8. January 2013 22:50
Although one might associate many national parks with the arrival of icy roads and mountain snows in December, there are many Southern parks that are still suitable for a late-year group visit. Just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, is Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which protects two great cotton plantations: Magnolia and Oakland.
In 1753, Jean Baptiste LeComte obtained the land grant that became Magnolia Plantation, while in 1789, Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme also received a land grant which became the core of Bermuda Plantation, later renamed Oakland. Even though well-managed plantations like Magnolia and Oakland survived the war, low prices, boll weevils, and the departure of former slaves from the region brought hard times.
Although World War I initially increased cotton demand, it wasn’t long before depressed prices and lean times returned. And as modernization and mechanization increased, from the 1930s to the 1960s, many plantations like Magnolia and Oakland were gradually abandoned. Nevertheless, descendants of families and workers who have farmed the region for over two centuries have been able to successfully adapt to social, agricultural and economic change, carrying on many traditions and an enduring Creole culture into the 21st century.
Today, visitors to the two plantations can explore a varied collection of carriage houses, overseer’s houses, slave quarters, plantation stores, a doctor’s cottage, and other facilities, including the country’s last remaining mule-powered cotton press. The main house at Oakland, fully furnished with period and some original pieces, is open for guided tours, while the main house at Magnolia, burned during the Civil War, was rebuilt in 1896 and is still in private ownership outside the park boundary. There is no charge for admission to either park site.
Oakland Plantation - Counter and shelves in Plantation Store
Magnolia Plantation - Old steam-powered cotton press
Magnolia Plantation - Slave/tenant quarters
8. January 2013 22:47
Spread out through the countryside of East Texas north of Beaumont are the 15 separate units that make up Big Thicket National Preserve. Called the “biological crossroads of North America,” Big Thicket was established to protect an amazing diversity of plant and animal species that thrive in the confluence of forests and central plains.
With the arrival of white settlers during the 1850s, harvesting of native timbers was soon followed by sawmills, railroads, farming and eventually oil strikes, so designation as a national preserve by the National Park Service created a new management concept to shelter remaining portions of the original ecology. To further environmental impact studies, the United Nations also named Big Thicket an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981.
Here travelers can explore this extraordinary landscape on easy hiking trails, birding, canoeing, fishing and ranger-led activities. With the splendid weather that accompanied my December visit, hiking several Big Thicket trails became a truly inspiring experience. I was particularly fascinated by the variety of mushrooms that I encountered, including the oyster mushrooms which grow in rows on tree trunks, as shown in the accompanying photograph.
Groups should begin their visits at the excellent Big Thicket Visitor Center. From here it’s only a short distance to the outstanding Kirby Nature Trail, at the entrance to which fine picnic facilities can be found. Other interesting (and easy) hikes in the area include the Sundew and Pitcher Plant Trails, the latter offering a unique opportunity to explore a bog of the renowned insect-eating plant species. There is no charge to visit Big Thicket.
Cypress knees in the swamp
Carnivorous pitcher plants
Reflections in Turkey Creek
8. January 2013 22:31
Not all parks are freezing in December. Parks like the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi can be a perfect way to get outdoors during the winter.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore created in 1971 to protect the long, narrow barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico. These islands contain salt marshes, wildlife, historic forts and archaeological sites. Most this National Park Service is offshore, and over 80% of the park is actually submerged lands.
Although the islands in the Florida District are always accessible, the pristine beaches, maritime ecology and old Fort Massachusetts found on the islands about 10 miles off the Mississippi Coast are only available to travelers who have their own boats, or wish to charter one locally (a good option for tour groups), or, from Gulfport to West Ship Island during the public tour boat season, from late March through late October.
However, a hidden gem of the Seashore is the unspoiled Davis Bayou Area, in Ocean Springs. Davis Bayou offers exhibits and video presentations in the William M. Colmer Visitor Center, extensive picnic facilities, plus easy-to-negotiate nature trails and boardwalks along the bayou. These trails offer wonderful opportunities to experience the fascinating plants, animals and birds that have adapted to life in this sometimes harsh, yet beautiful subtropical landscape.
Don’t fail to save some time (but no money, as admission is free) to include this nearby showcase of Southern Mississippi’s natural beauty during your group’s next trip to the Biloxi casinos!
Hundreds of winged sumac berries
Mama heron and her young ones
They don't call this the "Gator Pond" for nothing!
8. June 2012 20:48
I have found that one of life’s most humbling and least expensive pleasures is simply a walk under the canopy of majestic trees in a great forest, enhanced by the sounds of native birds and rushing streams. And while forests of the skyscraping firs and cedars of the Pacific Northwest run a close second, nothing equals a stroll through the towering coastal redwoods or massive giant sequoias found in California.
Although not as well known as Del Norte County’s redwoods, Mendocino County also offers a number of spectacular redwood groves for the visitor to explore. Among these are Hendy Woods and Mendocino Woodlands State Parks, as well as Montgomery Woods, Maillard Redwoods and Smithe Redwoods State Reserves. Unfortunately, some of these sites are a bit difficult for a full-sized motorcoach to access, plus California is currently in the process of closing quite a few of its lesser-utilized state parks due to budget woes.
The good news is that there are two outstanding redwood forest areas in Mendocino County that are ideal for group visits. The first is free and definitely cannot be closed, since CA 128 runs right smack through the middle of Navarro River Redwoods State Park for almost 12 miles. This incredible, awe-inspiring scenic drive is every bit the equal of the famed “Avenue of the Giants” further north.
