Gems of the South: From the Blue Ridge to the Bayou
Hazel Mountain Overlook: Shenandoah National Park, VA - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
The South is a wonderland of wooded highways and beachside thoroughfares that cover a landscape full of diverse flora and fauna. States of swamps; rivers; and wooded glades draped with Spanish moss create an experience unlike any other. Alligators to Appalachia, moonshine that smells like turpentine - the South is full of many opportunities for adventure. Through a handful of trips into the land formerly known as Dixie I've come to love the unique landscapes and lifestyles that exist in the South. This article is a state-by-state tribute to the places that have left a mark on me.
Shenandoah Valley, VA - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Crossing the Potomac River from Washington D.C. into Virginia and immediately seeing Confederate flags is a brazen reminder of the Civil War's remaining mark on the region. Though the famed Mason-Dixon line starts at Maryland's top border, driving under Virginia's welcome sign reading: 'Virginia is for Lovers' you've officially entered the South. This cultural line is distinct and paints everything with a different hue, that unique character that pervades the region with its political polarity.
Just 75 miles southwest of DC, Shenandoah National Park was once home to the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns in the Civil War. Now home to over 500 miles of beautiful hiking trails, the park is a well known destination for birdwatching, waterfalls, and the famed 360º views atop Old Rag Mountain - the park's highest peak, and most popular destination.
Now heading deeper into the South, bound for North Carolina - passing through Newport News, crossing over the James river on Interstate 664 - another unique southern byway. In this delta where the James River meets with the Atlantic Ocean; clams, oysters, and battleships from Naval Station Norfolk populate the waters. Massive aircraft carriers loom nearby as you drive on I-664, at sea level on the Hampton Roads Beltway - looking up at these warships provides a rather exciting perspective. Suddenly the beltway drops below the water into the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel. If the timing is right it is a wild experience to drive below a battleship headed for sea; like a torpedo you dip below the waterline seeming certain that you’ll hit the bottom of the ship - but instead its a tunnel, and you emerge on the other side seeing the ship continuing its marine meandering toward the sea.
Morton Valley Overlook: Great Smoky Mountains Nat'l Park, NC - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Split down the middle by the Virginia - North Carolina border, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic viewing destination for black bear, deer, coyote, and river otter, amongst many others. Over eighty species of butterfly flood the trails in summer, dodging over two hundred species of birds that feed and nest in the refuge. A diverse array of plantlife inhabits the swamp, making the ample hiking, biking, and auto tour routes a beautiful botanical cruise sure to get any plant lover excited.
From Swamp to Smoky Mountains - North Carolina is pervaded by greatness. On the opposite end of the state, 433 miles from the Great Dismal Swamp, lies Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The famed Blue Ridge Parkway runs through this area - this patch of the beautiful Appalachian Mountain range derives its name from the natural phenomena of fog that hangs over the range. Sometimes appearing in large plumes; the smoke is caused by the native vegetation releasing a high vapor compound - the higher the temperature, the more moisture in the air. The vapor is also where the blue in Blue Ridge comes from: at a distance the fog adds a bluish tint to the mountains.
Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, GSMNP was by far the most visited National Park in 2020, with over 12.1 million visitors. It is a monument to ancient mountains, distinct plants and wildlife, and Appalachian culture. At 6,643 feet in elevation, the peak of the Smokies is known as Clingman's Dome - the highest point in Tennessee. The Smokies are an International Biosphere Reserve, protected as one of North America's most diverse ecosystems. Herein lies the largest old-growth Southern Appalachian Spruce-fir Forest in the world, coming in at roughly 187,000 acres. The most dense black bear population in the Eastern United States, and the most diverse salamander population outside of the tropics, coexist in the Park. Elk, boar, river otters, and the endangered Indiana bat also call the Park home.
Congaree National Park, SC - Photo Credit: Hailey Corthell
To the Southeast, 205 miles into South Carolina, is Congaree National Park - another amazing area for biodiversity. Congaree is home to the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. It is a floodplain forest as opposed to a swamp - the water from the Congaree and Wateree rivers fluctuate as the plain fills and empties with flood water (A swamp has water which stays year round.) This allows for greater biodiversity as the sweeping waters carry nutrients and sediment to support a wide array of wildlife. Foxes, bobcats, flying squirrels, and cottonmouth snakes live amongst alligators, owls, and a varied population of frogs and turtles.
