Tag Archives: snorkeling

Cherokee National Forest

Cherokee National Forest

Tennessee, North Carolina

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southern Region

1,204,847 acres (655,598 federal/ 549,249 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/cherokee

Overview

The southern Appalachian Mountains have some of the highest biodiversity in the United States, with more than 20,000 species of plants and animals.  In the heart of this region, Cherokee National Forest is located north and south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee.  Abundant rainfall and steep terrain make whitewater rafting a popular activity, especially on the Ocoee National Wild and Scenic River.

Highlights

Cherohala Skyway, Hiwassee River, Bald River Falls, Ocoee Scenic Byway, Boyd Gap Observation Site, Turtletown Creek Falls Scenic Area, Ocoee Whitewater Center, Coker Creek Scenic Area, Dudley Falls Picnic Area, Watauga Lake, Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area, Laurel Fork Falls, Bald Mountain Ridge Scenic Area, Unaka Mountains Scenic Area, Doe River Gorge Scenic Area, Backbone Rock, Rogers Ridge Scenic Area, Conasauga River Blue Hole, Gee Creek Falls, Roan High Knob, Falls Branch Falls, Tanasi Trail System, John Muir National Recreation Trail, Margarette Falls Trail, Warrior’s Passage National Recreation Trail, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

Cherokee National Forest is celebrated for its numerous waterfalls, two highlights being 60-foot-tall Margarette Falls and 65-foot Benton Falls, both accessible by short hikes.  If you visit during the fall foliage season, popular driving routes include the 26-mile Ocoee Scenic Byway and 43-mile Cherohala Skyway that climbs over 4,500 feet in elevation into North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.  We were intrigued by reading about the Conasauga River Blue Hole, where visitors can snorkel with fish and turtles in the shallows and deep pools. 

Best Trail

On the north side of Ocoee Lake, the Clemmer Trailhead is located right along Highway 30, a quarter mile off Highway 64.  From here one trail follows picturesque Rock Creek Gorge, which is known for its waterfalls.  Mountain bikers can follow several other trails and connect into the trail system around Benton Falls and McCamy Lake in the Chilhowee Recreation Area.  Altogether, the National Forest boasts 700 miles of trail, including a famous stretch of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail through the Roan Highlands.

Watchable Wildlife

Large mammals found in Cherokee National Forest include white-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, river otters, beavers, squirrels, bobcats, red foxes, gray foxes, coyotes, and black bears.  In addition to songbirds common to eastern forests, watch the skies for turkey vultures, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and a variety of hawks.  This area is known for its high diversity of salamanders, including hellbenders and Jordan’s salamanders.  This region also has many reptiles, like eastern box turtles, common snapping turtles, southeastern five-lined skinks, timber rattlesnakes, northern copperheads, and rat snakes (like the one we saw on the Benton Falls Trail). The many streams and rivers support rainbow, brook, and brown trout, while lakes have largemouth bass, bluegills, and crappies.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The whitewater rapids are less intense on the Hiwassee River, which is also followed by Highway 30, the 21-mile long John Muir National Recreation Trail, and a portion of the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail. 

Peak Season

Summer and fall

Fees

There is a $3 day-use fee at the Chilhowee Recreation Area and there are likely fees to park elsewhere in this massive National Forest. 

Road Conditions

The scenic byways we drove were all paved, but we found the gravel road up to Chilhowee Recreation Area to be rough and steep, though still easy enough for any passenger car.

Camping

There are countless campgrounds in Cherokee National Forest, but Chilhowee Campground near McKamy Lake seemed nice and provided access to an extensive trail system.

Wilderness Areas

Bald River Gorge Wilderness

Big Frog Wilderness (also in Chattahoochee National Forest)

Big Laurel Branch Wilderness

Citico Creek Wilderness

Cohutta Wilderness (also in Chattahoochee National Forest)

Gee Creek Wilderness

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness (also in Nantahala National Forest)

Little Frog Mountain Wilderness

Pond Mountain Wilderness

Sampson Mountain Wilderness

Unaka Mountain Wilderness

Related Sites

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site (Tennessee)

Manhattan Project National Historical Park (Tennessee-New Mexico-Washington)

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (Georgia)

Nearest National Park

Great Smoky Mountains

Conifer Tree Species

eastern hemlock, eastern white pine, loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, Table Mountain pine, pitch pine

Flowering Tree Species

tulip-poplar, sassafras, flowering dogwood, mountain laurel, pawpaw, American beech, white basswood, sweet buckeye, sugar maple, red maple, mountain maple, moosewood maple, yellowwood, yellow birch, cucumber magnolia, black cherry, sourwood, pale hickory, mockernut hickory, rock chestnut oak, scarlet oak, black oak, white oak, southern red oak, Catawba rhododendron, yellow birch, sweet bay magnolia, white ash, mountain-ash, mountain-laurel

Explore More – The National Forest’s Ocoee Whitewater Center hosted events during the Summer Olympics in what year?

