Ohio, Kentucky, And Tennessee Are A Regional, Natural Wonderland
Former President and avid outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt once wrote:
“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”
Coming from a man as highly regarded as President Roosevelt among conservationists, the passionate truth behind these words is quite palpable. The native New Yorker Roosevelt once opined upon his first trip into the then wilderness west of the Mississippi, that it was among the wildness of nature that “the romance of (his life) truly began.”
It would come as no surprise that Roosevelt himself is largely credited with the creation of the National Parks System, a collection of over 400 parks stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and everywhere in between. While one of his predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, actually signed the Organic Act into law in 1916, establishing the National Parks Service, its lineage can be traced to the first Roosevelt administration.
From the Grand Canyon to Teton to Yosemite to the Everglades, the National Parks System preserves and protects a mosaic of natural wonders available to all.
Often overlooked in the NPS is the first wilderness region (after the settlement of New England) to spark the imagination and westward expansion, a region colloquially known as the Mid-South: Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, and Missouri.
When planning a trip through this heartland, here are a few of the gems of the national parks in this region that cannot be passed by:
CUYAHOGA VALLEY: Ohio is home to only one national park but it’s not to be missed. Just a short drive from Akron and Cleveland, Cuyahoga Valley National Park might as well be on another planet. A haven for natural wildlife and plants, the park offers visitors a welcome oasis from the surrounding bustle of the metropolitan sprawl. Hiking, swimming, paddling the mighty Cuyahoga River, horseback riding, and star-gazing are just a few of the multitude of activities available to all who visit the heart of Ohio.
MAMMOTH CAVE: The Bluegrass State’s most popular natural attraction Mammoth Cave boasts the world’s longest known cave system. Mammoth Cave National Park is home to thousands of years of human history and a vast array of animal and plant life. Also, be on the lookout for the famous life-sized “dinosaurs” nearby!
CUMBERLAND GAP: Not just a seminal touchstone in the ubiquitous Bob Dylan-penned hit “Wagon Wheel” this national treasure once served as the very first “key to the west,” where for hundreds of years buffalo, Native tribes, Europeans, and then Americans followed this route westward. Known for both its numerous hiking trails and the “smoky” early morning fog from the Appalachians.
CAMP NELSON: History buffs won’t want to miss this Kentucky attraction. Once a supply depot and recruitment center during the Civil War for black soldiers, it became a haven for escaping slaves with hopes of securing a freer and brighter future for themselves and their families. Learn about the heritage and enjoy the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS: Tennessee’s claim to fame stands virtually unrivaled in this area of the country for its beauty and diversity of plants and wildlife. Owing its name to the fine mist settling in around its peaks, this park protects ancient mountains, dense forests, and wild rivers in addition to preserving Old Time Appalachian culture and hiking trails.
NATCHEZ TRACE SCENIC TRAIL: A must-see for the leather tramp at heart, this park offers five spectacular hiking trails (nearly 60 miles of foot trails) along the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, including opportunities to explore wetlands, swamps, hardwood forest, rock outcroppings, overlooks, and learn about the history of the area.
NATCHEZ TRACE PARKWAY: If hiking isn’t your speed, gas up the car, pack a snack, and head down the Natchez Trace Parkway. Billed as a “Drive Through 10,000 Years of History”, this winding scenic highway is a hotspot for day-trippers, overnighters, and two-wheelers.
SHILOH: Civil War history acolytes will know the name of this national park and likely its somber tale. Explore the battlefields of one of the most epic struggles of the western front of the War Between The States. Shiloh National Battlefield and the cemetery contained therein stand in stark remembrance as a solemn landmark of the nearly 24,000 American lives lost on these grounds.
APPALACHIAN TRAIL: Starting in Georgia and continuing north all the way into Canada, the over 2,180 miles of Appalachian Trail includes some of the most stunning vistas and trails right through the heart of East Tennessee. Lush forests, babbling streams, and flowing rivers, as well as tree-covered mountains, make this national park a favorite when visiting the Volunteer State.