Laura S. Walker State Park Plus a Bonus

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, the first state park named for a woman, an oasis that shares many features with the unique Okefenokee Swamp where you can enjoy the serene lake, play rounds on a championship golf course, and stroll along the trails and natural communities in this southeast Georgia haven

Waycross is located in the heart of beautiful Southeast Georgia at the northern tip of the Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge. Waycross is a nationally-recognized Main Street City filled with Southern hospitality and charm. From the historic downtown district to the swamp lands of the Okefenokee, there is something for everyone.

The city sits on the northern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, the land of the trembling earth, one of Georgia’s natural wonders. Waycross is home to one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. The swamp is teeming with wildlife and flora you won’t find anywhere else. Carnivorous pitcher plants, alligators, and a seemingly endless variety of birds make Waycross the perfect place for nature lovers and adventure seekers.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But there is so much more to this historic town. Down-home cooking at local restaurants, comfortable accommodations, a thriving downtown business district, and a music scene that continues to draw on the city’s rich musical past make Waycross a great place to visit for everyone in the family.

But Laura S. Walker State Park was the initial reason for driving our RV 55 miles northeast of Kingsland on I-95 to Waycross.

Laura S. Walker seemed quite small when we first arrived compared to the other parks I’ve been to recently but that’s just because I didn’t realize how spread out it was.

The initial entrance gives you two options, going straight into the RV parking and their group summer camp rental or left to the picnic areas, big group shelters, and amenities.

Something this state park offers that none of the others I’ve visited is a dog park. It was fairly large too with a couple benches and a splattering of trees.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two sand volleyball courts were also in the main section of the park as well as a large playground right on the edge of the lake and exercise equipment for a full body workout.

Heading over to where the boat ramp disappears in the water there is a gazebo with a fan.

I was very excited by this and after I explored everywhere went back to it so I could enjoy sitting under it for a while. It gave me the chance to enjoy the fresh air while both having a constant breeze, albeit warm, and not having the sun blasting down on me.

As I sat and ate a snack, I could hear the laughter of the families playing in the park’s small sand beach. It’s even roped off to keep people from swimming out too far and to keep the boats from coming in too close. A disclaimer though, there are no lifeguards at this swimming spot so please make sure you are safe if you choose to swim here.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If swimming doesn’t interest you, there are two main trails at Laura S. Walker State Park, the Lake Trail and the Big Creek Nature Trail with a couple small connecting trails.

Though I didn’t make it this far on the Lake Trail (because I primarily walked the other one and then ran out of time) there is a boardwalk that passes by an egret rookery with a wildlife observation platform. That is something I would like to come back and see and photograph.

Critters and plants that can be found on the trails at Laura S. Walker State Park are snakes, alligators, pitcher plants, gopher tortoise, otters, saw palmettos, and a variety of pine and oak.

The main thing I found unique about this state park is there is one primary entrance but if you know where to go there are other parking lots around the back of the lake with a separate boat ramp, entrance to the lake trail, and more group shelters for parties.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I discovered these hidden gems on the way to take a peek at The Lakes Golf Course at Laura S. Walker State Park.

This 18-hole course features three different lakes and accommodates both junior and adult players.

After noticing the parking lot to the golf course was quite full, I didn’t want to take a parking spot for too long since I wasn’t there to golf and it was off to Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Ownership of the swamp was transferred to the State of Georgia in 1955; however, Okefenokee Association, Inc. still leases the land for the Okefenokee Swamp Park as a private non-profit.

Though the swamp was placed under permanent protection as a National Wilderness area by Congress during President Gerald Ford’s era it is not a Georgia State Park.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What it is, however, is one of Georgia’s Seven Wonders.

Covering roughly 700 square miles, Okefenokee is the largest swamp in North America, spanning across four counties: Ware, Charlton, Brantley, and Clinch.

25 dollars gets an adult one 45-minute train ride through the drier parts of the swamp as well as a 25-minute nature instruction.

For an extra $10 there is the option to also have a 45-minute tour through the swamp via a jon boat.

Not to mention just the landscape itself is so unique to be in. Not many places a person can be in a swamp like that and have a wild alligator only a handful of feet away from you in the water.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee also has an adventure camp as well with its own entrance on the other side, but I chose to go to the entrance that was only 10 miles from the park. I wanted to be able to get a taste of the swamp without having to spend all day there.

Maybe another year I’ll go back and explore the swamp further but I’m really glad I decided to spend a day at Laura. S. Walker State Park.

Worth Pondering…

There’s no other place in the world like the Okefenokee.

—Francis Harper

Okefenokee Swamp is like No Other Place in the World

Alligators, otters, and bears abound in this sprawling mass of wetlands

Regarding rich biodiversity and pristine natural beauty, the United States is home to many incredible destinations scattered across all 50 states. While iconic national parks like the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon have earned worldwide acclaim, one particularly fascinating natural feature has flown largely under the radar. Measuring in at over 400,000 acres of pristine wetlands sprawled across southern Georgia Okefenokee Swamp is one of the last great bastions of wilderness left in the southern U.S.

The name Okefenokee comes from a Creek Indian word meaning trembling earth. During the Seminole Wars, Native Americans hid in the Okefenokee Swamp to escape capture. The leader of these refugees was a chieftain known as Billy Bowlegs. Billy’s Island was one of his refuges and legend says the island was named for him.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the years, Billy’s Island was home to a tenacious family of squatters, the Lees, who refused to abandon their claimed land until forced by court order. In 1909, Hebard Lumber Company came and began cutting centuries-old cypress trees. 

The Hebard family sold the property to the government in 1937; the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was created that same year.

