Savannas Preserve State Park – Port St. Lucie, FL

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I stumbled upon this amazing state park recently and was immediately taken back in time: open grasslands mixed with wet prairie, scrub, and pine flatwoods – a scene from the pre-urban-sprawl “real” Florida!

Comprising over 7,000 acres, this unique preserve protects southeast Florida’s largest freshwater marsh and provides habitat for many threatened species such as scrub jays, gopher tortoises, and sandhill cranes, as well as the rare savannas mint and fragrant prickly apple, which grow almost exclusively in this park.

There are over 15 miles of multi-use trails enjoyed by hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians alike. Canoeists and kayakers can launch from the ramp or join a guided canoe/kayak tour offered every Friday and Saturday at 8:30am. Fishing is allowed with the proper licenses. Picnic pavilions are on a first-come/first-served basis, and restrooms are nearby. Also be sure to check out the live exhibits and gift shop in the Education Center (open Thursday to Monday). Overnight camping is not permitted. This is a small but mighty park worth a visit and hike/paddle if you are in the area.

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Seabranch Preserve State Park – Stuart, FL

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Once intended to become a golf course community (like we need more of those in Florida!), this precious and invaluable piece of Old Florida was designated a state park in 1992. And what a hidden gem it is! Home to one of the few intact ecosystems south of Cape Canaveral, visitors can enjoy the unique biological diversity it offers as well as the serenity and opportunities to observe rare flora and fauna of the area.

This small but important park protects 920 acres, 275 of which are wetlands. Its sand pine scrub community is so rare it is considered “globally imperiled”. Four miles of trails through sand, gravel, and mud will take hikers and bicyclists through scrub, flatwoods, and a tidal mangrove swamp. The trails can be challenging due to wet or sandy conditions, so please plan accordingly. Helmets are highly recommended for all cyclists and required for those 16 and under.

There is a small restroom, picnic area, and information kiosk near the entrance. Gopher tortoises, scrub jays, indigo snakes, sandhill cranes, wood storks, and many more threatened plant and animal species call this place home, so remember to take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – Key Largo, FL

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Wow, what a gem of a park this is! Attracting over a million visitors from all over the world annually, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the most popular state park in Florida. Situated on Key Largo and comprising 53,000 acres, some 70 nautical miles of Atlantic Ocean waters, and over 200 separate islands and islets, it is the first underwater park in the country and home to the only living coral reefs in the continental U.S. This unique park offers spectacular opportunities for underwater activities such as snorkeling, diving, exploring the reefs, and viewing marine life and sunken artifacts. Snorkel/dive/glass-bottom boat tours are available several times daily but can book up quickly, so reservations are strongly recommended. Canoeists and kayakers can bring their own vessel or rent from the concessionaire. Swimming is permitted at the park’s two beaches, and restrooms/bathhouses with cold-water/outdoor shower stations are located nearby.

There are three trails for hikers and bikers, but one of them was closed when I was there due to damage from Hurricane Irma. Guests can also enjoy the restaurant, gift shop, playground, and twelve pavilions which are based on a first-come/first-served basis. Also don’t miss the impressive Visitor Center which houses a 30,000-gallon aquarium, six smaller aquariums, natural history exhibits, and an educational theater.

Overnight guests can enjoy the 42-site campground, but it should be noted that the sites are very close together and all gravel. No ground fires are allowed, but each site has a grill, picnic table, and elec/water. There are laundry facilities and two restrooms with showers within close walking distance.

The park exists today largely due to the efforts of journalist John Pennekamp and marine biologist Dr. Gilbert Voss, who fought tirelessly during the 1950s to stop the tourism trade from decimating its coral reefs, sponges, sea shells, seahorses, etc. The area was dedicated as a preserve in 1960 and established as a state park in 1963. Today, laws protecting the reefs and other marine life are strictly enforced. So if you’re ever in the area, be sure to bring your thirst for adventure, take nothing but pictures, and enjoy the wonders of this remarkable Florida state park!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – TN

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With visitors numbering over 11 million annually, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most popular national park in the United States. It is also one of the largest protected areas in the eastern U.S., encompassing over 522,000 acres of pristine mountains, valleys, rivers, and waterfalls. After years of struggles due to land acquisition issues, the Great Depression, and WWII, the park was established in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1920.

There are four distinct historic districts (Cades Cove being the most visited and well-known) and one archaeological district within park boundaries, which also include nine sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Most are just a short, beautiful drive from Tennessee hot spots such as Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Maggie Valley.

Another favorite “attraction” is Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, at an elevation of 6,643’. There are 850 miles of trails to explore, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Hiking, bicycling, fishing, camping, and horseback riding are a few of the park’s most popular activities.

