The best parks for snowbirds to explore this winter
While the most familiar of America’s parks are the national parks and state parks, America’s parks operate under a variety of names including county parks, regional parks, metro parks, natural areas, national forests, national grasslands, national wildlife refuges, landmarks, monuments, historic sites, geologic sites, recreation trails, memorial sites, preserves, scenic rivers, and wildlife areas.
So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America.
Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a park for snowbirds to discover this winter.
The giant Saguaro cactus is the most distinct feature is this park that straddles the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.
The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom.
Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.
Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S., Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.
The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.
Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sun-kissed sand, surging surf, seagulls and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. Visits here can be as active or as relaxing as you like. Try exhilarating water sports, go fishing, learn about coastal creatures at the nature center or simply sprawl out on the sands.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.
Maricopa County Parks offer hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping, educational programs and guided hikes. Some parks also offer horseback riding, golf, boating, fishing, and archery. There are 11 parks in Maricopa County, which ring around the Phoenix metro area.
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
This state park offers many opportunities to observe the Real Florida and its wildlife
Meet a manatee face-to-face without ever getting wet at Florida’s Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Underwater viewing stations allow visitors to see the manatees—and other fish as they swim by—up close and personal at this showcase for Florida’s native wildlife.
The Fish Bowl underwater observatory floats in the main spring and allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface and watch the manatees and an astounding number of fresh and saltwater fish swim about. A television screen with a viewing control is located on the sundeck allowing visitors in wheelchairs to appreciate a view out the underwater windows.
The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, key deer, flamingoes, whooping cranes, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. The native wildlife that reside in the park serve as ambassadors for their species providing visitors face-to-face connections between the diverse Florida habitats and the animals that call those habitats home. Each with a unique life story, all of the animal inhabitants are here for the same reason: they are unable to survive in the wild on their own. Daily programs educate visitors about the various species and what can be done to protect Florida’s valuable natural resources.
Included in your admission, weather permitting, is a boat tour that transports visitors along Pepper Creek from the visitor center to the main entrance of the wildlife park. Rangers give an introduction to the park. Native wildlife is identified along the way. The pontoon boats are accessible with a ramp for wheelchairs. There is an elevator from the visitor center level to the boat dock for wheelchairs and strollers.
A 1.10-mile trail winds throughout the wildlife park including paved trails and elevated boardwalk systems. Benches and rain shelters are conveniently located along the trail. Bleachers are available at the Manatee Program area and at the Wildlife Encounters pavilion. The park offers many opportunities to observe and photograph the Real Florida and its wildlife.
Manatee programs are offered daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. From April 1 through November 15, the programs are presented alongside the main spring in the bleachers overlooking the Fish Bowl underwater observatory. From November 15 through March 31, the programs are presented alongside the in-ground manatee pool at the Manatee Care Center.
Pets are not allowed at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park because of the captive wildlife. The park provides kennels at the main entrance of the park on U.S. 19 for those visitors traveling with pets. The kennels are self-service and free. Service animals are welcome where the public is normally allowed.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The Wildlife Walk consists of elevated boardwalks that are accessible for visitors in wheelchairs or strollers. The boardwalk allows an elevated view into the natural habitats and provides rain shelters along the way.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is an excellent site for birding. The Pepper Creek Birding Trail runs from the Visitor Center parking area along the tram road and loops through the parking areas at Fish Bowl Drive and returns via a boat ride along Pepper Creek. An information kiosk is located at the trailhead behind the parking area of the Visitor Center on U.S. 19.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the first-magnitude spring. The tracks ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. While passengers enjoyed a view of Homosassa Spring and its myriad of fresh and saltwater fish, the train’s crew was busy loading their freight of fish, crabs, cedar, and spring water aboard the Mullet Train.
The 50-acre site and surrounding 100 acres was purchased in the 1940s and was turned into a commercial attraction. At one point, a company called Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed some of its trained animals here in between their appearances in movies and TV shows (remember “Flipper” and “Sea Hunt”?). Lu the hippo was brought here through that company many years ago.
The park is located in Homosassa on the west side of U.S. 19/98. Admission is $13 for age 13 and older and $5 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under admitted free. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.
—John Muir on his visit to the Nature Coast in 1867
If you’re planning on snowbird RVing this winter consider one of these state parks. They all offer warm weather and beautiful views of the Gulf or Technicolor deserts.
