The South's National Parks
From deserts and mountains to hot springs and watering holes, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service right here in our own backyard
With the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, there is no better way to celebrate than exploring the amazing vistas they have to offer. You can take in a sunset over the mountains in the desert at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. It is a true embodiment of West Texas. If you're heading to Florida, you must hit one of their three Nationals Parks: Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Everglades National Park. One of the better-known parks in the South is the Great Smoky National Park spreading over North Carolina and Tennessee. It doesn't disappoint when driving the 384 miles of scenic roadways and viewing stops. Take a look at the rest of the National Parks that the South has to offer.
The South's National Parks
Most Americans, including many Southerners, might not realize that our nation’s first piece of federally protected land—in essence, the first national park—is located in the South. In 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone was named a national park, an act of Congress established Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas. It was the first time the United States had ever protected a landscape purely for public recreation. Today, as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial anniversary, we step back and soak in the diversity and awe-inspiring beauty of our public lands—59 national parks altogether, 10 of which are in the South. And what a spectrum: uncut primal forests, desert canyons, underwater coral reefs, fecund swamps teeming with life, and yawning caves. All told, 16.3 million people visited Southern national parks in 2015. These might well be the most restorative places in the South. They allow us to move, breathe, think, and explore. They fill us with pride of place, reminding us of our rich heritage, both natural and cultural. They are places where we may go and feel small and remember that the world is big. They are places, too, where our children are inspired to be better stewards as they discover a beauty that can never be matched by anything on a screen.
Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
The smallest—and oldest—of our national parks, this 5,500-acre tract features 47 geothermally heated natural springs that flow from the Ouachita Mountains. Native Americans called this land “the Valley of the Vapors” and gathered here for thousands of years to soak in the warm mineral waters they believed to possess medicinal properties. Today, the springs fill the pools of Bathhouse Row, eight buildings that exemplify Gilded Age architecture and compose a National Historic Landmark District. The doughnut-shaped park encompasses downtown Hot Springs—there’s no gate or fee—and is the only one created explicitly for preserving resources for public health and wellness. For more information on Hot Springs National Park visit nps.gov.
Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida
A petite archipelago of seven islands about 68 miles west of Key West, this is the South’s most isolated, hard-to-reach park, accessible only by boat or seaplane. That said, it’s a bucket list trip that is well worth the effort. Of the park’s over 64,00 acres, 99% lie beneath the water, making this a paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers who come to explore the least-disturbed coral reefs of the Florida Keys, as well as shipwrecks caused by the treacherous shallows. The centerpiece of the park is Fort Jefferson, a hexagonal fortress that is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Built in the 19th century, it was used as a Civil War prison and later as a naval base. There is no fresh water on any of the islands, and amenities are limited, so be sure to bring what you need. Departing daily from Key West, the Yankee Freedom III, a 110-foot, high-speed catamaran, makes the 70-mile trip in two hours and change, giving you four hours to explore Fort Jefferson and its waters before the return trip. For more information about the Dry Tortugas National Park visit nps.gov.
Everglades National Park in Florida
One of the largest parks in the continental U.S., this 1.5 million-acre preserve is the largest subtropical wilderness in the country and one of only three places in the entire world to be designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance. This vast “River of Grass,” so named for the slow-moving river that oozes through the saw grass from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay, is home to 38 threatened or endangered species. The Shark River Slough is the largest aquatic artery in the Everglades ecosystem, and it’s the primary source of water for the park. Water from the slough drains into a web of mangrove-lined creeks that all come together to form the Shark River. Push-poling kayaks in the slough is one of many adventurous activities available here. Others include boat tours, paddling, biking, fishing, and hikes that range from wheelchair-friendly boardwalks to knee-deep slogs. Concessions are sparse, so bring food, water, sunscreen, and insect repellent. For more information on the Everglades National Park visit nps.gov.
Biscayne National Park in Florida
Most of the half-million visitors who come here every year arrive by boat. About 95% of this 172,000-acre park is underwater. Just south of Miami, Biscayne protects several biologically rich ecosystems: the shallow sea grass beds of Biscayne Bay; the northernmost true Florida Key (Elliott Key); a vast tangle of mangrove shoreline; and the tip of the Florida Reef, one of the world’s largest coral reefs. Take a boat ride to enjoy the lighthouse on Boca Chita Key, the abbreviated trails on Elliott Key, and photo-worthy Stiltsville—seven historic houses perched above the water on stilts. But the heart of the park is beneath the surface. Divers come to explore the coral reef and the park’s 44 shipwrecks. You can also take a six-hour sailing trip, embarking from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. To learn more about Biscayne National Park visit nps.gov.
