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Sam Boykin

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Ancient Mountains: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photograph by Paul Marcellini

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is renowned for its plant and animal life, as well as its finely preserved remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. These pristine mountains, among the oldest on earth, together form America’s most visited national park, welcoming nearly 11 million visitors annually.

At 522,419 acres, the park is a vast natural playground, filled with opportunities to fish, hunt, hike, paddle, and camp. The area’s abundant rainfall—some eighty-five inches a year—and extreme elevation changes foster one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country (more than 17,000 species have been documented so far). The rainfall and water evaporation from the trees also produce the smoke-like fog that gives the mountains their name.

A favorite destination for history buffs, the park maintains more than ninety historic Appalachian structures—from houses and barns to schools and churches—one of the finest collections of log buildings in the East. The highest concentration of buildings can be found in Cades Cove, settled by Europeans in the early nineteenth century.

Long before those settlers arrived, these mountains were home to Cherokee Indians. After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Cherokee and other Southern tribes were forced west of the Mississippi on the infamous Trail of Tears. In the decades that followed, the logging industry devastated thousands of acres of woodlands. Groups from Tennessee and North Carolina came together in the early 1900s to save the region’s natural beauty and attract tourists to the area. After the park was officially established in 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program created to combat unemployment during the Depression, built the park’s trails, campgrounds, bridges, and other infrastructure components. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park on September 2, 1940.

web-EMW-Illustration-Final---Marbled-SalamanderThe park is home to some thirty species of salamanders, earning it the title “Salamander Capital of the World.” Perhaps Great Smoky Mountains’s most famous resident is the American black bear, with a park population estimated at 1,500.

Field Notes

Visitors 10,700,000 in 2015; July is the most crowded month, February the least.

Must-See Standing 6,643 feet Clingmans Dome is the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi. It juts from the ridge dividing Tennessee and North Carolina and features a forty-five-foot circular observation tower with panoramic views.

Must-Do Grab a trail map and seek out the park’s forty-plus waterfalls, including the 120-foot Mingo Falls, one of the tallest in the Southern Appalachians. If you don’t feel like hiking, there are several waterfalls you can access by car, such as the Place of a Thousand Drips near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Lodging Hike the scenic seven-mile Bullhead Trail through red spruce and balsam firs to LeConte Lodge, situated near the peak of Tennessee’s 6,593-foot Mount LeConte. The lodge, which predates the national park, offers a variety of rustic cabins and lodge rooms. Overnight guests can fuel up on hearty family-style meals served in the main dining room.

Nearby Unto These Hills, one of the oldest outdoor dramas in the country, tells the story of the Cherokee Nation. Colorful costumes, soaring music, and elaborate sets bring their rich history to life, but it’s the theater itself, set beneath the stars on the side of a mountain in Cherokee, North Carolina, (just minutes from the eastern entrance to the park) that makes the experience unforgettable.

Underwater Wilderness: Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park

Paul Marcellini

South of bustling downtown Miami and below the tranquil surface of the ocean lies a vast and colorful world known as Biscayne. Here, millions of strange and wonderful creatures thrive in a vibrant and diverse ecosystem. Biscayne’s most prevalent residents are the clusters of undulating, limestone-secreting polyps that make up the coral reef, an alien-like landscape that attracts hundreds of species of fish, shrimp, crabs, and other animals. The public may explore this one-of-a-kind destination thanks to a group of locals who fought developers determined to dredge up thousands of acres to build bridges, highways, an airport, and a seaport in the 1960s. After a contentious and protracted battle, Congress created Biscayne National Monument in 1968, and in 1980, Biscayne National Park was established.

Today, the park’s boundaries encompass nearly 173,000 acres, which include the northernmost islands of the Florida Keys and the northern section of the world’s third-largest coral reef. With 95 percent of the park underwater, the only way to truly experience Biscayne is via boat, including a variety of glass-bottom boat tours. The adventurous may also try snorkeling, scuba diving, or kayaking. For those who prefer to remain on dry land, the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point offers a virtual journey beneath the waves via dioramas and films, as well as trails along the point’s mangrove shoreline.

web-EMW-Illustration-Final---Barrel-Sponge
Emily Wallis

From otherworldly barrel sponges and colorful Christmas tree worms to the rare Schaus swallowtail butterfly, Biscayne’s wildlife is amazingly diverse and includes many threatened and endangered species such as the West Indian manatee, eastern indigo snake, and peregrine falcon.

