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

Most Amazing Places to Visit in the South (2024)

Whatever your travel preference, you will get to experience true Southern charm and beauty in these breathtaking locations

The South is home to many fascinating, attractive and unusual destinations. Because the Southern states occupy a significant portion of the United States, anybody planning extensive travel in the country will inevitably find themselves in the region sometime. Once you arrive, you will be in for a real treat.

The South is definitely worth the journey, no matter what takes you there: a road trip, state exploration, or a vacation to a national park. There is so much to see and do in this region, from bustling cities with deep histories to picturesque, natural settings.

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina is a lovely coastal city with plenty of Southern charm, pretty architecture, and historic points of interest. There is truly something here for everyone making this city a top place to visit in the South. Also, did I mention the food?! This is a city full of great eats and I suggest taking a food tour to get a bite of all the best Southern food the city has to offer.

When you are full from eating your way through Charleston, relax on a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city or a boat cruise of the harbor. If you are into history or architecture, then check out the Fort Sumter National Monument, the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, or the Citadel.

If you are traveling with kids you might have fun at the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, the South Carolina Aquarium, or the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens.

There are many great things to do in Charleston. That’s why I wrote this article: The Ultimate Deep South Road Trip: Savannah to Charleston

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

With five miles of unspoiled beaches and sweeping paths, Hunting Island State Park provides a prehistoric camping experience amid a maritime forest of palmetto, palms and pines. It’s almost as if dinosaurs could be lurking around the tropical vegetation.

Climb to the top of the lighthouse for a great view of the island and saltwater lagoon. A hundred campsites include all the usual amenities with access to the beach.

There are many great things to do at Hunting Island State Park.

Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Located three miles south of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island has clear blue water and powdery white sand galore. It’s connected to mainland Alabama by a bridge, or you can take a ferry ride over. The island is a boon for history and nature. Visit the 164-acre Audubon Bid Sanctuary to see migrating birds in the spring. Head to Shell Mound Park to see beautifully preserved shell mounds dating to 1100-1500 AD and swing by Historic Fort Gaines, a 19th century bread seacoast fortification.

There are many great things to do at Dauphin Island. That’s why I wrote Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island.

Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Berea, Kentucky

The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and even glassblowing studios. Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college.

Folly Beach, South Carolina

Folly Beach is Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms’s alienated, hip, rule-breaking elder brother. You do not travel to Folly to flaunt your new designer beachwear or attend a social event. You go there to drink beer, eat fish tacos, and lounge in the Bert’s Market parking lot. Most importantly, you surf.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is a must for any Georgia road trip. This is a city full of Southern charm from its cobblestone streets to the Spanish moss covering the oak trees. This is the perfect city to escape to for people with any hobby or interest. History buffs will love exploring Old Fort Jackson or learning about the city’s past on an Old Savannah Trolly Tour.

If you are into architecture, you will really love checking out the Victorian district, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, or the Mercer Williams House. If you are traveling with kids and want some family-friendly fun, head over to pretty Forsyth Park or consider booking a river cruise on an iconic steamboat. No matter what you do in Savannah, you are sure to have a great time.

There are many great things to do in Savannah.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, Louisiana

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, the first in the Louisiana State Parks system, honors the story of Evangeline and the author who made her famous. The main attraction here is Maison Olivier, a Creole plantation built around 1815 that once grew indigo, cotton, and sugar. Sitting on the banks of Bayou Teche (pronounced “tesh”) on the northern edge of St. Martinville, Maison Olivier features a mix of French, Creole, and Caribbean architectural influences that were typical of the early 1800s.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site explores the cultural interplay among the diverse peoples along the famed Bayou Teche. Acadians and Creoles, Indians and Africans, Frenchmen and Spaniards, slaves and free people of color, all contributed to the historical tradition of cultural diversity in the Teche region. French became the predominant language and it remains very strong in the region today.

Here’s a helpful resource: Cultural Interplay along the Bayou Teche: Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site

Greenville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greenville, South Carolina

With an incredible food scene, charming Downtown, and striking nature to discover, Greenville, South Carolina is one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the south. Start your southern getaway savoring delicious southern food in one of the countless restaurants in town.

Then, stroll around Downtown while enjoying the local charm. Once on Liberty Bridge, take in the beautiful view of Falls Park on Reedy River which has beautiful gardens and trails.

Nestled up against the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of South Carolina’s Upcountry, Greenville is a heaven for nature lovers. 

Here, you’ll find a number of places to disconnect from technology and get lost in nature. 

There are many great things to do in Greenville.

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina is another Southern city worth visiting. This is a popular travel destination for a number of reasons. For one, the cute city is surrounded by the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoy America’s favorite drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway as you twist through the mountains to find hiking trails and gorgeous scenic vistas. The nearby French Broad River gives tourists a place to go tubing, boating, or fishing.

When you are not exploring the encompassing nature, you will want to wander the cool city. Known for its art scene, Asheville is a hip city full of unique shops, outdoor markets, craft breweries, and local art galleries. Take a trolley tour to learn the history of the city or enjoy a delicious food tour. Another way to step into the past is to visit the Biltmore mansion which was built by George W. Vanderbilt in the 1890s.

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Dora, Florida

An hour north of Orlando, you’ll find this small quaint town full of antique shops and historic charm on the edge of Lake Dora. Stay at Lakeside Inn, Florida’s oldest continuously operating hotel, and get your fill of delicious Florida cuisine, offered by chef Norman Van Aken at his restaurant 1921. Be sure to make a stop at the iconic Mount Dora Lighthouse, one of only three registered freshwater lighthouses in the country.

If you need ideas, check out: 11+ Sensational Things to do in Mount Dora

Fairhope, Alabama

If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic. Stroll to see historic homes on streets lined with live oaks. Get lost in the European-inspired alleys of Fairhope’s charming, walkable downtown. Make a stop at the legendary Grand Hotel to see its well-landscaped grounds and vibrant bougainvillea. One last thing to note: Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, Louisiana

One of the state’s most legendary and off-the-beaten-path destinations is the Jungle Gardens of Avery Island which has been open to the public since 1935. Its connection to the McIlhenny Company (which created and still produces bottles of the famed Tabasco hot sauce) runs deep.

The gardens were established by Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny, former company president and the son of the inventor of the sauce. McIlhenny cultivated the land for conservation and research, eventually expanding it to more than 170 acres.

Located around a 45-minute drive south of Lafayette along Bayou Petite Anse, Jungle Gardens is an ideal spot for glimpsing wildlife. In fact, there are so many avian creatures here that one exhibit has been named Bird City and serves as a refuge and sanctuary. To see the beauty of Avery Island for yourself, you can traverse the grounds via automobile on a self-guided jaunt—just be sure to get the most out of your ticket and save time for a tour of the nearby Tabasco factory.

There are many great things to do on Avery Island.

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bardstown, Kentucky

Bardstown is a small city in Kentucky with a population of around 13,000 but that’s what makes it such a great place to visit. Many people call it one of the most beautiful small towns/cities to visit in America, so it’s worth adding to your travel list.

This city is most well known for its great bourbon, so be sure to head to one of the distilleries, like the Barton 1792 Distillery which offers tours. 

Visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History to learn more about Whiskey and stop by the Old Kentucky Home for a tour of a nineteenth-century estate.

There are many great things to do in Bardstown.

Natchez, Mississippi

Natchez is a city in Mississippi, located on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. Its beautiful antebellum architecture is a huge draw for tourists, and homes and estates like the Melrose Estate or the unique, octagonal Longwood estate are very popular for visitors yearning for a glimpse at life in the pre-Civil War era.

The Natchez Trace, once a trade route, is now a beautifully scenic driving road where travelers can roll the windows down and enjoy the breeze as they look out over some of the loveliest nature in Mississippi.

Okefenokee © 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.

There are many great things to do at Okefenooke National Wildlife Refuge and Stephen F. Foster State Park.

