Happy Birthday, National Park Service!

The National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday weekend back in August (yeah, I know, four months ago) and in honor of it, the park service opened all national parks for free! I am a huge park lover and outdoors enthusiast so I took advantage of the free admission and visited a couple of the parks over the weekend. It was my first time ever venturing out beyond Queens on Long Island, so there were lots of new things to see!

My adventure began with a bus ride into Manhattan and then a subway ride over into Long Island City to meet up with a couple friends who were also interested in visiting the national parks. After some delicious bagels from Bricktown Bagel, we hopped into a car and made our way out toward Sagamore Hill to visit Teddy Roosevelt’s house.

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Sagamore Hill is up on the north side of Long Island in Oyster Bay. It’s roughly an hour and a half journey from Manhattan. We had a picnic lunch on the lawn of Teddy Roosevelt’s home and then enjoyed walking around inside. No photography is allowed inside the home, but a quick Google search for images of it reveal just how grandiose the interior design is. Trophies and evidence of Roosevelt’s love of big game hunting are on display throughout the entirety of the house – animal skin rugs in almost every room and large, taxidermy, trophy heads mounted on the walls. It is quite impressive! The coloring inside is dark and rich – dark wood paneling, richly colored paintings and carpets. In a way, the house is a perfect snapshot of a time in history, and not only because it’s a presidential home. It reflects that turn-of-the-century, golden travel era feeling; the home brings you back in time in a magical way.

Outside Teddy’s home are rocking chairs, a wrap around porch, walking paths, and a tall windmill. I didn’t stay long enough to check out the walking paths and nature trail, but it’s definitely on the list for next time!

After visiting the Roosevelt home, we headed into town for some Oyster Bay oysters and fish. With a delicious lunch in our bellies, we continued onward to Fire Island National Seashore.

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Getting to Fire Island requires a boat ride across the bay. After disembarking on the island at Sailor’s Haven, our group headed into Sunken Forest preserve for a walk through the island’s lowlands, bogs, and eventually the beach. The bugs ate a couple of us alive while in the forested sections, but once out on the beach, we soaked up some sun and enjoyed the water with no care for how wet our clothes got (which is an incredibly liberating thing, actually).

As the evening winded down, we took the last ferry back to Sayville on Long Island and headed west back toward Manhattan, chasing the sunset. We stopped for some delicious cold cheese pizza (life-changer, guys) and all was well.

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The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island National Park

New York City is teeming with incredible places to visit and see.  Near the top of every touristy to-do list is a visit to the Statue of Liberty.  Locals will tell you to stay away because, you know, tourists, but the Statue of Liberty and neighboring Ellis Island are definitely places to visit at least once in your life.  They’re iconic, historical, and pretty educational, too.

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In my post 8 Reasons For Visiting the Statue of Liberty, I detail how the statue, located on Liberty Island, is accessible from either the New York side or the New Jersey side.  All you have to do is take the ferry!  I suggest taking the actual Statue Cruises ferry, which is the one recommended by the National Park Service.  There will be LOTS of people offering (and by “offering,” I pretty much mean hustling) to put you on a ferry through their own ferry provider, but book ahead with Statue Cruises through their website and your day around Liberty and Ellis islands will be much easier.  I sat outside on the ferry on the way to the statue and enjoyed a great view!

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There are different rates you can pay to access different parts of the Statue of Liberty (going up into it requires booking extremely far in advance), but I paid the simple flat fee which got me access to both Liberty and Ellis Islands with nothing fancy (I did not go inside the statue itself, but was able to walk entirely around it).  There are some incredible views from Liberty Island!

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The Statue Cruises ferry easily and readily shuttles you from Liberty Island straight to Ellis Island (or vice versa), where you can explore the history of immigration in the United States.  A long time ago, you used to be able to look up your own familial immigration records free of charge, but times have changed and you now have to pay for access to that information.  Nonetheless, there is lots to see and learn about on Ellis Island!

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One of the most memorable things for me is the giant hall where immigrants used to be shuffled through in massive lines, all waiting for their paperwork to be approved and to be “accepted” by the immigration system and allowed to enter into the country.  Often times, immigrants coming from Europe would be quarantined for health reasons, or else held in detainment while family members waited to be approved.  The small island was teeming with people.