Learn more about Cherokee and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

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Buck Island Reef National Monument

Overview

Located 1.5 miles north of the large Caribbean island of St. Croix is Buck Island, which covers only 176 acres of the 19,015 acres designated as Buck Island Reef National Monument.  Arguably the best coral reef in the entire National Park Service (NPS) system is the barrier reef around the island’s northern and eastern shore, which includes large examples of elkhorn coral with its beautiful yellow branches.  Private boats can get a permit to visit the island, but most tourists reserve trips with an NPS-authorized concessionaire that provides the gear for guided snorkeling and scuba diving experiences.

Highlights

Snorkeling, Underwater Trail, West Beach, Observation Point

Must-Do Activity

Snorkeling on the eastern end of the island is the highlight of a day trip to Buck Island.  The water offshore from St. Croix is cooler, even though your boat will moor in a lagoon, so consider wearing a wet suit.  There is an Underwater Trail with interpretive signs at one location along the coral reef.  Watch for a variety of parrotfish, angelfish, filefish, and sharks (lemon and nurse).  Sea turtles (green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and leatherback) are more common the west side of the island.

Best Trail

A steep, sandy trail climbs from Diedrichs Point and forms a loop when you walk West Beach, the designated anchorage area.  The 45-minute trek has a must-do spur to Observation Point for the best views, otherwise you will not be able to see through the thick vegetation of thorny trees interspersed with organ pipe cactus.  Stay on the trail and be careful not to touch poisonous manchineel trees or Christmas bush (related to poison-ivy).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Bring an underwater camera for great photo opportunities.  We followed a spotted eagle ray and a large school of blue tangs around the reef.  We also saw a nurse shark, lemon shark, and dozens of barracudas.

Peak Season

Anytime except hurricane season

Hours

Buck Island is only open during daylight hours

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

Fees

None, except for concessionaire boat trip

Road Conditions

There are no roads on the island, so a boat tour through an NPS-authorized concessionaire is necessary to access it.  There is a large parking lot (fee) near the Christiansted marina and floatplane airport.  Note: you drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in standard American left-side driver seat vehicles.

Camping

Buck Island is closed between sunset and sunrise, with no overnight mooring allowed.  On St. Croix, there is no official NPS campground at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, but people camp along the coast there and at many beachside locations around the entire island.

Related Sites

Christiansted National Historic Site (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Virgin Islands National Park (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Explore More – What type of domesticated animals were let loose on Buck Island in the 1700s (permanently altering the vegetation)?

Virgin Islands National Park

Overview

More than half the island of St. John is part of Virgin Islands National Park, a Caribbean paradise known for its white sand beaches and crystal waters.  The National Park also includes 95% of Hassel Island, which was once a peninsula connected to St. Thomas.  The region is still recovering after Hurricanes Irma and Maria did extensive damage in 2017, but did not seem to affect the sugar mill ruins that have been standing since the 1720s.

Highlights

Trunk Bay, Maho Bay, Annaberg Sugar Mill, Petroglyph Trail, Saltpond Bay

Must-Do Activity

Snorkeling is the number one reason to visit St. John, which is surrounded by coral reefs.  The Underwater Trail in popular Trunk Bay is a good place to start, but our favorite spot to snorkel was from the beautiful beach at Saltpond Bay where we saw sea turtles, reef squids, and countless other species.  From the beach a trail leads 1.8 miles roundtrip to the 200-foot high cliffs at Ram Head.

Best Trail

Reef Bay Trail starts near the island’s high point at 900 feet in elevation, then descends 1.5 miles to the split for Petroglyph Trail where the rocks around a seasonal waterfall have several Taino carvings.  Reef Bay Trail continues another mile to the ruins of a sugar mill where ranger-led hikes (fee) are met by a boat.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A small, paved pulloff at the top of a hill on North Shore Road looks east towards the white sand beaches of Trunk Bay, an image used in almost every promotional publication for St. John. 