Despite its massive size, few access points offer visitors a glimpse into the untamed wilderness of North America’s largest blackwater swamp. However, for those wishing to spend a weekend searching for native Southern flora and fauna, Stephen C. Foster State Park offers unrivaled opportunity in the remote reaches of southern Georgia. While this certified Dark Sky Park and Natural Wonder of Georgia is a top destination, the entire region was a much different place in the distant past.

Millions of years ago, the area was under the ocean. It’s possible that, during this time, the saucer-shaped depression the Okefenokee Swamp would later occupy was formed. After the ocean receded, freshwater replaced saltwater and plant life and peat deposits began to fill in the depression. A mosaic of habitats like wet prairies, dense cypress forest, and upland pine forests are found throughout this 438,000-acre wetland.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those planning to explore this diverse array of natural habitats, there’s no shortage of lodging options scattered all across the park grounds. There are over 60 sites available for RVs or anyone brave enough to rough it in their own personal tent while anybody in need of more upscale accommodations can book one of the park’s nine fully-furnished cottages. Equipped with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a personal backyard fire pit these spacious dwellings are perfect for immersing oneself in the natural world without having to go totally prehistoric.

Many sites offer scrubs and trees to afford privacy. The wide grassy hiking trail that runs behind the campsites is a natural haven. Birds of various kinds flutter between the moss laden oaks and cypress trees. Saw palmetto and blackberry vines are a large part of the undergrowth. Plaques along the trail tell the story of Spanish moss and the native trees and scrubs. 

It’s not really a swamp. It’s the headwaters of both the Suwannee and the Saint Marys rivers. It’s just easier to say swamp than natural wetlands preserve.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extensive open areas at the core of the refuge like the Chesser, Grand, and Mizell Prairies branch off the man-made Suwannee Canal accessed via the main entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 11 miles southwest of Folkston. The prairies are excellent spots for sportfishing and birding and guided boat tours of the area leave from the Okefenokee

Refuge concession Okefenokee Adventures works in partnership with the refuge to provide guided boat trips; rent camping gear, bicycles, motorboats and canoes; operate a gift shop; collect entrance fees; and provide food service.

Truly the best way to get a close look at the swamp inhabitants is to take a boat tour from Okefenokee Adventures. Their regular boat is a 24-foot Carolina skiff and there’s one step down into it from the dock. Additionally, you need to have a good balance in order to maneuver to a seat as the boat rocks a lot. An accessible pontoon boat is also available but it might not be the next boat out.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This boat has level access for wheelchair users and folding seats for able-bodied passengers. Both boats have a canopy for protection from the midday sun. Best bet is to check in the gift shop about the availability of the accessible boat as soon as you arrive then enjoy the visitor center while you wait.

The 90-minute tour goes through the Suwannee Canal as the naturalist points out the flora and fauna and gives passengers a short history of the area. Expect to see turtles, herons, ibis, hawks, and lots of alligators along the way. And if you visit in the fall, you’ll also likely see the migrant Sandhill Cranes.

The concession also has equipment rentals and food is available at the Camp Cornelia Cafe. The visitor center has a film, exhibits, and a mechanized mannequin that tells stories about life in Okefenokee (it sounds hokey, but it’s surprisingly informative). A boardwalk takes you over the water to a 50-foot observation tower. Hikers, bicyclists, and private motor vehicles are welcome on Swamp Island Drive; several interpretive walking trails may be taken along the way.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Save some time to explore the refuge on foot on one of the three accessible trails along the eight-mile-long Swamp Island Drive. It’s easy to find—just follow the signs as you leave the main parking lot.

The Upland Discovery Trail is the first trail you’ll come upon along the drive. There’s a paved parking area with accessible parking on the right with level access to the trail across the street. The quarter-mile trail is made of hard-packed dirt and although there are some exposed roots along the way they are easy to dodge. The worst obstructions are at the beginning of the trail so if you make it past the first ten feet, you’re good to go. Be sure and look for the trees marked with the white bands and they mark either a roosting or nesting spot of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Our guide steered the pontoon boat to a patch of grasses and peat in the process of forming land to show how the name Land of Trembling Earth came about. When he poked at the small island with his paddle, it trembled. With these little pockets of almost-land dotting the surface of the lake, it’s easy to see how a person could become lost in this place that’s more water than land.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’re likely to see alligators and birds as you travel about 2 miles into the lake from the dock. Although it’s named Billy’s Lake, the path amid the many islands looks more like a creek ranging from 35 to 155 feet wide. We ventured into a narrow offshoot of water called Minnie’s Run. Here, our guide maneuvered between giant cypress trees with branches that often brush the sides and top of our little boat. Throughout the waterway, we encountered several types of water lilies. The most distinctive, the American white water lily has dozens of narrow white petals surrounding a bright yellow center. 

Wood signs with arrows direct us where to turn to reach certain places in the swamp. Five Sisters is another marker that boaters use for navigating the area. It’s a cluster of five cypress trees, three of them living and two dead representing five sisters who once lived deep in the swamp. It’s here that we spot a small alligator swimming with just its eyes and the top of the head visible. 

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I asked about some of the other wildlife found in the park including deer, bears, foxes, snakes, bobcats, and otters. He said the best time to see a bear is when the blackberries are ripe or when there are a lot of acorns on the ground. Bobcats are early morning and late evening prowlers.

Of course, no trip to Okefenokee is complete without venturing into the remote depths of the swamp in search of wildlife—a feat that’s best accomplished on a guided motorboat tour. With a Stephen C. Foster State Park ranger versed in the ins and outs of the swamp as your pilot this is by far the best way to acquaint yourself with the many creatures that call the park home.

There are around 620 species of plants, 39 fish, 37 amphibians, 64 reptiles, 234 birds, and 50 mammal species known in the swamp today. Alligators, white-tailed deer, and turkey are regularly seen around the park during the day. Most nights, barred owls hoot across the campground, and after an evening rain shower many species of frogs will call out.

