National Parks of the Southeast: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

Exuding an entirely different vibe than their West Coast counterparts, national parks in the Southeastern U.S. have a magnificence all their own. While spring and summer are high season at most of America’s managed lands, fall and winter are when this region truly shines. 

Home to the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States — along with coral reefs, mist-hung mountains and even restorative hot springs — there are varied wonders that await.  

Whether you favor swamps, shoreline or peaks, the Southeastern U.S. brims with possibility. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the region, America’s breathtaking backyards — National Park Service-managed lands — are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the southeastern United States? Already settled in? The mountains, mangroves and rugged, whitewater rivers are calling — and so much more.  

United Van Lines can not only get you there, but also help you settle in, get familiar with your new neighborhood, and embrace the beauty and natural resources that surround you.  

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting the national parks in the Southeast, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, after all, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of certain parks off-limits for months at a time. By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing unmistakable. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips:

  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 
  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 
  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore some of the national parks in the Southeast and delve into their biggest draws. 

  1. Hot Springs National Park
  2. Biscayne Bay National Park
  3. Dry Tortugas National Park
  4. Everglades National Park
  5. Mammoth Cave National Park
  6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  7. Congaree National Park
  8. Virgin Islands National Park 
  9. Shenandoah National Park
  10. New River Gorge National Park

National Parks in Arkansas

Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park

Mountainous and marked by ancient thermal springs, Hot Springs National Park has something for everyone, from a rich cultural past to historic bathhouses, jaw-dropping geology and pine, oak and hickory forests cut by creeks. 

Spanning a nearly 5,400-acre preserved area surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, adjacent to the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, its waters ultimately are managed to conserve the production of uncontaminated hot water for public use.  

Having become a United States territory in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase and designated as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, its verdant valleys, rocky mountains, densely forested slopes and novaculite outcrops also offer a welcome habitat for a wide array of species.  

The Flora and Fauna 

An integral sanctuary for over 50 species of mammals — including groundhogs, white-tailed deer, squirrels and chipmunks — the park is also a haven for about 50 fish species and more than 70 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, many of them most active at night. Given Hot Springs’ woodland landscape, wildlife viewing is most visible during winter, when deciduous trees have dropped their leaves. 

Outside of the Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District, expect to mostly encounter forested hills and valleys, with a smattering of vibrant wildflowers when spring arrives. 

Lush grasses serve as food for resident species, while mosses and liverworts help stabilize and regulate the soil. Be sure to pause and appreciate the seasonal southern magnolias along the promenade at Bathhouse Row. Also, keep watch for lush foliage — including ferns, spleenworts and diatoms — near thermal springs. 

The Weather 

Featuring fairly mild weather all year long, temperatures in Hot Springs can range from about 90 F to less than 27 F. Summers tend to be hot and humid, between 80 F and 90 F, with the potential for sudden changes in conditions. 

Meanwhile, March through May sees average lows of 43 F to 61 F and highs up to around 82 F. From September through November, low temps generally range from 42 F to 64 F, with highs that hover between 63 F to 86 F.  

Bundle up accordingly when visiting in the winter — lows of 15 F give way to daytime highs between 52 F and 56 F, with the potential for some ice or snow. 

Although weather at the park is less tumultuous than many of its counterparts, it’s still a good idea to be aware of the day’s conditions. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Set in the center of the park, the moderately challenging, 2.4-mile, out-and-back Goat Rock Trail journeys through the forest to a vista with Ouachita Mountain and Gulpha Gorge views. 

Traverse the interconnected, dirt West Mountain Trails through deep forest, reached via Whittington Park and Canyon Trailheads, perhaps tackling the 3.3-mile loop around the top of the mountain. 

The 13-mile Sunset Trail — among the park’s most challenging — serves as a peaceful respite from the crowds. Crossing diverse, remote terrain, it’s divided into three sections: West Mountain (2.8 miles), Sugarloaf Mountain (2.6 miles) and Stonebridge Road (3.8 miles). 

A 3.3-mile loop, the Hot Springs Mountain Trail meanders through rolling hillsides and deciduous and coniferous forests, with sweeping vistas of central Arkansas from atop Hot Springs Mountain Tower.  

Prefer a picturesque drive? Motor along West Mountain Scenic Drive, built as a carriage road in the 1880s. Beginning at the end of Fountain Street off Central Avenue downtown, it features pause-worthy overlooks, a picnic area and — up top — an outcrop of Arkansas novaculite. Used by the Caddo peoples for making tools and weapons, it was later utilized by European settlers for whetstones. Next, for an aerial view of Bathhouse Row and the former Army-Navy hospital, follow North Mountain Scenic Drive, which has entrances on Prospect Avenue and Whittington Avenue.  