For overnight guests, there are ten campgrounds which offer restrooms with cold running water but no showers, water hookups, or electricity. There are also seven primitive group camps (tent only) and five drive-in equestrian camps.

For back-country camping, permits and reservations are required. Please observe the “Leave No Trace” policy while hiking and back-country camping. There are several one-night shelters throughout the park, most located along the Appalachian Trail. All park activities are seasonal, so check availability before your visit. If you haven’t yet explored this park, be sure to put it on your bucket list – there’s a reason it attracts twice as many visitors as the Grand Canyon!

Shenandoah National Park – VA

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Comprising 200,000 acres of protected lands, including part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park is host to over 1.2 million visitors annually. Established in 1935, the park was formally opened in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after enduring issues with years-long land ownership disputes, Jim Crow laws, the Great Depression, and WWII. The well-known Skyline Drive runs the entire 105-mile length of the park along the highest mountain ridges, offering frequent pullover spots and jaw-dropping views of the valleys below. Hawksbill Mountain is the highest mountain peak at just over 4,000’.

This park is absolutely gorgeous! Camping, bicycling, fishing, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing are popular activities here. There are over 500 miles of trails within the park, and 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail wind throughout, crossing Skyline Drive many times. Several waterfalls add to the serenity, beauty, and charm of the park, the highest cascading down 93’.

Overnight visitors can choose from three resorts/lodges, five campgrounds, a fishing retreat, and back-country camping. Please observe the “Leave No Trace” policy while hiking and back-country camping, which includes taking all trash with you, burying your waste, and no fires. All activities within the park are seasonal, so be sure to check dates and availability before your visit.

White-tail deer, black bears, skunks, bobcats, coyotes, snakes, turtles, turkeys, hawks, owls, and many more species of flora and fauna call this area home, so be respectful and aware of their presence and your impact on them. What an incredible place….definitely on my “Do It Again” list!!!

Long Point State Park – Ellery, NY

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I stumbled upon this charming, 360-acre park while exploring the Chautauqua Lake region of New York. Being September, it was off-season, so there were very few visitors, but this park is definitely a hot spot during the summer! Jutting out into Chautauqua Lake, Long Point State Park has a marina, snack bar/supply store, marine gas pumps, restrooms/bathhouse, large parking lot, and the most modern boat launch on the lake. The lake is 18 miles long and 1,308’ above sea level, making it one of the highest navigable bodies of water on the continent. Steamboats once brought visitors to its shores by the hour for various events; today, fishing, boating, swimming, canoeing/kayaking, and ice-fishing are popular activities.

The park also offers plenty of biking, hiking, picnicking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling opportunities. Bicycle, kayak, and sailboat rentals are available at the marina, and a playground is nearby as well.

Wildlife such as deer, black bears, turkeys, squirrels, groundhogs, and song birds call this area home, so remember to respect their environment, and do not feed or disturb them. Also, please be aware that this is a “carry in-carry out” park, so please take your trash with you for proper disposal (trash bags available). There are no camping facilities at this park, but it sure is a beautiful day-use park, so if you’re ever in the area, do yourself a favor and check it out!

 

High Falls State Park – Jackson, GA

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Located just outside Macon, Georgia, this gorgeous 1,050-acre park was the site of a thriving industrial town consisting of several stores, a grist mill, cotton mill, blacksmith shop, broom and mop factory, two wooden furniture plants, a shoe factory, and a hotel during the early 1800s. By the late 1800s, the town of High Falls was abandoned because it had been bypassed by a major railroad. Today, visitors can almost envision the once-bustling community with captivating views of the 135’ waterfall (the tallest south of Atlanta), remains of the old grist mill and powerhouse, and scenic views of the Towaliga River and the 650-acre lake. Towaliga means “roasted scalp” – according to legend, the Creek Indians who originally inhabited this area had massacred nearby settlers and took their scalps to the river to dry/smoke.

The dam and power plant were built around 1900 to generate electricity for the grist mill as well as cotton mills and homes in the area, staying in operation until 1958. The power plant eventually fell into the hands of the Georgia Power Company who turned it and the surrounding area over to the state in 1966, thus forming the state park which has been preserving history, protecting wildlife and nature, and providing fun outdoor activities for the whole family ever since! Yay!

High Falls Lake and the Towaliga River are hots spot for fishing, offering boat ramps, docks, and boat rentals. There are also 4.5 miles of moderate hiking trails, a playground, swimming pool (seasonal), a camp store, five picnic pavilions, and a group shelter that seats 125.

Overnight guests have several options: six lakeside yurts, 97 tent/RV sites with electricity/water, a primitive group campsite that sleeps up to 45, a paddle-in primitive campsite that sleeps up to 25. What a fun park for either day trips or weekend camping adventures!