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!