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National Parks in Florida

Biscayne Bay National Park

Boca Chita Key

Did you just move to Florida? Biscayne Bay National Park preserving its namesake bay — is one of the top scuba diving areas in the country and located just 20 miles south of Miami. About 95% water and fringed by shoreline mangrove forests, Biscayne also contains part of the world’s third-longest living coral reef, along with the northernmost Florida Keys.  

With reefs and islands accessible only by boat, the 270-square-mile preserve is the largest marine sanctuary in the National Park Service. Find 10,000 years of human history here as well, involving everything from prehistoric tribes to shipwrecks, pineapple farmers and presidents. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Protecting four distinct ecosystems, Biscayne Bay National Park harbors a staggering diversity of life, including over 600 native fish, neo-tropical water birds, and threatened and endangered species like manatees, sea turtles and the Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly. 

Underwater, seagrasses sway with the currents. Along the land lies one of the longest, continuous stretches of mangroves on Florida’s east coast, giving way to rare and endangered plants like the Florida semaphore cactus and buccaneer palm, the rarest palm native to Florida. 

The Weather 

Featuring a subtropical climate, the park is bathed in year-round sunshine. Winters are generally dry and mild, though occasional fronts do bring wind and light rain. Summers, by contrast, are hot and humid; afternoon thunderstorms are par for the course. 

Offering warm weather throughout the year, January (the driest month) sees average highs of 77 F, while August soars to around 90 F. Note that hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. 

Don’t forget to keep watch of weather conditions before arriving at the park. 
The Strolls and Sailings 

While they’re not exactly “hiking” trails, five walking paths do exist in Biscayne National Park. Remember to wear bug spray since mosquitoes are out in full force. 

Starting at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, the .25-mile, out-and-back Jetty Trail at Convoy Point is a short, easy walk along the park’s mangrove-lined shore to the Colonial Bird Protection Area at the end of a jetty. 

The .5-mile Adams Key Loop Trail takes you through a wooded area on Adams Key.  

Cutting across Elliott Key on the bay side to the Atlantic Ocean, the 1.1-mile Elliott Key Loop Trail is rough at times but offers water views along boardwalks and sandy stretches. 

The only true hiking trail in Biscayne Bay, the 7-mile, out-and-back Spite Highway Trail skirts, in part, the Atlantic Ocean and travels through tunnel-like hardwood forest. 

On its namesake island and reached by boat, the .4-mile, out-and-back Boca Chita Key Loop Trail on Boca Chita Island starts east of the restrooms, continuing to the south end of the island and emerging near the pavilion. If it’s open, be sure to climb the stairs of the historic lighthouse, its observation deck offering fantastic views of the ocean, islands, bay and Miami skyline. If you’re lucky, you may even spot sharks or ’rays from above. 

Operated by the Biscayne Bay National Park Institute, cruises are one of the best ways to fully experience that water-bound landscape. Departing from Homestead, Coconut Grove or the Deering Estate, the guided journeys cover themes that include the park’s heritage. Others feature active elements, like snorkeling, paddling, camping or hiking. 

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Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson

Consisting mostly of open, aquamarine water, remote, 100-square-mile Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles west of Key West. An assemblage of seven islands, plus protected coral reefs, it was established to protect the island and marine ecosystems and is accessible only by private boat, ferry or seaplane. 

On 14-acre Garden Key, you’ll find the park’s headquarters, beaches and impressive, historic, 19th-century Fort Jefferson, the park’s crown jewel. Fort Jefferson National Monument was designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. The largest all-masonry fort in the United States, the never-completed structure was built between 1846 and 1875 to guard the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico — a very lucrative shipping channel. Featuring decorative brickwork and 2,000 arches, it also has a moat that necessitates crossing a bridge. 

Meanwhile, a lighthouse and sea turtles star on Loggerhead Key, while nearby Loggerhead Reef reveals the 1875 Windjammer Wreck, a popular dive site. Bush Key serves as a nesting site for seabirds, such as sooty terns. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Closer to Cuba than the American mainland, the Tortugas are a very remote ocean wilderness replete with historical and natural wonders. 

Here, coral and sea grass communities flourish, hosting colorful corals and reef fish that entice snorkelers. Above the surface, nearly 300 species of birds — many migratory — await observation, while large sea turtles lounge and lay their eggs on sun-drenched arcs of sand. 