In spring, swallow-tailed kites arrive from their wintering grounds in South America to nest and are frequently seen acrobatically flying over the park. During the winter, river otters are more commonly seen in the main waterways and sandhill cranes are frequently heard calling from marshy areas throughout the swamp.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While some may be drawn to the park in search of the South’s larger mammal inhabitants including bobcats, black bears, and gray foxes these particular beasts tend to steer clear of any human activity. They’re therefore seldom seen by visitors—though you may be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re particularly lucky. For avid bird watchers, a particularly prized sight is the red-cockaded woodpecker. These mottled creatures tend to gravitate towards mature pine forests and they’re currently endangered in the state of Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp may be one of the state’s most iconic natural features but it’s far from the only one worth visiting in the region. For a truly memorable time add a second preserve to the list after you’ve thoroughly explored Stephen C. Foster State Park.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few minutes’ north of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge boundaries, Laura S. Walker State Park offers visitors the opportunity to spot gopher tortoises, pitcher plants, and all manner of wading birds and it even comes equipped with its own 18-hole golf course. Meanwhile, those who make the journey to Georgia’s idyllic seashore can find Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal getaway that’s rife with sandy beaches.

Georgia might earn most of its acclaim thanks to its world-class cities but the state has far more to offer than simply Atlanta and Savannah. Stephen C. Foster State Park may be a little difficult to get to but there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting still in a kayak in the heart of the swamp surrounded by nothing but the gentle hum of Georgia’s native wildlife.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Worth Pondering…

Choose only one master—nature.

—Rembrandt

Head Outdoors and Celebrate National Wildlife Refuge Week

There are hundreds of national wildlife refuges across the country like the one pictured below in New Mexico and now is the perfect time to visit for a day of fishing, hiking, or wildlife watching

October is a great time to visit a national wildlife refuge and next week might be a peak time to observe all the migrating birds you can find at a refuge—plus, it just happens to be National Wildlife Refuge Week.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is an unparalleled wildlife conservation network of 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts that provide vital habitats for thousands of species of birds and other wildlife and plants. It also provides access to world-class recreation opportunities ranging from birding to hiking, nature study, photography, and environmental education.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s National Wildlife Refuge Week—an annual celebration of the United States’ massive network of public lands dedicated to conservation. Walk, run, or stroll in nature during National Wildlife Refuge Week, October 8-14, 2023. Enjoy great outdoor recreation in America’s largest network of public lands dedicated to wildlife conservation, the National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Founded in 1903, national wildlife refuges offer access to a host of popular activities while providing vital habitat for thousands of wildlife species.

National Wildlife Refuge Week occurs yearly during the second full week of October.

The Refuge System offers many healthful outdoor activities including fishing, wildlife viewing, and wildlife photography while providing vital habitat for thousands of wildlife species including sandhill cranes, American alligators, bison, and sea turtles.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge System helps many species recover and thrive:

  • About 340 California condors fly free today thanks to efforts by Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, and many committed partners. In 1982, there were just 22 known condors in the wild. Refuge-led tidal marsh restorations in San Francisco Bay in California and Willapa Bay in Washington are providing new feeding and rearing areas for salmon and migratory birds while also protecting nearby communities.
  • There is a national wildlife refuge in all 50 states including refuges located within an hour’s drive of 100 major cities. Almost all refuges provide FREE entry year-round along with great birding opportunities.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Theodore Roosevelt established the Refuge System in 1903 at what is now Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The refuge includes the island and more than 5,400 acres of protected waters and lands in and near Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic coast.

The Blue Goose, originated by the late cartoonist J.N. “Ding” Darling, is the symbol of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said: “Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving for themselves and their children as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization.”

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges contribute $3.2 billion per year into local economies and support more than 41,000 jobs, according to the Service’s report Banking on Nature. Visits to refuges have doubled in the last 10 years reaching nearly 65 million visits in 2021. National wildlife refuges also make life better by conserving wildlife, protecting against erosion and flooding, and purifying our air and water.

More than 101 million Americans—40 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and older—pursue wildlife-related recreation, including hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching.

In celebration of National Wildlife Refuge Week I’ve compiled a list of seven of my favorite national wildlife refuges.

Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana

Located in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge conserves over 15,000 acres of once vast lower Mississippi alluvial bottomland hardwood forest and bald cypress tupelo swamp habitats. The Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge’s mix of scenic bayous, oxbow lakes, swamps, and bottomland hardwood forest is a great place to hunt, fish, boat, bird watch, paddle, or just plain enjoy the scenery.

Get more tips for visiting Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331 acre Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year. Over 30,000 acres of Bosque del Apache are designated wilderness. Celebrate the return of the cranes at the annual Festival of the Cranes.

Get more tips for visiting Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona

Located in Southwest Arizona, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge was originally established in 1939 as a game range to conserve and develop wildlife and other natural resources.

With 803,418 acres of designated wilderness, Cabeza Prieta offers great opportunities to explore the wild Sonoran Desert, home to at least 60 species of mammals, more than 350 bird species, 20 amphibians, some 100 reptiles, and about 30 species of native fish. In addition, more than 2,000 species of plants have been identified in the Sonoran Desert. In 2004, biologists stepped in to rescue the eendangered Sonoran pronghorns by creating a captive breeding program at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 for the protection of migratory birds.  Consisting of 140,000 acres, the refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, managed impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. These habitats provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals and 15 federally listed species. 

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge conserves the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp and is the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers.  The refuge provides habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and wood stork along with a wide variety of other wildlife.  It is world renowned for its amphibian populations. More than 600 plant species have been identified on refuge lands. There are three major entrances to the Okefenokee.  From the open prairies of the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area to the forested cypress swamp accessed through Stephen C. Foster State Park. Okefenokee is a mosaic of habitats, plants, and wildlife.

Get more tips for visiting Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Get more tips for visiting Stephen C. Foster State Park

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge established in 1937 occupies the marshes between Calcasieu and Sabine lakes in southwest Louisiana. This area contains a diversity of habitat including freshwater impoundments, wooded ridges and levees, canals, ponds, lakes, and bayous. Located approximately 26 miles south of Sulphur, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge has numerous recreation areas where you can fish, crab or take a hike. Whether you are looking for an alligator to photograph or just a place to stretch your legs, the Wetland Walkway is always an adventure.

Get more tips for visiting Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is positioned along an east-west and north-south juncture of two major migratory routes for many species of birds. It is also at the northern-most point for many species whose range extends south into Central and South America. Though small in size, Santa Ana offers visitors an opportunity to see birds, butterflies, and many other species not found anywhere else in the U. S. beyond South Texas. Santa Ana is home to resident species like green jays, chachalacas, Altamira orioles, and great kiskadees making it one of the top birding destinations in the world. 

Get more tips for visiting Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

It’s Fall Y’all in Georgia State Parks

Cooler temps, cozy blankets, sweet s’mores, campfires and more! Fall is one of the best times to enjoy camping with family and friends in Georgia State Parks.

Crimson reds, rustic oranges, and bright yellows mark the highly anticipated start of fall in Georgia’s State Parks. Nature lovers can opt outside to take in the kaleidoscopic scenery with family and friends from atop overlooks, underneath waterfalls, in kayaks, RVs, or tents. Whatever adventure you seek, there are activities that everyone can fall for at Georgia’s State Parks. Venture out to discover why these parks are a must-visit for autumn.

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the “Leaf Watch 2022” travel planner, visitors can find information on the perfect Georgia State Parks for viewing fall foliage at GaStateParks.org/LeafWatch. The site also includes hiking tips, autumn events, and updates from park rangers. Visitors are encouraged to tag their most Instagram-worthy photos with #GaLeafWatch and #GaStateParks for a chance to be featured on the Leaf Watch website.

Laura S. Walker State Park

Sleep under the stars: For those looking for the perfect spot to toast s’mores and truly enjoy crisp, cool fall air there is no better time to gather around the campfire than fall. Regardless of equipment whether it be a motorhome or a trailer or the preferred method of getting there—via foot, boat or car—Georgia State Parks have campsites for all tastes.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay in the heart of autumn beauty and the middle of the action at Black Rock Mountain, F. D. Roosevelt, or Tallulah Gorge state parks. A few unique camping spots include Chattahoochee Bend and High Falls where visitors can paddle into their site; lakefront locations at Tugaloo, Elijah Clark, and Seminole; or tent platforms at Victoria Bryant and Fort Mountain. Camp with a steed at equestrian campsites at Hard Labor Creek, A.H. Stephens, General Coffee, and Watson Mill Bridge state parks. 

More on Georgia State Parks: Best Georgia State Parks: Plan Now for a Spring or Summer Getaway

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaf peeping at top overlooks: Track vibrant fall color as it moves across the Peach State at some top parks for leaf peeping. Top overlooks to experience glorious fall foliage await in Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Amicalola Falls, Vogel, Unicoi, F.D. Roosevelt, and Tallulah Gorge state parks. Visit these hot spots to revel in the dazzling display of fall color in late October through November depending on weather and temperatures.

Those who enjoy venturing off the beaten path will particularly enjoy the lesser-known state parks for viewing fall color: Moccasin Creek, James H. Sloppy Floyd, Victoria Bryant, Chattahoochee Bend, and Watson Mill Bridge. 

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go chasing waterfalls: Waterfalls are Georgia’s State Parks’ calling card. Pick and choose from one of Georgia’s many awe-inspiring waterfalls perfectly positioned around the state. Watch from atop an overlook or a bridge below at the whitewater cascading down as the rocks reflect bright reds and oranges of fall.

At 729 feet, Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast. Cloudland Canyon has two waterfalls that tumble over layers of sandstone and shale into pools below. Visitors also can discover these wonders of nature at Fort Mountain, Black Rock Mountain, High Falls, Tallulah Gorge, and Vogel state parks. Best of all, the cooler fall temperatures make the hike to reach these falls even more worth it.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing in Georgia’s State Parks: Reel it in this fall. From trout to spotted bass, striped bass, and crappie, Georgia’s State Parks offer some of the best fly fishing, trout fishing, and bass fishing in the country. Pick from a wide variety of parks to get the adventure started.

More on Georgia State Parks: 4 Best Georgia State & National Parks

Are you new to fishing? The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Fishing Tackle Loaner Program provides a way for budding anglers to try fishing without having to purchase any equipment. Available at 24 Georgia State Parks the program provides rods, reels, and tackle box equipment. Interested visitors can inquire at the park office and check out the equipment for the day.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall water adventures: At Hard Labor Creek, Stephen C. Foster, George L. Smith, and Indian Springs, water lovers who prefer leaf peeping from a kayak are in for a treat. Paddling tours of lakes let visitors enjoy autumn color from a different perspective, including copper-colored cypress trees reflecting off tannin-tinted ponds. Sign up for a ranger-led paddle or rent a canoe to explore solo. 

Fort Mountain, Vogel, and Unicoi rent equipment for paddling their small mountain lakes. These are good locations for beginners to practice paddling skills. Visitors at Fort McAllister can rent canoes to explore Redbird Creek with its sawgrass, fiddler crabs, and occasional dolphins. Paddlers who bring their boats to Crooked River can enjoy the abundant wildlife and the shortest route to Cumberland Island National Seashore (across the Intracoastal Waterway).