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

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

Fees

None, except when lifeguards are on duty at Trunk Bay.

Road Conditions

Two narrow, winding, paved routes (North Shore and Centerline Roads) leave from Cruz Bay where the ferries arrive.  Several dirt roads require four-wheel-drive, including Catherineberg Road.  Note: you drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in standard American left-side driver seat vehicles.

Camping

None on the island of St. John until the NPS reopens Cinnamon Bay Campground, which closed following the 2017 hurricanes.

We created this design to celebrate Virgin Islands National Park and it is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How long did the violent slave revolt in 1733 last before French troops arrived on St. John to return slaves to the sugarcane plantations?

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Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument

Overview

Established in 2001, Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument covers 12,708 acres of ocean around Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.  The National Monument consists of four separate areas in the Sir Francis Drake Channel and Caribbean Sea.  Its primary access point is in Coral Bay where it touches the island’s shoreline and kayaks can be launched from the road at Borck Creek, Princess Bay, and Haulover Bay.  

Highlights

Borck Creek, Princess Bay, Haulover Bay

Must-Do Activity

We rented a tandem kayak from Crabby’s in Coral Harbor and paddled east into Hurricane Hole to access the monument.  We found the snorkeling to be best around Borck Creek.  Guided kayaking and snorkeling trips can be arranged with concessionaires on the island.

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria killed a large portion of the red mangroves surrounding the bays within the monument.  However, even the dead roots provide structure for coral and fish.  The best way to see this is to snorkel in the shallow water, but be careful not to touch a mangrove jellyfish which can trigger a group response when the first one stings.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

These are the hours for the Virgin Islands National Park visitor center on St. John:

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

No roads in this completely underwater monument, but watch for potholes and oncoming truck traffic if you drive to Princess Bay on Centerline Road from the ferry terminal in Cruz Bay.  Note: you drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in standard American left-side driver seat vehicles.

Camping

There are overnight moorings (no anchors allowed) for boats in Water Creek and other bays around St. John.  There are currently no campgrounds open on the island.

Explore More – Why do barracudas often follow snorkelers and divers?

Dry Tortugas National Park

Overview

Only accessible by boat or floatplane, Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote paradise 70 miles west of Key West and home to a diverse array of birds and sea life.  Fort Jefferson was built on Garden Key starting in 1846 and was never completed before it was abandoned in 1874.  Today birders come from all over to see the rookery of 100,000 sooty terns on Bush Key, and also get the joy of watching the acrobatic dives of brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and magnificent frigatebirds with their seven-foot wingspan.

Echo was bringing the CHAOS to Dry Tortugas National Park.

Highlights

Fort Jefferson, snorkeling, birding, overnight camping

Must-Do Activity

Turquoise blue water is home to amazing coral reefs right offshore from Garden Key, with some coral and sea fans growing on Fort Jefferson’s brick moat wall and old dock pylons.  Snorkeling among the historic debris feels like exploring an ancient shipwreck.  The daily ferry ship provides free snorkeling gear for day-trippers.

Best Trail

Walk the sea wall that circles Fort Jefferson for great views and a chance to see the endangered American crocodile that sometimes resides in the moat.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Walking the archways of Fort Jefferson in the rays of the rising sun or watching a sunset from atop its ramparts is a great reason to spend the night here.

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Peak Season

Weather permitting, the Yankee Freedom ferry boat runs daily all year, but you may want to be cautious during hurricane season.

Hours

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

Fees

A park entrance fee is collected by the Yankee Freedom ferry service when you purchase your tickets, but is refundable at check-in if you have an America The Beautiful Pass.  A nominal camping fee is charged to stay on Garden Key.

Road Conditions

A parking deck (fee) is located right near the docks and check-in for the Yankee Freedom ferry boat.

Camping

Primitive camping is allowed on Garden Key for a small fee.  Campers must bring all of their own water and the only way to cook is with charcoal since fires and stoves are prohibited.

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Florida 1005

Florida 1040

Scott walking on the moat

The lighthouse with Majestic Frigatebirds

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A view of the ferry boat from atop Fort Jefferson.
Yankee Freedom ferry boat docked outside Fort Jefferson.
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When snorkeling only ten feet from shore, this stingray swam right past us.
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Explore More – Why were the islands of the Tortugas labeled “Dry” on early maps?

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WONDON WAS HERE

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