The park’s native flora is typical of that round on Caribbean islands, including grasses, herbaceous flora, shrubs, sedges and trees. Mostly native species exist on the smaller islands, though the larger ones — Garden and Loggerhead — also contain a bevy of exotic plant species, given their history of human habitation and disturbance. 

The Weather 

Experiencing two seasons — winter and summer — it’s essential that visitors remain on the pulse of weather, water and ground when visiting Dry Tortugas.  

The winter season — generally November through April — brings strong cold fronts from the North and West, creating large swells, rough seas, powerful wind and poor visibility for snorkeling. That said, the weather is cooler, the crowds fewer and birds plentiful, the latter having blown in with the passing fronts. 

Summer stretches from May through October, when the Atlantic hurricane season occurs (June 1- November 30). Separate from potential conditions, visitors can typically expect little to no wind, along with great visibility for snorkeling and viewing marine life. 

Be sure to visit the park’s website to stay informed about conditions and closures, especially when visiting by personal vessel. 

Hikes and Other Activities 

Located in the southwest corner of the Florida Keys reef system, more than 99% of Dry Tortugas National Park is comprised of water. If you’re looking to “hike,” your options are limited. The easy, .5-mile Fort Jefferson Loop, which encircles the 19th-century fort, is a must. 

When Bush Key is open, walk the one-mile, out-and-back shoreline trail from sunrise to sunset. Note that the island is closed from February to September. Time it right and witness upwards of 80,000 sooty terns and 4,500 brown noddies, who nest and raise their young on the island — the only significant breeding colonies of their kind in the United States. 

Although doing so requires careful advance planning, campsites at Dry Tortugas are available on Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson resides. 

Other popular pastimes include fishing, snorkeling, kayaking and paddleboarding. However, you need to bring your own equipment and ensure your mode of transportation has space to accommodate it. 

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Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

The nation’s largest subtropical wilderness, Everglades National Park is as beautiful as it is foreboding. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, it’s also designated as a Wetland of International Importance and is protected under the Cartagena Treaty.  

An integral habitat for several rare and endangered species, its swamps, tropical forests and waterways are home to manatees, American crocodiles and elusive Florida panthers live here, too. 

Historically speaking, the Everglades served as hunting grounds for many over time, including Native Americans and, later, Anglo-American settlers (or “Gladesmen”), who relied on its abundant natural resources. Dubbed the River of Grass on account of Marjory Douglas’s novel, “The Everglades: River of Grass,” and has been described as such ever since. 

The Flora and Fauna 

A key habitat for migratory birds and endangered species, the Everglades are also a nursery for nearly 300 species of fish, as well as wading birds. Here, too, are 50 distinct kinds of reptiles, including American alligator, American crocodile, endangered green turtle, Atlantic leatherback, Atlantic hawksbill, Atlantic ridley and venomous eastern indigo snake. 

Set at the confluence of temperate North America and the tropical Caribbean, the park is rich with flora from both, including endemic and legally protected species. Among its ever-evolving collection of plants are 164 identified plant species, 47 of which are threatened, 113 of which are endangered and four of which have been identified as commercially exploited. 

From grasses and sedges to moisture-loving orchids, ferns, trees, shrubs and a year-round proliferation of wildflowers, Everglades National Park is filled with intrigue.  

The dry season — and more pleasant weather — occurs in winter, making it the best time to view wildlife in the park. Because standing water levels are low, wildlife congregate at central water locations. Shark Valley, the Anhinga Trail (at Royal Palm) and Eco Pond are ideal for observing alligators, wading birds and other freshwater wildlife.  

The Weather 

Two seasons — wet and dry — occur in South Florida, leading to hot, muggy, rainy summers with frequent thunderstorms and mild, dry, temperate winters, with periods of cool air. 

Come prepared, bring plenty of water and be sure to check out the following for current weather conditions prior to coming to the park. 

Wherever you’re headed, visit the park website beforehand so you’re aware of conditions. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

If you walk one trail, make it the .8-mile Anhinga Trail, a paved walkway and boardwalk that starts at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and offers frequent sightings of alligators, anhingas, turtles, herons and egrets, to name a few. 

The Shark Valley Tram Trail, a 15.8-mile loop, journeys through the park’s freshwater marsh, with the option to explore on foot, bike or guided tram. 

Absorb the Everglades’ lush, forested beauty on the .5-mile, paved Gumbo Limbo Trail, taking time to appreciate its namesake trees and other verdant, tropical flora.  

Drive Tamiami Trail, which links Miami and Florida’s west coast, keeping watch for alligators in cypress swamps and marveling at Everglades scenery enroute.  

