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Fly to the National Parks: Southern routeFly to the National Parks: Southern route

From tropical reefs and mangrove-lined waterways to giant trees, giant caves, and heroes of World War II—National Park Units in the South celebrate diversity in multiple ways.

  • Red Tail Squadron’s P-51C “Tuskegee Airmen” honors the aviators of the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces, part of the African-American pilots and supporting personnel that, together, were known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The Alabama airfield where they trained, Moton Field, now houses the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. This Commemorative Air Force P-51C is based in Minnesota. Photo by Max Haynes, courtesy Red Tail Squadron.
  • Aerial view of Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Board a deHavilland Otter and fly to Fort Jefferson. Photo courtesy Key West Seaplane Charters.
  • The water around Fort Jefferson is shallow, clear, and calm, perfect for wading or snorkeling. Photo courtesy Key West Seaplane Charters.
  • Visitors who take an airboat tour of Everglades National Park are sure to see plenty of wildlife. This brown pelican seems as curious about the tourists as they are about it. Photo by Mike Mahaffie via Flickr.
  • You never know when you might see an alligator in Everglades National Park. Photo by Sheila Sund via Flickr.
  • Touring the Everglades mangroves in a fast-moving airboat. Photo by Mike Mahaffie via Flickr.
  • An anhinga and a great blue heron in the Everglades. Anhingas lack waterproof feathers, so they spread their wings in the sun to dry them after swimming. Photo by nursenicole via Flickr.
  • These alligators may look asleep but you don’t want to get too close. They can move like lightning. Photo by nursenicole via Flickr.
  • An elevated boardwalk keeps visitors from trampling the delicate bottomland terrain inside Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Kayakers paddle down Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park. Photo by JT Martin via Wikipedia.
  • Old-growth bald cypress trees in Congaree National Park. Photo by Miguel V via Wikipedia.
  • Rangers lead tours into Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Photo by Daniel Schwen via Wikipedia.
  • Historic signatures on the ceiling of Gothic Avenue in Mammoth Cave National Park. Photo by Dave Bunnell via Wikipedia.
  • A kayaker paddles the waters of the Green River. The Green and Nolin Rivers run for more than 30 miles through Mammoth Cave National Park, and represent one of the most biodiverse river systems in the eastern U.S. Their languid waters are a magnet for canoeists, kayakers and anglers. Photo courtesy NPS.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida: This virtually uninhabited group of seven small islands lies 70 miles west of Key West and is home to turquoise waters, coral reefs, and Fort Jefferson. With over 16 million bricks, the massive but unfinished fortress is the largest masonry structure in the Americas, and it’s only accessible via boat or seaplane. Fly to Key West and then cruise in spacious comfort to Fort Jefferson aboard the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran. Tour the massive fort or explore the pristine beaches and swim among the coral reefs. Overnight camping is allowed; bring your own food and water! You can land your seaplane if you get a special-use permit first, which costs $100—be sure to file a flight plan, wear a PFD, and monitor 122.85 MHz. You also can book a commercial seaplane flight in an amphibious DHC-3 de Havilland Turbine Otter. The low-level flight over turquoise waters will reveal coral reefs, a shipwreck, and wildlife.

Snorkel the reefs along the wall of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy Key West Seaplane Charters.

Everglades National Park, Florida: The park has three entrances scattered across south Florida, but Everglades Airpark is less than a mile north of the Gulf-side park entrance. The tiny town is walkable; many boat tours will pick you up; and cottages are nearby. Be aware that the runway is only 2,400-by-50 feet, has water at both ends, and often has a crosswind. At the National Park Service Visitor Center, you can rent canoes or kayaks, get camping permits, or take a 90-minute ranger-led boat tour of the 10,000 Islands Preserve. Take an airboat tour and look for alligators and manatees, or charter a fishing boat and fish for snook and tarpon. You also can rent boats or canoes, or get a tour from the folks at the cottages across from the airport. The Everglades is a birder’s paradise.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama: Moton Field is your destination to pay tribute to the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who trained here during World War II. The Hangar No. 1 and Hangar No. 2 museums are currently open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Central Time. Each June the Legacy Flight Academy, a nonprofit that conducts youth aviation programs drawing upon the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, hosts a special open house at Moton Field. The event is generally attended by the CAF Redtail Squadron, based in Minnesota, whose P-51 is painted with the red tail of the Tuskegee Airmen.

A great blue heron enjoys the expansive watery habitat of Everglades National Park. Photo by lubright via Flickr.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina: Fly to Columbia Metropolitan Airport to access this underutilized national park, which preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. Congaree was designated a national park in 2003 after years of grassroots conservation efforts that began in 1969. Its lush trees are some of the tallest in the Eastern United States and form one of the world’s highest remaining deciduous forest canopies. Rent a canoe in Columbia and bring it to the park: The 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail winds through some of the biggest trees. Other canoe trails are even longer, and you can camp in the park. Come between mid-May and mid-June to see the incredible synchronized fireflies, a rare sight, when thousands of fireflies flash on and off at once, all in the same pattern. Call the park for exact dates.  

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky: Arrange for a rental car and then fly to Glasgow, 17 miles from Mammoth Cave. Tour the largest cave system in the world, with over 400 miles explored so far (tours change seasonally; check the National Park Service website). Aboveground, you can rent a canoe or kayak and paddle gently down the Green or Nolan rivers. Dramatic, tree-covered bluffs rise steeply above the rivers. Hikers have access to six trailheads that lead to over 65 miles of hiking trails. Choose lodging and dining inside or outside the park or camp and let the birds sing you to sleep.

Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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