Gems of the South: Alabama Sand Pines to Arkansas Quartz Mines
Land Between The Lakes, AL - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
This is part 2 of Scott's recap of some of his favorite hidden (and not-so-hidden) gems of the American South. For part 1 - "From the Blue Ridge to the Bayou" - covering Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida - click here
In the middle ground between dreams and reality I felt a peculiar itching on both of my ankles. Reaching through the fog of my margarita hangover, I discovered hundreds of red bumps on my feet and ankles - then reality came screaming in through my foggy brain and it was clear some sort of critter had gnawed away at me in the night. Finding a pharmacy in Orange Beach, Alabama, I was told that I'd been attacked by Trombicula Alfreddugesi - commonly known as chiggers. A type of mite, nearly microscopic in size, grows through four stages: eggs, larva, nymph, adult. As larva they feed on skin - spewing an enzyme that breaks down skin cells for them to slurp up. This causes Trombiculosis, or in layman's terms: The worst rash of your friggin' life.
The parking area of the FloraBama bar is in a sandy lot littered with small patches of grass. My rig was parked in one of these patches of grass, and upon stepping in for bed my sandal-clad feet awoke a nest of chiggers. Laughs from the pharmacist followed by a: "Welcome to the south" were my gifts, along with an ointment to help with the itching. "Hop in the cleansing waters of the gulf and you'll be just fine, buddy." I offered a sigh and a smile before heading off for the beach, music and miles in the opposite direction of the FloraBama was the only thing to cure the itch - and anyway, driving through Alabama without listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd would be a great injustice indeed...
Florida-Alabama Line, AL - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
With the mark of my Alabama welcoming party on my ankles, I set out first for Lake Shelby - the 'national treasure' of the already well-loved Alabama coast - or as the locals call it, LA (Lower Alabama). Lake Shelby is the heart of Gulf State Park which, combined with nearby Little Lake and Middle Lake, provides 900 acres of water for swimming, boating, and paddling. A strip of fine white sand beaches lay between this fresh water paradise and the Gulf of Mexico, where the balmy sea breeze whistles through the Alabama pines. Trails for hiking and biking, picnic areas, a spacious campground, and cabins both lakeside and forest-dwelling offer a range of experiences. An educational pier, butterfly garden, palmetto forest, and longleaf pine forest make Gulf State Park an incredible outdoor mecca.
Gulf Shores, AL - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Following the advice of the pharmacist, I made my way to Gulf Shores, AL. The iconic beach, lined with flags representing every southern university; beachgoers representing their team with matching chairs, towels, coolers, and beer koozies. A man with cowboy boot sandals, vendors selling $25 cowboy hats fashioned out of beer boxes, rowdy joyous screams - the beaches of Gulf Shores seem to always be in spring break mode. As I stepped into the salty water, my screams matched those of the cowboy hat clad revelers - the constellations of chigger bites meeting the Gulf's waters introducing me to a whole new understanding of pain; but when in Rome... you listen to a pharmacist.
Up from the coast, bound for the Interstate 10 corridor - a scenic drive with the sun flickering through the Alabama pines and blue palmetto palms, large cotton candy clouds lingering overhead. The salty sea air blowing through my hair, I couldn't help but smile in appreciation of the wonders of a southern adventure.
Mobile Bay is an impressive habitat, with the waters from the Mobile, Spanish, Apalachee, and Tensaw rivers converging into the bay. The Mobile/Tensaw Delta is teeming with wildlife - over 300 species of birds have been spotted in the delta, with 110 known to nest there. At the top of the bay is Meaher State Park, which serves as a perfect basecamp to explore the area. Herons, cranes, and pelicans soar above the waters as battleships and fishing boats meander their way in and out of the Mobile, AL shipyards.
Alabama-Mississippi Border, MS - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Crossing into Mississippi via U.S. Highway 90, you'll find the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge - well known for a variety of carnivorous plants, amongst other diverse flora and world famous orchids. Deer, crab, and an array of birds live out their days across the many hiking trails and upland marshes - accessible from a boardwalk. This wildlife haven is a must-see along the Gulf, as it is a perfect representation of the natural features of the area.
Twenty five miles west on U.S. 90 is the Gulf Islands National Seashore - home to maritime forests, estuaries, dune ecosystems, bayous, and barrier islands. The Mississippi portion of the National Seashore is home to the Davis Bayou Campground, which has easy access to boating, biking, and hiking. Backcountry camping opportunities abound both on foot and by boat. This is the place to realize that idyllic dream of sleeping on a soft sandy beach - but keep it safe, camping on a National Seashore can be a challenge if not properly prepared.
Nothing paints the picture of this area for me quite like "Biloxi" by Jimmy Buffett.
Continuing on U.S. 90 through the gambling town of Biloxi and along the coast, passing beaches full of swimsuit clad revelers as dreamlike clouds float over the gulf. Sandpipers dance in and out of crashing waves, and houses on stilts stand alongside this paradise of sea air and shimmering sands.
Just past the Louisiana border lies the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area: 35,000 acres of streams, bayous, and forests. The natural opulence of the area is perfectly painted here - the Crawford Landing Campground provides a place to stay, and witness alligators, pelicans, and turkey carrying on their business amongst magnolia, cypress, and tupelo trees. Diverse flora and fauna populate this beautiful marshland, a special treat and an amazing welcome into The Pelican State.
Bayou St. John: New Orleans, LA - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
There's no welcome to Louisiana quite like Chuck Berry's "Oh Louisiana"
My rig bounced its way along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain as the Louisiana rain came dancing across my windshield, showing the inevitability of the massive clouds I'd viewed all along my southern adventure. It is an unforgettable thing to roll into this swampy eden - pelicans flying through the falling water, paying no mind to the travelers on the road with their feverish windshield wipers flapping.
Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, LA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Just outside of New Orleans is the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Pelicans and phalaropes, buntings and buffleheads; the marshes and waterways are home to over 340 species of birds. A marsh overlook and a trail boardwalk provide opportunities to watch these amazing birds - full of a wide range of color - in action as they carry on seemingly in tribute to the colors of the Mardi Gras carnival. This wonderful refuge, teeming with alligators, is within the city limits of New Orleans, and provides urban dwellers the opportunity to connect with nature. From the park there is a breathtaking view of the Big Easy's skyline, a worthy place to visit for locals and tourists alike.
Leaving the bayou for the city, bound for daiquiris and deceit destined to wander Bourbon Street. Beignets for days, grifters of grandeur, seafood nachos, and shoddy fortunes from alleyway gypsies. Too many interesting characters for one article - New Orleans is a wealth of experience. The swampy sin city will always have a special place in my heart. For those campers and RVers not looking to spend on a hotel, the French Quarter RV Resort is the best option in town. It is close enough to walk to Bourbon Street, though they recommend you don't do so at night. With Jazz having refueled my soul, I awoke in a blur of booze and blues, navigated the storied streets of NOLA to find Interstate 10, and headed westbound leaving the Big Sleazy in my rearview.
French Quarter: New Orleans, LA - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
Four wheels soaring above swamp boats and old growth tupelo trees. Gators slinking into water, panicked by the sound of rubber humming over the wetlands of Louisiana. Of all I-10’s diverse landscapes, this is the most impressive in its Bayou glory. Wheels a-rollin’ above the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area, populated by air boats and jon boats moving like cars in a city through the avenues of the bayou.
With a little “Born on the Bayou” - Creedence Clearwater Revival - the swampy character of creole country comes alive.
Baton Rouge was calling, so I listened and drove down through the heart of town. It is a smaller, perhaps cleaner, version of New Orleans, filled with the same type of beautiful Creole architecture that is so quintessential to Louisiana. The home to Louisiana State University, you can say hello to Mike the Tiger housed on the campus beside the bayou. Take a walk along the Mississippi riverside and find yourself a drive-thru daiquiri establishment. With my fill of the frozen concoction and Louisiana in general, I sped north, destined for Arkansas - beginning the final journey north, knowing that soon I would be leaving the South altogether.
The Road North, AR - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Past Opelousas and Natchitoches on Interstate 49 into Arkansas - The Natural State. From Texarkana to Arkadelphia, and into Hot Springs, AR. Home to Hot Springs National Park, a one-of-a-kind destination famous for mineral water - some of the most delicious you will ever taste.
The park resides within the Zig-Zag Mountains, which got their name from the unique folds and faults that were created when two tectonic plates collided 300 million years ago. These folds and faults create a route for rainwater to travel down about 8,000 feet below the surface - slowly heating up on its journey over the course of 4,000 years - known as the geothermal gradient. Once hitting the fault line, the water shoots back up quickly… relatively speaking, appearing back at the surface 400 years later at an average temperature of 143ºF. These springs emerge along Bathhouse Row in the historic downtown area of the National Park.
Rockhoundin' in the Crystal Mountains, AR - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Besides majestic waters, the park features Arkansas Novaculite - a unique rock consisting mostly of small quartz crystals, commonly used as a whetstone. Outcroppings of this rock can be seen along the mountain slopes and lush valleys of the park. Oak-pine-hickory forests cover the hills, supporting ample wildlife. Frogs, toads, salamanders, and turtles feast on the roughly 35,000 insect species known to inhabit the region. A wealth of beetles, butterflies, and bees keep the forests humming above roaming black bears, foxes, coyotes, deer, snakes, and opossums.
To the north are the famous Crystal Mountains, a subrange of the Ouachita Mountains. This range is known well for its abundance of quartz crystal - dubbing the town of Mount Ida, AR “The Quartz Crystal Capital of the World”. Here you can find many dig your own crystal mines - I went with the Sweet Surrender Crystal Mine, ran by a quirky crystal-obsessed woman with rough, leathery hands - the product of years addicted to finding gems. Over the course of three hours, I mined 15 or so crystals - mainly clusters but a few large crystal points. There is only a $25 fee to mine, and you get to keep all you find!
Nashville, TN - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Satiated with rockhounding, it was time to continue forth to the northwest, pointing my rig toward the Tennessee/Kentucky Line. Speeding through Little Rock, AR and Memphis, TN - wishing I’d allotted sufficient time to explore each city - yet that is the pain of any trip, there is never enough time, especially when you’re covering an entire region. I compromised with a couple of songs:
An hour and a half northwest of Nashville is the Land between the Lakes National Recreation Area. This 170,000 acre recreational wonderland is filled with a multitude of camping possibilities. Birding, boating, geocaching, and swimming are popular activities, in addition to a planetarium and observatory, an elk & bison prairie, and an 1850’s farm. A couple nights on the shores of Kentucky Lake, intermittent thunderstorms, fireflies, and epic sunsets made leaving difficult. But anytime I am headed for Nashville, I can’t help but smile.
Sitting on the stool of a Broadway bar listening to an up-and-coming country star; I reflected on my circuit of the South. From the Smokies to the bayou, sandy beaches to quartz mines - the southern portion of the United States has an extraordinary abundance of ecological wonders. It is natural to imagine the famed National Parks of the west when you think of adventure, but don’t forget the South - a worthy destination for your next expedition.
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