Our winter National Parks roadtrip: LA, MS, AL

Winter09_NPS_trip_map

It’s nearly the holidays, and that means that Kim and I are planning another roadtrip. Usually, this trip is half-planned for us: it’s often centered around which bowl game ASU will be playing in. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case the last couple of years.

Last year, we took advantage of the planning freedom afforded us by a sub-par season to hit as any of the Texas National Park units as possible. We nearly completed them all, had I not managed to get sick and delay our departure.

This year, we’ll build on what we accomplished last winter and the summer prior to that by finishing off a good chunk of the South. In particular, we’ll finish up the states of Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Not necessarily the places you’d think of, well, vacationing in, but it’ll get done an important chunk in our quest to visit all 392 units of the National Park Service. And we always enjoy our roadtrips, no matter where we end up. As we plan and get started, I’ll post additional information. For now, here’s our expected itinerary:

  • Big Thicket National Preserve
  • Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve
  • New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Natchez National Historical Park
  • Vicksburg National Military Park
  • Poverty Point National Monument
  • Cane River Creole National Historical Park

We’ll also try to spend some time in the city of New Orleans, tour an old plantation, and maybe even mark Fort Bowie National Historic Site (Arizona) and/or Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma) off the list, too.

Our post-wedding trip thus far

If you haven’t figured it out yet, we aren’t taking the trip we had intended. Originally, the plan was to head up from Yosemite through the Cascades and into the Canadian Rockies, a hiking and camping trip anchored by visits to Lassen, North Cascades, Banff, and Jasper national parks. Unfortunately, Kim came down with strep throat just days before the wedding.

Fearing that she’d be sick for much of the trip, we abandoned the original trip and decided to head to the South to visit national park units there. Most of those units are of the historical day-trip variety. That meant that we could stay in motels and take it a bit easier (no long high elevation dayhikes, for instance) and still see a bunch of new stuff. After consulting maps, we also figured out how to put together a few short fly-in/fly-out trips to accomplish what we had originally planned.

The trip we’re taking has us doing a loop through Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri before heading home. Whew! All in all, we should visit about 30 units–many of them Civil War battlefields–before starting the long, boring drive back to Phoenix.

Here is a listing of what we’ve done so far, with a few short descriptions or comments.

Hot Springs Natl Park (AR) – The first quasi-park protected by the US Government in 1832, this site probably doesn’t deserve its national park status. It mostly protects Hot Springs Mountain and the associated bathhouses that sprung up (bad pun) around the mountain.

Arkansas Post Natl Mem (AR) – A very strategic location and the site of both a Revolutionary and Civil War battle. Unfortunately, there’s little visible left and the site was definitely a disappointment. It was also our second day of high temps and high humidity, and that may have factored into our visit.

Louisiana Purchase Memorial State Park (AR) – We stumbled across this cool little park after leaving Arkansas Post. It features a scary looking boardwalk that takes you on a short walk through a headwaters swamp to the location of the original survey point for the Louisiana Purchase. Very cool.

Nachez Trace Pkwy (MS/AL/TN) – A beautiful secluded parkway that follows the original Nachez Trace, which served as a major transportation route. There are a bunch of cool sites along its path, though we were only able to hit 2-3 of them. Someday, we’d love to drive the whole route.

Tupelo Natl Battlefield (MS) – An important battle, but this does not deserve national park unit status. It should instead be a minor city or state park. The entire site consists of a small 2-3 acre park in the middle of town, with only a commemorative memorial, some cannons, and a single interpretative sign.

Brices Crossroads Natl Battlefield Site (MS) – Not much more than Tupelo is protected by the National Park Service, but luckily the local land trust has managed to tie up hundreds of surrounding acres of the original battlefield. There is an interesting Confederate graveyard nearby.

Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center (MS) – a subunit of Shiloh NMP, this is a superb museum and one of the best visitor centers we’ve been to. It’s not the largest building, but has very well done exhibits that hold your interest and don’t complicate the message much. There’s also an interesting and symbolic sculpture/fountain in the rear.