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky
The earth beneath south-central Kentucky is honeycombed with passageways carved into ancient limestone by underground rivers and sinking streams. With almost 400 miles of explored caverns just within the 52,800-plus-acre park, this is the longest known cave system in the world. This year marks Mammoth Cave’s 200th anniversary of guided tours, which began before it was named a national park. Tours range from toddler-friendly (the quarter-mile Frozen Niagara Tour) to adventuresome (belly crawling on the Wild Cave Tour), with many options in between, including one lit only by kerosene lantern. The popular two-hour Historic Tour visits such famous—and eerily named—sites as Fat Man’s Misery and Bottomless Pit. Above ground, the park has over 70 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, as well as opportunities to fish and paddle the Green River. For more information on Mammoth Cave National Park visit nps.gov.
Congaree National Park in South Carolina
Walk among the oldest and tallest trees east of the Mississippi River in the largest expanse of old-growth hardwood forest in America. Much of the 10,000 acres of uncut bottomland looks a lot like it did when the Europeans first arrived: a vast floodplain covered with ancient pines, oaks, elms, hickories, maples, and cypress—some at least 2,000 years old. This almost 27,000-acre park has the nation’s greatest concentration of champion trees, 25 arboreal giants that are the largest of their species in the country. Much of Congaree is pure wilderness, but you can access the interior with an easy paddle. Ranger-led canoe tours on Cedar Creek lead to untouched ecosystems. You might spy river otters, barn owls, deer, wading birds, or an occasional alligator. (Call ahead for reservations; 803/776-4396.) More than 25 miles of trails thread through the dry parts of the park; the wheelchair-accessible, 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail provides an elevated walkway through bald cypress and tupelo trees, ending with a view of Weston Lake. For more information on Congaree National park vitis nps.gov.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina & Tennessee
The country’s most visited national park protects the largest contiguous tract of wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, it’s designed for driving with 384 miles of scenic roadways and viewing stops. Still, there are many reasons to get out of your car: working mills, blacksmith shops, accessible trails, one-room churches, and more than 90 historic log structures. The famous 11-mile Cades Cove driving loop can take four to five hours during peak season, but the crowds thin with every step into the wilderness, where wildlife is waiting: white-tailed deer, turkeys, elk, and an estimated 1,500 black bears. Enjoy the tamer side of the wildlife at one of several concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November including Cades Cove Riding Stables, Smokemont Riding Stables, and Sugarland Riding Stables. For more information on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visit nps.gov.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas
This 86,300-acre park embodies the high-desert rapture of West Texas. It’s less than two hours east of El Paso and a half-hour from New Mexico’s renowned Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Studded with fossils 265 million years old, a limestone reef rises 5,000 feet from the Chihuahuan Desert, riddled with canyons and speckled with cacti, yuccas, agaves—insistent green against resistant stone. This landscape is dramatic, ancient, and feral; it’s home to the 8,789-foot Guadalupe Peak, the state’s highest point, and El Capitan, a commanding visage of stone that towers over the land. Explore more than 80 miles of trails laced with wildflowers in May and painted with blooming cacti April through June. To the southwest, discover the sugar-white gypsum Salt Basin Dunes, 60 feet high, sculpted and resculpted by wind. Don’t miss hiking McKittrick Canyon Trail, where the desert scrub gives way to a stream framed by oak, ash, and maple trees that come ablaze in the fall. For more information on the Guadalupe Mountains National Park visit nps.gov.
Big Bend National Park in Texas
Set along a 118-mile sweeping curve of the Rio Grande, this 801,163-acre park is wild, rugged, and remote—the largest expanse of roadless public land in Texas. It’s filled with historic sites (including Native American encampments and adobe homes); fossils from the Cretaceous and Cenozoic eras; and a wealth of biodiversity, with more species of birds, bats, butterflies, cacti, and reptiles than any other park. One of the top 10 places in the world for stargazing, Big Bend has the darkest skies in the lower 48 states and has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. Its 150-mile web of trails extends along the Rio Grand and up to 7,832-foot Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. One of the most popular campsites is located at the Chisos Basin—5,400 feet up and surrounded by still higher cliffs. Several outfitters offer guided float trips on the river, which are particularly breathtaking where the river cuts through the 1,500-foot Santa Elena Canyon. For more information on Big Bend National Park visit nps.gov.
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia
The heart of this linear park is a road: the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which runs along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. This National Scenic Byway is most popular during peak leaf season, when the whole park explodes with vibrant autumn colors—and cars. Most visitors experience Shenandoah from behind a windshield, which means you can easily escape the crowds just by getting out of your vehicle. Reasons to do so: There are waterfalls; swimming holes; epic bike rides; and more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Fly-fishers ply the streams for native brook trout, and rock climbers scale the granite walls of Old Rag Mountain, a 1 billion-year-old, 3,291-foot peak. The popular trail to the summit is strenuous and requires scrambling over a few boulders, but the view explains why this area is so aptly named Blue Ridge. For more information on Shenandoah National Park visit nps.gov.