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Gulf Islands National Seashore

Overview

Gulf Islands National Seashore is renowned for white sand beaches on the barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, but there is more than beaches on the shores of Mississippi and the Florida panhandle (yes, Alabama is in the middle but is not part of this park).  The white sand that attracts beachgoers here originated as quartz in the Appalachian Mountains.  This coastal region was originally purchased by the U.S. from Spain in 1821 and 150 years later Gulf Islands National Seashore was created. 

Highlights

Fort Pickens, Naval Live Oaks Area, Fort Barrancas, West Ship Island ferry, white sand beaches, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

The National Park Service (NPS) has four visitor centers for Gulf Islands National Seashore, one on the mainland in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and the other three are south of Pensacola, Florida.  The most developed area is around Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island with its popular campground.  Nearby, Fort Barrancas sits next to the free National Museum of Naval Aviation on the military base.  The Naval Live Oaks Area protects the first federal tree farm started for shipbuilding purposes in 1828.  In Mississippi, only Davis Bayou can be reached by road, with (seasonal) ferry service limited to West Ship Island.  Otherwise, bring your own boat!

Best Trail

The 1,300-mile long Florida National Scenic Trail starts at Fort Pickens then runs east across Santa Rosa Island.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Fort Pickens dates back to 1829 with additional batteries upgraded during World War II.  Inside the fort there is a nice museum explaining the history of Santa Rosa Island.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or free with America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All access roads are paved

Camping

Reservations are highly recommended for the NPS campgrounds on Santa Rosa Island, Florida and Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  Primitive camping is allowed on undeveloped East Ship, Horn, and Petit Bois Islands.

Related Sites

Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

Canaveral National Seashore (Florida)

Everglades National Park (Florida)

Explore More – What are the four species of sea turtles that nest on the park’s beaches?

Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Overview

In colonial Louisiana, the word “Creole” referred to any New World product, from architecture to livestock to human beings (and was not specific to any ethnicity).  South of Natchitoches, Louisiana the Cane River National Heritage Area follows an abandoned meander of the Red River, with two antebellum cotton plantations protected as Cane River Creole National Historical Park.  This National Park Service (NPS) site was authorized in 1994 and continues to be developed; meanwhile it provides an interesting perspective on a unique culture and excellent photographic opportunities.

Highlights

Historic buildings, pecan picking

Must-Do Activity

Oakland Plantation dates back to the late 1700s and survived the Civil War intact, but in the wake of Reconstruction tenant farming created a new form of indentured servitude.  Self-guided tours of the site take you through the mule barn, general store, and several cottages.  When we visited in November 2016, park volunteers were only offering one tour per day, but were happy to spend time talking with us inside the old general store.  Slave/tenant quarters are also preserved at Magnolia Plantation downstream, but the main house (which was burned during the Civil War and rebuilt) is privately owned and closed to the public. 

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

Nothing says you are in the South like the crooked branches of live oak trees.  Live oaks drape over the bottle-lined garden at the Oakland Plantation main house.

Peak Season

Fall

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Kisatchie National Forest has a small campground three miles north of Natchitoches off State Road 117.

Related Sites

Natchez National Historical Park (Mississippi)

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (Louisiana)

Poverty Point National Monument (Louisiana)

Explore More – Cane River National Heritage Area covers 40,000 acres, but how large is Cane River Creole National Historical Park?

Big Cypress National Preserve

Overview

Big Cypress National Preserve was originally planned to be a part of Everglades National Park (established in 1947), but this wild area to the north did not gain federal protection until 1974.  There are few roads and trails in the 729,000-acre preserve, which makes it ideal habitat for the endangered Florida panther.  The easiest access points are along Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) or the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41).  While many of the “trails” require route-finding and slogging through deep water, there are also designated ATV and canoe trails located throughout the park.

Highlights

Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress Bend Trail, canoeing

Must-Do Activity

Many of the baldcypress and pond cypress trees that once stood here were logged in the 1930s and 1940s.  At the Kirby Storter Roadside Park, you can still see some large examples of these trees famous for their buttressed boles and root nodules, or “knees,” that stand above the high water level.  We previously reported on these unique deciduous conifers at Congaree National Park in South Carolina, but here they grow right alongside tall palm trees that we typically associate with sandy beaches. 

Best Trail

Many of the trails in the park are underwater and require slogging.  Two exceptions with boardwalks are at Kirby Storter Roadside Park and Big Cypress Bend (technically within Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Wherever you look, you are likely to spot an alligator or two in this wild section of south Florida.  An extra photo-op can be found at the smallest post office in the United States, a former irrigation pipe shed located in Ochopee, Florida since 1953.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

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

Fees

None (except for off-road vehicle permits)

Road Conditions

Highway 41 and Interstate 75 are paved, but just about every other road in the park is sandy (and/or submerged) and should only be attempted with an ATV or swamp buggy.

Camping

The NPS offers two campgrounds along Highway 41 (there is also one in Collier-Seminole State Park), as well as designated primitive wilderness sites.

Related Sites

Everglades National Park (Florida)

De Soto National Memorial (Florida)

Big Thicket National Preserve (Texas)

Explore More – What are the five main habitat types protected within the preserve?

Fort Scott National Historic Site

Overview

Near the border of Kansas and Missouri sits Fort Scott, which like Fort Smith (to the south) was an important frontier military post during the Mexican-American War and skirmishes with Plains Indians.  Several buildings were sold off in 1853, two becoming hotels that catered to pro-slavery and anti-slavery clients when this region was dubbed “Bleeding Kansas.”  During the Civil War, the town became a strategic location utilized to quell uprisings and maintain supply lines.  Abandoned by the military after the war, soldiers returned when settlers opposed railroad construction in the 1870s.  This 17-acre historic site was authorized in 1965 but not established as a part of the National Park Service (NPS) system until 1979.

Highlights

Museum, film, Officers’ Quarters, restored tallgrass prairie

Must-Do Activity

The NPS visitor center is located in the old hospital at Fort Scott National Historic Site.  There are 11 original structures here and you can walk through the well-maintained Officers’ Quarters, bake house, and carriage house.  Posted here 1842-1853 were flamboyantly-uniformed dragoons, who were elite fighters on foot or horseback.  Dragoons knew they were only as effective as their horses, so they took good care of them.  In fact, the horse stables remain the largest building at Fort Scott on the edge of the beautifully-landscaped parade ground.

Best Trail

The site may be small and surrounded by roads and development, but it does maintain five acres of restored tallgrass prairie (utilizing controlled burning) with a short nature trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The site is especially pretty in November, when the maple leaves turn red and orange in sharp contrast to the white buildings.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is a city-operated campground about two miles from the fort, as well as several state parks in the region.

Related Sites

Fort Smith National Historic Site (Arkansas-Oklahoma)

Fort Larned National Historic Site (Kansas)

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (Kansas)

Explore More – What are the three architectural styles reflected in the buildings are Fort Scott?

Yosemite National Park

Overview

Given its 4-million annual visitors, it can be hard to practice social distancing at Yosemite National Park.  In the summer, it can even be difficult to find parking in bustling Yosemite Valley.  The legendary valley is home to El Capitan and Half Dome, rock formations known around the world, as well as countless waterfalls.  For more ideas on what to do during your visit and how to avoid the crowds, check out our National Park guidebook, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows, Mariposa Grove

Must-Do Activity

When entering Yosemite Valley on Highway 41 from the south, your first sight of the valley is stunning upon emerging from a long tunnel.  You simply have to stop at the iconic Tunnel View parking area.  Although the forest here is denser than in the past, the scene has not changed much since President Lincoln signed the bill to preserve this area in 1864.  While the Yosemite Valley can get incredibly busy during peak tourist season, hike a mile up a trail and you might find a solitary place to enjoy one of the numerous waterfalls.

Best Trail

Formerly a paved tram route, the trail through the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees is a major highlight outside Yosemite Valley.  We especially enjoyed snowshoeing there in the winter.

Instagram-worthy Photo

From May to November, you can drive up to Glacier Point for great views into Yosemite Valley from the cliffs above.  We chose this overlook for our original logo of Yosemite National Park (see below).

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, even the one that goes over 9,945-foot high Tioga Pass, which crosses the Sierra Nevada and is closed in the winter (as is Glacier Point Road, though it remains open to cross-country skiers).

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park and some take reservations, but there are no RV hookups except outside the park.

Related Sites

Sequoia National Park (California)

Devils Postpile National Monument (California)

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (California)

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

Explore More – John Muir wrote extensively about the Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada, but many of his readers do not know he was an immigrant to America; in what country was he born?

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