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Apalachicola National Forest

Apalachicola National Forest

Florida

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southern Region

634,042 acres (563,403 federal/ 70,639 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/florida/home

Overview

Apalachicola National Forest is the largest of the four National Forests in Florida and also manages the tiny 1,152-acre Choctawhatchee National Forest (which is off limits to the public on a military base, so we did not include it in our total of 155 National Forests).  The forests proximity to the state capital of Tallahassee makes it an outdoor recreation destination in the Florida Panhandle.

Highlights

Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway, Fort Gadsden Historic Site (closed), Ochlockonee River, Rock Bluff Scenic Area, Leon Sinks Geological Area (closed), Morrison Hammock Scenic Area, Silver Lake Recreation Area, Camel Lake Recreation Area, Post Office Bay, Florida National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

When we visited Apalachicola National Forest in April 2021, two of its biggest attractions were closed from hurricane damage: Fort Gadsden Historic Site and Leon Sinks Geological Area (a series of sinkholes in limestone karst).  We finally ended up at Camel Lake Recreation Area (day-use fee) where the beach was closed due to alligator presence, so we opted to hike a portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail.  We also made a stop to see the swamp at Big Gully Landing boat launch where Equaloxic Creek flows six miles west to the Apalachicola River.  We read that canoeing the Ochlockonee River is a popular activity.

Best Trail

Apalachicola National Forest includes 67 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST).  We hiked a portion of it at Camel Lake Recreation Area hoping to find where it connected to the Trail of Lakes nine-mile loop, but we never did locate the junction.  We read that the segment of the FNST from Oak Park Trailhead along the Sopchoppy River bluffs is especially beautiful.  Closer to the capital city, busy trails include the 14.4-mile Tallahassee Saint Marks Historic Rail Trail, 30-mile Vinzant Horse Trail, and 8.3-mile Munson Hills Trail (which is popular with mountain bikers).

Watchable Wildlife

When we think of Florida wildlife the first animal that comes to mind is the alligator, so it was no surprise that the swimming beach at Camel Lake Recreation Area was closed due to their presence.  Other places to see alligators are Tate’s Hell Swamp and the Mud Swamp/New River Wilderness.  Cottonmouth snakes and plentiful mosquitoes also make the swamps uninviting to guests.  We were surprised to see signs warning of black bears since that is not an animal we associate with Florida.  Other wildlife includes turkeys, fox squirrels, gray foxes, bobcats, raccoons, and armadillos.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Stands of longleaf pine and turkey oak had us reminiscing about hiking the sandy trails on the coastal plains of North Carolina’s Croatan National Forest.

Peak Season

Winter

Fees

There was a day-use fee at Camel Lake Recreation Area, but it was half-off with an America the Beautiful pass.

Road Conditions

The unpaved roads were hard-packed sand, so they were in really good shape during our visit.

Camping

There was a nice 10-site campground (fee) suitable for RVs at Camel Lake Recreation Area, but there is no camping at Silver Lake Recreation Area closer to Tallahassee, Florida.

Wilderness Areas

Bradwell Bay Wilderness

Mud Swamp/New River Wilderness

Related Sites

Osceola National Forest (Florida)

Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida)

Andersonville National Historic Site (Georgia)

Nearest National Park

Everglades (Florida)

Conifer Tree Species

baldcypress, pondcypress, longleaf pine, spruce pine, pond pine, slash pine, loblolly pine, Atlantic white-cedar

Flowering Tree Species

magnolia bay, sweetbay, black titi, myrtleleaf holly, swamp cyrilla, black cherry, sassafras, Darlington oak, southern red oak, live oak, bluejack oak, turkey oak, laurel oak, diamondleaf oak, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, water hickory, persimmon, black gum, flowering dogwood, southern magnolia, basswood, American beech, sweetgum, ogeechee lime, swamp azalea, swamp cottonwood, pop ash, black willow, red buckeye, horse sugar tree

Explore More – Black titi is a shrub in this part of the world, but in Puerto Rico it grows as a large tree with what common name?

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Crater Lake National Park

Overview

Formed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 8,000 years ago, Crater Lake National Park protects a nearly round caldera about five miles in diameter.  It is the deepest lake in the country at 1,943 feet, which is a major reason why in 1902 it was named the sixth National Park in the U.S.  When we first visited back in July 2010 most of Rim Drive was still closed due to snow, but in July 2014 there was little snow to be found anywhere.

For Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Rim Village, Cleetwood Trail, Cloudcap Overlook, Castle Crest Wildflower Trail, Mount Scott

Must-Do Activity

That very first view you get from the rim is so overwhelming that it is worth whatever effort you have to put in to arrive there.  Bring a coat, though, since at this high elevation we are pretty sure it can snow any month of the year.  Crater Lake has no inlets or outlets and its crystal-clear waters were fish free until some were introduced in the early 1900s.  The only way to get on the water is to hike down the steep one-mile Cleetwood Trail to a boat run by a park concessionaire.  Make sure you have purchased your ticket beforehand or you will be hiking back up to get one. 

Best Trail

We enjoyed the short but colorful Castle Crest Wildflower Trail, as well as the Pinnacles Overlook Trail where fossilized fumaroles mimic the conical shape of conifers.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Pictures truly do not do Crater Lake justice, but stop along Rim Drive to get a closer look at Wizard Island and the Phantom Ship, the only two islands that emerge from the lake.

Peak Season

Late summer

Hours

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

Fees

$30  per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass, but no entry fee in winter

Road Conditions

While some roads are closed most of the year, the National Park Service (NPS) plows the main entry road year round.  Bring your snowshoes!