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There are lots of informational boards and signage about the immigration system of Ellis Island – how it worked, how it was organized, etc.  There are even leftover items such as suitcases and personal effects left behind by immigrants literally shuffling through the system. In some rooms, there is even graffiti written by them on the walls.  It’s quite an interesting glimpse into the life of someone fresh into the country and waiting to be “released” into the Land of Opportunity for a better life.

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What is also notable about Ellis Island is how it discusses and compares immigration of the 1800’s and 1900’s with the immigration processes of today.  Needless to say, it’s quite different.

View of New York City from one of the buildings on Ellis Island

View of New York City from Ellis Island

Keeping in mind how iconic the Statue is, how historical both Liberty and Ellis Islands are, and how insanely inexpensive it is to visit them (it only cost me $18 for everything – that’s practically free by New York City standards!), a trip here is absolutely worth it.

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Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

Over the holidays I visited Atlanta, Georgia for the first time and stayed just outside the city in a wonderful town called Marietta. Ever the history buff and outdoors lover, I was excited to learn that there was a national park, which also happened to be a Civil War battlefield, just next door to where I was staying.

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Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park was the site of a battle that was part of the Atlanta Campaign, an assault led by Union General Sherman during the Civil War (Sherman technically lost, although the Union went on to defeat the Confederates in and around Atlanta throughout the summer of 1864).  Today, the park is home to over 18 miles of trails and offers a scenic view of Marietta and even out toward Atlanta from the top of the mountain.

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I hiked up the mountain from the visitor’s center and then also took some trails around the base of the mountain on more of the backside. Heading up the mountain, there are nice views of the surrounding town (which would be much more difficult to see in spring and summer when there’s foliage).  The trail has a lot of switchbacks to help mediate the incline and, overall, isn’t too strenuous (there’s an option to drive to the top, too, but then you miss out on the views and animal sightings!).  At the top of the mountain, there is a lookout point from which you can see out toward the city of Atlanta.  Keeping in mind the history of the area, it is pretty cool to conceive how things must’ve looked in the mid to late 1800’s with Union and Confederate armies aplenty around the mountain and Atlanta (there was some joking about giving up the war for the sake of not wanting to drag a cannon up to the top of the mountain! Haha).  Down at the visitor’s center, there is a nice little exhibit about the Civil War and the part Kennesaw Mountain played in it.  I personally wish I would’ve had more time to check it out, but it was closing around the time I got there.  Next time!

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On the way down from the top of the mountain, I happened to stop and take a picture on the trail at the exact moment I noticed a couple deer just a few feet away.  Further inspection of the surrounding woods revealed that there were at least six deer hanging around right off the trail! They didn’t seem to mind being so near to people (which is always concerning to a degree) and it was a cool experience to see them so close 🙂

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Hiking around the base of the mountain (which actually happened on a separate day) was incredibly enjoyable.  There are horse trails throughout the park and open fields and many people take advantage of the space for recreational use.  While walking along the trail, we encountered lots of runners and joggers.  There were a couple park rangers out on the trails, too, giving information to people and engaging in friendly conversation.  We hiked around 2.5 miles before turning around and heading back, passing over some small creeks along the way.  It’s a heavily wooded area, but now in the winter time, visibility is quite high (the mountaintop was visible through the trees).  It’s relatively flat around the base of the mountain but there are a number of trails that veer off toward the side of the mountain for a more “vertical experience.”  There are some informational posts along the trail, too, offering information and history about the mountain and park.

In the short time I spent at Kennesaw, I was able to take in quite a bit of history and scenery and, as always, I wish there had been time for more!  I’m hoping to get back around the area around the summer, at which time I’ll be able to experience the park with quite a different view!  Since I tend to explore a lot of state parks and forests, it was really nice to visit a national one, especially one with such rich history.

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Exploring Everglades National Park

After Singer Island and Key West, the next stop on my grand south Florida adventure (after a mini-visit to Miami) was the Everglades!  I have always wanted to check out the Everglades and see what they’re about, so this part of the trip was very exciting for me.

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There are a few different entrances to Everglades National Park. I entered through the Homestead entrance because this location seemed to offer to most to do in a short amount of time.  The timing of my arrival was perfect – I was able to participate in some amazing activities!