Many RVers prefer state park camping for the access to outdoor activities. Depending on the area, most state parks have all the amenities needed to stay comfortable such as hookups, bathhouses, a dump station, and laundry facilities.
If you are one of the many snowbirds heading south for the winter in an RV, you can find dozens of state parks open for year-round camping. These are 10 of our favorite spots for their great location, spacious RV sites, hookups, and other modern amenities.
Myakka River State Park, Florida
Myakka River State Park can be found north of Fort Myers with wetlands and forests surrounding the Myakka River. The campgrounds make a perfect home base while you go kayaking on the river, hiking the park’s trails, or exploring on one of their boat tours. The park has three campgrounds with 90 sites total, including Palmetto Ridge with full hookup gravel-based sites, and Old Prairie and Big Flats campgrounds with dirt-based sites.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers primitive campgrounds as well as developed campgrounds, including Borrego Palm Canyon Campground and Tamarisk Grove.
Borrego Palm Canyon has full hookup sites that can accommodate RVs and trailers up to 40 feet in length. The smaller Tamarisk Grove campground has 27 well shaded sites with no hookups but potable water and showers available. The state park is recognized as a Dark Sky Park with some of the darkest night skies for stargazing. It also has miles of great hiking trails with beautiful mountain, desert, and canyon views.
Meaher State Park, Alabama
This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of Mobile Bay and offers picnic facilities and modern camping sites with utilities. Meaher’s boat ramp and fishing pier will appeal to every fisherman. A self-guided walk on two nature trails includes a boardwalk with an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile Delta. Meaher’s campground has 61 RV campsites with 20-, 30- and 50-amp electrical connections as well as water and sewer hook-ups. The campground features a modern bathhouse with laundry facilities. Located near Meaher State Park is the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center; which features a natural history museum, live native wildlife, a theater, gift shop and canoe/kayak rentals.
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Climb to the top of Hunting Island lighthouse to survey the palm-studded coastline. Bike the park’s trails through maritime forest to the nature center, fish off the pier, and go birdwatching for herons, egrets, skimmers, oystercatchers, and wood storks. Camping is available at 100 campsites with water and electrical hookups, shower and restroom facilities, beach walkways, and a playground. Camping reservations must be made for a minimum of two nights.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico
In Southern New Mexico, Elephant Butte Lake State Park sits on a large reservoir along the Rio Grande River just north of the town Truth or Consequences. State park camping is available at Lions Beach Campground along with a variety of activities on the lake such as boating, fishing, kayaking, and jetskiing. The campground has 173 sites including some with full hookups, as well as primitive beach and boat-in camping. There are also 15 miles of hiking trails, boating facilities, and picnic tables available for day-use.
Note: The park is currently open to New Mexico residents only. Reservations are required for camping and can be made online.
Galveston Island State Park, Texas
Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart! With both beach and bay sides, Galveston Island State Park offers activities for every coast lover. You can swim, fish, picnic, bird watch, hike, mountain bike, paddle, camp, geocache, study nature, or just relax! Visit their nature center to learn more about the park and its programs.
Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure. Patagonia Lake State Park was established in 1975 as a state park and is an ideal place to find whitetail deer roaming the hills and great blue herons walking the shoreline. The park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout. The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking.
Gulf State Park, Alabama
Gulf State Park is home to two miles of pristine white-sand beaches along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway. Sink your toes into the fine, sugary sand, fish, bike, kayak, or canoe. Birding, hiking, and biking are other popular activities. The park also offers a Segway tour. Even if you’ve never ridden one, the tour guides will keep you upright and make sure that you enjoy your experience. RV campsites, cottages, cabins, and lodges are available in the park if you decide to stay the night or longer.
Buccaneer State Park, Mississippi
Located on the beach in Waveland, Buccaneer is in a natural setting of large moss-draped oaks, marshlands, and the Gulf of Mexico. Buccaneer State Park offers Buccaneer Bay, a 4.5 acre waterpark, Pirate’s Alley Nature Trail, playground, Jackson’s Ridge Disc Golf, activity building, camp store, and Castaway Cove pool. Buccaneer State Park has 206 premium campsites with full amenities including sewer. In addition to the premium sites, Buccaneer has an additional 70 campsites that are set on a grassy field overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. These Gulf view sites only offer water and electricity, are open on a limited basis and are only available through the park office. A central dumping station and restrooms are located nearby. Castaway Cove (campground activity pool) is available to all visitors to the Park for a fee.
Catalina State Park, Arizona
Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.
