Southern National Parks Experience
The following is a generalized itinerary for a full 14 day experience meant to simply give you an idea of the possibilities, and further customizable based on each guests’ priorities:
Day 1 (Nashville/Prep):
The Southern National Parks Experience will start in Nashville, at which time we can decide between hot chicken and BBQ. I’d normally recommend hot chicken, but keep in mind we’ll be hiking for the next few days. After eating and going through supplies, we will purchase any additional groceries/gear necessary and hit the road.
After a drive by of the stunning Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, we’ll head into Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge to set us up for the first of our Southern national parks: Great Smokey Mountains. If we leave early enough, we will attempt to watch the sunset while driving the Cade’s Cove loop. If already dark, we will get dinner and prepare for an early start the next morning.
Day 2-3 (Great Smokey Mountains National Park):
Rising before the sun for the first of our Southern national parks, we will drive out to Cade’s Cove, watch the sun rise, and have one of the best opportunities to see black bears in the park. After driving the loop and eating breakfast, we will stretch the legs with the Chimney Tops hike. We will have lunch at the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (Clingman’s Dome), and wrap up the day on Mt. Le Conte. For the adventurous, we can take a day hike along the Appalachian Trail to Charlie’s Bunion.
For the adventurous, the Southern National Parks Experience can include a day hike along the Appalachian Trail to Charlie’s Bunion. For the extra adventurous, we can drive to the northeast side of the park, hike up Mt. Cammerer, and watch the sunrise across the park from the Mt. Cammerer fire tower.
Day 3 (Carolina Coast/Myrtle Beach):
Driving through Charlotte, our Southern National Parks Experience will keep heading east until we hit the Atlantic Ocean at Myrtle Beach. We’ll take a stroll down the boardwalk to stretch the legs, Ferris wheel rides optional, then see our first glimpse of coastal Carolina, a unique mix of trees, marshland, and ocean.
Day 4 (Charleston):
Starting our day, we will dive into naval history at Charleston’s Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Located on land and water, the centerpiece of the museum is the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier which can be toured with a guide or self-led. While not technically one of the Southern national parks, this is a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service.
After a lunch, we’ll be able to explore downtown Charleston and some of the surrounding areas such as John’s Island, featuring Spanish moss, marshes, and graveyards. Charleston offers some of the finest cuisine in the south, and “The Pineapple” makes for really nice night shots.
Day 5-6 (Congaree):
Ok, some things to be honest about: Congaree is home to the famous “Mosquito-Meter”, ranging from a 1 (All Clear) to 6 (Ruthless). If our trip is scheduled for any time outside of November-February, I suggest we bathe in DEET before visiting. Jokes aside, you can use all natural repellant if you like, but these mosquitos don’t care.
Moving past the bugs, Congaree is an incredibly unique one of the Southern National Parks featuring the largest collection of hardwood forest in the United States. The vast majority of the park is visited by walking along raised boardwalks, and for most of the year the floor is covered in water (hence the mosquitos). Multiple loops are available, ranging from less than 1 mile to as many as 6.
Day 7 (Savannah/Wormsloe):
I have to admit: I like Savannah, a lot. The giant oak trees, Spanish moss, and French/Spanish architecture remind me of New Orleans, just significantly cleaner and with less crime. Savannah does a tremendous job integrating public spaces into its city, including the famous 22 “squares”, including Chippewa Square, the famous site where Forest Gump sat and told his life story while waiting for a bus to see Jenny. We will be able to visit the location and recreate the shot. When content with Savannah, we will hit the road and complete as much of the drive to south Florida as possible before resting for the night.
Day 8 (Miami):
South Beach. Clubs. Muscles. Fashion. Not necessarily a “hiker’s paradise”, but this day will be dedicated to a mid-trip recuperation and sets us up for back-to-back-to-back trips to different Southern national parks. Highlights will include frozen drinks on the beach, food on the South Beach strip, and an open evening to either rest up or hit the clubs, depending on how the group feels. Just be ready for tomorrow, the swamps aren’t fun at 100 degrees with a hangover.