 

 

 

Field Notes

Visitors 508,000 in 2015; July is the most crowded month, November the least.

Camping $25 per night; includes tent site and boat docking. Boca Chita Key and Elliott Key both offer first-come, first-served campsites. Visitors to Elliott Key, the largest of the park’s forty barrier islands, may explore the park’s subtropical forest on a six-mile trail that runs the length of the island.

Must-See Boca Chita Key’s sixty-five-foot ornamental lighthouse is regarded as the park’s unofficial symbol. Built in the 1930s by Mark Honeywell, former owner of the island (and founder of the Fortune 100 Honeywell company), the lighthouse features an exterior of locally excavated coral rock and a stone spiral staircase. Make the relatively easy climb to the observation deck for great views of the ocean and the Miami skyline.

Must-Do Explore Biscayne’s Maritime Heritage Trail, with six shipwreck sites whose origins span nearly a century.
Access to the sites is by boat only, and many of the wrecks are best suited to
scuba-based exploration. However, snorkelers may enjoy excursions to the Mandalay site and around the base of the 1878 Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, a new addition to the trail.

Insider Tip The calm waters along the park’s mainland shore are ideal for beginner windsurfers.

River of Grass: The Florida Everglades

Everglades National Park

Paul Marcellini

With its vast wilderness, colorful history, and myriad plant and animal life, the Florida Everglades possess an almost mythical quality. The subtropical park on the southern tip of Florida is “one of the unique regions of the earth,” according to noted writer and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Indeed, the incredible mix of temperate and tropical plants and animals living in sync with an annual cycle of flooding and drought make the Everglades a place like no other.

While most early national parks were established to preserve scenery and geography, conservationists lobbied to create Everglades National Park as a way to protect the area’s wildlife and ecosystem from developers and local plume hunters. Their push was the result of tragedy: Just a few years after the American Ornithological Society hired Guy Bradley as a bird warden for the area (making him one of the first game wardens in the nation), he was shot and killed in 1905 while trying to protect a wading-bird rookery. The killing galvanized the fledgling conservation movement, and in 1947, Everglades National Park was established.

Spanning about 1.5 million acres, the park has many superlatives: largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie in North America; largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere; largest designated wilderness area in the Southeast; and the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America. Moreover, it’s a habitat for thousands of reptiles, fish, and mammals, including endangered species such as the West Indian manatee, American crocodile, and Florida panther.

web-EMW-Illustration-Final---Florida-PantherOnce common throughout the southeastern United States, the population of Florida panthers dwindled to twenty-odd individuals during the 1970s. Thanks to genetic-restoration efforts, almost 100 panthers are estimated to live in Everglades today.

 

Field Notes

Visitors 1,080,000 in 2015; March is the most crowded month, September the least.

Camping Long Pine Key Campground and Flamingo Campground are drive-in accessible and accommodate tents and RVs. For a rugged experience, a variety of backcountry sites ($15 for a permit and $2 per person per day) are located along the forests and beaches and on elevated platforms known as “chickees.”

Must-See Birdwatching is one of the most popular activities at Everglades, thanks to its 360 species and designated birding spots. The popular Anhinga Trail, which begins at the Royal Palm Visitor Center near the main park entrance, winds through a sawgrass marsh and affords excellent opportunities to spot egrets, herons, and of course, anhingas (also known as water turkeys), particularly during the winter months.

Must-Do Shark Valley, located in the less-visited northern section of the park, offers a variety of activities, including miles of walking and biking trails, ranger-guided tram tours, abundant wildlife, and a sixty-five-foot observation tower that provides panoramic views of the Everglades from the highest accessible point in the park.

Insider Tip While wildlife is the big draw in Everglades, visitors may also discover a piece of Cold War history at an abandoned 1964 Nike Hercules Missile Site built in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. December to April, rangers lead tours of the base, which remains almost unchanged since its 1979 closing.