When you arrive via the Homestead entrance, you come across the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center first before driving through the rest of the park.  I definitely recommend stopping off here before heading into the park because here you’ll find the list of park activities for the day and learn a bunch about the Everglades themselves.  There are a bunch of friendly park rangers to answer questions, too!  After looking at the board of listed park activities for the day, I noticed that the “Wet Walk” was starting in about 30 minutes.  A ranger at the information desk informed me that it was a walking excursion through the Everglades and that you needed long pants and lace-up shoes – you were going to get wet! At first, I was admittedly hesitant… but I realized that the experience would definitely be worth it.  I’m so glad I changed my mind because it was!!

After signing up for the wet walk, I had to quickly drive to the meet-up point.  At the Homestead entrance of the park, you drive down a single road through the rest of the Everglades; along the way are stop-off points for hiking trails, ponds for kayaking, canoe trails, and nature areas. I drove to the Royal Palm stop, where the education center was to meet with the ranger who was leading the wet walk.  He actually had us drive even farther into the Everglades before our group got out and began our adventure.  The timing was definitely perfect because it ended up being the last wet walk for the entire season!

Ranger Jim Allen was super knowledgeable about the plant life, wildlife, and overall workings of the ecosystem in the Everglades.  He led us out on the “drier” part of the Everglades and informed our group about the cypress trees and small organisms that make up the “ground” of the Glades.  Then, we walked deeper and deeper into the Glades and eventually into a cypress dome, where we suddenly found ourselves walking through quite a bit of water!

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I used a tall walking stick I was given to test the depth of the water as we all walked through it, checking for deep spots and also for any wildlife that might have been hiding beneath the surface.  One woman accidentally stepped on a snake that came up out of the water!

I forged ahead at full force, eager to find gators and not caring how wet I got.  We spotted some really interesting things but, unfortunately, didn’t encounter any gators in the water (or, fortunately, depending on how you look at it!).

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In some parts, the water went almost up to my waist.  We had people of all heights and ages in our group, and it was very nice to see everyone equally excited about slogging through the Everglades together!

Ranger Jim pointed out beautiful plants as we walked through the water.  Apparently, orchids also grow wildly in the Everglades (and they had recently arrested someone who tried to steal a bunch of them) and, although we couldn’t find any where we were, we did see some other beautiful plants 🙂  One woman also spotted a snake skeleton fully intact.  We talked a bit about the invasion of non-native snakes in the Everglades and how they’re affecting the wildlife population there now.  It was a great adventure and learning experience.

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One of the coolest things that happened during the wet walk was hearing an alligator bellow.  As our group was walking through the water, there was a loud roar near us.  I honestly thought it was a panther at first!  Ranger Jim explained that it was an alligator bellowing – letting other males in the area know that he was around (April is mating season).  It was so cool to hear!  It was a very loud growl/rumble/roar.  We kept our eyes open for the gator, but didn’t see him.  As we exited the cypress dome and got ourselves out of the water, though, we did see a gator lying right near the side of the road – close enough for us to get close and get a good look.

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When the wet walk ended, I decided to continue exploring the rest of the park.  I had noted earlier at the visitor center that there was a starlit gator walk at 8:30pm, so I had a few more hours until then to explore more of the Everglades.  Ranger Jim recommended a few places and off I went!

I made a few stop-offs along the road through the Everglades and checked out the nature trails and lakes.  I saw a lot of wonderful birds and amazing sights.  I kept my eyes peeled for any wild panthers as I drove, but didn’t see any.  I did, however, eventually come across more gators than I ever thought I’d see!

After driving through the road through the Glades, I made my way back to the Royal Palm stop to prepare for the starlit gator walk.  I decided to check out the area myself in the daylight first and this is where all the gators were!  There were gators lying on the side of the walking path, so you could literally get just feet away from them.  They were everywhere!  I even witnessed a gator go after and eat a bird – so cool!

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It seemed that around every turn of the walking path were more and more gators. It was definitely an amazing sight! I made sure to be back at the education center in time for the starlit walk, though.  Ranger Erin Wolf led a discussion and then the walk.  It began to storm, though, so our walk took place in some really heavy rain in the dark… She was able to show our group the reflection of the gators’ eyes at night and tell us a bit more about them.  When the lightning got closer, though, we had to turn around.  It was still a great experience and I definitely recommend doing it if you can.

I wish I had more time to explore the Everglades but I am very, very happy about the adventures I was able to do in the time I had.  There are some truly amazing things to see in the Everglades and so much to learn about.  I’m hoping to go back soon and see and learn even more!

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