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster is the western entrance to the famed Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It features more “open” water than the grassy plains of the eastern entrance. Rent canoes or kayaks to explore Minnie’s Lake, Billy’s Island, or “the narrows.” Alligators, deer, ibis, herons, and egrets are commonly seen within the swamp. Reed Bingham, George L. Smith, Magnolia Springs, Laura S. Walker, and Little Ocmulgee also have pretty lakes where Spanish moss, cypress trees, and lily pads reflect off the dark water.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding at F.D. Roosevelt State Park: Trot through the Georgia countryside on guided rides surrounded by brilliant fall foliage and breathtaking views of Georgia hardwoods, mossy rock gardens, and Pine Mountain valley.

Some Georgia State Parks welcome horseback riders offering miles of horseback riding trails, equestrian campsites, horse stalls, or riding rings. Guided rides are available at Don Carter and F.D. Roosevelt State Parks. Most horseback riding trails are loop rides with links to other trails allowing you to customize your adventure. A.H. Stephens, Cloudland Canyon, F.D. Roosevelt, Fort Mountain, General Coffee, Hard Labor Creek, Don Carter, and Watson Mill Bridge offer horseback riding trails.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore on two wheels: Bicycles are welcome at most state parks and some parks rent bikes. State law requires that riders 15 and younger must wear a helmet.

More on Georgia State Parks: Laura S. Walker State Park: A Place to Reconnect With Nature

Bikers will get their fill of fall thrills as they speed down invigorating hills and breeze past colorful overlooks at Fort Mountain and Cloudland Canyon state parks. Race past bright fall colors and scenic views in the forests of Panola Mountain and Red Top Mountain. These parks belong to Georgia’s Muddy Spokes Club, a series of mountain biking trails created to challenge experienced and casual cyclists alike to tackle 68 miles of trails in 11 state parks. 

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find paved trails at Panola Mountain and Tallulah Gorge state parks. Hard-surfaced trails are located at Red Top Mountain, Skidaway Island, Smithgall Woods, and Magnolia Springs state parks and Hart State Park.

Mountain bikers may test their endurance at Cloudland Canyon, Hard Labor Creek, Fort Mountain, Tallulah Gorge, Unicoi, Richard B. Russell, Mistletoe, Fort Yargo, Watson Mill Bridge, and Victoria Bryant state parks.

More on Georgia State Parks: Spotlight on Georgia: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike rentals are available at A.H. Stephens, Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Crooked River, Florence Marina, Fort McAllister, General Coffee, Georgia Veterans, Laura S. Walker, Little Ocmulgee, Magnolia Springs, Panola Mountain, Reed Bingham, Richard B. Russell, Skidaway Island, and Vogel state parks. Contact the park for pricing.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

10 of the Best Places to Visit in Georgia

With big cities, iconic small towns, picturesque mountains, and a spot on the Atlantic coast, Georgia has a lot more to offer than its peaches

From busy, cosmopolitan cities to a sandy, sun-splashed coastline and majestic mountains, Georgia offer a unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else. You will see modern Atlanta with its urban skyline and the biggest aquarium in the world. Georgia’s first city, the historic Savannah, will charm you with historic beauty and magnificent architecture. There are wild horses on Cumberland Island National Seashore, Blue Ridge Mountains, scenic beaches, state parks, water parks, waterfalls, and over 400 Civil War sites. Here are the best places to visit in Georgia.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah

From its quaint cobblestone streets shaded by old oaks covered in Spanish moss and surrounded by magnificent antebellum Southern mansions to the white sand beaches on Tybee Island to art galleries and Civil War re-enactments, Savannah is thrilling for all ages and a treat for all the senses.

Take an old trolley to explore the beautiful old city in style, check out City Market for fun during the day as well as night, and explore Savannah River Street to see galleries, cafes, and restaurants, and breathtaking views of the river. And whatever time of the year you visit, there will be some kind of festival to get everyone out on the streets, locals and visitors alike.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lookout Mountain

One of the most beautiful places to visit in Georgia, Lookout Mountain is a wonderful and striking mountain ridge located at the northwest corner of the state. As well as offering truly stunning views and beautiful surroundings it’s also the place where you can view the most states at once. Located 25 miles from three different states, when the skies are clear (and with a good set of binoculars handy) you can see up to seven different states if you try hard enough—visit and see for yourself. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is located near Lookout Mountain.

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Macon

Located about 85 miles southeast of Atlanta, Macon is the perfect destination for Southern adventure. A pretty city with a rich history, incredible architecture, and music heritage, Macon is “Where Soul Lives”. Hike to the area’s 17,000 years of heritage at Ocmulgee National Monument which includes a reconstructed earthen lodge or strolls the streets and discover the state’s largest collection of African-American art in Tubman Museum. At every landmark, you’ll discover the untold stories of the Civil War. Pay tribute to Macon’s native son, Otis Redding, at his life-size statue.

Cumberland Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island is the largest uninhabited barrier island in Georgia. It is rich in history and boasts ancient maritime forests, 17 miles of untouched beaches, wild horses, and curious tourists. Native American peoples originally inhabited the area, which eventually became a working plantation for a while and then the Carnegie family winter retreat. Cumberland Island is now a national seashore and congressionally designated wilderness.