Camping

The NPS manages two campgrounds in summer (although smaller Lost Creek only allows tent camping), or you can head to the neighboring National Forests for developed and dispersed campsites.

Related Sites

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve (Oregon)

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Oregon)

Mount Rainier National Park (Washington)

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

Explore More – What was the name of the vast volcano that existed here before it collapsed nearly 7,700 years ago?

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St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

Overview

Since 1972, about 255 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers have been protected along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.  It is a popular route for paddlers and tube floaters, in addition to providing invaluable habitat for a variety of wildlife, including beavers, great blue herons, and 40 species of native mussels.  There are a few dams along the rivers and regulations vary by who manages different sections, so it is important to know the rules before you launch your boat.

Highlights

Trego Nature Trail, Sandrock Cliffs, Interstate State Parks

Must-Do Activity

There is a long scenic byway that follows the St. Croix River north from its confluence with the Mississippi River (south of Minneapolis) near the Great River Road Visitor Center in Prescott, Wisconsin.  The National Park Service (NPS) manages the seasonal Namekagon River Visitor Center on a stretch of water that is good for floating.  If you do not have a boat, just down the road try the 2.8-mile roundtrip Trego Nature Trail that follows the Namekagon River through a forest of white pine, bigtooth aspen, and paper birch trees.

Best Trail

Wisconsin Interstate State Park is located on the St. Croix River and is the western terminus for the partially completed 1,200-mile long Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Both Minnesota and Wisconsin Interstate State Parks are great places to learn about potholes (up to 15-foot deep bowls carved into solid rock) formed by boulders caught in whirlpools during glacial melting.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All main roads are paved, but some (like the side road to Trego Nature Trail) are good gravel.

Camping

Developed campgrounds can be found in the numerous state parks and state forests along the rivers.  Only designated riverside campsites can be used by those paddling (except in the Stillwater Islands area), but no reservations are accepted.

Related Sites

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Minnesota)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

Explore More – A major proponent of creating this park, Senator Gaylord Nelson was born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin and helped pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, as well as founding what annual holiday in 1970?

Top 10 National Park Service Sites for Swimming

Swimming at National Park Service (NPS) sites can range from soaking in hot springs to dipping in mountain lakes to riding ocean waves.  We tried to include a variety of experiences in this list, although if you love the beach be sure to check out our ranking of the Top 10 National SeashoresClick here to see all of our Top 10 Lists.

10. Olympic National Park (Washington)

If a frigid dip in Lake Quinault does not sound nice, then warm up at Sol Duc Hot Springs

9. Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma)

The swimming hole at Little Niagara draws summer crowds, as does the Lake of the Arbuckles

8. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

Jenny Lake is shockingly cold, so it might not be appealing except on the warmest days

7. Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida-Mississippi)

Incredible white sand beaches, though not known for its big waves

6. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

The hot springs are all off limits except seasonally at the Boiling River near Mammoth Hot Springs

5. Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (Washington)

Another cold water spot in an incredibly clear lake that seems to glow turquoise in the sun

4. Haleakalā National Park (Hawai‘i)

In the coastal Kipahulu District, the freshwater Seven Sacred Pools attract tourists

3. Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

A variety of sea life is attracted to the human structures in the clear subtropical waters

2. Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

Long stretches of beach, warm water, and awesome waves

…and finally the #1 National Park Service site for swimming:

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

A snorkeler’s (and sea turtle’s) paradise accessible right from the beautiful tropical beaches

Honorable Mentions

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (Hawai‘i)

Swimming is not allowed within the NPS site, but one of the Big Island’s best snorkeling spots is next door

Big Bend National Park (Texas)

The foundation of a bathhouse still holds in hot springs water on the side of the Rio Grande

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (New Mexico)

Lightfeather and Jordan Hot Springs are actually in neighboring Gila National Forest

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (Alaska)

The truly adventurous can jump into an icy pool atop melting Root Glacier

Top 10 National Seashores

There are exactly 10 National Seashores in the National Park Service (NPS) system, so choosing which ones to put in the Top 10 was not difficult.  However, they are all similar, so ranking them was tricky.  Also, without anything to put in the Honorable Mentions category, we decided to rank the three remaining National Lakeshores (after Indiana Dunes became a National Park in 2019).  Click here to see all of our Top 10 Lists.

10. Padre Island National Seashore (Texas)

There was a ton of plastic debris washed up on the beach, though the sea turtles did not seem to mind

9. Canaveral National Seashore (Florida)

Apollo Beach was too steep to lie down on, but we did see our first manatee in Mosquito Lagoon

8. Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts)

Great white sharks might keep swimmers out of the water, but there are some nice hiking trails

7. Fire Island National Seashore (New York)

This roadless area is most easily accessed by ferry from Long Island

Tiff with the lighthouse

6. Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

Known for its lighthouses, beachside campgrounds, and good swimming conditions

5. Assateague Island National Seashore (Maryland-Virginia)

Wild ponies are its most famous residents, but also home to seahorses and other marine animals

4. Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

Watch for gray whales and elephant seals in the winter along the foggy Pacific coast

3. Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)

You will need a boat to access these barrier islands, a great place to camp and collect shells

2. Cumberland Island National Seashore (Georgia)           

Take the ferry for a daytrip or an overnight camping experience, and hunt for fossilized shark teeth

…and finally the #1 National Seashore:

1. Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida-Mississippi)

Beautiful white sand beaches and interesting historic forts make this our favorite spot

Top 3 National Lakeshores

3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan)

Most of the sand dunes are covered by forest at this spot known for its fishing and canoeing

2. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)

We will never forget kayaking through the Petit Portal along the cliffs of Lake Superior

1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

Sea caves carved by Lake Superior’s waves and island campsites are the biggest draw