Land of Giants: Congaree National Park

 

Congaree Swamp National Monument

Paul Marcellini

Established in 2003, Congaree is one of the country’s newest national parks, yet it boasts the southeastern United States’ largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest. The park is located about twenty miles from Columbia, South Carolina, along the Congaree and Wateree rivers, which feed the park’s floodplains with nutrients and sediments. Over the centuries, this process has helped create Congaree’s towering tree canopy and biologically diverse ecosystem.

A protected wilderness area, the 26,545-acre park is home to many animals, including deer, bobcats, and feral pigs. Congaree’s rivers, creeks, and lakes are also thriving habitats for alligators, snakes, turtles, and a variety of fish. Visitors can take an up-close look at this rich habitat via twenty-five miles of hiking trails, as well as a number of canoe trails.

Congaree typically floods at least ten times a year (including this past October, when South Carolina was hit with record-breaking rainfall), so visitors should check the forecast and monitor park alerts. The area’s inaccessibility has long been part of its allure: Moonshiners once maintained stills in its nearly impenetrable backcountry, and escaped slaves often sought refuge here.

The landscape proved particularly challenging for loggers, who largely suspended operations in the early part of the twentieth century. However, a 1969 spike in timber prices caused some to reconsider that decision. Thanks to a grassroots campaign led by the Sierra Club, Congress established the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976, and on November 10, 2003, it was designated America’s fifty-seventh national park.

Field Notes

Visitors
87,500 in 2015; April is the most crowded month, January the least.

Camping
There are designated campsites at Longleaf Campground ($10 a night) and Bluff Campground ($5 a night). Longleaf is near the park entrance and easily accessible; Bluff is more remote, with no vehicle access. Sites at each campground have fire rings and picnic tables.

Must-See
Congaree is home to one of the world’s tallest temperate deciduous forests, with a canopy reaching higher than 100 feet (taller than the Amazon rain forest) and six national championship trees, including a 167-foot loblolly pine. Walk the 4.4-mile Weston Lake Loop Trail for up-close encounters with the giants.

Must-Do
By far the best way to experience Congaree is paddling the park’s rivers and creeks. Canoe trips include short excursions along Cedar Creek and multi-day journeys that follow the creek to the Congaree River. The longer trails push into the park’s dense western territory, which was never touched by loggers.

Insider Tip
Be particularly careful when navigating around fallen trees. They’re often home to spiders, snakes, wasps, and poison ivy.

Secluded Desert Isles: Dry Tortugas National Park

A remote bird and marine-life sanctuary, Dry Tortugas National Park is centered on a chain of seven small islands about seventy nautical miles west of Key West, Florida. Spanning some 64,000 acres (most of it open water), the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Intrepid visitors are rewarded with unspoiled beauty, abundant wildlife, and the opportunity to explore Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the United States. Guests may also swim, snorkel, and scuba dive in the park’s crystal-blue waters and along the pristine coral reef.

Located along the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Dry Tortugas island chain has long been heavily traveled (not surprisingly, it has seen hundreds of shipwrecks). In the mid-1840s, the U.S. Army began construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key to protect the vital shipping channel.

Although unfinished—the nearly thirty-year building process was interrupted by the Civil War and plagued by supply problems—the fort is nonetheless an impressive historical structure. Built with some 16 million bricks, the three-level, hexagon-shaped military fortress stands forty-five feet high and features 2,000 archways and eight-foot-thick walls.

Due to a number of factors, including hurricane damage and the development of cannon that could penetrate the fort’s walls, Fort Jefferson was abandoned in 1907. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Fort Jefferson a national monument. The monument’s boundaries were expanded in 1983, and in 1992, it was redesignated Dry Tortugas National Park.

Field Notes

Visitors 70,862 in 2015; May is the most crowded month, October the least.

Camping Garden Key’s ten primitive sites ($15 a night) are first-come, first-served and have picnic tables and grills. The Yankee Freedom Ferry provides transportation to Garden Key. (Bonus: With virtually no light pollution in the park, the stargazing is outstanding.)

Must-See Visit during the spring to see thousands of migrating birds during their stopover on the park’s islands. Dry Tortugas is also one of the best places in the nation to spy wild conchs, which live among the seagrass beds near shore.