Only 17.5 miles long, the island is 36,415 acres, more than 16,850 of which are mudflats, marshes, and tidal creeks. The adventure starts on the ferry from St. Mary’s, the only way to get to the island which offers a wonderful view of the diverse habitats. Rent a bike, book a tour with park rangers, or bring a pair of good hiking shoes, as the island is a wonderful place to explore. You can spot wild horses roaming freely, raccoons, wild boars, alligators, white-tailed deer, and many birds. Stop by the ruins of Carnegie Dungeness mansion, which was built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and burned in the 1950s.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helen

A Bavarian-inspired village with alpine charm in spades, Helen has heaps of character and enchanting architecture. Given its Germanic roots, we were hardly shocked to learn that Oktoberfest is hugely popular. Vineyards, breweries, and an array of shops attract year-round travelers. For a sweet treat, stock up on confections at Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen. Speaking of food, the köstlich (German for delicious) and authentic dining scene also deserves a shout-out. Nearby Unicoi State Park offers 53 acres of forested trails, plus numerous campsites and a lake.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1937 on 401,880 acres of land, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a wild, beautiful place, a breeding ground, and a refuge for migratory birds as well as other wildlife. At its core is the unique Okefenokee swamp, the headwaters of the St Mary’s and Suwannee Rivers, and a habitat for endangered and threatened species such as wood storks, the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snakes, and many wild animals.

There are over 600 plant species in the refuge. Within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 353,981 acres are designated as National Wilderness Area. As it is one of the largest intact freshwater ecosystems in the world, the RAMSAR Convention has declared the refuge a Wetland of International Importance. There are a number of observation towers and boardwalks throughout the refuge. The peaceful, lush environment is popular for fishing, hunting, hiking, boating, and canoeing.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocmulgee National Monument

In Macon, visitors will be thrilled to visit The Ocmulgee National Monument. This is the only known example of a spiral mound in North America. Native people built the 20-foot high mound for their use during the 14th through the 16th centuries. There is no park entrance fee to visit the Ocmulgee National Monument and the park is open daily 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. In addition to the mound, there are over 6 miles of hiking trails and a museum that contains over 2,000 artifacts and screens a short movie on the history of the mound.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park

Vogel State Park, located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, is one of Georgia’s most popular state parks. With miles of easy hiking paths, a 22-acre lake, a mountain-view beach, cottages, campsites, and primitive backpacking sites this much-loved park has something for everyone. Of particular interest during the fall is the drive from the south through Neel Gap. This mountain pass provides guests with a beautiful view of the changing leaves of the Appalachian Mountains. The park also includes a museum where the rich history of the park and area are chronicled.

Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Simons, Georgia

The largest barrier island in the Golden Isles, St. Simons Island lies across the immortalized Marshes of Glynn made famous by poet Sidney Lanier. Moss-draped oaks line the winding island streets creating a picture-perfect image worthy of a Faulkner tale.

St. Simons Island is dotted with exceptional historic sites and attractions from the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum—a working lighthouse built in 1872—to the Bloody Marsh Battle Site where in July 1742, British and Scottish soldiers protecting colonial Georgia defeated a larger Spanish force in a battle that helped end Spanish incursions outside Florida.

On the island’s north end, Cannon’s Point Preserve contains middens dating back to 2500 BC. Fort Frederica National Monument which preserves archeological remnants of the local British colony and its defense against Spain and historic Christ Church, Frederica—one of the oldest churches in Georgia with worship held continuously since 1736—is also located on the island’s north end. History buff or not, you won’t want to miss Christ Church’s picturesque and somewhat haunting grounds.

Brasstown Bald © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia

Discover history, culture, and autumn beauty along Georgia’s scenic byways. The 41-mile loop of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is the only route in the state that’s also designated a National Scenic Byway. Coursing through the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the route traverses several state highways, including SR-17/75, SR-180, and SR-348. Panoramic views are plentiful, none more spectacular than the one from Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point at 4,784 feet. Visitors can still walk the roughly half-mile, uphill paved path to the observation tower at the summit.

Keep Georgia on your mind as you plan your next RV trip.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

10 Amazing Places to RV in February

RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road

February is a great time to travel. If you’re looking for someplace warm with ample sunshine, there are some great destinations to consider especially for the RVing snowbird escaping the ravages of a Northern winter.

The bad news is COVID-19 has taken its toll on the tourism industry and continues to impact snowbird travel. Canadian snowbirds won’t be flocking south this winter to escape the cold and snowy weather. With their wings clipped by border closures, Canadian snowbirds have traded in their golf clubs for snow shovels.

Naturally, RVers—and, in particular, Canadian snowbirds­—are looking forward to the relaxation of these restrictions. But where are the most amazing places to RV this month?

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in January and March. Also check out our recommendations from February 2020.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is a 98-acre zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, natural history museum, and art gallery. It features two miles of walking paths traversing 21 acres of desert landscape. Get to know various Sonoran Desert habitats featuring flora and fauna native to the region, 16 individual desert botanical gardens, Earth Sciences Center cave featuring the region’s geology and showcasing the Museum’s extensive mineral collection, and admission to live animal presentations and keeper-animal interactions where you can watch animals being fed or trained. A visitor favorite, the Raptor Free Flight, a birds-of-prey demonstration where visitors view from the birds’ flight path occurs seasonal mid-October through mid-April.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and St. Marys River, Georgia

At over 400,000-acres, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge protects most of America’s largest blackwater wetlands sheltering a vast mosaic of pine islands, serpentine blackwater channels, and cypress forests that provide habitat for an abundance of wildlife. The largest refuge east of the Mississippi River, Okefenokee is home to a multitude of rare and declining species. Roughly 15,000 alligators ply the swamp’s placid waters. Wood storks and sandhill cranes frequent the skies. And gopher tortoises find sanctuary in underground burrows. From this vast wetland ecosystem is born the St. Marys, a blackwater river that meanders 125 miles before reaching the Atlantic. Largely unspoiled, the St. Marys River shelters the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, an ancient species that once reached lengths of up to 18 feet.

Manatee at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida

Meet a manatee face-to-face without ever getting wet at Florida’s 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. The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, key deer, flamingos, whooping cranes, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity.

Buccaneer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. Use of this land was first recorded in history in the late 1700s when Jean Lafitte and his followers were active in smuggling and pirating along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The French Buccaneer, Lafitte, inhabited the old Pirate House located a short distance from what is now the park. The park site, also known as Jackson’s Ridge was used as a base of military operations by Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson later returned to this area and built a house on land that is now Buccaneer State Park.

Buccaneer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buccaneer State Park offers Buccaneer Bay, a 4.5 acre water park, 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 offer water and electricity. A central dumping station and restrooms are located nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend Scenic Loop, Texas

Touring Big Bend National Park and experiencing endless vistas straight out of an old Western would be reason enough to make this trip. But you’ll also have plenty of fun along the way exploring quirky small towns that are definitive road-trip material. Unforgettable experiences in West Texas include minimalist art installations, nighttime astronomy parties, and thriving ghost towns. Start your road trip in El Paso, a border city that’s wedged into the farthest-flung corner of West Texas and wraps up at the popular art installation—Prada Marfa. Highlights include Fort Davis and Terlingua, a one-of-a-kind thriving ghost town.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile. Alabama

Mobile is more than 300 years old and from that fact alone there must be a lot of history associated with a city of that age. The many museums and historical homes help tell Mobile’s story. Eight National Register Historic Districts make up what is known as downtown and midtown Mobile. Explore the mighty WWII battleship USS Alabama, winner of nine battle stars, and the submarine USS Drum. Both are National Historic Landmarks. Mobile is the home to the oldest carnival or Mardi Gras in the United States.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Find yourself in Rockport-Fulton and discover why Rockport-Fulton is the Charm of the Texas Coast. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing.

The quaint fishing village of Rockport has been a favorite coastal hideaway and snowbird roost for many years. Be it sportfishing, bird-watching, seafood, shopping, the arts, water recreation, or simply relaxing in the shade of wind-sculpted live oaks life here revolves around Aransas Bay.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla, New Mexico

Just outside Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla is one of the most unexpected surprises in the entire state. Formerly part of Mexico and the focus of more than one border dispute, Mesilla is rich in culture and fosters an independent spirit while still celebrating its heritage. Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community with the twin steeples of Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. The church is more than 160 years old but still welcomes the public for regular mass. The heritage is also represented in the shops and restaurants in the Mercado district. Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle or stick with traditional Mexican cuisine at La Posta.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Palm Springs and its many neighboring cities in the Coachella Valley of Southern California are a desert area with abundant artesian wells. Palm Springs acquired the title “Playground of the Stars” many years ago because what was then just a village in the desert was a popular weekend Hollywood getaway. Today, the village has grown and consists of much more than just hanging out poolside. Whether it’s golf, tennis, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than “the Dutchman” Jacob Waltz. You might not find gold during your visit but you’ll become entranced with the golden opportunities to experience the beautiful and rugged area known as the Superstition Wilderness accessible by trails from the Park. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron. The four mile mountain bike loop trail is another great way to enjoy the park’s beauty.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on the year’s rainfall, you may be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring. Enjoy a week of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit. 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) are available in the park.

Worth Pondering…

I’ve never gotten used to winter and never will.

—Jamaica Kincaid

8 Ways Wildlife Refuges Make Life Better

Rediscover your nature at a national wildlife refuge

We know COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting RV travel plans right now. For a little inspiration we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

Our lives are brighter because of national wildlife refuges. Even people who’ve never set foot on a refuge benefit from these lands and waters conserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How could that be? Come along for a look.

Here are some key ways national wildlife refuges improve the lives of everyday folks.

1. Health

SAbine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We are hard-wired to need contact with nature. A large body of research shows that getting outdoors—on national wildlife refuges, for example—can improve peace of mind and physical well-being. Many refuges reinforce that health-and-nature connection by hosting family walks, runs, bike tours, even special events, to get people moving outdoors. 

2. World-Class Recreation

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millions of people enjoy outdoor recreation each year on national wildlife refuges—where they are excited to spot wildlife while they refresh their minds and bodies. Some visitors enjoy birding, hiking, paddling, wildlife viewing, or nature photography. All these activities offer people a chance to unplug from the stresses of modern life and reconnect with their natural surroundings.

3. Wildlife Conservation

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges are dedicated to conserving America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage. Just five decades ago, bald eagles, alligators, grizzly bears, California condors, Louisiana black bears, and whooping cranes all were at risk of extinction. Refuges have helped—and continue to help—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service save iconic American species (and many lesser-known ones) by providing healthy habitat on which they depend. For example, Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge supports American alligators.

4. Storm Resilience

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges help to lessen the impact of natural disasters on local communities. More than 150 coastal refuges buffer cities and towns from storm surges. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, wetlands at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge blunted the saltwater surge toward North America’s largest petrochemical refinery complex near Houston.

5. Access to Green Space

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With four-fifths of Americans living in cities or suburbs, access to green space isn’t a given. Fortunately, there is a wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

6. Reduced Fire Risk to Communities

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges help reduce risks from catastrophic wildfires. Refuge fire managers routinely burn, cut, or chemically treat overgrown brush, trees, and logging debris that can fuel wildfires. On Florida’s Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center as well as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, refuge managers work to lower the risk of fire.

7. Biodiversity

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of nature as a web, with each part depending on another. Take one part away, and other parts suffer. Biodiversity is “the variety of living things in a given place—whether a small stream, an extensive desert, all the forests in the world, the oceans, or the entire planet.” Refuges encourage biodiversity. Among the most biodiverse refuges are Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Laguna Atascosa. Their south Texas counties contain 1,200 plant species, 300 butterflies, and 700 vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Economic Benefits

National wildlife refuges add to the nation’s economic well-being. For every $1 Congress appropriates to run the Refuge System, wildlife refuges generate nearly $5 in local economies through visits for recreation. In fiscal year 2017, recreational spending by 53 million visitors to national wildlife refuges helped generate about $3 billion in economic activity and support 43,000 jobs.   