Worth Pondering…

I am southern—from the great state of South Carolina. They say, ‘You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl.’ And it’s true.

—Ainsley Earhardt

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

The Best Things to do this Spring in Georgia

Spring in Georgia is the perfect time to bask in perfect weather at festivals celebrating music, art, food, and local traditions

Spring in Georgia brings blooming flowers, warmer days, and activities of all kinds. Spring is an undeniably beautiful time of year to visit Georgia. From March to May the average low of 65 degrees F and an average high of 80 degrees F is perfect for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, camping, and strolling through the state’s many parks and botanical gardens. Spring break trips offer perfect opportunities to explore new places and attend events throughout the state.

From outdoor adventures that take advantage of the great weather to favorite events that only happen once a year, here are nine of the best things to do around the state this season.

Beach on Cumberland Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Go to the beach

Georgia’s beaches are among its best resources. Plan a getaway to explore some of Georgia’s 15 barrier islands, including…

Golden Isles

Nestled on the Georgia coast, midway between Savannah and Jacksonville lies the mainland city of Brunswick and its four barrier islands―St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island. 

The port city of Brunswick is laid out in a formal grid similar to Savannah’s with city streets and squares still bearing their colonial names. Explore the historic area which is enjoying a renaissance and features shops, restaurants, and beautiful homes reflecting a variety of styles dating from 1819.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive to St. Simons Island. Check out Fort Frederica National Monument, the archaeological remnants of the island’s first European settlement or make your way to Neptune Park, an oceanfront park next to the St. Simons Island Lighthouse that offers a playground, picnic area, casino, and pool. Cannon’s Point Preserve features 660 acres of greenery and Late Archaic shell rings dating back to 2500 BCE.

Since 1928, Sea Island has been known as an exceptional destination featuring five miles of private beach, a Beach Club, tennis center, Yacht Club, and Shooting School as well as three championship golf courses including the home of the PGA TOUR’s RSM Classic.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 10 miles of sandy beaches, four golf courses, a 250-acre Historic Landmark District and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Jekyll Island has been a family-favorite state park destination for 75 years. 

In 1886, Jekyll Island was purchased to become an exclusive winter retreat known as the Jekyll Island Club. It soon became recognized as “the richest, most inaccessible club in the world.” Club members included such notable figures as J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, and Marshall Field. Today, the former Club grounds comprise a 240-acre site with 34 historic structures. The Jekyll Island Club National Historic Landmark is one of the largest restoration projects in the southeastern United States.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip with these guides to the Golden Isles and Jekyll Island:

Tybee Island

Tybee Island is a family-friendly beach town 20 minutes from downtown Savannah. Rent a cute cottage, go on a dolphin tour, dig into fresh seafood, and much more. Those traveling with RVs and tents can stay at River’s End Campground and RV Park which is a few blocks from North Beach. There are more than 100 sites with full hookups, cozy cabins, and primitive sites. Campground guests will enjoy convenient amenities and comforts of home like a 24-hour laundry room, a fully equipped fitness center, the island’s largest swimming pool, and complimentary Wi-Fi.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island National Seashore is the largest and southernmost barrier island in Georgia offering visitors more than 17 miles of secluded white, sandy beaches. Wild horses and other island wildlife roam freely throughout the ruins and along the beach. Glimpses of the Carnegie lifestyle can be easily imagined throughout the ruins of Dungeness, Plum Orchard, and Greyfield Inn.

Cumberland Island is accessible by ferry only. Reservations for the 45-minute ferry ride are recommended. Board the ferry to Cumberland Island in St. Marys, a historic small town located on the Georgia coast approximately midway between Jacksonville and Brunswick.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip with these guides to Cumberland Island:

2. Attend a spring arts or sports event

Just as daffodils, dogwoods, and azaleas flourish in the spring in Georgia so do outdoor arts and sports events. Pick any city and you’ll likely find a spring event to enjoy.

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

International Cherry Blossom Festival

Each March, Macon becomes a pink, cotton-spun paradise as over 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees bloom in all their glory.The International Cherry Blossom Festival is a perennial favorite held March 17-26, 2023 that features art exhibitions, rides, and performances. 

The Creek Indians were the first inhabitants of the area that would later become known as Macon, settled by Europeans in 1809. Celebrate the Native American tribes that called the Macon area home at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, a site dating back 17,000 years. The site has North America’s only reconstructed Earth Lodge with its original 1,000-year-old floor as well as the Great Temple Mound.

Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1960s, Macon was ground zero for the music industry thanks to Capricorn Records and artists like the Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding. Learn about the band that called Macon home at The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, the Tudor-style home that Berry, Duane, and Gregg lived in with their family and friends. It has a large collection of guitars and band memorabilia.

The Blessing of the Fleet

Each spring, Darien holds The Blessing of the Fleet Festival for the captains of local shrimp boats. The largest event of its kind on the East Coast, it’s also a great time to get some exercise with the 5K run, admire arts and crafts, watch fireworks, and salute seagoing ships during the maritime parade. The 55th Annual Blessing of the Fleet on the beautiful, historic Darien Waterfront is set for April 21-23, 2023.

Savannah Historic District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah Music Festival

The annual 17-day springtime festival (March 23-April 8, 2023) is Georgia’s largest musical arts event featuring up to 100 productions. Established in 1989, Savannah Music Festival features artists from all genres including classical, jazz, folk, country, and rock. 

Savannah’s Historic District is sprinkled with 22 historic squares, stunning period architecture, and beautiful cobblestone streets, each with unique elements and stories. Take a walk down America’s Most Beautiful Street, Jones Street, take photos in front of the iconic Forsyth Fountain, and stop at places like Chippewa Square, best known as the site of the bench scene from the movie Forrest Gump.

Plan your trip with this Guide to Savannah.

Hank Aaron, a Braves legend

Atlanta Braves

Take in an Atlanta Braves game at Truist Park. The Braves open at home on April 6, 2023 against the San Diego Padres. The Braves’ first homestand of the season will continue with three more games against the Padres and a three-game set against the Cincinniti Reds. 

The Braves baseball team was moved to Atlanta in 1966 from stints in Boston and Milwaukee. It’s the longest continuously operating franchise in Major League Baseball. In their years as an organization, the team has won four World Series (most recently in 2021). Legends like Hank Aaron helped make the team what it is today.

In March 2017, the Atlanta Braves officially moved to their new home at Truist Park (formerly SunTrust Park). It’s surrounded by The Battery, an entertainment complex with restaurants, stores, concert venues, and a hotel.

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

The Masters

Tickets to the legendary golf tournament in Augusta are hard to come by but even if you don’t have tickets there is plenty to do off-course during Masters Week April 3-9, 2023. 

Established along the Savannah River in 1736, Augusta was once home to cotton production which helped it become the state’s second largest city. These days, much of the city’s industry surrounds the medical fields and technology thanks in part to nearby Augusta University. The city is home to Augusta National and the Masters Golf Tournament as well as the birthplace of legends like James Brown. A thriving arts community, plentiful outdoor exploration, and locally owned restaurants only add to its appeal for travelers.

Spring blossoms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Delight in spring blooms

Spring color pops out early in Georgia especially sunny yellow daffodils and cheery pink cherry trees and tulip magnolias. Trace the season’s progression through the rainbow of colorful flowers, trees, and bushes that burst onto the scenery from their winter slumber. From the North Georgia Mountains to the coast you can explore a gorgeous array of gardens expertly created to showcase the season’s best.

See the largest daffodil display in the nation at Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground in early March. More than 200 varieties of early, mid, and late bloomers cover 50 acres of hillsides and valleys.

Experience the beauty of 20,000 azaleas in bloom at Callaway Resort & Gardens in Pine Mountain during Spring FlowerFest March 25-May 7, 2023.

Spring blossoms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Celebrate Mother’s Day weekend at the 16th annual Picnic in the Garden in the Pecan Groove at Hills and Dales Estate in LaGrange on May 13, 2023 featuring a picnic spread contest, live music, pony rides, and yard games. Explore the historic Ferrell Gardens which are one of the best-preserved 19th-century gardens in America.

The Savannah Botanical Garden includes nature trails, a picturesque pond, and an archaeological exhibit among the formal and natural displays. Enjoy the Southern charm of the historic Reinhard House, the sweet sounds of songbirds, and wander along a path that explores camellias, ferns, and a children’s garden. Admission is free.

Georgia Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Take a culinary tour of the state

You can’t say we don’t eat well in Georgia! Go in search of fresh flavors this spring on a culinary trip across the state.

Food Festivals

Georgia’s spring food festivals offer a huge menu of options. A few choices include:

  • Georgia Strawberry Festival, Reynolds, April 22, 2023
  • Vidalia Onion Festival, Vidalia, April 20-23, 2023
  • Hiawassee Highlands Wine Festival, Hiawassee, May 13, 2023
  • Taste of Alpharetta, Alpharetta, May 11, 2023

Pick-your-own Farms

Grab a bucket and head to one of Georgia’s many pick-your-own farms for a true Southern springtime tradition. The whole family will have fun picking their favorite springtime treats fresh from farms throughout the state.

Springtime in Georgia means warmer temperatures, blooming flowers, and…strawberry season. The official strawberry season can stretch from late April to July 4th in Georgia with the best picking from May to mid June.

Adairsville Historic District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food Tours

Eat your heart out in Georgia where restaurant and dining options range from casual to fine dining and you’ll find all types of cuisines—especially Southern. Dig in to the South’s best barbecue smoked to perfection and matched with mouthwatering sides like baked beans and macaroni and cheese. Peel and eat sweet, wild Georgia shrimp served with a basket of warm hush puppies while a sea breeze carries away the cares of the day.

Check out one of the many food tours like Atlanta Food Walks, Taste of Thomasville Food Tours, or Savannah Taste Experience.

Georgia Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Taste of Thomasville is a three-hour progressive lunch though downtown Thomasville that starts in the courtyard of The Gift Shop. Participants and the tour guide walk to award-winning food establishments in the downtown area. Between the food establishments, the participants learn the history, culture and stories that make Thomasville a unique town. 

Take a three-hour walking and tasting tour through the gardens and historic, cultural landmarks of the squares of Savannah, the Hostess City of the South. Savannah Taste Experience food tours will open your palate through bites and tastings at distinctive restaurants, extraordinary specialty food stores, and other notable eateries while providing a local’s perspective on culture, history, and architecture of Savannah. 

Getting out on the water at Stephen S. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Get out on the water

Enjoy the great outdoors around Georgia, especially the lakes, rivers, and ocean.

Lake Life

Georgia’s Lake Country boasts two expansive lakes with more than 15,000 acres of water (Oconee and Sinclair) and more than 10 golf courses nestled in the neighboring communities of Eatonton, Greensboro, Madison, and Milledgeville.

Closer to Atlanta, Lake Lanier welcomes boaters and fishermen. Lakes Burton, Rabun, Hartwell, and Blackshear are also worth exploring.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the Okefenokee Swamp

Take a walk on the wild side at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This pristine 680-square-mile wilderness is an ecological wonder. The main entrance to the National Wildlife Refuge is located near Folkston.

Hike the Chesser Island Boardwalk to the Owl’s Roost Tower for an unparalleled view of the swamp prairies and the Okefenokee Wilderness. The Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center is a perfect place to begin your Okefenokee experience―talk to refuge staff and volunteers about recreational opportunities, recent wildlife sightings, and take a guided boat tour with knowledgeable naturalists or rent a canoe or kayak and set out on your own.

Take advantage of the discounts on multi-day, multi-entrance passes to Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross and Okefenokee Adventures in Folkston to experience boat tours, train rides, nature shows and the incredible scenery of the fascinating swamp environment.

Brasstown Bald with fall colors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Plan a road trip

What’s a better time to start planning a getaway by car or RV? Decide what you want to see whether it be coast or mountains, cities or small towns. Follow the 41-mile Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway through the mountains, drive along US-17 to coastal communities from Richmond Hill to Darien or taste your way through the state on Georgia Grown Trail 37.

Surrounded by the beauty of Chattahoochee National Forest, the 40.6-mile Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway winds through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians. From the vistas atop Brasstown Bald to the cooling mists of waterfalls, scenic wonders fill this region. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and piedmont. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive signs are features of this route.

Georgia Grown Trail 37 is Georgia’s first officially branded agritourism highway created to spotlight the agricultural bounty and beauty found in Southern Georgia. Featuring over two dozen agritourism hotspots and out-of-the-way shopping adventures, Georgia Grown Trail 37 takes you on a tasty adventure through small towns and family farms. You will find olive farms, vineyards and wineries, U-Pick berries and produce, unique farm products, and specialty shops. Take I-75, Exit 39, East or West.

Hunt for murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Hunt for murals

Looking for colorful walls to photograph? You’re in luck. Atlanta has hundreds of murals in every corner of the city especially around Cabbagetown and Old Fourth Ward. Savannah also has its own usually commissioned by art galleries and non-profits to beautify their buildings. Macon also has upped its game in terms of public art, with murals, sculptures, and Little Free Libraries around town. Don’t miss the mural in Dublin which honors the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

8. Tour a brewery, cidery, or distillery

The Peach State has a thriving scene for craft beverages as new breweries and distilleries are opening every year in every corner of the state. No matter where you go, plan on having a designated driver.

A brewery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Breweries

They may be found in old warehouses where the grind of machinery has been replaced with liquid gold and the sound of good times or in new wide-open spaces.

Atlanta has the most craft breweries including big-name ones like Sweetwater and those with multiple locations like Monday Night. But there are many breweries in other cities and towns like Macon Beer Company, Creature Comforts in Athens, and Eagle Creek Brewing in Statesboro. Grab a bite with your pint at a brewpub, like Good Word Brewing and Public House in Duluth.

Located within walking distance of college dive bars, Creature Comforts Brewing Co. hangs out in a former car dealership and auto repair shop on the edge of downtown Athens. Try its Tropicalia and see why it’s considered one of the top IPAs in the country.

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downtown Macon has been making a resurgence thanks in part to breweries like the Macon Beer Company. This spot playfully uses the city’s name in the name of its beers such as Macon Love, Macon Plays and, of course, Macon Money.

Taking its name from the coastal Georgia Island, Jekyll Brewing has paved the way for craft breweries in the northern suburb of Alpharetta. And on the topic of branding you may be amused by the names of their beers such as Hop Dang Diggity, Southern Juice, Cooter Brown, and ‘Merican Amber.

Cideries

The gluten-intolerant can rejoice as there are also cideries around the state. Urban Tree Cidery is located on Atlanta’s Westside with a taproom to sample their varieties. Treehorn in Marietta is another favorite as is Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge. If you’re looking for a low-alcohol option, Cultured South on Atlanta’s West End brews the popular Golda Kombucha.

A distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Distilleries

Distilleries also are open to visitors to offer a glimpse into how your favorite spirits are made. Atlanta has the ASW Distillery, Old Fourth Distillery, and Independent Distilling distilleries. Dalton Distillery and Dawsonville Distillery both specialize in legal white lightning. Richland Rum in Richland and Brunswick crafts the only single-estate rum in the United States made from Georgia-grown sugar cane.

Moonshine and other spirits © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moonshine

Whether you go all in and tour a moonshine maker’s distillery or you attend a local festival named after the famous drink, Georgia is a great place to start your moonshine journey.

In the summer, classic cars and their owners head to the Georgia mountain town of Hiawassee for the annual Georgia Mountain Moonshine Cruiz-In. The three-day event features live mountain music, a real moonshine still, arts and crafts vendors, automotive vendors, and hundreds of classic cars.

Visit Blairsville in September for the Moonshine Market Arts & Crafts Show featuring regional vendors, live music, food, beer and spirits, and distillery tours. 

A winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wineries

Georgia is more than just craft beer and moonshine. The Peach State has its fair share of wineries especially clustered around the North Georgia Mountains. Muscadine and fruit wines are produced as well as well-known varietals.

Kaya’s Winery and Tasting Room in Dahlonega are built atop a ridge that is 1,600 feet above elevation and offers panoramic mountain views in North Georgia. Enjoy wine made from estate-grown grapes with a view from the covered deck.

On the Helen side of the North Georgia Mountains are a number of wineries but Yonah Mountain Vineyards & Winery is frequently listed as a favorite. The namesake mountain rises into view from the tasting room inspiring the logo that makes the rounded peak look like a bear’s back. Experience their tastings which showcase chardonnay, merlot, malbec, pinot noir, and sauvignon blancs. The wine cave tour is what makes Yonah Mountain completely unique, the only known one in the state.

Georgia Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Bike the trails

Gear up with your helmet and two wheels to explore the state. There are plenty of paved bike paths for beginner or expert riders.

The Silver Comet Trail rails-to-trails path connects Atlanta to the Alabama state line and is accessible from the cities of downtown Rockmart and Cedartown. Bikers, runners, hikers, skaters, and horseback riders use the trail for recreation and commuting. The Silver Comet Trail begins at the intersection of South Cobb Drive and the East-West Connector in Smyrna and runs all the way to the Alabama border. There, it meets the Chief Ladiga trail in Alabama. 

The Carrollton GreenBelt is the largest greenspace and greenway conservation project ever undertaken in the city of Carrollton’s almost 200-year history. The 18-mile long linear city park is the largest paved loop trail system in Georgia and provides residents and visitors a unique escape.

The Chattahoochee Riverwalk in Columbus runs 15 miles alongside the water offering views of the whitewater rapids and a connection to the National Infantry Museum. By foot or on bike, you will skirt the cityscape, examine historic monuments and markers, and take in the wild beauty of the rolling river and native wildlife. Geocachers can take on the RiverWalk GeoTour, the first of its kind in the world with 31 challenging geocaches with collector game pieces including three coins.

Worth Pondering…

Come with me into the woods. Where spring is advancing as it does no matter what, not being singular or particular, but one of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

—Mary Oliver, Bazougey

First Day Hikes 2023: 10 Fantastic Hikes to Ring in the New Year

What better way to kick off the New Year than by getting a jump start burning off those extra holiday calories in the great outdoors?

On New Year’s Day, America’s State Parks will once again be celebrating with a First Day Hike. These hikes provide a means for individuals and families to welcome the coming year in the outdoors, exercising and connecting with nature. For many it has become a tradition.

Distance and rigor vary from park to park but all hikes aim to create a fun experience for the whole family. People are invited to savor the beauty of the state park’s natural resources so they may be inspired to take advantage of these local treasures throughout the year.

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s State Parks have been entrusted to preserve a variety of magnificent places from California to Georgia. Hikers can experience a plethora of outdoor recreation activities including mountain and hill climbing, walks along lakes and beaches, exploration of trails through great forests, wildlife expeditions, birdwatching, and more.

Furthermore, exercise and outdoor activities rejuvenate the mind and body, promoting overall mental and physical health and wellness. Many believe that time spent in nature enhances creativity and lifts our moods.

Alabama

What better way to kick off the New Year than by getting a jump start burning off those extra holiday calories in the great outdoors?

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First Day Hike at the Nature Center

Gulf State Park, Ocean Shores

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 10 a.m. to 12 noon

Ring in the first day of the New Year on a hike with the naturalists at Alabama’s Gulf State Park. Meet in the parking lot of the Nature Center for this event. The hike begins on Bear Creek to Gopher Tortoise Trail then turn onto Lake Shelby Overlook. These trails weave through freshwater swamp and lake habitats with a chance to see birds, turtles, alligators, and more. The hike will be approximately 3 miles round trip on a paved, flat trail. This is an easy grade hike perfect for all ages and experience levels.

Bring sturdy shoes, water, binoculars and a camera, layered clothes (it may warm up as you start hiking). Leashed pets are welcome to join.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park First Day Hike

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Join the park naturalist on a guided hike through the park to celebrate the New Year. The hike begins at Pavilion 3 (by the bathhouse; parking across the street) then head off on trails and enjoy the wildlife and diversity of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. From there, the hike follows the trail to the back beach while discussing the history of the park, Native American Culture, and the ecological importance of the delta.

Bring weather-appropriate clothing, close-toed shoes (that you don’t mind getting wet or dirty), water, snacks, and a camera and/or binoculars. Leashed pets are welcome.

Get more tips for visiting Meaher State Park

Arizona

We’re only days away from 2023. Start the New Year right and achieve your goals plus spend time in some of Arizona’s amazing parks. Remember to wear the appropriate shoes, bring plenty of water, a camera, and your sense of adventure.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park First Day Hike

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

This 1.6-mile hike takes you from the Discovery Trail to a portion of the Siphon Draw Trail and back to the start on the Mountain Bike Trail, all within the park boundary. It is a low-elevation excursion but with some rocky areas and some parts of the trail are narrow.

Meet at Saguaro Day Use. Make sure you have good shoes and water. Pets are not allowed on these guided hikes.

Get more tips for visiting Lost Dutchman State Park

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park First Day Hike

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Hike the Calloway trail up to an overlook below the face of Picacho Peak. This trail is moderately difficult. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring water. Elevation gain will be 300 feet, 1.5 miles round-trip, and roughly 1.5 hours.

Registration is recommended; however, walk-ups will be allowed based on available space. A maximum number of participants is 20. Meet at Harrington Loop. Feel free to contact the ranger station for any questions.

Get more tips for visiting Picacho Peak State Park

California

Nature has been proven to boost our moods and make us feel healthy. Start 2023 by taking in spectacular views and breathing some fresh air on a First Day Hike.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park First Day Hike

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Starting at the Visitor Center explore desert plants, crypto-biotic crust, and signs of animals as we walk cross-country to the ½-mile Panorama Overlook Trail. Ascend by switch-backs about 200 feet up the moderate-strenuous trail to a scenic overlook of the Borrego Valley and Fonts Point with a chance to see bighorn sheep. At the viewpoint, reflect on your new year with a lighthearted introspection guided by Park Interpretive Specialist Regina Reiter. Walk down the mountain as the sun sets on your first day of 2023.

Wear sturdy shoes, bring at least 1 liter of water, a hat, and a flashlight. Trekking poles are helpful.

Get more tips for visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Calvaras Big Trees State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Calvaras Big Trees State Park First Day Hike

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Learn about giant sequoia trees and the winter season and hike a section of the North Grove Trail. This may be a snowshoe hike if it snows. Plan to hike up to 2 miles; however, the length of the hike may vary based on conditions.

Meet at the Warming Hut near the Visitor Center. Dress in layers and bring snow/rain gear if needed. Wear good hiking boots/shoes. Bring water. Bring snowshoes if you have them.

Georgia

The perfect way to jump-start those New Year’s resolutions to get in shape and explore Georgia is to participate in a First Day Hike. When you go, tag your photos with #FirstDayHikes so folks can see where you’ve been.

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

Swamp Island Loop First Day Hike

Stephen C. Foster State Park, Fargo

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

Start your 2023 with a refreshing stroll around this little island park in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp. Start with the .75-mile Trembling Earth Boardwalk Loop. Those wishing to see more can continue with the ranger around the island perimeter for another 2.25 miles along the Jones Island and Upland Pine Trails.

This is a relaxed, family friendly hike with time to listen for and admire wildlife along the way.

Get more tips for visiting Stephen C. Foster State Park

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bear Hair Gap Trail First Day Hike

Vogel State Park, Blairsville

Located 11 miles south of Blairsville via Highway 19/129

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 9 a.m. to 12:00 noon

Bear Hair Gap Trail is a 4.1-mile partial loop over the lower ridge of Blood Mountain with an overlook of the park. The trail travels onto the Chattahoochee National Forest. Hiking time is 2 to 4 hours; medium difficulty with a 12 percent grade in places. To register call the Visitors Center at 706-745-2628.

Meet at the Visitors Center. Pets are allowed (must be on a 6-foot leash and waste must be picked up and disposed of in a waste receptacle when back to Vogel State Park). Small children may have difficulty walking this trail.

Get more tips for visiting Vogel State Park

Texas

Celebrate 100 years of Texas State Parks in 2023 with a First Day Hike on New Year’s Day.

First Day hikes vary from short, leisurely nature walks on forested trails, boardwalk strolls through wetlands or to the beach, or climbs into the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert. They offer both guided and self-guided hikes. Some First Day Hikes aren’t hikes at all: They also lead bike rides, paddling tours, and even horseback rides. After your hike, stop at the visitor center to report on your hike and collect a memento of your visit.

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart State Park First Day Sunrise Hike

Located 4 miles southwest of Lockhart (Barbecue Capital of Texas) on Highway 183 and FM 20

Sunday, January 1, 2023. 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.

Start your New Year off right with an early morning hike at Lockhart State Park

Hike at dawn and set good intentions for the year to come. All ages and abilities are welcome. The hike is less than 1 mile (~0.8 miles) on moderately challenging terrain. No registration is required. Meet your guide at the Chisholm Trailhead. After leaving Park HQ, continue straight on Park Road 10 for about a ½ mile. The Chisholm Trailhead is past the golf course on your left-hand side.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park First Day Hike

Located 11 miles northwest of Gonzales on Highway 183

Sunday, January 1, 2023, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Start the year off right, with some peace of mind at your own pace. Join in on this annual tradition of ringing in the New Year by going on a hike. Take this hike at your own pace and breathe in that fresh air to clear your mind. 

Bring sturdy closed-toed shoes, water, and dress for the weather. With this self-guided hike, choose any of the open trails, and once you have completed your journey, head on back to the Headquarters building to pick up your First Day Hike Sticker. This is self-guided, so explore the park. Trails to pick from include but are not limited to:

  • Palmetto Interpretive: 0.30 miles
  • Mesquite Flats Trail: 1.1 miles 
  • San Marcos River Trail: 1.3 miles  

Get more tips for visiting Palmetto State Park

Worth Pondering…

New Year brings blessings yet to behold.

—Lailah Gifty Akita

National Wilderness Month: September 2022

What does wilderness mean to you?

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.

—Edward Abbey

September marks the anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnsonn September 3, 1964. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, the result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness and to create a formal mechanism for designating wilderness. The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

—Howard Zahniser

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. This law established these areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes 803 areas (111,706,287 acres) in 44 states and Puerto Rico. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest addition in a single year. 1984 marks the year when the newest wilderness areas were added. 

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overall, however, only about 5 percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America’s wilderness only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.

These wilderness areas are located within national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and conservation lands and waters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans turned to these areas for physical recreation, mental well-being, and inspiration, and our public lands and waters became places of healing and sanctuary.

Wilderness is in the arid deserts, cypress swamps, alpine meadows, sandy beaches, and rocky crags. From Alaska to Florida, wilderness protects some of the most diverse and sensitive habitats in America. It offers a refuge for wildlife and a place to seek relaxation, adventure, or something in between for us. What does wilderness mean to you?  

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the Outdoors

Celebrate Wildnerness Month by getting out and visiting some of America’s state parks and national parks. Or, for more local ideas here are a few suggestions on how you can get started to actively appreciate and enjoy our beautiful wilderness:

In addition, the fourth Saturday in September (September 24, 2022) celebrates the connection between people and green spaces in their community with the annual National Public Lands Day. The day is set aside for volunteers to improve the health of public lands, parks, and historic sites. This day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort.

With 803 designated locations, searching for a National Wilderness Area to visit may seem like an impossible task. Consider the following eight wilderness areas for RV travel.

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Superstition Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1964

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although there is no guarantee that you’ll find buried treasure, you are sure to discover miles and miles of desolate and barren mountains, seemingly endless and haunting canyons, raging summer temperatures that can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and a general dearth of water.

Elevations range from approximately 2,000 feet on the western boundary to 6,265 feet on Mound Mountain. In the western portion rolling land is surrounded by steep, even vertical terrain. Weaver’s Needle, a dramatic volcanic plug, rises to 4,553 feet. Vegetation is primarily that of the Sonoran Desert with semidesert grassland and chaparral higher up.

Peralta Trailhead © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the harsh setting, much of Superstition Wilderness, especially the Peralta and First Water Trails is overused by humans. These two trailheads receive about 80 percent of the annual human traffic and the U.S. Forest Service calls the 6.3-mile Peralta one of the most heavily used trails in Arizona. Other trails within the Wilderness are virtually untrodden. There are about 180 miles of trails as well as other unmaintained tracks.

Get more tips for visiting Superstition Wilderness

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Wilderness, California

Designated: 1976

Size: 595,364 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 transformed Joshua Tree National Monument into a national park and expanded the wilderness. The additions thrust north into the Pinto Mountains, northeast into the Coxcomb Mountains, southeast into the Eagle Mountains, and southwest into the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Most of the park away from road corridors is Wilderness, a meeting place of two desert ecosystems.

The lower, drier Colorado Desert dominates the eastern half of the park, home to abundant creosote bushes, the spidery ocotillo, and the “jumping” cholla cactus. The slightly more cool and moist Mojave Desert covers the western half of the park serving as a hospitable breeding ground for the undisciplined Joshua tree. You’ll find examples of a third ecosystem within the park: five fan-palm oases where surface or near-surface water gives life to the stately palms.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree Wilderness

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Wilderness, Georgia

Designated: 1974

Size: 353,981 acres

Managed by: Fish and Wildlife Service

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine waking to a mist-enshrouded wetland echoing with the calls of herons and ibis. Your camping site is a wooden platform surrounded by miles and miles of wet prairie or moss-covered cypress. The only sounds you hear are the calls of native wildlife and those you make upon taking in such beauty. This is what it is like to experience a night in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Wilderness Area.

The Okefenokee NWR encompasses the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the oldest and best-preserved freshwater areas in America. Native Americans called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits that cover much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on. “Okefenokee” is a European interpretation of their words. The Okefenokee Swamp forms the headwaters for two very distinct rivers. The historic Suwannee River originates in the heart of the swamp and flows southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The second is the St. Marys River, which originates in the southeastern portion of the swamp and flows to the Atlantic Ocean forming part of the boundary between Georgia and Florida.

Get more tips for visiting Okefenokee Wilderness

Mt. Wrightson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1984

Size: 25,141 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising a magnificent 7,000 feet from the desert floor, 9,452-foot-high Mount Wrightson is visible from great distances. At the core of the Santa Rita Mountains, this Wilderness has rough hillsides, deep canyons, and lofty ridges and peaks surrounded by semiarid hills and sloping grasslands. Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir dominate the upper elevations. The stream-fed canyons support an abundance of plant and animal life. At the foot of Madera Canyon on the edge of the Wilderness, a developed recreation area serves as a popular jumping-off point for hikers and backpackers.

Get more tips for visiting Mt. Wrightson Wilderness

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness, California

Designated: 1972

Size: 79,061 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In May of 1914, Lassen Peak began a seven-year series of eruptions including a humdinger in 1915 when an enormous mushroom cloud reached seven miles in height. Today, the Lassen Volcanic National Park serves as a compact laboratory of volcanic phenomena and associated thermal features (mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs, sulfurous vents) with Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) near the center of the park’s western half. Lassen Peak and its trail are non-Wilderness but almost four-fifths of the park has been designated Wilderness, a land of gorgeous lakes teeming with fish, thick forests of pine and fir, many splendid creeks, and a fascinating hodgepodge of extinct and inactive volcanoes.

Best of all, this mountainous country remains relatively uncrowded by California standards. At least 779 plant species and numerous animals have been identified here. The eastern border of the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness is shared with Caribou Wilderness and one trail crosses the boundary. About 150 miles of trails snake through the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. A 17-mile-long section of the Pacific Crest Trail crosses from north to south.

Get more tips for visiting Lassen Volcanic Wilderness

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

West Malpais Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 1987

Size: 39,540 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais is Spanish for “the badlands,” a name that perfectly describes this region of New Mexico where countless volcanic eruptions sent rivers of molten rock and flying cinders over what is now a bleak valley of three million years’ worth of hardened lava. Native American settlers probably witnessed the last of the eruptions. Their former home is now a land of craters and lava tubes, cinder cones and spatters cones, ice caves and pressure ridges, and a surprising amount of vegetation. Even on terrain that one would presume to be barren, wind-deposited debris has thickened enough to support grasses, cacti, aspen, pine, juniper, and fir.

Preserved within the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, West Malpais Wilderness is home to Hole-In-The-Wall, the largest island-like depression in these lava fields. Over the years, moisture and soil collected on some of the oldest lava to form this 6,000-acre stand of ponderosa pine.

Get more tips for visiting West Malpais Wilderness

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1978

Size: 312,600 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness is bordered by the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness to the west.

Located at the heart of the vast and lush Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness hugs the Mexican border and celebrates a desert full of life: 550 species of vascular plants, 53 species of mammals, 43 species of reptiles, and more than 278 species of birds. The monument conserves 90 percent of the organ pipe cactus range in the US. The organ pipe is a large multispined cactus rare in the United States.

From Mount Ajo at 4,024 feet, atop the Ajo Range on the eastern border, the land falls away to broad alluvial desert plains studded with cacti and creosote bushes, isolated canyons, dry arroyos, and stark desert mountains. Summer temperatures have been known to reach an unbelievably scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit but winter brings daytime temperatures in the 60s and chilly nights. About 95 percent of the monument has been designated Wilderness making this Arizona’s third largest Wilderness.

Organ Pipe camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No reliable water sources exist in Organ Pipe Cactus except at the 208-site campground near the visitor’s center. The camp is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis for a fee.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Mountains Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 2019

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Mountains Wilderness provides the backdrop to the Mesilla Valley and New Mexico’s second-largest city: Las Cruces. From picnickers to horsemen, family outings to day hikes, these mountains offer recreation, important wildlife habitat, and watershed protection. The striking granite crags and spires of the Organ Mountains range from 4,600 to just over 9,000 feet and are so named because of the steep, needle-like spires that resemble the pipes of an organ. The wilderness includes the Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Mountains Wilderness

Worth Pondering…

The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.

—Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring

Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

In state parks and national parks alike you’ll find things like caves and waterfalls, mountains and valleys, wide-open fields, and pristine lakes and seashores

There’s one thing you know for certain: you’re looking to get away, get outdoors, and go exploring. But where are you going? Chances are you want to visit a place where the natural world is front and center which means state parks and national parks are two of your best options. These special, protected environments are available for public use and offer plenty of opportunities for exploration, recreation, and adventure. Whatever outdoor activities you’re enthusiastic about it’s guaranteed that both national and state parks afford plenty of access to a variety of great places to pursue them.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in any case, you have no bad options! No matter which type of park you choose to visit, you’ll be able to explore endless trails, campsites, and outdoor adventure opportunities. So make your choice and get out there!

In the southeastern corner of Georgia lies the Okefenokee Swamp, a 438,000-acre wetland. The cypress-filled wilderness—with its labyrinth of black canals inhabited by some 12,000 gators—is a long drive from anywhere. The Native Americans aptly called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits covering much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanish moss-laced trees sway in the breeze. A carpet of yellow bonnet lilies floats on top of the glossy dark waters of this refuge, home not only to alligators but also to turtles, black bears, herons, and many other creatures. At night, you hear the barred owls hooting deep within the forest.

More on state parks: 16 of the Best State Parks in America

One noise missing is the beep-beep of mobile devices. Cell phone service is spotty at best and honestly, you’ll be delighted by a break from the digital world. 

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

Visitors have three main entry points to choose from, each about two hours from the next. Stephen C. Foster State Park is the western entrance to the Okefenokee. It’s nestled within the much larger Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge but it offers much that the bigger reserve does not include campsites with electrical hookups, running water, and access until 10 p.m.—a plus for the stargazers attracted by its International Dark Sky designation in 2016. The park is 18 miles from the closest town of Fargo, Georgia.

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

Park staff removed 13 streetlights and switched many bulbs to light-emitting diodes (LED). They worked with a local power company to install state-of-the-art lighting which casts downward rather than outward. The staff even retrofitted outdoor lighting on park cabins to be motion-activated.

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

These days, Okefenokee’s 120 acres of state park have more fans than ever. Since the pandemic started, they’ve seen an uptick in visitation even in the summer when numbers are normally low. That’s no anomaly. As travelers seek new options for enjoying the outdoors, state parks across the country have reported rising attendance.

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

Surprisingly, as of 2019, they were already welcoming about 2.5 times more visitors than their higher-profile, federally funded counterparts despite having only 16 percent of the acreage. While many state campgrounds do book up fast, a relatively local audience means that visitors at this southern George park tend to be more evenly distributed throughout the year which preserves the low-key, less crowded atmosphere. People can be out relaxing in nature without encountering the Instagram swarms angling for photo ops in the more famous parks.

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

Crowd volume is also helped by the simple fact that there are more state-run options for travelers to choose from. America’s State Parks alliance tallied nearly 6,800 reserves while the National Park System manages just 423.

More on state parks: 12 of the Best State Parks for Summer Camping

As national parks introduce timed entry tickets and day-use reservations in an attempt to tackle overtourism these laid-back siblings feel all the more inviting. Of course, 50 states mean 50 different systems for camping permits, and from park to park amenities are even more variable. Some sites are tricked out with golf courses, zip lining, and RV hookups; others, such as Maine’s Baxter and California’s Sonoma Coast state parks don’t even have running water.

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As demand grows, so, too, do the choices. Texas’s first new state park in 25 years, Palo Pinto Mountains will open next year on nearly 5,000 acres halfway between Abilene and Fort Worth. Visitors will be able to hike, bike, and ride horses over the hills. There will be fishing and canoeing on Tucker Lake and campsites where you can stargaze. Once the park opens, one of the first things visitors will see is a sweeping view of the hills from a road built along a ridge. That was on purpose—to awe people on their way in and out.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And Michigan just announced $250 million in funding for state parks including $26.2 million to create one in Flint—a key investment in the community as it continues to move past its water crisis.

Older sites are getting new energy, too. Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee opened a $40.4 million, 85-room lodge this past January.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In five Minnesota parks, all-terrain electric wheelchairs with continuous-track treads for navigating rugged ground will be bookable as of this summer.

More on state parks: The 15 Best State Parks for RV Camping

Still, state parks grapple with the same challenges national ones do—and then some. One big concern is having enough help to manage maintenance, ticketing, and other operations.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pennsylvania recently announced the creation of three new state parks. The state’s 2022-23 spending plan includes $56 million to add the new state parks to what is currently a 121-park system. The three will be the first new state parks in Pennsylvania since 2005 not counting Washington Crossing which was transferred from the state Historical and Museum Commission. The money will also help develop the state’s first park for the use of all-terrain vehicles and similar motorized recreational vehicles.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Delaware State Parks which have been filled with a growing number of visitors in the past few years is getting $3.2 million to upgrade some facilities. The goal is to increase the number of attractions in the popular state parks drawing even more tourists to the state. A record-breaking 8 million people visited state parks in 2021 exceeding previous attendance numbers. State officials say this year’s numbers are on track to top that total. Since 2011, reservations and occupancy for camping nights in the parks have grown 124 percent. In 2011, 67,000 nights were reserved, while last year, total reservations approached 150,000.

More on state parks: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

The Best RV Destinations to Explore this Spring

While summer may be the obvious choice for an RV vacation, spring can be an equally memorable time for a getaway. In many parts of the country, the flowers are in full bloom and the weather becomes more inviting by the day. What’s more, depending on where you visit, the crowds will be much smaller than in summer.

So whether you’re thinking of renting an RV or getting your RV ready for the road, here are 10 prime choices for a spring getaway around the country.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amelia Island, Florida

For anyone thinking of island destinations, Amelia Island is a secret island paradise. It has lots of hiking and biking trails and sunny spots like Fernandina Beach for sunbathing, swimming, surf fishing, and shark tooth and shell hunting. Stay overnight at one of the two on-site campgrounds at Amelia Island State Park.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History buffs will love Fort Clinch State Park where there’s a preserved Civil War-era walled plantation that features daily tours. Check out the Amelia Island Museum of History to learn about the 4,000-year-old island. Relax with a craft Bearing Rum cocktail at Marlin & Barrel Distillery or a farm-to-table dinner at Omni Amelia Island Resort and catch a live musical theater production at Amelia Musical Playhouse.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

As Utah’s oldest national park, Zion has lost none of its grandiosity since its opening in 1919. It’s a place of wonderment, the crown jewel of Utah’s epic national park system. Located in Southern Utah, its esteem has been well earned because of its array of vast and narrow canyons, rainbow rock formations, natural monuments, fantastic hiking, and stunning vistas. Don’t pass up on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In a state made for road trips, the short and sweet journey is the icing on the cake.

Related Article: 6 Perfect Destinations to Take Your RV This Spring

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. Watchman Campground located in Zion Canyon and is open all year round. South Campground is closed in the winter. The Lava Point Campground is about a 1-hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road (closed in winter). From mid-March through late November the campgrounds are full almost every night. Reservations at Watchman Campground are recommended. Several area campgrounds are a short drive from the park. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas

You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests—albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive variety. The Harvard oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above three feet in height even though their root structure may extend as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the dunes.

Monahans Sandhill State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. The 26 campsites offer electric and water hookups, picnic table, and a shade shelter. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off “surfed in a desert” from your travel bucket list.

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

Okefenokee, Georgia

One of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders, the 700-square-mile Okefenokee Swamp was once part of the ocean floor. Even the patches of land dotting the wetland are not too stable; trees often shake like they’re about to be torn from the earth and capsize. The name Okefenokee comes from a Creek word meaning “trembling earth.” Located in the middle of the swamp, in the southeast corner of Georgia, is Stephen C. Foster State Park—remote and filled with wildlife, nature, and few people, it’s a perfect camping destination. 

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

It’s true what they say about West Virginia―it really is wild and wonderful! The New River Gorge area is GORGEous (get it?) in spring; imagine tree-covered mountains in bloom with a whitewater river, one of the oldest on the continent, running through it. With more than 100 trails for hiking and biking, this national treasure is a thrill-seeker’s paradise with many opportunities to get wild. The area is known for its whitewater rafting, fishing, and BASE jumping off of the nation’s third-largest bridge. With plenty of unspoiled wilderness to enjoy, New River Gorge is a place of beauty, especially in spring. 

Related Article: Prep Your RV for Spring Travel

Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provides opportunities for primitive camping only. Camping areas are located along the river. These primitive camping areas have no drinking water or hookups, and limited restroom facilities. RV camping is available at nearby Babcock State Park.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Jekyll Island, the southernmost island of the Golden Isles, was purchased in 1886 by a group of wealthy families for a private retreat. The Jekyll Island Club was formed and members built a clubhouse and a neighborhood of “cottages” to be used for a few months during the winter.

Jekyll Island Club  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1900, The Jekyll Island Club membership included the Rockefellers, Morgans, Vanderbilts, Goodyears, Pulitzers, Goulds, and Cranes and represented over one-sixth of the world’s wealth (Mr. Crane’s cottage boasted 17 bathrooms).

Jekyll Island Campground  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jekyll Island offers an abundance of recreational activities that are sure to please visitors of all ages. A variety of amenities include ten miles of white sand beaches, 63 holes of golf, an outdoor tennis complex, a waterpark, fishing pier, nature centers, 20 miles of bike trails, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Accommodations are varied and include a grand historic hotel and oceanfront properties. RV camping is available at the Jekyll Island Campground which offers 206 campsites on the Island’s north end.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Spring

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamogordo, New Mexico

Two of largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand and Eagle Ranch are destinations that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo they are easy day trips from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. With an average of 287 days of sunshine, outdoor activities abound throughout the area. 

World’s Largest Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PistachioLand is the home of the World’s Largest Pistachio, Pistachio Tree Ranch, McGinn’s Country Store, and Arena Blanca Winery. Experience their motorized farm tour, take your photo with the World’s Largest Pistachio, shop inside their country store, sit on the porch with views of the mountains, try their free samples at the pistachio bar, enjoy the wine tasting room, and grab a sweet treat in PistachioLand ice cream parlor.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eagle Ranch is the home of New Mexico’s largest producing pistachio groves with approximately 13,000 trees. Wines were added to the product line in 2002. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcase how pistachios are grown and processed. A second store is conveniently located in the historic village of Mesilla.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park Colorado

The Pueblo people definitely left their mark on the American West and their way of life remains intact at sites like Mesa Verde. The region is chalk full of thousands of archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings dating back to the 5th century. Carved into cliffs sitting 8,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by inhospitable desert landscapes, the tenacity and ingenuity of these ancient people is undeniable.

Related Article: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for a Spring Road Trip

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park entrance is about 45 minutes from Durango and the best time to see Mesa Verde is May through October when some of the dwellings allow the public to visit. Check out the tons of petroglyphs all along the Petroglyph Point Trail.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills.

Worth Pondering…

Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

—Ray Bradbury

How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Use the three-number formula of the Nature Pyramid to make yourself healthier and happier

We all know that 2020 was a grueling year. Many of us have been cooped up for too long. Research shows that Americans actually spent 92 percent of their time inside. Being outside comes with many positive benefits for our mental and physical health.

Dr. Rachel Hopman, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, suggests the Nature Pyramid. The “20-5-3” rule, or nature pyramid, recommends the amount of time we should spend outdoors to reduce stress and boost our overall happiness. Think of it as the food pyramid except that instead of recommending you eat this many servings of vegetables and this many of meat, it recommends the amount of time you should spend in nature to reduce stress and be healthier. Learn and live by the 20-5-3 rule.

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20 minutes

Like the food pyramid, the bottom is what you need to be doing the most. You should spend 20 minutes outside in nature three times a week. That means put your phone away and revel in the beauty of being outside. A recent study shows that people who used their phones while being outside or on a walk showed no benefit from its effects.

In nature, our brains enter a mode called “soft fascination.” Hopman described it as a mindfulness-like state that restores and builds the resources you need to think, create, process information, and execute tasks. But turn off your phone—alerts from it can kick you out of soft-fascination mode.

Frances Beidler Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 hours

Broken down, per month, we should spend five hours in semi-wild nature. For instance, going to a state or county park or nature preserve can provide city dwellers with feelings of being more relaxed and less stressed.

A 2005 survey conducted in Finland found that city dwellers felt better with at least five hours of nature a month with benefits increasing at higher exposures. They were also more likely to be happier and less stressed in their everyday lives.

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

The Finnish government-funded another study in 2014 in which the scientists placed people in a city center, a city park, and a forested state park. The two parks felt more Zen than the city center. No shocker, here. Except that those walking in a state park had an edge over the city-park people. They felt even more relaxed and restored. The takeaway: The wilder the nature, the better.

Nature has these effects on the mind and body because it stimulates and soothes us in unusual and unique ways. For instance, in nature, you are engulfed in fractals, suggested Hopman. Fractals are complex patterns that repeat over and over in different sizes and scales and make up the design of the universe. Think: trees (big branch to smaller branch), river systems (big river to stream and so on), mountain ranges, clouds, seashells.

Caverns of Sonora, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 days

At the top of the pyramid, we should spend three days immersed in nature each year. Try camping in the woods to spend some time off the grid. This nature time can boost creativity and problem solving and relieve burnout. This dose of the wildest nature can reset your thinking, tame burnout, and just make you feel better.

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country—a third of them privately owned—have received the designation.

Frances Beidler Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest, South Carolina

The Francis Beidler Forest harbors one of the last large virgin stands of bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp in the United States. A significant number of rare, unusual, or range extensions for plants and animals occurs in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species. The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods, and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats.

Year designated: 1979

Size: 3,408 acres

Ownership: National Audubon Society

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina

The 21,811-acre swamp—located within Congaree National Park—is the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Flooding from the Congaree and Wateree rivers provides the nutrients to sustain one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world. This unique ecosystem has been designated both an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area.

More than 20 miles of hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to explore the floodplain and its national and state champion trees. The most popular is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop featuring an elevated section that winds through the old-growth trees and a low boardwalk that takes you through a primeval bald cypress and tupelo forest. You can also paddle your way through the swamp on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail running 15 miles along the blackwater tributary all the way to the Congaree River.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 21,811 acres

Ownership: Federal

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Okefenokee Swamp, located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the largest and most primitive swamps in the country. It contains a diversity of ecosystems and is a refuge for native flora and fauna including many uncommon, threatened, and endangered species.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 337,300 acres

Ownership: Federal, State

Caverns of Sonora, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Caverns of Sonora, Texas

The Caverns of Sonora contain unusual formations such as bladed helictites and coralloid growths and are internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful show caves on the planet. The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth from 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface.

Year designated: 1965

Size: 103 acres

Ownership: Private

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

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a living museum of the lowland forested area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The refuge’s jungle-like vegetation provides habitat for over 400 species of birds and about one-half of all butterfly species found in the United States.

Year designated: 1966

Size: 2,059 acres

Ownership: Federal

Enchanted Rock, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, located within Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest rock mountains in the United States. It is a classic illustration of a batholith and of the exfoliation process. The coarse-grained pink granite is massive and uniform in composition and texture and is some of the oldest igneous rock known in North America.

Year designated: 1971

Size: 667 acres

Ownership: State

Fishing in the Bottomlands near the Gulf, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile-Tensaw River Bottomlands, Alabama

Mobile-Tensaw River Bottomlands is one of the most important wetlands in the nation. The site contains a variety of habitats, including mesic floodplains, freshwater swamps, and brackish water marshes, and supports several rare and endangered species.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 179,000 acres

Ownership: Federal, State, Private

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, Arizona

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary is a good example of a cottonwood-willow riparian forest and is one of the last permanent stream-bottom habitat areas in southern Arizona. The site retains a substantial part of the indigenous aquatic biota, including the endangered Gila topminnow. The birdlife includes several Mexican species and is the only known nesting site in the country for the rare rose-throated becard.

Year designated: 1970

Size: 314 acres

Ownership: Nature Conservancy

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona

Ramsey Canyon is a stream-cut, vertical-sided gorge. Cold air drainage from the upper canyon results in a well-defined microclimatic habitat that supports Mexican flora and fauna and plants that normally occur only at higher elevations. The site is also frequented by more species of hummingbirds than any other area in the United States.

Year designated: 1965

Size: 279 acres

Ownership: Nature Conservancy

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest desert state park in the nation. The site contains some of the best examples of the various biotic communities and geological phenomena of the Colorado Desert region.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 622,810 acres

Ownership: State, Municipal, Private

Worth Pondering…

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.

—E. O. Wilson

Stephen C. Foster State Park: Rich in History and Isolation

This remote park is a primary entrance to the legendary Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders

Entering the enchanting Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders—through Stephen C. Foster State Park presents an incredible display of diverse wildlife, unique scenic views, and rousing outdoor adventure.

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

Canoeing or kayaking through the swamp is the park’s main attraction. It’s an otherworldly experience gliding through the reflections of Spanish moss dangling from the trees above. Turtles, deer, wood storks, herons, and black bears are a few of the countless creatures you may see here but the most frequent sighting is the American Alligator. Nearly 12,000 are estimated to live in the area.

Daytime, nighttime, and sunset guided boat tours of the swamp are available and you can rent canoes, kayaks, or Jon boats at the park office.

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

Stephen C. Foster State Park is a primary entrance to the legendary Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia. Though the park is only about 120 acres, it is a prime access point to the 700 square mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and its most famous island―Billy’s Island. The name “Billy’s Island” has a bit of a legendary history. Some claim that it came from the famous Native American chief―Chief Billy Bowlegs―of the Seminole Indian wars. Others claim there was a man named “Indian Billy” that lived there in the early 1800s and was murdered by some cattleman.

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

That aside, the most famous residents of the island, which then and now is only accessible by boat, were the Lee’s. James Lee started living a self-sufficient lifestyle with his family in the 1860s. His family had livestock and crops and they hunted, fished, and had everything they needed.

As is the case in most American stories, modern technology comes in and completely uproots, literally in this case, the frontier way of life. In 1907, a logging company moved in and introduced modern society to this contented family. In the next two decades, the company would clear 425 million board feet, the vast majority being old growth cypress trees, all the while setting up a movie theater, a cafe, a whole little town on Billy’s Island to support the operation.

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

Think about what it was like being the Lee’s. You are living with nature, utilizing its resources and all of a sudden this company brings other people from other places and destroys your way of life. As most adaptable families do, sons and grandsons of James Lee worked for the logging company, helping the swamp-foreigners to navigate and survive in the hostile environment of the swamp.

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

When the logging company left, so did the town and the rest of civilization. As with all things in the swamp―the water, roots, and mud overtook the town and all that remains of its past is some rusty fences and a few gravestones. Descendants of the Lee’s still remain in the area, along with other swamp families.

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

Today, Billy’s Island, along with the swamp, is the way it has been for thousands of years―a black water reservoir, filled with islands, black bears, alligators, waterways, and little remnants of the people who try to survive there. As it is, what most would call, an undesirable place to live, there have always been outsiders and people seeking refuge from whatever is haunting or hunting them.  

Escaped slaves have passed through as it is a great place to hide. Native Americans―the Seminole tribes―have made the swamp home at various times throughout history, most recently in an effort to escape forced exile in the 1800s.

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

Surely a place so rich in history and isolation has its share of ghost stories. There are various reports of mystical hazes, ghosts, bigfoot, and alien abductions that are easy to find and hard to substantiate, but there is an interesting story that come out of the swamp that, at least, comes from reliable resources.

The story is relatively recent and returns us to Billy’s Island. In 1996, a former park ranger from New York was visiting the swamp and disappeared. A search party looked for him for several days and weeks. Then, 41 days later, the ranger was found leaning against a tree with tattered clothes and bug bites everywhere. He claimed he got lost and survived on what the island gave him.

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

Some folks are skeptical of his story, due to Billy’s Island only being 4 miles long by 2 miles wide and there was no evidence of him trying to get help, however the facts of him being discovered 41 days after disappearing are true and the story was widely published at the time of it happening.  

All the historical richness and vastness of the swamp is at the fingertips of Stephen C. Foster State Park. They have all sorts of activities―star-watching (and alligator watching!) at night, canoeing, hiking, movies, and more. Stephen C. Foster is Georgia’s first International Dark Sky Park. So you can gaze up at the stars and see the Milky Way with minimal light interference. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a meteor dashing across the sky.

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

The park offers 66 RV and tent campsites as well as nine two-bedroom cottages that can hold 6 to 8 people. Stays at the Suwannee River Eco Lodge are also popular, with full kitchen cottages that have screened porches and beautiful views of the forest. 

Worth Pondering…

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away
That’s where my heart is turning ever
That’s where the old folks stay
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam
Still longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home

—Stephen Foster, 1851