Must-Do Snorkel and swim among the easily accessible shipwrecks and coral reefs. Highlights include the expansive Little Africa reef, located off the western shore of Loggerhead Key, and the Windjammer Wreck, a iron-hulled sailing vessel that wrecked on the Loggerhead reef in the early 1900s.

Insider Tip Book your camping trip months in advance, especially during the busy winter season, to secure a campsite and a spot on the ferry.

On Island Time: Sweet seclusion

Oceanfront home on Bald Head Island’s East Beach

Bald Head Island Limited

From my home in Davidson, North Carolina, I have a pretty heinous commute to work in uptown Charlotte. When I consider all the hours I spend in traffic, it’s downright distressing. That’s why, when it comes to vacations, I opt to go somewhere serene and congestion-free—somewhere like Bald Head Island. 

Situated along the southernmost end of the North Carolina coast, Bald Head Island marks the spot where the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Gulf Stream converge. Aside from the occasional maintenance vehicle, you won’t find any cars there; most folks get around on golf carts, bikes, or their own two feet.

Golf cart through a maritime forest.
Golf cart through a maritime forest.

Bald Head Island Limited

While the island has a few traditional amenities—such as a country club, golf course, and spa—most of its 12,000 acres are protected marshes, creeks, and maritime forests, along with about fourteen miles of pristine beaches. It’s a place where wildlife flourishes, from herons and egrets stalking their prey along the creeks, to fiddler crabs scuttling along the hiking trails, to sea turtles nesting on the beach.

Recently, my wife, Kimoko, our six-year-old daughter, Lily, and I decided to check out the island for the first time. When we arrived in the laid-back coastal town of Southport, we left our car parked at Deep Point Marina and boarded a ferry bound for Bald Head. About twenty-five tranquil minutes later, we pulled into the harbor, alongside a number of yachts, cruisers, and fishing boats.

As we rode the island’s tram to our rental home, the oldest lighthouse in the state, nicknamed “Old Baldy,” loomed above a cluster of trees to our left. In the distance, an expanse of salt marsh stretched to the horizon. Already I could tell this was my kind of place.

Our house was situated on the aptly named Live Oak Trail, near a creek and a salt marsh preserve. My daughter squealed when she saw two golf carts parked in the driveway for our use. While oceanfront homes certainly have their perks, I enjoyed being ensconced in a shady forest of live oaks, serenaded by a chorus of cicadas.

Bald Head Island has a long and storied past: Over the centuries, it has been home to Native Americans, pirates, and even Civil War soldiers. In the early 1970s, a handful of pioneering families began building vacation homes on it, but strict development regulations have kept the island’s wild side protected. Today, there are only about 1,200 houses, with plenty of space between them, and not a single high-rise condo.

Bald Head Creek boardwalk
Bald Head Creek boardwalk

Bald Head Island Limited

Once we got settled, Kimoko and Lily took off on a golf cart to check out the island, while I rented a kayak from Riverside Adventure Company, a local outfitter, and set off to explore Bald Head Creek. I glided through the primordial estuary, the only sound my paddle dipping into the brackish water. When I paused to let the cool breezes wash over me, an eagle launched itself from a tree in the distance and soared away.

During our second day, Lily (who inherited my love of critters and the outdoors) went exploring with me while my wife lounged by the pool. Just beyond the island’s small central village—where there’s a market and cafe, a spa, and about a half-dozen shops—we discovered a trail leading to the Maritime Forest Preserve; we were soon enveloped by the wood of towering oak, palmetto, and pine trees. Pressing deeper into the forest, we came to a clearing. A couple of brightly colored butterflies flitted past, and hundreds of giant red ants scurried over dark mounds of earth. On the way back to the road, my daughter gave chase to a pair of fiddler crabs darting in and out of their holes.

Fishing on Bald Head Island's South Beach
Fishing on Bald Head Island’s South Beach

Bald Head Island Limited

By that point, Lily was ready to join Kimiko at the pool. I decided to rent a standup paddleboard from Coastal Urge, the island’s other outfitter. Launching from the main dock near the harbor, I cruised along the edge of the creek, meandering into coves. The water was shallow, and several times I spotted the silvery dash of fish and the ghostly shadows of stingrays undulating along the creek’s sandy bottom.