The camping area offers 120 electric and water sites with a picnic table and BBQ grill. Amenities include modern flush restrooms with hot showers and RV dump stations. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park
There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.
As t-shirts and bumper stickers are quick to remind you, Texas is big. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, though, are strategically placed for day trips.
Here, the best road trips in Central Texas.
Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive. Many state parks and public areas require passes beforehand or impose a strict limit on the number of guests allowed at any given time even during normal circumstances.
Call it kitsch appeal, call it hokey, but the Texas Hill Country is one fantastic region. There are the little German towns in the center, like Kerrville and Fredericksburg, and dozens of other small towns nestled in the rolling hills. There’s canoeing, rafting, tubing, and kayaking along the numerous rivers, and LBJ Ranch and Luckenbach. When Waylon Jennings first sang about Luckenbach, the town in the Hill Country where folks “ain’t feelin’ no pain,” it instantly put this otherwise non-place on the map. The population is about 10, and all that’s here is the old General Store, a town hall, and a dance hall.
For beautiful scenery and cool water
When you think of a relaxing vacation near water, Texas may not be the first place that comes to mind. But Central Texas is peppered with a number of watering holes, lakes, rivers, and creeks that help soothe the intensity of the summer heat, as well as hikes and trails galore.
Within the Austin city limits, you have Barton Springs, Bull Creek, and Shoal Creek and their associated greenbelts as well as Lady Bird Lake. But if you’re looking for something a bit more off of the beaten path, head out a little farther into the Texas countryside to explore these alternative options.
Float down the San Marcos, Comal or Guadalupe rivers
Since the summers get real hot in Central Texas, be well-prepared for this aspect of reality. That being said, relaxing outdoor activities—and floating down a gentle river is a popular summer pastime. There are actually are three major rivers popular for floating in this area. There’s the spring-fed San Marcos, which is located in the town of San Marcos exactly halfway between Austin and San Antonio; the short, spring-fed Comal, located in New Braunfels a little south of San Marcos; and the Guadalupe.
If you’ve never gone tubing before, here’s what to expect: You’ll be sitting in a giant inflatable tube with your friends. Many float rental places offer string you can use to tie your floats together into a large raft. You’ll start upstream at the rental facility’s dock, float down to a certain stopping point, and then the facility will bus you back to your starting point.
Hike at Enchanted Rock
One of Texas’ most frequented state parks this scenic area near Fredericksburg boasts 11 miles of trails and a namesake 425-foot granite centerpiece. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. Arrive in the morning avoid the crowds. Remember to bring solid hiking boots—conquering the rock’s peak is the equivalent of a 30-to 40-story stair climb.
Kayak at Blanco State Park
A river runs through this 104-acre green oasis making Blanco State Park a perfect destination for a relaxing afternoon of kayaking. Calm waters and an easily accessible watercraft launch site (complete with handrails) mean that even first-timers can easily rent a single or double kayak and take in the lush greenery that borders the mile-long stretch of the Blanco River. If desired, bring along your tackle box to enjoy some fishing as well. Choose from a full hookup camping site or site with water and electricity. Or reserve a screened shelter overlooking the river.
Guadalupe River State Park
Guadalupe River State Park is a great spot for a scenic adventure in the Great Outdoors. Many folks come here to swim but the park is more than a great swimming hole with beautiful scenery and colorful history. On the river, you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. In the dog days of summer, you’ll want to beat the heat and kayak or canoe the Guadalupe River which boasts the 5 mile Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail.
While on land, you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watch. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Camping is the way to go, here with 85 campsites offering amenities like picnic tables, outdoor grills, fire pits, and water, and electricity.
In Gruene (pronounced like the color green), floating up and down the Guadalupe River on the weekends is a way of life. Gruene is designated a historic town by the state of Texas. Part of that history is musical. The oldest dance hall in the state of Texas (still in its original 1800s-era building) is most famous for its country concerts, but swing, rockabilly, jazz, gospel, and folk musicians (both up-and-comers and big names) take the stage, too. The likes of Willie Nelson, George Strait, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Lyle Lovett have all graced the stage at Gruene Hall, a true must-stop when you’re passing through. Limited seating is first-come, first-served, so give yourself plenty of time to grab a beer and find a seat on the benches in the back.
Luling is home to some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State, so prepare for a meat coma. City Market is one of Texas’s most-storied ‘que joints serving up only 3 meats—brisket, sausage, and ribs. Across the street from City Market is Luling Bar-B-Q—a relative new-comer since it’s only been open since 1986 (which still a long time to perfect their recipes!) Stop by for a second barbecue meal of moist brisket, smoked turkey, and tender pork loins!
