Deborah Burst Photography
See South Carolina shrimp boats near Edisto State Park.
Southeast wildlife trails
for people of all abilities
There's nothing more tranquil than an outdoor trail, sitting on a fishing pier with a sudden strike or watching the graceful swirls of a swallowtail kite — nature's own brand of therapy. Parks and preserves across the Southeast offer accessible trails with paved and raised boardwalks as well as compliant lodges, cabins and cottages.
For a primal look into the southwest region of Louisiana, follow the Creole Nature Trail All American Road. The region hosts four national wildlife refuges featuring accessible trails, fishing piers, picnic pavilions and observation towers.
The Sabine NWR Wetland Walkway follows a 1.5-mile paved trail inside a vast marshland of alligators, swamp rabbits, wintering waterfowl and resident ibis, great egrets and blue herons. Stop at the shaded observation tower, perfect for photography and panoramic views.
At the Cameron-Prairie NWR Visitor Center, enjoy the interactive exhibits and year-round sightings of roseate spoonbills from the observation deck. Down the road, circle the Pintail Wildlife Drive with ibis and alligators posing for the camera, while fall and winter bring flocks of ducks and geese. In Cameron, pelicans perch on sand bars in the Gulf of Mexico near the newly built Jetty Pier Park fishing pier, complete with accessible stations. In the Lacassine NWR, cast a line from the pier into a 16,000-acre fresh water aquatic nursery.
"We do our best to provide accessibility for all," said Anne Klenke, Adventure Tourism Director with the Lake Charles/Southwest Convention & Tourism Bureau. "In addition to driving tours, we have many other opportunities for people to connect with nature."
South of New Orleans, trail the swamps and bayous inside the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park Barataria Preserve. Experience the mystique of Louisiana wetlands on trails shrouded by palmettos, hardwoods and cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss, all teaming with shore birds and swamp critters. The Palmetto Trail is nearly a mile long filled with marsh vegetation and fields of blooming Louisiana Iris in April.
Arkansas' Lake Ouachita Vista Trail Watchable Walkway
A natural state
In Arkansas, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail Watchable Walkway was built by a group of volunteers called the LOViT Trail Dogs. It's a 1.25-mile accessible trail with paved and elevated boardwalks. The trail winds through wetlands, thick forests and a bridge over Gap Creek. Enjoy fishing from a pier jutting across the water with scenic vistas as well as waterfowl and bald eagles.
Tennessee hosts pristine fall colors, mammoth rock formations and majestic waterfalls in Fall Creek Falls State Park. Deer roam freely in open fields nestled by oak and hickory trees, while hemlocks cradle the gorges and waterfalls. Mountain laurel and rhododendron sparkle with blooms throughout the spring. A self-guided driving tour has seven scenic stops, while the park's paved trails follow Fall Creek Lake and lead to the Fall Creek Falls overlook. Fishing is accessible on the banks of the lake and a small pier near the boat dock.
Tennessee's Fall Creek Falls State Park
Just 40 minutes from Columbia, S.C., the Congaree National Park boardwalk flows through ancient forests featuring some of the world's tallest deciduous trees. Nutrients from the flooded Congaree and Wateree Rivers feed plants and animals in the forested wetlands, lakes, creeks and rivers. Gaze upon the canopy of trees filled with a symphony of songbirds, or take an intimate look at the water tupelo forests and cypress trees anchored by their knobby knee roots.
Photographers and sunset lovers will be right at home on the Hunting Island marsh boardwalk set in a salt marsh jungle home to fiddler crabs, egrets, blue herons, ospreys, marsh hens and an occasional bald eagle. Located 16 miles from the historic town of Beaufort, S.C., the state park offers naturalist led tours during the summer. And some lucky visitors may spot dolphins where the mammals follow the tidal creek chasing mullets on the mud bank and lunging themselves on land for a tasty treat.
The same dolphin stranding can be seen in the tidal creeks in Edisto State Park on Edisto Island. Two trails follow Scott Creek with marshland and maritime forests with foxes, deer, songbirds, ocean birds and nesting bald eagles.
Marion Edmonds, director of communications with the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, has seen an increased awareness in providing a mix of recreation for all citizens.
"We look at which areas lend themselves for different types of recreation in our state park system with 47 parks from mountains to coastlines," he said. "Our park director Phil Gaines is a big proponent in getting people connected to the outside world."
One of Georgia's most popular state parks, Amicalola Falls State Park, has a hard surface pathway to the tallest waterfalls in the Southeast. An accessible mountaintop lodge and the park's Maple Restaurant provide spectacular mountain vistas. In the Tallulah Gorge State Park, a flat paved trail rims a rock stream lined with wild flowers, evergreens and hemlock forests. Lake fishing is easily accessible and the visitor center presents an award winning film on a journey through the gorge. Grab the binoculars and head to northwest Georgia. The Red Top Mountain Park rests on Lake Allatoona with a paved lake trail, pier fishing and free Saturday night concerts in the spring, summer and fall.
The Heart of Dixie
Get ready for some primetime saltwater fishing on the Alabama Gulf State Park fishing pier with accessible wheelchair stations and fishing gear available at the pier's tackle shop/grill/concession center. In northern Alabama, inside DeSoto State Park, the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail is a 360-yard raised boardwalk winding through thick forests. Enjoy blazing colors October through mid-November, and in the spring, check out blooming azaleas circling the trail's octagon deck.
Sunny side up
All the major trails inside the Florida Everglades National Park are accessible throughout the tropical jungles of the Everglades. The Pahayokee Overlook raised observation platform offers panoramic views of what the park calls rivers of grass. Wander through mangrove forests and the edge of West Lake in a half-mile elevated boardwalk on the West Lake Trail. Roll through dense gumbo-limbo trees, air plants and mahogany trees in the Mahogany Hammock Trail.
Visit the park's websites and give them a call before making vacation plans. Many of the sites offer charts and trail guides on accessibility along with special events and details on the best time to visit the area. — Deborah Burst