Teeming with wildlife, you can putter along 24-mile Loop Road — parallel to Tamiami Trail — through South Florida’s undeveloped center.  

To observe and fully appreciate the park’s open prairies and areas populated by wading birds, hop on Turner River, Upper Wagon Wheel and Birdon Road Scenic Drive, a 20-mile loop. 

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National Parks in Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, one with rolling hills, lavish forests and deep, green river valleys that give way to the world’s largest known cave system below. 

The human history of the Mammoth Cave area reaches back 12,000 years to prehistoric peoples, though the cave itself was not explored until at least 7,000 years later. Hunter-gatherers discovered Mammoth Cave — and mined for minerals like gypsum — thousands of years before European settlers arrived, benefiting from the abundant resources. 

To this day, Mammoth Cave staff continue to consult with those traditionally affiliated with the park lands. This includes the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Shawnee Tribe, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Absentee Shawnee Tribe, and the Chickasaw Nation. 

From cave tours to ranger-led programs, fishing and canoeing, there are many ways to walk in their footsteps and appreciate the breadth — and rarity — the park has to offer. 

The Flora and Fauna 

While the park’s subterranean karst topography and limestone layers steal the show, there’s much waiting to be explored above ground, too. Complex and intertwined, the surface and the subsurface support a diversity of species —70 of which are endangered, threatened or of special concern. From winged wonders to mammals, insects, reptiles, crustaceans, mussels and even eyeless, cave-dwelling fish, there’s something fascinating wherever you turn. 

From its rolling hills to its verdurous Green River Valley and leafy deciduous forests, nutrients are fed from the surface to the caves deep below. In fact, 160 animal species regularly inhabit the caves, adapting to — and prospering in — the damp, dark environment. Among them are Allegheny woodrats, cave crickets and big-eared bats. 

Within the park’s 52,830 acres, over 1,300 plant species have been identified as well, 25 of which are listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern. Hardy cedars and pines in higher elevations contrast valleys dotted with beeches and tulip poplars, with their showy blooms. A rainbow’s-worth of flowers blanket the park during spring and summer, from ornate passionflower vines to 20 species of goldenrod. Mosses, lichens and liverworts cling to rocks, tree trunks and forest floors. And freshwater flora — cattails, waterlilies and black willows, to name a few — grow along rivers, streams and small ponds. 

The Weather 

Home to KY Bowling Green 21 NNE — an observation station established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Mammoth Cave tracks long-term temperature, precipitation, soil moisture and temperature.  

Climactically moderate with warm, moist conditions, summers see averages in the high 80s F, while winters are typically in the low 40s F.  

Situated in the wettest park of the state, Mammoth Cave sees an average of 50 inches of precipitation per year, mostly in spring. Snow and ice do occur in winter. Tornadoes and flooding in low-lying areas may happen year-round. 

Before visiting the park, visit its website for up-to-date weather conditions and trail and road closures. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Combined, the moderately challenging, 4.5-mile Green River Bluff, Echo River Springs, Sinkhole and Heritage Trails traverse a bluff area along the Green River; past hidden caves, waterfalls and captivating rock formations; through tunnels and flora; and even past babbling brooks. 

The 3.4-mile, out-and-back Echo River and River Styx Spring Trail reveals rich geologic and biological diversity, taking you to the underground Echo River, which emerges from Mammoth Cave to the surface. 

See seasonal wildflowers on the diverse, forested, one-mile Cedar Sink Trail, which descends into the sink hole before climbing back out via a total of 295 stairs. 

Topography and dense forests in Mammoth Cave limit the vistas in the park. As such, the Doyel Valley Overlook is the only one accessible by vehicle. The following viewpoints are reached on foot: 

  • Hike .5 mile along the Heritage Trail to reach Sunset Point for panoramas of the Green River Valley and surrounding hillsides 
  • Located on Brownsville Road, on the southern side of the park, the .5-mile Turnhole Bend Nature Trail passes deep sinkholes before leading to the Turnhole Bend Overlook for views of the Green River and the north side of the park 
  • Take the 1.3-mile Green River Bluffs Trail to its namesake overlook for northeast vistas of the Green River Valley 

You must purchase tickets in advance to enter the caves, choosing between tours that are wheelchair accessible, walking tours of varying lengths, lantern tours and — not for the faint of heart — crawling tours. Whether you settle on the Gothic Avenue tour with its unusual rock formations that recollect Gothic architecture or the domes and dripstones tour that starts at a sinkhole, passes through huge domes and heads to the dripstone section, Frozen Niagara, adventure is in store. 

