Wide-open spaces

National parks that are worth the drive.

By Lucy Elam

If working from home is getting a bit stifling, you might be long overdue for a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air. While various pandemic precautions have restricted travel over the past year, five national parks in manageable driving distance offer wide-open spaces perfect for a much-needed adventure. These parks preserve some of the greatest natural treasures in the country, and with most charging little to nothing for entrance fees, they are accessible to everyone. To get out of your rut, get on the road.

Daughter of the stars

Best known for its natural beauty and Civil War history, Shenandoah National Park extends along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is believed to be a Native American word meaning “daughter of the stars,” and with stunning waterfalls, gorgeous views, fields of wildflowers and serene forest, it certainly seems a fitting title for the beautiful region. The 200,000-acre park has over 500 miles of trails, including a section of the famous long-distance Appalachian Trail. The cool wooded highlands of Shenandoah allow a comfortable way to enjoy nature without being at the mercy of the relentless summer heat. You can learn all about the park’s rich history at the Byrd Visitor Center, and at Rapidan Camp you can check out the refurbished rural retreat where President Herbert Hoover spent some of his presidency. Hiking is certainly a big attraction at the park, and the trails range from day-long strenuous hikes up rocky peaks to more family friendly paths. Be sure to pick a hike that suits the abilities of your group. Other recreational options include biking, stargazing, fishing, wildlife-viewing and enjoying the historical exhibits and sites.

Get there: From Hilton Head Island, 490 miles (7 hours, 55 minutes)

What to bring: Binoculars and your camera. Birds and small mammals are plentiful in Shenandoah.

A wilderness amusement park

With gorgeous scenery, rich history and no entrance fee, it’s no wonder that Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts over 11 million visitors a year, making it the most visited national park in America. Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is teeming with remnants of Southern Appalachian history, with historic structures, landmarks, and artifacts. This 522,419-acre park offers a multitude of hiking trails with scenic views, waterfalls, and old-growth forests. Rainbow Falls Trail leads to the stunning Rainbow Falls, named for the rainbows seen in the mist that are caused by the afternoon sun. The 80-foot waterfall occasionally freezes into an hourglass shape in the winter. (If you don’t want to hike, this fall is accessible by car.) This incredible park has so much to see and do, you should plan to stay for a least a few days to soak it all in. The park has 10 campgrounds and over 100 backcountry campsites, as well as the highest elevation guest lodge in the Eastern United States, the LeConte Lodge. With rustic log cabins and hearty homestyle meals, the lodge is only accessible by hiking one of five trails that lead to it. With fishing, bicycling, swimming, horseback riding, backpacking and hiking, the Great Smoky Mountains have something for everyone. 

Get there: From Hilton Head Island, 332 miles (5 hours, 14 minutes)

What to bring: Bear pepper spray (just in case). There are a few places in the park to buy snacks and drinks but definitely pack plenty of your own. Bring the kids, but maybe leave the fur babies at home (dogs are only permitted on two trails in the park).

Down by the bay

From the serene aquamarine waters and vibrant coral reefs of Biscayne National Park, you can still see the towering skyline of downtown Miami. The park provides a beautiful setting that supports opportunities for recreation and learning close to a large metropolitan area. With shallow lagoon waters, coral limestone keys and the third largest offshore reef in the world, the Biscayne Bay is a rare gem renowned for its beauty and biodiversity. The park is rich in history as well, with century-old shipwrecks, the historic remains of the “Stiltsville” community, and more. On Elliott Key, the largest of the park’s islands, you can explore the seven-mile road (also called Spite Highway) down the center of the island to see a maritime forest with mangroves, buttonwood, gumbo-limbo and torch wood. Recreational opportunities include fishing, diving, snorkeling, boating, paddling, hiking, camping, wildlife watching and cultural exploration. The park has no entrance fees.

Get there: From Hilton Head Island, 548 miles (7 hours, 55 minutes)

What to bring: A boat. To get beyond the visitor center area requires a boat. Visitors without a boat may join guided boat tours. Be sure to pack plenty of food as there is nowhere to buy food at the park.

Spectacular spelunking

One of the oldest tour attractions in North America, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world’s longest known cave system. Mammoth Cave National Park was established to preserve the gargantuan 10-million-year-old cave system, as well as the rolling hills and deep river valleys of south central Kentucky. The park is home to thousands of years of human history and a rich diversity of plant and animal life. There is no entrance fee to get into the park, but all entry to Mammoth Cave itself takes place under guided tours, with varying lengths and prices ($6-$60). Of course, not all experiences in Mammoth Cave are below the ground. Visitors can camp at developed campgrounds, backcountry sites, or shack up at the Mammoth Cave Lodge. Explore 60 miles of backcountry trails on horseback, relax and do some fishing (no license required) or go canoeing down the Green and Nolin rivers. Keep an eye out for black bears, white-tailed deer, and a plethora of birds any wildlife lover would be thrilled to see. 

Get there: From Hilton Head Island, 620 miles (9 hours, 44 minutes)

What to bring: A jacket. The cave is always 54 degrees in the depths of the caverns. If you’d like to bring the dogs along, keep in mind they are not permitted in the caves, but they can accompany you throughout the rest of the park (on a leash) and can be boarded at the Mammoth Cave Kennels.

Redwoods of the East

Located in central South Carolina, Congaree National Park is home to some champion trees that have been called “the Redwoods of the East.” With some of the tallest trees on the East Coast, the Congaree Forest has one of the highest canopies in the world. This floodplain forest creates a peculiar ecosystem that many might not be familiar with. On any given day, the forest floor could be dry, muddy, or flooded with over a foot of water. On one day you might be able to stroll comfortably through the towering loblolly pines, sweetgum, cherrybark oak, and American elm, and on the next, you might be better off paddling a kayak on the very same trail, weaving through the bald cypress knees that poke up through the water. Over 10 miles of the Congaree River snake through the 26,276-acre park, as well as over 20 miles of hiking trails. This tranquil wilderness is a great place for fishing, hiking, primitive camping and boating. And this June, Congaree will be hosting its annual firefly festival, featuring the fascinating visual display of one of only three species of synchronous flashing fireflies that can be found in North America. 

Get there: From Hilton Head Island, 144 miles (2 hours, 29 minutes)

What to bring: Your pup! Dogs are permitted. Pack a lunch, and don’t forget bug spray. Call ahead to ask about conditions at the park so that you can be prepared with proper clothing and footwear.

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