To cool off on a summer’s day, head to this renovated Zedler Mill on the banks of the San Marcos River to splash in one of Texas’s best swimming holes. It’s got everything you need for a perfect afternoon—shade, water, and plenty of sun. If you’d rather paddle than swim, you can rent kayaks and canoes on site.
Located at the intersection of Interstate 10 and US 77, Schulenburg may be best known as a reliable stop for a kolache fix. But with its roots in German and Czech settlement, this little town offers numerous cultural attractions including the Schulenburg Historical Museum, Texas Polka Music Museum, the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum, and the spectacular painted churches. The area has the rolling hills and the beautiful bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes in the spring. Schulenburg is not the Hill Country and not the lakes but is nestled in between the hills. And not far from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, or Waco either. Schulenburg is halfway to everywhere.
The Painted Churches of Fayette County are a sight to be seen. Go inside a plain white steeple church and you will find a European styled painted church of high gothic windows, tall spires, elaborately painted interiors with brilliant colors, and friezes created by the German and Czech settlers in America.
While the tiny towns of Texas may not be very large, everything else is generally bigger from the distances you’ll be driving to the sheer amount of open sky you’ll see on the road. This shortlist of destinations in Central Texas is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.
Texas Spoken Friendly
Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.
—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination
Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this eco-wonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.
The lower Rio Grande Valley—the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico—contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however.
In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, and Resaca de la Palma.
Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife—places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley close to its original state.
At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee (pictured below), Altamira oriole, green jay (pictured above), groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron.
Estero Llano Grande State Park, formerly agricultural fields, became a World Birding Center site in 2006. Its 230-plus acres, free of car traffic, take in a shallow lake, woodlands, and thorn forest, along with a wildlife-viewing deck, boardwalks, and five miles of trails.
The park gets its name from the original Spanish land grant for the area known as Llano Grande, which means Large Grassland or Plain. An “estero” is a low-lying area of land often flooded by rain or overflow from a nearby river. So, Estero Llano Grande means “the wet place on the big plain.”
It’s amazing what adding a little water to a typically sun-parched environment can do to attract birds and other wildlife. You need look no further for proof than the almost 200 rejuvenated acres of Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Rio Grande Valley.
Birds and other wildlife love water; this park contains the largest wetlands environment in the World Birding Center. Hundreds of waders and shorebirds flock here, especially in late summer when water becomes scarce in these parts. Reported sightings include threatened wood storks, colorful roseate spoonbills, ibis, and migrating waterfowl such as ducks. The park’s woodland and thorn scrub harbor Altamira orioles and, sometimes, tropical red-crowned parrots and green parakeets.
From the Visitors Center, follow a trail past Ibis Pond and Dowitcher Pond where turtles sun themselves, onto the Camino de Aves Trail, a 1-mile loop through the brush. At Alligator Lake, spend a few minutes on the observation deck looking for the lake’s namesake reptile (pictured below) before continuing to the top of a levee for a view of the Llano Grande.
The next turnoff leads to the Spoonbill Trail, which circles Ibis Pond back to where you started. On the other side of the entrance road, lanes of a former RV park have transitioned into the park’s Tropical Area, which attracts rarities such as the rose-throated becard, white-throated thrush, and crimson-collard grosbeak. The short, narrow Green Jay Nature Trail loops through woods so thick they feel like an enchanted forest.
This park shelters more than 300 bird species with a record 115 spotted from the deck in one day. Estero Llano Grande offers the best chance to spot the heavily camouflaged common pauraque. Most of the trails accommodate wheelchairs, and tram tours are offered on certain afternoons by reservation. Park staff also offer regularly scheduled guided bird, butterfly, and dragonfly walks.
The holiday spirit is in overdrive in this beautiful, bikeable state park
You may be desperate to inject some joy into 2020’s finale. A holiday getaway that’s semi-remote with space to roam while packing some good tidings and staying COVID-safe.
Then consider Jekyll Island.
Never heard of Jekyll? Just north of the Florida border, this bite-sized island off the coast of Georgia is one of four beautiful barrier islands—St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island—collectively known as the Golden Isles. Jekyll was once the wintering grounds of banking elites with surnames like Rockefeller and Morgan. Today Jekyll Island is 100 percent state park: beautiful, bikeable, and blissfully chill. Days are best spent on the island’s many bike trails, exploring maritime forests and driftwood-covered beaches, and eating all the shrimp and grits you can handle.
Now through January 3, Jekyll packs a ton of Christmas spirit into its small acreage. And while programming looks different this year due to the pandemic, they’ve got parades, fireworks, drive-in holiday movies, and a few Santa sightings on tap. Even if you skip the events, the island’s atmosphere is straight-up magical: Its historic houses and oak-lined lanes are decked out with over a half a million twinkling lights.
Besides partaking in myriad loops of the lights drive each night, take a turn through the mini-golf course—currently adorned with sugar plums, swirly oversized lollipops, and the likeness of Frosty and friends. Honestly, after the year we’ve had, leaning into some old fashioned holiday cheer never felt more necessary.
But this quiet island hideaway is an ideal escape any time of year. Here are some highlights.
At the island’s northern end, a spacious campground shaded with enormous oaks is a dreamy spot to park an RV or pitch a tent. It sits within walking distance to Clam Creek and just across from Driftwood Beach, so-named for the ancient trees that fell there due to myriad storms and beach erosion. 179 total campsites with 167 full hook-up sites (back-in and pull-through options) and 12 primitive tent sites are spaciously located within 18 wooded acres.
Bicycling has long been a favorite activity on Jekyll Island. With more than 20 miles of picturesque paths and trails, biking offers a scenic way to see all of the island’s hallmark points of interest. Paths wind around sand dunes, beaches, and historic sites while ancient oaks offer ample shade. You can rent from the Jekyll Island Bike Barn to explore the island’s coastal trails. At just seven miles long, it’s hard to get lost on Jekyll.
Jekyll Island is home to more than a thousand acres of maritime forest, 10 miles of shoreline, and marshes filled with many wonders. Learn more about the island’s natural resources on a Park Ranger Walk. Walk down a historic trail through one of the island’s most diverse habitats viewing Jekyll Island’s active bald eagle nest. On tour with Jekyll Island Conservation staff, learn the trail’s history, identify unique vegetation communities, and see examples of active wildlife research efforts.
Nearby, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is Georgia’s only sea turtle education and rehabilitation facility. The Center offers the public a chance to learn about sea turtles and see rehabilitation in action with a host of interactive exhibits and experiences. Year-round indoor and outdoor programs are also available for guests of all ages.
On Jekyll’s southern tip, the Wanderer Memory Trail is a new educational experience on Jekyll Island that tells the story of America’s last known slave ship, the Wanderer. The trail is located along the banks of the Jekyll River where the ship illegally came ashore 160 years ago with more than 500 enslaved Africans. Made up of individual exhibits, the trail walks visitors through the story of Umwalla, a young African boy brought to America on the ship. Visitors of all ages will follow Umwalla’s journey from capture through freedom told through interactive exhibits along the trail.
The Marshes of Glynn
Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
Over 4,000 different types of plants from arid regions of the world are spread across the landscape at Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Spring wildflowers, autumn colors, year-round birding, two miles of scenic walking trails, a picnic area shaded by Argentine mesquite trees are all available at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
At 323 acres, this park is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden, founded in 1925 by mining magnate and philanthropist Col. William Boyce Thompson.
In 1917 Col. Thompson served as co-leader of a Red Cross mercy mission to Russia, where he came to understand the importance of plants as the ultimate source of a large portion of mankind’s food, clothing, and shelter. It was then that he determined to use his wealth to improve the use of plant resources. The Arboretum is one of his legacies.
Col. Thompson’s goal was to bring together plants from arid lands so that scientists and researchers could study, experiment, research, and investigate uses and attributes that made the plants unique. He also wanted the arboretum to be open to the public. By the time he died in 1930, the arboretum had already gained a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Arizona.
Thompson’s home, the 8,000-square-foot Picket Post House, is immediately adjacent to the arboretum and is easily viewed from the far end of the main trail. It was in private hands for years but in 2008, the state purchased it with Heritage Funds and it is now under park management.
The Arboretum features plants from the world’s deserts, towering trees, captivating cacti, sheer mountain cliffs, a streamside forest, panoramic vistas, many natural habitats with varied wildlife, a desert lake, a hidden canyon, specialty gardens and more.
Cooperatively managed by the University of Arizona and Arizona State Parks, the arboretum sits at the base of the Picketpost Mountains and features a collection of 3,200 different desert plants in a unique series of botanical gardens, and a 1.5-mile main loop walking trail that roughly parallels the normally dry Silver King Wash. The main trail begins at the visitor center and quickly enters the colorful Hummingbird/Butterfly Garden, with a collection of plants designed to bloom throughout the year to attract Arizona’s diverse hummingbird and butterfly species.
A 2.5-acre Demonstration Garden shows various plants in functional landscapes; an area complete with patios, walls, shade structures, vine arbors, walkways, and rockwork. Several trails branch off from the first part of the Main Trail, so you don’t have to walk far to see the highlights, and much of the trail system is wheelchair-accessible.
The historic Smith Interpretive Center, a short walk down the main trail contains botanical exhibits and displays, and two display greenhouses feature cacti and other succulents that might not otherwise survive the winter cold at this 2,400-foot elevation.
Shorter trails cut through three desert environments. Find native medicinal and edible plants in the Sonoran Desert; plants from desert landscapes in western Texas, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Chihuahua Desert; and flora from the Cuyo, Monte, and Chaco regions of Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay in the South American Desert. Look for the bizarre boojum trees from Baja California. The two specimens were brought here from Mexico in the 1920s and are the tallest ones on display in the U.S. The tall conical plants are related to the native ocotillo.
The Arboretum’s Australian Walkabout, Eucalyptus forest, South African collection, and herb garden offers more specific collections, colorful wildflowers, and varied cacti.
More than 270 species of birds have been recorded, including Gambel’s quail, Canyon wren, and black-throated sparrows, making it a prime spot for birders. A checklist of birds is available upon request. Ayer Lake and Queen Creek on the Main Trail are good places to watch for wildlife; and you may even see endangered species such as the Gila topminnow and desert pupfish.
Queen Creek cuts through the Arboretum’s bottomlands and supports the water-loving trees that take root there including Fremont cottonwood, Arizona ash, black willow, and Arizona black walnut. Take a look at the spiny branched ocotillo, the green-stemmed Palo Verde, the thorny acacias, the low-growing mesquite, and the golden-flowered agaves.
Visit the Arboretum and have your horizons expanded as to the value and use of plants and trees from arid lands for food, shelter, and livelihood, both in the past and the present.
When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully
When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze
When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high
When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying
Christmas is a great time to get out and visit a state park. There’s something for just about everyone this time of year when you visit a state park. Celebrate the chill in the air, the smell of a campfire, and quality time with friends and family.
What do you get for the person who has it all? Sometimes the best gifts aren’t things, but experiences. Make this the year you give the gift of outdoor recreation with any one of these state park options.
Georgia State Parks Membership & Gift Cards
Share the gift of the great outdoors at the 60 Georgia State Parks and affiliated sites which span a variety of landscapes from mountains to coast to marsh. The parks system also includes historic sites like the retreats of presidents, battlefields, and Native American sites. The parks have amenities like hiking trails, ziplining, and camping. You can purchase Georgia State Parks gift cards to be used throughout the parks. You also can purchase Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites gift memberships which include a year’s worth of entry into affiliated parks. Extended passes include free nights of camping, discounted lodging, and discounts on picnic shelters.
Just north of the Florida border, this bite-sized barrier island off the coast of Georgia was once the wintering grounds of banking elites with surnames like Rockefeller and Morgan. Today Jekyll Island is 100 percent state park: beautiful, bikeable, and blissfully chill. Days are best spent on the island’s many bike trails, exploring maritime forests and driftwood-covered beaches, and eating all the shrimp and grits you can handle.
Now through January 3, Jekyll packs a ton of Christmas spirit into its small acreage. And while programming looks different this year due to the pandemic, they’ve got parades, fireworks, drive-in holiday movies, and a few Santa sightings on tap. Even if you skip the events, the island’s atmosphere is straight-up magical: Its historic houses and oak-lined lanes are decked out with over a half a million twinkling lights.
Stephen C. Foster State Park
Known across the country because of its International Dark Sky Designation, this breath-taking park is the western entrance of the Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders. It is a can’t-miss attraction for astronomy fans. As the temperature continues to drop, head for Stephen C. Foster State Park for the abundance of stars that illuminate the sky after the sun sets. Reserve a guided pontoon boat tour of the swamp, kayak out on your own, or bundle up for a cool walk on 1.5 miles of hiking trails. You’ll get an intimate look at the variety of wildlife that calls this park home. Visitors can stay overnight in a wooded campground or fully equipped cabins.