Shiloh Natl Military Park (TN) – Shiloh is one of the first and largest Civil War battlefields. It was originally set aside to educate future military leaders on the battle and tactics used. As a result, there are hundreds of large monuments and signs detailing which units were where during the battle. This makes for interesting views–as there’s always some hunk of tailored marble to look at–but can also be a bit overwhelming and confusing. This was the first park I’ve been to that seemed “cluttered.”

Fort Donelson Natl Battlefield (TN) – A smaller but very important Civil War battle was fought here, and we had the opportunity to enjoy a personal tour of the unit by a park service volunteer. We were also able to catch a glimpse of the Delta Queen chugging up the river belting its tunes.

Stones River Natl Battlefield (TN) – A smaller site just outside Mulfreesboro (south of Nashville). This was the first site that we noticed large numbers of folks at the unit for the sole purpose of exercising. There were far more people there to walk, jog, and run the trails and roads than there were to learn about the history of the area.

Russell Cave Natl Monument (AL) – We arrived at Russell Cave just as a large thunderstorm started. As a result, the park staff wouldn’t let us tour the site until the lightning had receded. We quickly exhausted the available movies and visitor center, and even made and ate a sandwich under the park gazebo. We finally got a tour of the site about an hour after we arrived. While the unit does contain Russell Cave, the main attraction is an alcove next to the cave that has supported human habitation for thousands of years over four main occupation periods.

Little River Canyon Natl Preserve (AL) – After the delay at Russell Cave, we hurried to the visitor center for Little River Canyon, which is located in The World Capital of Socks, Fort Payne. Calling ahead, we talked the ranger into staying open an extra 10 minutes so we could grab a map and get a passport stamp. The unit is not large but protects an interesting canyon from development. We enjoyed Little River Falls, though we had to depart quickly when lightning struck nearby, as well as the drive to several views points of the scenic, cloud-filled canyon.

Chickamauga & Chattanooga Natl Military Park (GA/TN) – The very first battlefield protected, this two-part unit protects both the Chickamauga (GA) and Chattanooga (TN) battles, including the “Battle Above the Clouds” that occurred on Lookout Mountain. Watch out for the tourist traps on Lookout Mountain, and all the troop monuments at Chickamauga.

Kennesaw Mountain Natl Battlefield Park (GA) – The exercise crowd was out in full force. Of the dozens we encountered, only three small groups were actually there to see the battlefield. I was starting to get a little tapped out on Civil War sites, but there was a very cool monument in the Cheatham Hill area. Unfortunately, given this site’s proximity to Kennesaw (and a new REI we just had to stop in), we got stuck in rush hour traffic between sites, had to put up with large numbers of joggers, and had trouble finding parking in a couple of places due to after-work exercisers and dog-walkers. This definitely detracts from the “hallowed ground” feeling you get at most National Park Service battlefield sites.

Martin Luther King, Jr Natl Historic Site (GA) – We were pleasantly surprised by this site, which incorporates much of the Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. In addition to enjoying an extensive and moving visitor center, we took a tour of MLK’s boyhood home, visited the firehouse and church that impacted him so greatly, and also enjoyed seeing the many personal items–from his Nobel Peace Prize to the items he had with him when he was assassinated–before stopping by his final resting place and eternal flame.

Chattahoochee River Natl Recreation Area (GA) – We didn’t have much time to visit the river, but we did enjoy a short walk along the river in the Island Ford parcel. We had a small snack while enjoying the solitude and abundant waterfowl.

That’s it so far. As you can see, much of it so far has been focused on Civil War stuff, which has been an interesting but somewhat dominating theme. I’m glad that we’re done with those units and excited about what we have left to do, including Congaree Swamp, Mammoth Cave, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Kim’s feeling (mostly) better and we’re finally getting used to the humidity. More updates as we have a chance.