Top 5 Gulf Coast National Parks Highlights
National parks #116 - #128 of 417
#116 - De Soto National Memorial (Bradenton, FL) #117 - Gulf Islands National Seashore (Pensacola, FL) #118 - New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park (New Orleans, LA)
#119 - Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (New Orleans, LA) #120 - Natchez National Historical Park (Natchez, MS)
#121 - Natchez Trace Parkway (Natchez, MS, to Nashville, TN,) #122 - Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail (Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN) #123 - Vicksburg National Military Park (Vicksburg, MS) #124 - Poverty Point National Monument (Pioneer, LA) #125 - Cane River Creole National Historical Park (Natchitoches, LA) #126 – Big Thicket National Preserve (Beaumont, TX) #127 – Padre Island National Seashore (Corpus Christi, TX) #128 – Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (Brownsville, TX)
Sitting in the backseat of a friend’s car as we drove Highway 1 from Miami to Key West, I kept looking from left to right.
On one side, the Atlantic Ocean.
On the other, the Gulf of Mexico.
This thin sand bar, or at many times simply a manmade bridge, was all that separated me from two of the United States’ (and spring breakers’) most famous destination waters. Each had played a role in my past (the Atlantic serving as my constant request as a child tagging along on family vacations, and the Gulf as an adult seeking warmer ocean waters), yet both were largely unexplored except for the customary trip my family made to Ormond Beach or a long-weekend once spent exploring Saint Petersburg and Clearwater Beach.
Since this national parks journey has already allowed me to explore and share about the Atlantic parks via my blog Top 5 Highlights of Southeast National Parks, I figured it was time to give the same treatment to the Gulf Coast National Park Service sites.
Thus, I present:
Top 5 Gulf Coast National Parks Highlights
1. Relax on Pristine Undeveloped Beaches
Like Cape Cod National Seashore, Fire Island National Seashore, and Canaveral National Seashore experienced earlier on this trip, Gulf Islands National Seashore and Padre Island National Seashore continue the reputation of sharing America’s coast before it was developed by humans. In fact, Padre Island National Seashore represents the world’s longest, undeveloped barrier island.
Those beaches not only offer unique opportunities to camp next to crashing waves and under stars farther from light pollution, but some breath-taking scenery. Upon crossing into Gulf Islands National Seashore, both Andy and I let out unexpected, audible gasps at the beauty of the sand bar. Compared to the overdeveloped Pensacola Beach, which must be driven through to access the portion of the park near Fort Pickens, the National Seashore is filled with short rolling hills of sand so white you can’t wait to put your feet in...
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore
Spotting dead jellyfish with family friends
2. Drive a Guided Tour Around Vicksburg Battlefield
Having lived near-ish to Gettysburg, PA, before this project, I often heard friends gushing about their incredible experiences driving the Gettysburg Battlefield with an official tour guide in their vehicle.
Years before that, I heard residents in my one-time home, Memphis, talk about Vicksburg as the “Southern Gettysburg”; lumping it together not only for its historic significance, but also because it similarly offered guided vehicle tours.
While often times I’m let down by the overhype from previous park visitors, this one did not disappoint!
As my guide shared, because this site was recognized for its historic significance so soon after the Civil War, actual soldiers were enlisted to help develop the park. Those firsthand accounts led to incredibly accurate information about where each state’s regiments were stationed, and where various sections of the 47-day siege took place.
Getting to hear of General Grant’s siege strategy, all while looking at the exact spots that influenced his decisions, was an incredibly powerful experience. So much so that I don’t want to give away details about the trickery and tragedy involved in this battlefield, but I do want to highly-recommend hiring a tour guide for this National Military Park rather than just doing the self-guided driving tour.
One of the difficult terrains that caused General Grant to lay siege to Vicksburg rather than try to overtake the land
Vanny McVanface with the Illinois State Memorial (each state with soldiers has their own unique memorial)
Great acoustics inside for singing! Lots of reverb!
With the U.S.S. Cairo: a MASSIVE raised Civil War river boat that was so fanciful it looked like it belonged in the fictionalized history of the movie "Wild Wild West" (1999 - with Will Smith).
3. Explore the Unique Vegetation
The one binding element between every site that hugs the Gulf Coast is the vegetation it shares. The combination of swamp plants, palm trees of all variations, and boundless cypress trees gave this coastal area a completly unique flavor compared to the sandy beaches of the American Atlantic Coast or rocky bluffs of the Pacific Coast. Truly, this is an ecosystem bridging the divide between easily (human) habitable lands and the ocean. That brackish area provides an outdoor experience less advertised than pristine or jagged coastlines, but just as important to America's culture.