Lower Swanee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Banking on Nature: Record Numbers Visit National Wildlife Refuges

A record number of more than 53 million people visited America’s national wildlife refuges

53.6 million people visited national wildlife refuges during fiscal year 2017 (2017-2018) which had an economic impact of $3.2 billion on local communities and supported more than 41,000 jobs. The figures come from a new economic report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled Banking on Nature. The report is the sixth in a series of studies since 1997 that measure the economic contributions of national wildlife refuge recreational visits to local economies.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts located in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas, and national wildlife refuges provide vital habitats for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation, including birding, photography, and environmental education.

The report contains economic case studies of 162 national wildlife refuges and other information. Following is information relating to four of these refuges.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. The 57,331-acre refuge is located south of Socorro at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife. A comprehensive visitor services program provides opportunities for people to connect with nature and enjoy the American great outdoors.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 306,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. During October through May, the Refuge conducts interpretive van tours and interpretive hikes for the general public and also offers over 100 interpretive programs during the annual Festival of the Cranes held annually the week before Thanksgiving (37th annual Festival of the Cranes is November 20-23, 2019).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor recreation expenditures were $15.8 million with non-residents accounting for $15.5 million or 98 percent of total expenditures.

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of Texas next to the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife finds a haven within the refuge, the largest federally protected habitat remaining in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Subtropical forests, coastal prairies, freshwater wetlands, and a barrier island support a mix of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Laguna Atascosa has recorded an impressive 410 species of birds drawing birders from around the world. Several tropical species reach their northernmost range in south Texas as the Central and Mississippi Flyways converge here.

Curved bill thrasher at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 485,000 recreational visits in 2017. Interpretation activities include bird tours, bird walks, and habitat tram tours. Visitor recreation expenditures were $30.0 million with non-residents accounting for $23.0 million or 77 percent of total expenditures.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to preserve the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee is the largest refuge in the east and includes over 407,000 acres. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has many designations including being a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, National Water Trail, National Recreation Trail, an Important Bird Area, and is a proposed World Heritage Site.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is considered the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes). The Refuge has three primary entrances and two secondary entrances for visitor access.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 724,000 recreational visits in 2017. Visitor recreation expenditures were $64.7 million with non-residents accounting for $59.8 million or 93 percent of total expenditures.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge consists of 2,088 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande, south of Alamo in the Lower Rio Grande Valley where subtropical, Gulf coast, Great Plains, and Chihuahuan desert converge. There are over 400 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies, and 450 types of plants. The refuge was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds and is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore. Year-round educational programs, seasonal tram, and birding tours, special events, summer programs and more that are offered to the public.

Green heron at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 196,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. Visitor recreation expenditures were $2.2 million with non-residents accounting for $1.3 million or 58 percent of total expenditures.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

Black-Water Country: Okefenokee Swamp

Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface

Imagine a place where unusual creatures swim through mirror-top waters and exotic plants sprout from floating islands. A place where thousands of creatures serenade the setting of the sun each day.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picture waters so dark and still that the surface seems to reflect images from another world, another time. It is a world more peaceful and more beautiful than any other place on earth. Almost a half-million acres of wetland, uninhabited by mankind, and still as it was thousands of years ago.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now imagine that this place, this natural wonderland is just a road trip away, a place just off the main road, but light years away from this time. It is black-water country, the Okefenokee Swamp.

The Okefenokee offers so much, one could spend a lifetime and still not see and do everything. Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters, while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface. Here, paddlers and photographers enjoy breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alligators, turtles, raccoons, black bears, deer, egrets, ibis, herons, wood storks, owls, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and numerous other creatures make their homes in the 402,000-acre refuge (that’s roughly 300,000 football fields in size).

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As many as 20,000 alligators consider this spongy peat bog home, so the odds of spotting the reptiles during a visit are high, though there’s no guarantee. To safely view these creatures, visitors should admire them from a distance and keep hands and feet inside boats. Pets are not allowed in boats, even privately owned vessels.  

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From white water lilies to red holly berries, more than 600 plant species reside in Okefenokee and reflect the season. Buds and blossoms burst each spring for the biggest annual display. Bugs are thickest in hot summer months, though the early hours of the day are generally comfortable. Fall brings subtle color changes, like the cypress needles’ transformation to burnt orange and the appearance of the delicate yellow tickseed sunflower.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Migratory birds visit in winter months, which happen to be the best season for serious bird-watching.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now this place, where earth, air, fire, and water continuously reform the landscape, is preserved within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1936 to protect wildlife and for you and future generations to explore.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee Swamp can be explored in many different ways. There are scenic drives, boat tours, hiking trails, canoe and kayak trails, interpretive centers, guided walks, and more. The various parks and recreation areas feature amenities ranging from boat, canoe and kayak rentals to camping, cabins, and picnicking.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guided boat tours take visitors through cypress forests, historic canals, and open prairies. Water trails and platforms allow people to canoe for the day or stay overnight deep within the 354,000 acre wilderness. Winding boardwalks and trails lead through unique habitats to observation towers and viewing platforms.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Opportunities for nature photography, hunting, and fishing are readily available. One can even drive a car or ride a bike to a restored homestead to discover how “swampers” once made their home here.
So come and explore the world renowned Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It is yours to visit. You’ll be glad you did. 

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Way down south in Okefenokee
The sun goes down
And the air is cool

Okefenokee, Okefenokee
Choowa, choowa, choowa

Come on, Georgia

—Freddy Cannon