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!

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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!

 

General Coffee State Park – Douglas, GA

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Named after General John E. Coffee, this 1,511-acre park is was donated to the state of Georgia in 1970, offering visitors a venture back in time with its Heritage Farm, Seventeen-Mile River, Pioneer Campground, and a variety of outdoor activities. John Coffee was a farmer and a general in the Georgia state militia in the early 19th century, overseeing the construction of a munitions trail to help the Florida Territory fight the Creek Indians. He was concurrently a member of the Georgia Senate, then later elected to the U.S. Senate until his death in 1836.

“Modern” agriculture and lifestyle practices can be seen at the Heritage Farm, a living history farmstead which consists of a blacksmith shop, tobacco barn, corn crib, syrup shed, chicken coop, farm equipment, cabins, outhouse, vegetable garden, and more. Farm animals include goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and donkeys. The Seventeen-Mile River meanders through the property, and there are six lakes and a four-acre fish pond which all offer peaceful kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and wildlife-viewing. There are also four miles of hiking/biking trails, fourteen miles of equestrian trails, seven picnic shelters, a playground, and an outdoor amphitheater. Kayak, canoe, pedal boat, and bike rentals are available as well.

Overnight options: 50 campsites with electricity and water, four two-bedroom cottages, a three-bedroom cottage, a one-bedroom cottage, six equestrian campsites, a group lodge which sleeps up to 40 people, and a primitive group campground for up to 30 people.

Whether you’re visiting for a day-trip or a weekend, this park is truly a hidden gem – a step back in time, a piece of modern American history, and home to many rare and endangered species such as indigo snakes, gopher tortoises, and pileated woodpeckers.

Lake Norman State Park – Troutman, NC

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This beautiful 1,934-acre park was created in 1962 when Duke Power Company donated 1,328 acres on the shores of Lake Norman to the state of North Carolina. Fed by the Catawba River, Lake Norman was created when Duke dammed the river to create electricity. Named after former Duke Power president Norman Cocke, it is the largest man-made body of freshwater in North Carolina and is sometimes referred to as the “inland sea”. The Catawba natives thrived here until the mid-18th century; there are artifacts and burial sites in the area as well as underneath the lake. The park is steeped in Revolutionary War and American history.

Four hiking trails range from .15 mile to 30.5 miles long, the longest being the Itusi Trail, which is extremely popular with mountain bikers. A 125’ day-use beach area offers restrooms/showers, lockers, a concession, picnicking, and a fishing pier. Swimming is permitted from April to October, but lifeguards are not always present.

Overnight campers can choose from 32 non-electric sites or five primitive group camps which accommodate up to 26 people. Restrooms and potable water are located nearby. Reservations are highly recommended.

The park also has an impressive visitor center, a boat launch, and kayaks, canoes, SUPs, and pedal boats for rent. Fishing, picnicking, and bird-watching are popular activities here. Wildlife such as deer, muskrats, coyotes, turkeys, ospreys, herons, ducks, and copperheads call this place home, so please be aware and respectful of flora and fauna at all times. Overall a gorgeous park I wish I had more time to explore, that’s for sure!

Bald Eagle State Park – Howard, PA

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This 5,900-acre park is named after Lenape Chief Woapalanne (“bald eagle”) who lived in this area for a brief time in the mid-18th century. During the 19th century, iron, lumber, and railway industries began to thrive here, and eventually farmland replaced the forest. In 1969, a dam was built to reduce flood damage downstream and control water levels throughout the changing seasons, creating Foster Joseph Sayers Lake. The dam and 1,730-acre lake are named after a local WWII hero killed in action at age 19, whose efforts earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. The state of Pennsylvania has owned the park since 1971.

Today, the forest has regenerated, and the man-made lake offers a variety of activities such as fishing, boating, kayaking, ice-skating, and swimming. The 1,200’ beach has a playground, snack bar, restrooms, and an ample parking lot. Water activities are seasonal. There are no lifeguards, and the park does not monitor ice depth during the winter, so use caution, and remember: you are responsible for your own safety at all times.

The marina offers 369 dock slips, a concession, gasoline, repairs, rentals, and seasonal storage. For day use, visitors can enjoy five picnic areas, six launches, two volleyball courts, and seven trails/fourteen miles for hiking or cross-country skiing.

Overnight guests have many options as well: 97 modern campsites, two yurts, three cottages, 70 primitive sites, as well as the latest addition to the park: The Nature Inn. This “green” 18,500-square-foot, 16-room facility offers overnight accommodations overlooking the lake while focusing on outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship. Its interpretive programs make this a birder’s paradise!