Units where this can be especially noticed include the Big Thicket National Preserve and the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Big Thicket National Preserve
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
4. Take in a Local New Orleans Event
As I’m learning about many Historical Parks, if they have the name of a town in them (Lowell, Natchez, New Orleans), they likely aren’t the standard single-location parks we’re used to. Instead, they are often amorphous collections of museums, houses, stores, and monuments that try to recreate a moment in time.
Some, like Natchez National Historical Park, the Natchez Trace Parkway, and the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, are quiet, contemplative trips to that past. And others, like New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, are—well—the complete opposite!
Though I was fortunate to coincidentally land in NOLA on the Friday before Fat Tuesday, one doesn’t have to visit during Mardi Gras to find something lively. Whether it’s taking a Ranger-guided walking tour of the French Quarter, listening to jazz in one of the many historic venues, or simply eating beignets from Café du Monde, visitors can get a taste of this unique American melting pot no matter what time of year.
That melting pot is on display in places other than the French Quarter though. It was in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (located well within metropolitan New Orleans) that I got my best understanding of how this shipping port was influenced by the French, British, Spanish, and other cultures that traded across its waters. Whether through the comprehensive video on Cajun culture in the Barataria Preserve Visitor Center, or the informative Ranger walk—explaining both why a park was named after a pirate, Jean Lafitte, and the special vegetation that inspired #3 above—this NPS site should not be overlooked by its more famous, French Quarter-located sibling.
The one, two punch of these NOLA sites or the 1, 2, 3 combination of the Natchez sites show how an immersion into an entire area's NPS sites provides a comprehensive understanding of its past and present.
The Natchez Trace Parkway was a beautiful drive (seen here just north of the southern entrance) mostly due to the lack of advertisements or development, allowing the natural beauty to be showcased with every mile.
The deep grooves of earth are characteristic indications of the Natchez National Scenic Trail
Photo Credit - Cory James Photography
5. Dip Your Toes in History
At the De Soto National Memorial you can literally dip your toes in history. That’s because this beach-side site is the (alleged) landing location of Hernando De Soto before he traveled the American Southeast for 3 years as far as Tennessee and Louisiana and along the way murdered Native Americans in an insatiable hunt for gold.
Oh sorry, did that sound too gruesome?
That’s because it was.
It was a good reminder that American history isn’t always pretty, and that even as I asked, “Why do we want to honor that history with a park?”, it’s important to have reminders of our past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
It was that silver lining that allowed me to make a connection to De Soto’s journey (he had a three-year journey discovering America, and now I’m on a three-year journey discovering America) that I didn’t feel horrible about revealing to Sarasota Magazine.
But De Soto’s influence on present day America isn’t the only history the Gulf Coast sites provide. In fact, were it not for the battle that took place between the United States and Mexico at the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, I would likely have half as many parks to visit. It’s partially due to this site that Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California are part of the U.S. and not Mexico.
Under-discovered gems of history can also be found in central Louisiana, as Cane River Creole National Historical Park provides a look into early Creole culture, and proof of even earlier—far earlier—influence can be found at Poverty Point National Monument (also a newly named World Heritage Site) in the mounds that date to a civilization thriving on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1650 – 700 BC.
Standing by the waters of Hernando De Soto's landing site
From the top of the highest mound at Poverty Point National Monument
One of the preserved buildings of small town culture at Cane River Creole National Historical Park
A Mexican cannon stands guard at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
Its these sites that prove the Gulf Coast National Park Service sites offer more than just the opportunity to swim in waters warmer than the neighboring Atlantic, even if that ocean is just on the other side of a bridge…
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Texas through New Mexico
-San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
-Waco Mammoth National Monument
-Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
-Amistad National Recreation Area
-Big Bend National Park
-Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
-Chamizal National Memorial
-Fort Davis National Historic Site
-Chamizal National Memorial
-Guadalupe Mountains National Park
-Carlsbad Caverns National Park
-White Sands National Monument
-Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
-Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
-Petroglyph National Monument
-El Malpais National Monument
-El Morro National Monument
-Pecos National Historical Park
-Capulin Volcano National Monument
-Chaco Culture National Historical Park
-Valles Caldera National Preserve
-Bandelier National Monument
-Aztec Ruins National Monument
-Fort Union National Monument
See them all on my MAP
The journey thus far: