Chattanooga Now 5 Southeastern parks you've never heard of and why you'll love them

Chattanooga Now 5 Southeastern parks you've never heard of and why you'll love them

March 1st, 2018 by Myron Madden in Get Out - Features

Campers rough it out at one of the campsites on Cumberland Island.

Photo by National Parks Conservation Association

A visitor strolls along Congaree National Park's boardwalk, which stretches for 2.4 miles.

Photo by National Parks Conservation Association

With a South Carolina fishing license, anglers can catch bass, crappie and other game fish in Congaree’s creeks and lakes.

With a South Carolina fishing license, anglers can...

Photo by Steven McNamara

CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK

Hopkins, South Carolina  |  5 hours from Chattanooga

This 27,000-acre forest may exist within a floodplain, but spend an afternoon watching otters and armadillos wade through its waters while dwarfed by 15-story trees, and the last word on your mind will be "swamp." Fed by nutrients from the Congaree and Wateree rivers, this majestic wilderness area is known for its biodiversity and its large concentration of champion trees, each the largest known tree in the world for its particular species.

What It Offers

With 25 miles of hiking trails and a marked 20-mile canoe trail, visitors are free to explore the Congaree Wilderness by foot or by water. In spring and fall, ranger-led programs, like the popular "Owl Prowl," allow guests to experience the park in unique ways. Nature-lovers who plan to go it alone will still find plenty to do in the park, which has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and an International Biosphere Reserve.

Why You Should Care

Relatively small in comparison to other national parks like Yellowstone, which boasts 2 million acres, Congaree is easily one of the most underestimated national parks on the map. But don't let its lack of name recognition scare you off. Designated in 2003, Congaree is still one of the newer parks, meaning there's still time to get up close and personal before the secret gets out.

Who's Gonna Love It

» Hikers

» Campers

» Paddlers

» Anglers

» Birders

Amenities

» Two primitive campgrounds

» Picnic tables

» Fire rings

A group re-enacts a WWI battle from the trenches at Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park.

Photo by TnDeptofEnv&Cons.

SGT. ALVIN C. YORK STATE HISTORIC PARK

Alvin C. York (postwar photo)

Alvin C. York (postwar photo)

Photo by TnDeptofEnv&Cons.

Pall Mall, Tennessee  |  2.5 hours from Chattanooga

As a tried-and-true Tennessean, you may have heard of Sgt. Alvin C. York, but it's less likely you've heard of the park named in his honor. Tucked away in Fentress County near the Kentucky state line, this historic site pays homage to the pacifist-turned-WWI-hero who caught the nation's attention when he led his patrol out of an ambush, capturing 132 German soldiers in the process.

Many venture across the swinging bridge at the historic park to reach Sgt. Alvin C. York’s gravesite.

Many venture across the swinging bridge at the...

Photo by TnDeptofEnv&Cons.

What It Offers

This National Historic Landmark promises a list of pastimes almost as numerous as York's robust collection of military awards. Guests can tour the home where the sergeant and his wife raised their children, re-enact the Great War from the reproduced trenches behind the structure, or explore the two-story gristmill York used to grind corn. From there, visitors can further delve into history, examining WWI military equipment and eating a sample of wartime rations, or venture through a half-mile trail and across a swinging bridge overhanging Wolf River to check out York's gravesite.

Why You Should Care

Just this February, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation named York's former home the 2017 State Park of the Year, touting its vast programming and calling it a "pinnacle example of how a cultural site should operate." It seems that even a century after his famous firefight, York just can't stop racking up those accolades.

Who's Gonna Love It

» History fanatics

» Families

Amenities

» Picnic tables and two picnic pavilions

» Playground

With numerous dive sites, snorkelers at Dry Tortugas can swim alongside colorful fishes, sea turtles and even dolphins.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Seven small islands make up Dry Tortugas National Park.

Seven small islands make up Dry Tortugas National...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK

Monroe County, Florida | 14 hours from Chattanooga

Located 70 miles off the coast of Florida, this tropical paradise is as far down south as it gets. Made up of seven small islands and 99 percent underwater, the remote park lets voyagers get their Robinson Crusoe on as they discover the blend of natural and historic wonders on land and sea.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

What It Offers

Snorkeling is a big lure at Dry Tortugas, whose clear waters reveal sea life, coral reef gardens and shipwrecks right off the shore. On Garden Key, the most popular of the islands, seafarers can tour the historic Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century fortress that once served as a prison for Civil War deserters and men involved in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. As you tour the waters and explore the isles, keep on the lookout for rare migratory birds that take sanctuary along the shores.

Why You Should Care

Each year, about 60,000 people journey to Dry Tortugas, making it one of America's least visited national parks — though certainly not for lack of interest. The destination has made its way onto many adventurers' bucket lists, but with rising sea levels causing the islands to disappear and begin eating away at Fort Jefferson, you may want to consider checking this entry off your list while there's still time.

Who's Gonna Love It

» Paddlers

» Anglers

» Campers

» History fanatics

» Birders

Amenities

» Primitive campsite

» Garden Key

» Picnic tables

» Grills

Visitors hike through the untamed beaches on Cumberland Island.

Photo by csfotoimages

CUMBERLAND ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE

St. Marys, Georgia  |  6.5 hours from Chattanooga

One of the 10 national seashores managed by the National Park Service, this isolated Georgia treasure has it all. On its rustic beaches and quiet wilderness area, day-trippers will find a sense of solace that may convince them to delay their ferry ride back for a day or two.

Campers rough it out at one of the campsites on Cumberland Island.

Campers rough it out at one of the...

Photo by National Parks Conservation Association

What It Offers

Cumberland Island has 50 miles of hiking trails that take travelers through maritime forests and sand dunes, as well as 18 miles of undeveloped beaches for the more adventurous beach bum. Cyclists can rent a bike and test their grit on the sandy pathways, and kayakers can up their game by battling the tide. Those looking to take it easy can explore the ruins of the historic mansion on the island, which burned down around 1960, and the land is teeming with wildlife, from waterfowl and sea turtles to a herd of wild horses.

Why You Should Care

The closest beach to Chattanooga is Tybee Island, which is also in Georgia, but for an extra 40 minutes' drive, travelers can get all the excitement of a day on the seafront without the crowds.

Who's Gonna Love It

» Campers

» Paddlers

» Cyclists

» History fanatics

» Hikers

Amenities

» Three primitive campgrounds

» Two developed campgrounds

» Fire rings and grills

Big Cypress Tree State Park lies within the floodplain of the Middle Fork of the Obion River in West Tennessee.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

BIG CYPRESS TREE STATE PARK

Greenfield, Tennessee  |  4.5 hours from Chattanooga

Before a fateful bolt of lightning set its branches aflame in 1976, the largest bald cypress tree in the United States called this park home. Though the 175-foot-tall "Tennessee Titan" no longer towers over the area, the park has no shortage of natural wonders to keep visitors in awe.

What It Offers

Today, visitors are drawn to Big Cypress for its 17-bed wildflower garden and its bald cypress forest, which burns bright with fall colors each autumn. The vibrant wildflowers often attract hummingbirds, and bald eagles can sometimes be found taking flight in September. If you're looking more for the local flavor, consider popping by in mid-October for the annual Big Cypress Tree Fall Festival.

Why You Should Care

With only 25,500 guests each year, Big Cypress is one of the least-visited state parks in Tennessee, which only makes it more noteworthy in our book.

Who's Gonna Love It

» Picnickers

» Birders

» Wildflower enthusiasts

Amenities

» Large picnic area with shelter

» Grills

» Playground