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National Parks in North Carolina and Tennessee 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is best-known for its mist-hung peaks and valleys, incredible biodiversity, bountiful, leafy forests and proliferation of year-round wildflowers.  

Featuring a segment of the Appalachian Trail, plentiful streams, rivers and waterfalls appear along hiking routes. Offering sky-high. panoramas of the ancient, fog-shrouded mountains, there is an observation tower atop Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest peak. 

Preserving rich Southern Appalachian history, the human history in the park dates back thousands of years, from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to early European settlers, loggers and — in the 20th century — the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

The Flora and Fauna 

The most biodiverse park in the National Park System, Great Smoky Mountains protects over 19,000 documented species, though experts believe an additional 80,000-100,000 species may live within the 800-square-mile boundary.  

Set in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, no other area of equal size in a temperate climate hosts this level of diversity. In fact, there are more than 1,000 species never seen anywhere else in the world. 

With elevations ranging from approximately 875- to-6,643 feet, the park’s gently contoured mountains — formed upwards of 200- to-300 million years ago — are blanketed in plants. In fact, about 95% of the park is forested, 25% of that land consisting of old-growth trees. Of those, 100 kinds are native to the Smokies.  

Additionally, 1,600 flowering plant species — many rare or endangered — have been identified in the park, as have 200 species of birds, 68 mammal species, 67 native fish species, 39 reptile species and 43 species of amphibians. As the “Salamander Capital of the World,” you can also keep watch for 24 species of these amphibians alone. 

As its unofficial mascot, about 1,500 American black bears roam the landscape, totaling — if you can believe it — two per square mile. Rising from warm lowlands, it’s cool and moist in the park’s highest elevations, allowing many northern species to live farther south than they would otherwise. That includes the red squirrel, flying squirrel and rock vole.  

These species are joined by a dizzying array of threatened, endangered creatures of of-special-concern, like grey, northern long-horned and Indiana bats; rusty-patched bumble bees; and yellowfin madtoms. 

The Weather 

Given its wide range of elevations and varied topography, weather can differ drastically here, depending on where you are. Expect a 10- to-20 F difference from the base of mountains to their peaks. 

Rain in the park is significant. Averaging 55 inches of rainfall per year in the lowlands, the Smokies pinnacle, Clingmans Dome, averages 85 inches annually.  

From March through May, expect unpredictable, rapidly changing weather. Hazy June through August ushers in heat and humidity, plus common afternoon showers and thunderstorms. Although the winter months — mid-November through February — are moderate, extremes do occur, with snow in the highest elevations and warm temperatures down low. Perhaps the most beautiful time to plan a visit is fall, with its cooler weather and the onset of fall colors. 

Current weather conditions are available on the park’s website or by phone at (865) 436-1200, ext. 630. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Located near Gatlinburg, the 11-mile, out-and-back Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte, is challenging, combining geological wonders with history, unforgettable panoramas and high elevation adventure — not to mention an elevation gain of 2,763 feet. 

Spanning 5.4 miles, the Rainbow Falls Trail journeys from the Roaring Fork area through dense forest to its plunging, eponymous, 80-foot-tall falls. 

The longest of four paved trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the 2.4-mile Laurel Falls Trail ascends Cove Mountain, past Laurel Falls and to the summit of Cove Mountain, where the Cove Mountain fire tower resides. 

Steep and utterly breathtaking, the 3.6-mile Chimney Tops Trail gains 1,400 feet in elevation, crossing rushing streams and ascending the steep mountainside, with views of Mount Le Conte. Note that the upper portion of this trail is closed due to fire damage. 

For soaring vistas, hike the 1.3-mile, out-and-back Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail, which takes you to the highest point in the park for 360-degree views of the Smokies and beyond. 

With 384 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies, there are many ways to explore by car. Clingmans Dome Road, for example, brims with scenic pullouts overlooking ridges and valleys, culminating in a steep, .5-mile trail up to the summit if you choose. By contrast, a drive along Cades Cove Loop Road reveals some of the park’s best wildlife, though it is closed to vehicles from May through September. 

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National Parks in South Carolina

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Forest Boardwalk

Containing the largest, intact old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States, Congaree National Park, is a dynamic landscape where the Congaree and Wateree Rivers wash through a floodplain, bringing nutrients and sediments that nourish and replenish this ecosystem and support sustained growth. 

Recognized for its exceptional biodiversity and stately stands of bald cypress, humans have used its floodplain for many reasons over 13,000 years, including prehistoric natives and Spanish explorers, as well as patriots of the Revolutionary War, escaped slaves, loggers and conservationists. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Congaree’s mysterious-looking — some might say spooky — old-growth bottomland forest is a real draw. Of particular note? The park’s many national and state champion trees.  