Arizona State Parks Annual Pass & Gift Cards
Give the gift of adventure this holiday season with an Arizona State Parks and Trails Annual Pass or Gift Card for those hard to shop for outdoorsy friends and family members who love spending time in nature. An annual pass or Gift Card is a gift that keeps on giving, all year long. These outdoor related gifts are designed to continually provide excitement, entertainment, and adventure throughout this amazingly beautiful state. By providing a gift of adventure and fun for your friends and family, your gift will help create memories.
Arizona State Parks Gift Cards may be purchased online in denominations of $25, $50, $100, and $200. Gift Cards are accepted at Arizona State Parks for entry, camping, and reservations fees so your gift of the outdoors can be used all year long at all the state parks.
Red Rock State Park
Red Rock State Park offers a classic Southwestern outdoor experience for visitors to Sedona and Red Rock Country. The beautiful red rocks and local wildlife can be viewed and enjoyed as you hike the 5-mile trail network around this 286-acrenpark. Nearby attractions include Red Rock Scenic Byway, Slide Rock State Park, Oak Creek Canyon, Coconino National Forest, and Prescott National Forest.
Alabama State Parks gift cards
Looking for a different Christmas gift this year? How about an Alabama State Parks gift card? From hiking and biking to dining and lodging, these gift cards are the gift that keeps on giving. This is a great idea for introducing someone new to all the outdoor recreational opportunities available in the state parks.
Texas State Parks Special Events & Christmas Ornaments
Let Texas State Parks add something special to your winter holidays. Try your hand at a craft project, go on a holiday scavenger hunt, decorate a campsite, or sip some hot cocoa on a hike. Take part in a special event or choose a unique gift.
Join the Buffalo Soldiers at LBJ State Park and Historic Site, as they bring in the Christmas holiday with engaging stories and displays that highlight Texas history and daily life of soldiers on the trail. Listen to what Christmas meant to the soldiers and how they celebrated with their families over 150 years ago. Make a candle the old frontier way and gift it this holiday season or try cooking your own piece of Christmas hard tack. Stop by to view artifacts and listen to tales of the early frontier for the whole family.
The Texas State Park ornament program began in 2002 to celebrate the diversity and beauty of Texas state parks. Each ornament features the natural, cultural, and historical resources that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department protects. You’ll find images of building, wildlife, plants, and some of the many outdoor activities that you can enjoy at the state parks and historic sites across Texas. This year’s ornament spotlights the ever-growing sport of kayaking, featuring Sea Rim State Park.
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park became California’s first desert park in 1933
Anza-Borrego was named for a Spanish explorer and an animal inhabitant. It was through Borrego Valley that Juan Bautista de Anza discovered the first land route to California. This happened five years after Father Junípero Serra had founded the first mission in San Diego.
In 1774 Anza led a party of explorers from Arizona south into Mexico and up along the Colorado River, then finally north across a dead sea into California and the Borrego Valley. Coyote Canyon, at the north end of the valley, provided a natural staircase over the mountains.
One of the park’s year-round residents is the desert bighorn sheep. The word “borrego” is Spanish for sheep.
The largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego is flanked by rugged mountains on three sides and the Salton Sea to the east. Its 650,000 acres contain spectacular desert vistas, a variety of plant and animal life, and numerous archaeological, cultural, and historic sites.
Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country. Two-thirds of Anza-Borrego remain pristine wilderness.
Anza-Borrego’s historical roots run deep. Within the park’s boundaries are portions of the southern route to the California gold rush, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and the Southern Emigrant Trail.
Situated northeast of San Diego and south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California. Our journey took us south of Indio on State Highway 86 (which skirts the western shore of the Salton Sea) before we veered west on S22 (Borrego Salton Seaway) which dissects the park. A few miles down the road, we encountered thick stands of ocotillo.
A considerable diversity of terrain and vegetation awes the visitor. Eroded badlands sprawl at near sea-level elevation and piñon-juniper woodlands cover 6,000-foot-high mountains. The park is a fascinating nature reserve with over 1,000 species of plants amid a great diversity of terrain.
To reach the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, drive northeast through the tiny town of Borrego Springs. When you first approach the visitor center you may not see anything except the sign, but look closely. The center is built into the earth—be a desert ground squirrel and burrow deeply into the attractive chambers for a bounty of desert touring information. Exhibits include a film of an actual earthquake experience as it occurred in the desert here, live pupfish, desert stones to touch, and temperature gauges.
Flora, fauna, and wildlife you might see near the visitor center are ocotillo, cholla, desert bighorn sheep, roadrunners, black-tailed jackrabbits, and several species of hummingbirds.
At first glance, the desert can seem like an inhospitable place, which makes Anza-Borrego’s wildflower bloom seem all the more miraculous. The park’s more than 200 flowering plant species put on a brilliant display each spring—if winter rains have worked their magic.
Typically the bloom occurs between late February and April, with early March being the safest bet. Once the bloom starts, it lasts only for a few weeks.
Borrego Palm Canyon Trail usually has good displays of spiky ocotillo, saffron-yellow brittlebrush, and desert lavender. For a longer trek, hike about 3 miles into Hellhole Canyon and reap rewards of flowering barrel cactus and sweet-smelling lupine, plus cascading water at Maidenhair Falls.
If you have a 4WD, scope out the sand verbena and dune evening primrose along what’s commonly called Coyote Canyon Jeep Trail, a dirt road at the north end of DiGiorgio Road.
There are more stories to tell about some of the other interesting places in this area. Watch this space.
Where to Stay: Palm Canyon Campground (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park); The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, camping has offered travelers an excellent alternative to hotel stays, air travel, and cruising. As summer gives way to fall, there’s never been a better time to reconnect with nature while still practicing social distancing. As the leaves begin to turn, here are seven one-of-a-kind state parks where campers will feel right at home this autumn.
Vogel State Park: Blairsville, Georgia
If you’re looking for a park with mind blowing fall color, head to Vogel-ville. Vogel State Park is one of Georgia’s top parks to see fall foliage in October. To reach the park, travelers can drive through the Chattahoochee National Forest on Wolf Pen Gap Road. Even the drive into the park is something special.
Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia
Located between Front Royal and Luray, this 1600-acre park takes beautiful advantage of the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Come for the leaves—but stay for the hiking, the mountain biking, the horseback riding, the canoeing, or the ziplining. More than five miles of shoreline border the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and a small-boat launch is busy on weekends with canoeists, kayakers, rafters, and tubers. More than 24 miles of well-marked trails take you on level ground by the river or up steep inclines to ridgetop views.
Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Arizona
The tree-lined lagoons at Dead Horse Ranch are a sight to behold during late September and October! Golden hues reflecting off of the still water put the mind at ease and cause thoughts to wander toward beautiful destinations. Feeling adventurous? Take a hike down the adjacent Verde River and explore the limitless beauty of a riparian fall. Absorb even more of Arizona’s beautiful autumn display by booking a spot in the expansive campground or in one of the secluded cabins. Stay for a while and collect as many colorful memories as possible before the leaves fall and it’s too late.
Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi
Conveniently located between Meridian and Jackson, Roosevelt State Park is known for gorgeous scenery especially during the fall, thanks to its close proximity to Bienville National Forest. The park offers an abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities in a picturesque setting. The gently sloping landscape is particularly striking in autumn when the forest is bright with fiery colors. The park offers 109 RV campsites, primitive tent sites, 15 vacation cabins, motel, and a group camp facility. These facilities are located in wooded areas with views of Shadow Lake.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
For an awe-inspiring, eye-popping autumn experience plan a fall color drive in the Black Hills. Consisting of 71,000 acres, Custer State Park encompasses rolling hills, granite peaks, and beautiful lakes and wildlife around every corner. Start your adventure as you travel on the back roads out of Keystone where you will see large stands of birch and aspen. As you travel through the Needles Highway the rich fall colors are from the birch and quaking aspen trees. The bright purples of the Dogwood and the soft green of the Russian olive will keep the color seekers eyes occupied for a while. Watch for the bison, pronghorns, wild burros, and deer along the Wildlife Loop. Many of the elms are a stark yellow contrast to the darker oaks. The ash trees have the speckles of orange like sparks from a campfire.
Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania
Offering gorgeous vistas of fall foliage, the 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake, is surrounded by picnic areas and about 15 miles of multi-use trails winding through forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool, and features forested sites with electric hook-ups and walk-in tent sites.
Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana
For generations, a blend of history and legend has drawn visitors to this meeting place of incredible natural beauty and unique historical background. At Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, visitors are introduced to the diverse cultural interplay among the French-speaking peoples along the famed Bayou Teche. Many visitors may be familiar with the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia, and their arrival in Louisiana, as portrayed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem Evangeline.
Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.