Visitors will certainly want to pause at several of the many turnouts available along the way in order to delve even deeper into the forest on foot. Continuing east, past the park on 128, also leads to the lush Anderson Valley wine and fruit-producing region. Don’t miss it, if your tour is in the neighborhood!
The second ideal opportunity for a redwood experience is into Jackson State Forest via the renowned “Skunk Train,” which departs both from Fort Bragg (drawn by a historic steam engine) from the west, and Willits (aboard classic diesel motorcars) from the east. Narration on these daily summer excursions is provided en route with a stop for lunch and exploring in the heart of the redwoods. Incidentally, the bad-smelling fuel that earned the train its unusual name back in the 1920s, happily, is no longer utilized.
Navarro River Redwoods State Park
CA Highway 128 in Navarro River Redwoods State Park
Skunk Train in Jackson State Forest
8. June 2012 20:44
Two hours north of the San Francisco Bay area lies the Mendocino Coast in Mendocino County. Although there are splendid coastal views further south in Sonoma and Marin Counties, the truly memorable scenic drive that stretches from Gualala to Rockport offers unsurpassed views of the blue Pacific Ocean as it meets the rocky shoreline and cliffs of the California Coast.
Along the way are many state parks, beaches and reserves, picturesque communities like Mendocino, Point Arena, Manchester, Little River, Fort Bragg and Westport. Two historic lighthouses can be visited at Point Arena and Point Cabrillo, which is a State Historical Park with free entry. Wildflowers seem to grow everywhere, including at the formal floral displays of lovely Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.
Architecture in such towns as Little River, Mendocino and Fort Bragg reflects that of Coastal New England, which was the origin of many of the area’s early settlers. In Fort Bragg, the Guest House Museum boasts an impressive Victorian mansion, built in 1892 by a lumber king who became the city’s first mayor.
In addition to numerous inns and interesting shops all along the coast, first-class lodging is readily available at group-friendly properties convenient to the “Skunk Train” depot in Fort Bragg, as well as in Ukiah for those preferring to make a day trip “loop” from inland. Regardless of how the trip is planned, however, I’d suggest at least a three-night stay in order to take advantage of the major attractions that Mendocino County has to offer. With the addition of two or three nights in the San Francisco Bay area, group leaders can construct a wonderfully varied trip that their travelers are certain to recall fondly for many years to come.
Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America. He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).
Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small. He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see. He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible. His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”.
Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (435) 590-1553.
Village of Mendocino
Wildflowers and Rocky Coastline
The Pounding Pacific Surf
31. May 2012 23:33
I looked and looked, but the view at McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer State Park did not feel real. The impossible beauty I beheld had to be part of some highly imaginative dream. Or I had been suddenly whisked up to heaven. Since neither of those seemed true, I had to accept the most likely scenario: I had fallen into a screen saver picture.
The little cove’s rocky cliffs, hills blanked with colorful flowers and 80-foot waterfall that flows into bright turquoise waters is unbelievably gorgeous. I knew I had found my new mental happy place. This breathtaking view stood out among numerous other immaculate vistas along the Big Sur route that goes up the coastal Highway One from Morro Bay to Monterey.
The elephant seals agree that this coast is pretty close to paradise. For April and May, the Piedras Blancas beach is covered with hundreds of female and juvenile elephant seals.
For a second, I entertained the horrifying idea that the elephant seals laying along the beach may all be dead from their absolute lack of movement. However, I soon learned that these seals were only very, very tired. Apparently months of hunting and giving birth in the ocean really tires you out. They hardly budged except to nestle further in the sand and the occasional sparring (play fighting). Some seals seeking an ocean swim would move a couple of feet toward the water before having to stop and take a short nap before moving again.
Along with elephant seals, I spotted harbor seals, sea lions, incredibly cute sea otters and two humpback whales on a whale watching trip in Monterey. The whales became an immediate trip highlight for me, since I had always wanted to see a whale in the wild after watching hours of National Geographic shows on these giant creatures. Watching them play next to the boat and occasionally look at us with curiosity was more than I ever hoped for.
Saying goodbye to the coast was difficult, but I took with me the ability to close my eyes and picture McWay Cove any time of day.
All photos by Jeremiah Myers
31. May 2012 22:26
While stopping a minute to look up the endless stone steps cut into the cliff’s side, I felt certain the upcoming Vernal and Nevada waterfalls would be worth the climb. I knew this not just because of the occasional glimpses of the powerful Vernal Falls, but also because I was standing in a rainbow.
Wind blasts Vernal Falls’ spray far down the mountain, giving the Yosemite hike the name Mist Trail. It felt like a sideways downpour, although looking up revealed only blue skies. The wind-blown water produced vibrant rainbows that appeared to follow me up the trail.
The sublime waterfall views that followed are typical of Yosemite. Everywhere you turn is larger-than-life scenery too magnificent to believe. You might spend twenty minutes soaking up the majesty of a waterfall before turning around and spying a towering dome filling the skies.
My favorite view, Glacier Point, allowed me to look at the landscape seemingly from the top of the world. Many of the domes, waterfalls and valleys of Yosemite lay before me in a dazzling vista waiting to be explored.
After four days of hiking every trail I could, I had already made plans to return some day. I can’t feel totally satisfied I’ve seen it all in Yosemite till I’ve climbed every mountain and looked up every waterfall.
All photos by Jeremiah Myers