Even with the breezes whispering along the creek, I worked up a pretty good sweat. After returning my paddleboard, I joined the ladies for a cool dip in the pool. Then it was back to the house, where we dined on a feast of fresh crab legs from the village market. After days of exploring isolated trails and waterways and wandering lonely beaches, we had all eased into the island’s soothing rhythm. We climbed into our golf cart for one last joyride as the sun slowly melted into the horizon.

If you love the solitude of Bald Head Island, you might also like …

Cumberland Island, Georgia
From St. Marys, Georgia, it’s a quick ferry ride to this off-the-grid destination that once served as a Carnegie family getaway. Explore the island via fifty miles of trails that wind through maritime forests and a designated wilderness area. Along the way, you’ll discover eighteen miles of beaches and interesting historical sites such as First African Baptist Church, the 1893 chapel where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette tied the knot in 1996. What you won’t find are snack bars or concession stands, so be sure to pack any food and drinks you may need, along with camping gear if you plan to stay overnight. The island has both developed and wilderness campsites, including a remote spot near the beach where you’re likely to spot dolphins and manatees. If you don’t feel like roughing it, book a room at the historic Greyfield Inn, built in 1900 as a Carnegie family residence and converted to an inn in 1962. nps.gov/cuis, greyfieldinn.com

Take Five: Southern Oddities

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World Erotic Art Museum
Miami Beach, Florida
It seems fitting that Miami—a favorite destination of the beautiful and clothing averse—is home to the World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM). Founded in 2005, WEAM is the country’s only museum devoted exclusively to erotic art. Not a place for the repressed or shy, the 12,000-square-foot museum boasts more than 4,000 works of international art, including pieces from Rembrandt, Picasso, and Dali, plus more contemporary—and graphic—life-size sculptures and photographs. Don’t miss the infamous phallic “Rocking Machine” from A Clockwork Orange. weam.com

Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum
Gibsland, Louisiana
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow terrorized the nation in the early 1930s with a series of robberies and killings. Shortly before Texas officers gunned them down outside Gibsland, the lovebirds reportedly ordered sandwiches from Ma Canfield’s Cafe. Today, that cafe is the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum. L.J. “Boots” Hinton, the son of one of the deputies who killed the diabolical duo, opened the museum in 2005. Guests will discover crime scene photos, guns used by the outlaws, pieces of their clothing, and a replica of the 1934 V8 Ford they were driving when killed. bonnieandclydeambushmuseum.com

web-IMG_0697Waffle House Museum
Decatur, Georgia
Ever since friends Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner opened the first Waffle House in 1955, it’s been a popular spot among folks looking for an affordable breakfast or a place to squelch the munchies after a night out on the town. The iconic restaurant chain—which serves 145 waffles per minute in its 1,700 locations—pays homage to its past at the Waffle House Museum, located in Decatur at the site of the first restaurant. The facility has been restored to its 1950s-era glory, complete with memorabilia such as old china, a retro juke box, and preserved newspaper clippings. wafflehouse.com

web-IMG_5435The Kazoo Museum
Beaufort, South Carolina
Once the unofficial soundtrack for zany shenanigans, the kazoo was introduced to the world at the Georgia State Fair in 1852 as the “Down South Submarine.” Over the years, musicians have incorporated the simple instrument into a variety of musical genres. Today, Kazoobie Kazoos in Beaufort is one of the country’s largest kazoo manufacturers and home to the Kazoo Museum. Founded in 2007, the museum—where they “keep the world humming”—showcases nearly 200 kazoo-related items, from some of the first models to more modern designs with trumpet mouthpieces and horn attachments. kazoomuseum.org

web-Lunchbox-Museum-9The Lunch Box Museum
Columbus, Georgia
Located in an unassuming marketplace near downtown Columbus, visitors find a can’t-miss destination for lovers of kitsch. Behold, in a former cold storage building, the Lunch Box Museum. Over the years, museum proprietor Allen Woodall has collected about 1,500 of the vintage metal containers, which are embossed with images of television, radio, and movie stars dating back to the 1930s. Like a pop-culture time capsule, the museum instantly transports guests back to their youth, whether they grew up cheering for Hopalong Cassidy or idolizing the awesomeness of Rambo. 706-653-6240

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