By contrast, an upland pine forest stretches across the northern edge of the floodplain, one dominated by fire-resistant loblolly pines, which depend on wildfires to eliminate competitors.  

The fires also help maintain vast, grassy pine savannas populated by creatures like the indigo snake and red-cockaded woodpecker, threatened or endangered because of habitat loss.  

From its biodiverse forested wetlands and oxbow lakes to its sloughs and meandering creeks, Congaree provides a rich habitat for aquatic life, including a diversity of fish and amphibians.  

Bobcats, wild pigs and foxes — as well as opossums, deer and river otters — are among the other species-in-residence. While not common, alligators can be found in the park as well. 

The Weather 

Situated in South Carolina’s Midlands region, Congaree has a humid subtropical climate, with mild winters and hot, wet summers.  

Although rain and thunderstorms are also common in spring, so too are pleasant temperatures in the 70 F range. Hottest from June to August, daily temperatures hover in the 90s F, often exceeding 100 F. Then there’s the matter of rain, which averages 4.5 inches per month at that time of year.  

Peak fall colors occur between October and early November, with temperatures in the 70s F and monthly precipitation around three inches. 

Snow can occur in winter, but it is not common. Mild, with average daytime temperatures in the mid 50s F, November through February can see nighttime temperatures that dip below freezing.  

This is also when flooding is most frequent, with little or no warning. The prevalence of flooding is deceptive — it doesn’t have to rain at Congaree for it to occur, being that the park resides in a watershed and rain in upstate South Carolina can quickly raise water levels.  

Arrive prepared for varying conditions and keep watch for weather hazards and road and trail closures on the park’s website
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

With over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of elevated boardwalk — the best and most scenic walk in the park. Wheelchair and stroller accessible, it starts at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, looping through the bottomland forest, where giant tupelos and bald cypress trees rise from standing water. Note, however, this can temporarily close when flooding occurs. 

From the 1.7-mile Bluff Trail, which cuts through a longleaf pine forest, catch the 3-mile Sims Trail to Cedar Creek, keeping watch for otters. Alternately, hook up with the .6-mile spur trail to Longleaf Campground, or the 2.6-mile Weston Lake Loop Trail. 

Explore the lifeblood of the national park via the River Trail, a 10.4-mile loop to the Congaree River, which is among the most wildlife-rich spots in the park. 

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National Parks in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Virgin Islands National Park

the U.S. Virgin Island Beache

Occupying the majority of the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John, Virgin Islands National Park is more than stunning white sand beaches — though there are plenty of those.  

Whether you hike to historic plantation sites — gaining insight into the park’s complex (and troubling) past — or observe the indigenous Taino’s ancient petroglyphs, an education in scenic surrounds is in store. 

Nomadic hunter-gatherers first arrived on the island from South America between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago. Then, between 1,000 and 1,300 years ago, the Taino people — who spoke an Arawakan language — established a unique culture all their own, building communal villages; farming cassava, potatoes and corn; using stone tools; and practicing a complex religion based on ancestor worship. 

By the early 1600’s, European slave ships transported millions of African people from their homes to the Caribbean, a brutal legacy that echoes throughout the island today. 

When abolition came to the British Virgin Islands in 1834, many enslaved people escaped to the freedom found there. After emancipation in the Danish West Indies in 1848, the formerly enslaved people of St. John utilized the networks and skills they had developed to produce things like bay rum oil and charcoal on their own accord. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Set in the tropical Atlantic, this lush, mountainous park features terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems that include dry to moist forests, beaches, salt ponds, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds. 

Abundant in natural resources, Virgin Islands National Park hosts 140 species of birds, 302 species of fish, 22 mammal species, seven species of amphibians and an impressive 740 species of plants.  

Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, the submerged lands along a three-mile belt off St. John, are a diver and snorkeler’s delight. It protects 50 corals species, along with many sponges and gorgonians, in crystal-clear waters. 

Endangered hawksbill, green and leatherback sea turtles’ nest on St. John. Of note, the only mammal native to St. John, however, is the bat. Other inhabitants — like deer, donkeys, goats, sheep, cats, dogs, pigs and mongoose — arrived from elsewhere. 

A place where moist forests give way to dry cactus scrubland, Virgin Islands’ native botanicals include flowering lignum vitae and gumbo limbo trees, in addition to wholly nipple cacti that spring from rocky outcrops; showy locustberry; and Eugenia earhartii, a rare shrub found only in two locations, both of which are on the island of St. John. 

