Camping

There are many options, from full service Bandy Creek Campground in Scott State Forest to dispersed backpack camping along the trails.

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Tiff on the way to Twin Arch

Scott on the "trail" to Twin Arch

Scott exploring a slot
Exploring a slot in the sandstone behind North Arch of the Twin Arches.
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North Arch spans 93 feet with a 51-foot clearance, making me look small underneath it.

Explore More – How deep is the gorge cut by the Big South Fork River?

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Jewel Cave National Monument

Overview

Sometimes overshadowed by nearby Wind Cave National Park, the third-longest mapped cave system in the world is located within Jewel Cave National Monument.  Thick calcite crystals are the sparkly jewels that adorn the walls of this gem in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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Highlights

Lantern Tour, Scenic Tour, Wild Caving Tour

Must-Do Activity

The Wild Caving Tour is reserved for those willing and able to squeeze through the 8.5 x 24-inch crawlspace located out front of the visitor center.  It is a taste of what is to come during sections like the “Brain Drain.”  Thick layers of manganese will permanently stain clothing worn by those brave enough to take this epic 4-hour journey that crawls less than half a mile past rare hydromagnesite balloons and gypsum flowers.

Best Trail

Most of the forest within the monument has burned, but Canyons Trail makes a 3.5 mile loop from the visitor center or Historic Ranger Cabin.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Most cave tours do not allow you to touch anything, but on the Historic Lantern Tour at the historic entrance to the cave (summer only) you can feel the 4-inch long calcite crystals (also called dogtooth spar) that formed like a bathtub ring as water slowly drained out.

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Peak Season

Summer when the Historic Lantern Tour and Wild Caving Tour are offered.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/jeca/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None to park, but there is a charge for all tours.

Road Conditions

All roads paved.  Note that the Historic Lantern Tour at the historic entrance to the cave is not at the main visitor center where the elevator is.

Camping

None, but plenty of places at Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Black Hills National Forest.

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Wild Caving Tour patrons have to prove they can squeeze through this 8.5×24-inch crawlspace.

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Thick layers of manganese will permanently stain clothing worn on the Wild Caving Tour.
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Ranger at the entrance for the Historic Lantern Tour.

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This formation is known as “Madonna and Child.”

Explore More – How many miles of the cave’s passages have currently been mapped?

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Congaree National Park

Overview

The last uncut bottomland hardwood forest in the southeast was originally preserved as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976 then became a National Park in 2003.  These forests once covered 52-million acres of the southeastern United States and today this park contains some of the tallest examples of its native tree species in the world.

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Highlights

Baldcypress trees with knees, hiking, birding, paddling

Must-Do Activity

Hop in a canoe or kayak to explore remote sections of this primeval forest.  As you might imagine, all of this standing water is a great breeding ground for mosquitoes; just another reason to come in the winter.  At the visitor center, a handy rating system helps prepare you for the onslaught or the “All clear.”

Best Trail

Even if the ground is flooded, stick to the wheelchair accessible boardwalk and you can still hike through the forest for 2.4 miles without getting your feet wet.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Our favorite tree here is the baldcypress, one of the few deciduous conifer trees (meaning it loses all its needles every autumn).  Baldcypress trees are famous for their “knees” which rise from their roots up to seven feet in the air, helping the roots breathe when underwater.

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Peak Season

We prefer the winter when mosquitoes are absent, but anytime is good at this park that only saw 159,595 visitors in 2017.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved, except right at the Cedar Creek Landing boat launch.

Camping

Longleaf Campground has 8 sites and Bluff Campsite has three about a mile from the visitor center.  Backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit.

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Paddle a kayak or canoe for a special look into these primeval floodplain forests.

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Winter is a good time to visit if you want to avoid the “ruthless” mosquitoes.

 

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The boardwalk keeps your feet dry even if the forest is flooded.

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This design we created to celebrate Congaree National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How tall are the record-holding water tupelo, cherrybark oak, and swamp hickory trees in the park?

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Roger Williams National Memorial

Overview

In Providence, Rhode Island lies Roger Williams National Memorial, dedicated to the man who left the Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 to found a city based on religious freedom.  A small National Park Service (NPS) visitor center houses a tiny museum and shows a brief film.

Williams

Highlights

Statue, 4.5-acre park, film

Must-Do Activity

After watching the 7-minute film, engage the passionate NPS employees in a discussion about the importance of the First Amendment and freedom of religion to American history.

Best Trail

A short, but steep walk takes you to a large statue of Roger Williams that offers a great overlook of the city, though it is not technically in the National Memorial.

Instagram-worthy Photo

It has to be the Roger Williams statue with its incredible views of Providence.

Looking out over Providence with Roger Williams

Peak Season

Summer, though it is open year round

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/rowi/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but steep if you drive up to the statue.

Camping

Twenty miles away, Casimir Pulaski Memorial State Park offers camping.

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The NPS visitor center is housed in this small historic building in downtown Providence.

Tiff within the Roger Williams Park
Tiff near the historic well in the 4.5-acre park in downtown Providence.

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Wondon hanging out with Roger Williams in the tiny visitor center (the video screen is in the background).

Tiff hiking up the steep roads from the Visitor Center to the Memorial
Tiff walking uphill to the statue.

A view of the memorial with Providence, RI in the background
This granite statue of Roger Williams is actually 15-feet tall, but you can’t get too close to it.

Explore More – In what year was most of Providence destroyed (including Roger Williams’ homestead) during King Philip’s War?

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Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Overview

In a nondescript field in rural western Pennsylvania, a battle began what some historians consider the first worldwide war.  In April 1754, a young George Washington led British troops, Virginia militia, and their American Indian allies on a mission to push the French out of the western frontier.  After Washington’s troops ambushed and scalped French officers, an angry retaliatory force pinned him down at the hastily constructed Fort Necessity.  Washington surrendered on July 3, 1754, starting a global conflict that became known as the Seven Years War (or the French and Indian War).

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Highlights

Museum, reconstructed fort, Mount Washington Tavern

Must-Do Activity

The National Park Service manages an excellent museum and a re-creation of the small fort.  There is a playground, too, perhaps to entice children to come learn that little actions can have big consequences.

Best Trail

Make a side trip to nearby Jumonville Glen, where a short loop trail guides visitors through the forest where the initial ambush on the French occurred.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The reconstructed Mount Washington Tavern, a stagecoach stop on the historic National Road.  Construction of the National Road began in 1811 and businesses like this one soon popped up to serve travelers.

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Peak Season

Open year round, except Jumonville Glen and Braddock’s Grave are only open in summer.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/fone/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Ohiopyle State Park has running water, as do several private campgrounds nearby.

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Archaeologist using a metal detector to look for artifacts from 1754.

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Not many National Park Service sites have a playground like Fort Necessity National Battlefield.

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The free National Park Service museum details the battle and its global ramifications; there’s young George Washington.

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Inside the Mount Washington Tavern.

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Ambush site at Jumonville Glen.

Explore More – Despite its name, the Seven Years War actually lasted how many years after fighting took place on four continents (as well as in the Philippines and Caribbean islands)?

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