Day 9 (Biscayne):
Much like Central Park with New York City, even though Miami can be seen from Biscayne, it seems like a complete world away. Much of the bay can be explored on foot rather quickly, but numerous options exist to experience the marine life. Kayaking or a boat rental can get you from island to island, while additional tour can be booked to snorkel through coral reefs and shipwrecks or to go deep sea fishing/lobstering. Not just unique amongst the Southern national parks, Biscayne is unlike anywhere else in the country.
Day 10 (Dry Tortugas):
Highlighted by Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas is made up of 8 islands west of Key West and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We will take a boat ride to/from the 19th century Fort Jefferson portion, with snorkeling in crystal clear waters, picnicking, birdwatching, and scuba diving opportunities once we arrive. Similar to Biscayne, of the Southern national parks and those across the country, nothing else is like Dry Tortugas.
Day 11 (Everglades/Tampa Bay):
Coming back to the peninsula, we have one more national park in Florida. Everglades is the exact swampy goodness you imagine. Large stretches of wetland hold some of the most unique flora and fauna in the country, though the alligators do not provide for good hiking. However, it makes for tremendous tours on airboats and another completely unique experience in the Southern national parks.
Learn how these wetlands protect Florida from hurricane surges, and don’t forget the mosquito spray. When we finish, we will drive to Tampa Bay to resupply and take care of a portion of the drive to New Orleans.
Day 12 (New Orleans/Grand Isle):
I joked earlier about Savannah being like New Orleans, just clean and without the crime. Jokes aside, New Orleans is a city of juxtapositions: Dirty/Beautiful, Happy/Sad, Driven/Pointless, and that’s part of what gives it its charm. I lived in New Orleans for a number of years, and can provide a high-level tour from Audubon Park, The Levee (The Fly), Tulane/Loyola, and the Camellia Grill uptown, all the way to the CBD, French Quarter, Frenchman Street, and the Marigny.
Wakeboarding with alligators in the bayous, ghost tours in above ground cemeteries, and a drive across the longest bridge in the world (the Causeway) are all additional options. New Orleans also features some of the most unique, high quality, and high calorie cuisine in the south.
Should the group be interested to travel outside of New Orleans, we can travel to Grand Isle, the furthest point south in the bayou. On the way back, numerous plantations similar to Wormsloe exist for tours.
While this tour CAN happen, it will be a very different experience if Mardi Gras (February/March) or Jazzfest (July) is happening. In both of these cases, there will be a larger than normal number of tourists, and we cannot guarantee the ability to complete all activities or get restaurant reservations during these events.
Day 13 (Memphis):
Memphis gets a bad rap. While we will not be hanging out in certain areas of the town, this city has a rich history that is well worth visiting. First and foremost is the National Black History Museum at the Lorraine Motel. This is where MLK Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray right outside of his hotel room, a jolt when you see the real-life location that we all saw in textbooks growing up.
Depending on the time of year, going to a Memphis Grizzlies game at the Fed Ex Forum with courtside seats is one of the best ways to get close without breaking the bank. Right across from the Forum is Beale Street. While a poor man’s Bourbon Street, there are numerous opportunities to listen to live music, get good food, and drink in the streets, and a great way to begin to wind down out Southern National Parks Experience.
Day 14 (Mammoth Caves/Nashville):
Our final day of the Southern National Parks Experience has us driving across West Tennessee/Kentucky to Mammoth Caves, the largest cave system in the entire world. While there are hiking trails above, there is very little unique about it outside of a hike through the forest, other than mountain bikes are allowed on these trails.
The caves themselves are where we want to spend our time. Mammoth Caves is again one of the most unique southern national parks and offers tours from 2 hours that give a feel of the cave, up to 8 hours that will have you covered in dirt and squeezing through crevasses. While it can be scheduled, any desire for higher level spelunking should be discussed ahead of time.
When we wrap up with the caves, we will head back to Nashville, completing our Southern National Parks Experience loop. If we move through the caves quickly, we can go to The Parthenon and Love Circle in Nashville. Then we will check into a hotel near the airport, clean up, and cap the trip with a nice group dinner. At that point, I will wish you the best and leave your group to travel to the airport the next day.