The Weather 

Mid-December to April, temperatures average around 76 F, with two-to-three inches of monthly rainfall. Mid-April to did-December — St. John’s low season — hovers around 83 F, with upwards of four inches of rain each month. 

Hurricane season in the U.S. Virgin Islands — St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — occurs from July through November, the peak being in September and October.  

During winter, cold fronts can bring the Christmas winds down from the north. While temperatures don’t dip significantly, the fronts can create large, potentially dangerous waves that break on St. John’s north shore beaches. 

Keep up on park conditions on the NPS website
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Travel through forests, see the remnants of a sugar mill and end on the beach when hiking the 4.4-mile Reef Bay Trail. 

Among the park’s most unique hikes, the 2.3-mile Ram Head Trail — accessed via the Salt Pong Trail — sits at the island’s southernmost point, passing beaches, winding around Salt Pond and concluding at grassy, rocky Ram Head point. 

Connecting the visitor’s center and ocean, the 2.3-mile Lindt Point Tail to Honeymoon Beach passes through open, dry forest punctuated by scrubby cacti. 

A 3.7-mile out-and-back hike, the .5-mile Petroglyph Trail starts 1.5 miles down the Reef Bay Trail, revealing rock carvings at the base of the valley’s highest waterfall, amid lush, tropical vegetation. 

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National Parks in Virginia

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park

Just 75 miles — yet worlds away — from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is a natural playground of plummeting waterfalls, wildflower-stippled meadows, magnificent panoramas and peaceful woodlands echoing with songbirds. 

The Blue Ridge Mountains have been occupied by humans for at least 9,000 years, including by the native peoples, who hunted and gathered game, fruit, nuts and berries. Some eventually constructed villages at low elevations in the surrounding Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley. 

By the 1750s, early European settlers moved into the foothills, seeking land to farm, raise livestock and develop orchards. Later, land was purchased to extract resources, such as water, copper and lumber. Resorts were soon built, attracting city dwellers. Eventually, the Civilian Conservation Corps built roads and trails, re-establishing and helping to preserve the wilderness we know today. 

Rising above the Virginia Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley, the national park boasts a range of elevations, rocks and slopes — as well as variable precipitation and latitude — resulting in a diversity of habitats for tens of thousands of living creatures, plants, fungi and lichens. 

The Flora and Fauna 

As land was cleared and hunting occurred, animal populations in the area decreased, drastically declined or disappeared. Fortunately, over the last century, many of these species returned through natural population recovery or due to re-introduction on Virginian land outside of the park.  

Today, Shenandoah is a haven for 190 resident and migratory bird species, 50-plus species of mammal, over 20 reptile and amphibian species, over 40 fish species, and an untold number of spiders, insects and other invertebrates. 

From black bears and bobcats hidden deep within forests to rarely seen spotted skunks, shrews, moles and voles; wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks and Carolina chickadees; and reptiles like box turtles and timber rattlesnakes, life unfolds at every turn. 

The park’s Mid-Atlantic location rests between the Northern and Southern Appalachian Mountains, allowing 1,400 species of vascular plants to thrive. Cove hardwood and chestnut oak forests are underpinned by jack-in-the-pulpit, ferns, azaleas, blueberries and lady slipper orchids. Moist areas are decorated with mosses and liverworts and wildflowers in every imaginable hue, a display that begins in early spring. 

The Weather 

Warm, humid summers and very cold winters can be expected at Shenandoah, with mountain temperatures usually 10 F cooler than the valley floor. Hottest between late May and mid-September, with average daily highs above 79 F, November through early March see an average daily high below 53 F. January, the coldest month of the year, has an average low of 26 F and high of 45 F. 

Sprawling across roughly 100 miles, Shenandoah’s temperatures do vary considerably. Dress accordingly and check the park’s website for the latest weather, trail and road conditions. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the park’s most popular and rigorous hikes, the 9.3-mile Old Rag Mountain Loop requires both caution and an adventurous spirit, for which hikers are rewarded with rock scrambles and 360-degree views. 

The 1.6-mile Dark Hollow Falls Trail follows a stream and features a steep descent to — and rocky, slippery climb up from — the cascades. 

A shorter — but steeper — trek to Shenandoah’s highest peak, the 1.6-mile Hawksbill Summit Trail wows with 360-degree vistas of the Shenandoah Valley, Blue Ridge Mountains and Virginia Piedmont. 

Near the town of Syria, Virginia, the 1.6-mile Stony Man Loop via the Appalachian Trail wows with magnificent views of Shenandoah Valley, Massanutten Mountain and scenic land beyond. 

The only public road through the park runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, amid a vast network of trails that includes a section of the fabled Appalachian Trail. Journeying to awe-inspiring overlooks and through untamed wilderness, it’s a destination in its own right. 

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National Parks in West Virginia

New River Gorge National Park

New River Gorge Bridge

Intersected by one of the continent’s oldest rivers, New River Gorge National Park is a special place where the rugged, whitewater New River flows northward through deep canyons, intersecting southern West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains. First explored by fur-traders in the 1600s, native peoples lived in the region for centuries prior. 

Established by Congress in 1978 to preserve and protect this important free-flowing waterway, today 53 miles of the river and its gorge and 40 miles of tributaries are officially protected as New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Gauley River National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National Scenic River. 

The New was born when the North American and African plates collided to form the supercontinent Pangaea, uplifting the Appalachian Mountains to Himalayan heights. These headwaters and this basin have remained in their current configurations for over 300 million years, a true testament to the endurance of nature. 

Exposing eons of geologic history as it slices through the rock layers that tilted as the Appalachians rose, New River Gorge is now a popular fishing, hiking, biking and rafting destination that should top your to-dos. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Emergent rocks, rock outcrops, trails and coal mines serve as diverse habitats for a dizzying array of flora and fauna. Meanwhile, the New River corridor shepherds the movement of southern plant and animal species into West Virginia, while limiting the east-west distribution of other species. 

At the heart of the world’s largest remaining block of almost-unfragmented, mid-latitude forest landscape, find oak-hickory, oak-maple, mixed oak, oak-yellow pine, hemlock-hardwoods, cove hardwoods, northern hardwoods, and bottomland and floodplain hardwoods. 

Gradient extremes between the rim and river support the most diverse assemblage of plants of any river gorge in the central and southern Appalachians. Significantly, along the New River’s flat sandstone ledges grows a rare Appalachian Flatrock plant community of cedars, sedges and pines.  

Keep watch for whiteish-pink great rhododendron in forests; showy rose-purple catawba rhododendron around the Grandview parking areas; and mountain laurel at overlooks. 

Long a migration corridor for both plants and animals, the park also protects reclusive, mostly nocturnal black bears and bobcats; coyotes and red and gray foxes; and endangered Virginia big-eared and Indiana bats.  

Nearly 40 reptile species share the land with hellbenders, benthic macroinvertebrates and migratory birds, such as thrushes, wood warblers and vireos. Bald eagles nest on Brooks Island and a peregrine falcons reintroduction program aims to initiate and foster a population. Meanwhile, the New River watershed serves as a habitat for 89 species of fish, eight of which are endemic.  

The Weather 

Sweltering summers give way to cold winters, with temperatures that are considerably cooler in higher elevations. 

Prone to sudden storms, unpredictable weather in the Appalachian Mountains can quickly change. Although the park’s warmest month is July, that’s also when it receives the most precipitation. Expect average highs around 101 F and lows of about 78 F. The coldest month is December, seeing an average low of 42 F and high of 63 F. 

Plan for changing weather and check the park website so you’re aware of conditions and closings. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Passing through dense forest, crossing Fern Creek and following the cliff-edge, the moderate, 2.3-mile Endless Wall Trail gains 400 feet in elevation, rising to 2,030 feet to an overlook with views of “Endless Wall,” Nuttall sandstone ridges high above the gorge. This can be hiked as a loop or as an out-and-back trek depending on the route you choose. 

Ending at its namesake viewpoint, the 3-mile Long Point Trail gains 400 feet of elevation for gorgeous views of the gorge, river and 3,030-foot steel arch New River Gorge Bridge. 

The 1.6-mile, out-and-back Kaymoor Miners Trail is strenuous, ascending 1,000 feet beginning at the upper rim of the gorge; descending rapidly toward the river; and heading to the historic  Kaymoor One mining complex. 

The moderately challenging, .6-mile Castle Rock Trail traverses several large cliffs and coal steams along Grandview Rim and intersecting with the Grandview Rim Trail. 

For a beautiful, winding exploration on wheels, take the 83-mile New River Gorge Scenic Drive, revealing many of the park’s wonders — including the gorge and its river — its broad vistas and glimpses that are not to be missed. Two park visitor centers, Canyon Rim and Sandstone, are situated along the picturesque road. 

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Whether you live in the southwest already, are considering a cross-country move to the coastal U.S. or are planning a visit, our blog is filled with ideas to experience the region through a local lens. 

Heading to another part of the country, whether to move, for business or for pleasure? Be sure to check out our other national park guides: 

West Coast 

Interior West 




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