When most of us think of National Parks, we think of red sandstone, dusty arches, and sprawling canyons. Long story short, we think of the West. It’s understandable; they have all the “big names,” but limiting your knowledge of National Parks to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon can cause you to miss out on the variety our National Parks System has to offer.
From lush and tropical to dusty and sprawling, the National Parks of the South are all about adventure, history, and wide, country skies. The natural beauty of wetlands, deserts, and swamps paired with historic southern mansions, coral reefs, and shipwreck ruins make every park in the south fit for a stunning adventure.
1. Cumberland Island
Camden County, GA
One short ferry ride stands between the Georgia Mainland and the history of Cumberland Island. Experience wild and undeveloped beaches, or explore to learn about life on the island over the years. Walk through the Dungeness Ruins, explore the remnants of an old mansion destroyed by fire, or tour the immaculate Plum Orchard Mansion, both of which previously belonged to members of the Carnegie family. The sights of the grand mansion, untamed beaches, old ruins, and a wild maritime forest will make visitors feel as though they have truly stepped into the past.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping on Cumberland Island.
A visit to Biscayne National Park is a quirky, nautical adventure. From the historic lighthouse on Boca Chita Key, to Stiltsville, where the views of old houses surrounded by ocean present a window into past island living. Snorkel the Maritime Heritage Trail to swim among the ruins of old shipwrecks, or paddle along the shallow waters of Jones Lagoon to spot undersea wildlife. The diverse ecosystem of Biscayne allows visitors to spot colorful fish, pelicans, sea turtles, and even manatees.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping near Biscayne National Park.
3. Dry Tortugas
Key West, FL
Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote piece of wildlife and history preserved about 70 Miles from Key West. The Park consists of miles of open water and seven small islands. Visitors can swim or snorkel in turquoise waters, back-dropped by the walls of Fort Jefferson, explore an old lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, or go bird watching for rare species on Bush Key. Visitors with their own boat can explore the waters and islands with even more freedom and go looking for more obscure underwater landmarks.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping in Dry Tortugas National Park.
Miami/ Homestead, FL
The wetlands and wildlife of Florida are encapsulated at Everglades National Park. Miles of rich swampland and freshwater marshland stretch through Florida for visitors to explore. Keep an eye out for wildlife; Heron swoop through the skies, Flamingos wade through shallow waters, and American Crocodiles roam the swamps. Climb the Shark Valley Observation tower for a view from the top, hike or bike the trails through the pine lands, or go slough slogging with a ranger for an up close and personal look.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping in Everglades National Park.
5. Big Cypress
Big Cypress National Preserve is adjacent to the Everglades and is essential to their survival, but Big Cypress is an adventure of its own. The Preserve is an International Dark Sky Place, which keeps the area’s skies protected from light pollution. Under Big Cypress’ protected skies, visitors can experience the stars like never before. Explorers can also experience the natural beauty of Big Cypress with scenic drives, off-roading trails, and waterways for kayaks and canoes. The Preserve also offers ranger-led activities like swamp tours, ranger chats, and canoe rendezvous.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping in Big Cypress National Preserve.
6. Gulf Islands
Gulf Breeze, FL
Gulf Islands National Seashore spans the coasts of both Florida and Mississippi. The nature of the Gulf Islands includes the vegetated dunes and barrier islands of the coast, and the marshes and woodlands of the Bayou area. From beaching, to hiking, to bike rides, the Gulf Islands is a fun and relaxing spot for the whole family. Visitors can also experience historical forts and landmarks along the seashore or go on guided tours with park rangers to learn about the wilderness of the islands.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping in Gulf Islands National Seashore.
New Smyrna Beach, FL
A tranquil island, Canaveral has been a quiet haven for visitors looking to relax and experience nature, sea, and even space! Part of Florida’s “Space Coast,” and only 6 Miles from the Kennedy Space Center Launch Pads, the beaches of Canaveral are the perfect place to watch NASA Rocket Launches. The Park also organizes activities like turtle watches, “canoe the lagoon” events, and night sky programs. Canaveral also has a diverse population of plant and animal life for visitors to observe.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping in Canaveral National Seashore.
St. Joe, AR
Buffalo National River is a popular destination for anyone who loves water-based activities like kayaking, canoeing, and tubing! Explorers will encounter everything from rushing waters to smooth surf on their river adventures. The area surrounding the river also offers hiking opportunities with views of a sinkhole, waterfall, mine prospect, Panther Creek, and a quarry. Hikers can experience the nature of the area by keeping an eye out for a variety of different specials of animals, trees, and wildflowers.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping on Buffalo National River.
9. Hot Springs
Hot Springs, AR
Hot Springs National Park is a lush landscape of greenery, old bathhouses, and of course, hot springs. The city of Hot Springs, Arkansas sits right alongside the park, meaning visitors can experience the charm of a southern town and the great outdoors all at once. Historic Bathhouse Row offers a look into the past with it’s Guided Age architecture, and gives visitors opportunities to shop, dine, and relax in spas, tubs, and pools. The Hot Springs Mountain Tower is 216 feet tall, and overlooks 140 miles of the Ouachita Mountains. The park also features 26 miles of trails for hikers to explore and multiple picnic areas.
10. Big South Fork
National River & Recreation Area
Big South Fork River & Recreation Area includes 125,000 miles of the Cumberland Plateau, and has options for everyone from nature observers to adrenaline junkies! For hikers and horseback riders, the park has tons of trails ranging from easy to difficult, and featuring stunning overlooks. For adventure-seekers, the park offers miles of cliff routes to climb, trails for mountain bikers, and whitewater rafting along the river. Big South Fork also periodically offers night sky and astronomy programs and constellation tours for outer space enthusiasts!
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping at the Big South Fork National River and Rec Area.
11. Cumberland Gap
National Historical Park
The Cumberland Gap was the first gateway to the west, and the park is still a popular destination for nature lovers and explorers of the southern mountains. The nature of the Appalachian area features vast overlooks, cascading waterfalls, and scenic rock formations. Visitors can also experience underground sights on guided tours of Gap Cave. The park also features the historic Hensley Settlement, a collection of buildings and monuments rich with history of soldiers, settlers, and old mountain towns.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping at the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
National Recreation Area
Murray County, OK
Chickasaw National Recreation Area’s main attraction is the water, from streams, to lakes, to swimming holes, to fishing spots. Year-round hiking trails are available to explorers. From March to October, hikers can experience colorful wildflowers along the trails. For those who want a more relaxing experience, there are other ways to explore the wilderness in Chickasaw National Rec Area, like bike paths and scenic drives.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
13. Big Bend
Rio Grande, TX
Situated in western end of Texas, Big Bend National Park is remote and wild. Massive and sprawling, it feels plucked right from a time where roads were dirt, skies were clear, and man-made structures were few and far between. The park features stretches of desert, river, and mountains, making the opportunities endless. Additionally, where there are mountains, there are valleys and canyons, and where there are canyons, there are breathtaking views. Big Bend is also a designated National
Dark Sky Place, meaning visitors can experience the night sky without the influence of light pollution.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping at the Big Bend National Park
14. Guadalupe Mountains
Salt Flat, TX
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to the highest peak in Texas, the aptly named Guadalupe Mountain Peak. While Guadalupe is one of the nation’s least-visited national parks, this might just be because of the grit and guts it takes to brave it’s strenuous climbs. There are very few roads throughout the park, and many hikes and climbs warn visitors that they are not for the faint of heart, or the inexperienced adventurer. Still, while daunting, those who visit Guadalupe Mountains ultimately find that the effort was worth the reward.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
15. Padre Island
Corpus Christi, TX
Padre Island National Seashore is the largest underdeveloped barrier island in the world. Made up of 130,000 acres of dunes, grasslands, and beaches, there is plenty to explore while enjoying the natural sand and wide sea. The grasslands nature trail allows visitors to get a glimpse of some nature inland of the sea including wildlife like coyotes, deer, kangaroo rats, and ghost crabs. Padre Island is also a popular spot among sea turtles, who often make their nests on the shores of the island. These nests are moved to protected areas by the park, and are cared for until they hatch. Visitors can experience one of the parks many sea turtle hatchling releases throughout the season.
The National Park Service’s Website has all of your information about camping at Padre Island National Seashore.