The best way to see the Park is by kayaking or canoeing the famous Cedar Creek. In the heart of the flood plain water levels can vary by up to 10 feet, making it very important to check the water level before setting out for a creek-bound adventure. For those folks without a buoyant device - there is a boardwalk that visitors can explore, but only when water levels are low enough. Backcountry camping along Cedar Creek is accessible by foot or canoe. On the northwestern part of the Park there are developed dry campgrounds, accessible by car with a short walk to campsites.
Fort McAllister State Park: Richmond Hill, GA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Just outside of Savannah, Georgia is Fort McAllister State Park, the location of an infamous Confederate earthwork fortification by the same name. The fort gained fame in the Civil War for resisting attack for four years, until the Confederates eventually lost the fort on December 13, 1864. The fort was crucial to maintain control of Savannah, just 30 miles away on the other side of the Ogeechee River. Today this marshy reserve is home to palm trees, palmettos, and huge live oaks adorned with Spanish moss. Part of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, a salt marsh and tidal creek provide enough prey for 300 species of birds, making the park a popular destination for enthusiasts.
Deep in the live oaks are 67 tent, trailer, and RV campsites. Along the salt marsh are seven cottages. In addition to the hiking, canoeing, and birding opportunities in the park, the proximity to Savannah is another highlight. Georgia's oldest city is renowned for its iconic cobblestone streets and historic buildings. Established in 1733, the town was a strategic port for both the American Revolutionary War and Civil War. Cobblestone streets and swampy reserves - coastal Georgia is filled with an exotic sense of adventure.
Everglades National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Down the I-95 corridor and into the Sunshine State, past famous beachside spring break destinations, and beyond the shining lights of Miami, exists the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Everglades National Park covers 1,508,976 acres and is home to an astonishing range of plant and animal life. Freshwater sloughs; marl prairies; tropical hardwood hammocks; pinelands; cypress and mangrove swamps; and coastal lowlands knitted with marine and estuarine waters create homes for an incredible variety of wildlife. Besides alligators and crocodiles - Manatees and Florida Panthers are the two most famous animals in the park - both of which are of concern to conservationists. The Florida Panthers are considered endangered, mostly due to human impact. Poaching and wildlife control measures, in addition to habitat fragmentation, put the panthers at incredible risk. The manatees have had to deal with boats and crowded waterways, which cause a great deal of stress on their environment. Furthermore, the manatee’s natural curiosity unfortunately leads them to violent accidents with propeller boats. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission works to protect the manatees, and was instrumental in helping the species get reclassified from an endangered to a threatened species in 2017.
In the Everglades there are many opportunities for canoe and kayak trips, ranging from day trips to wilderness backpacking - kayaking through the arched, ancient roots of the mangrove trees is an iconic and unforgettable experience. Beyond paddling, there are zones for other types of boats as well - since so much of the park is water-bound this is the ultimate way to see everything. The vast array of boat-in camping possibilities are expansive and amazing. If you favor a proper tour experience, there are many tour companies that serve the Everglades. Bird watching is very popular in the area, trails and roads throughout the park allow access to the deeper parts of the park where over 300 species of birds call home.
Everglades National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Mike Ruocco
From the glades to the west coast of Florida, and riding up the peninsula to the panhandle - landing in the wonderful T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park - "A quaint beachside and bayside wildlife haven." The peninsula extends 20 miles into the majestic blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and is known for white sandy beaches and tall dunes on the gulf side and marshes on the bay side. Sea turtles lay eggs on the beach in summer and join nesting birds in dealing with predators eager to feed on their eggs; such as bobcats, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, and armadillos. The sunsets on the peninsula are incredibly beautiful - it is amazing how the orange light reflects off the water and sand alike, the usual distant clouds backlit with a golden hue - the classical image of paradise is realized in Port St. Joe.
This expedition - a grand tour of the South - was just over halfway done upon landing at the border of Alabama. While drinking a margarita, looking up at the gator hanging above the bar in the famous Flora-Bama Lounge, I recollected the journey thus far - the word diverse ringing through my mind. From Virginia down to the tip of Florida and back up to Alabama, the South is a potpourri of experience brought by such a broad array of human, plant and animal inhabitants. Fittingly, Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” came on as I finished my margarita, and I looked out toward the water to see a man in jean shorts giggling his way past on a jet ski.
I was planning on sleeping in the sandy parking lot of the Flora-Bama - on the Florida side. The next day I was destined to head west for Alabama - then on to Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and all the way back to Tennessee. But at that point, I stopped thinking about the future and ordered another margarita. In Jimmy Buffett country you learn to live in the moment, so put on your flip flops and find your sunglasses - welcome to the Redneck Riviera.
T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, FL - Photo Credit: Mike Ruocco
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