National Parks East of the Mississippi

While the dramatic landscapes of National Parks in the West often receive the lion’s share of attention, National Parks east of the Mississippi River have just as much to offer. Here are five of our favorite National Parks in the East that offer visitors plenty of adventure and spectacular scenery.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky

Inside a large cavern at Mammoth Caves National Park which is one of Mississippi's National Parks [Image: travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/national-parks/mammoth-cave-national-park]

Image: travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/national-parks/mammoth-cave-national-park

Descend into the world’s longest-known cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park. Over the past 5,000 years, more than 400 miles of this water-formed labyrinth has been mapped and surveyed, but there is still so much left to explore. This uncharted territory lends a sense of mystery to the park. The best way to see the cave is by signing up for one of the many tours offered through the park. We recommend going on the Violet City Lantern Tour. For three hours and with only the soft light of a paraffin lamp, explore some of the cave’s largest passages just as early settlers did. Visitors will find evidence of prehistoric mineral mining and a forsaken underground hospital for TB patients.

While the cave is the largest draw for visitors of the park, there are so many other things to do and see! Some favorite sights include the Cedar Sink. By walking down inside this sinkhole, visitors can glimpse an underground river system as it snakes out of the cave. Or follow the River Styx Spring Trail, a leisurely stroll through the woods that brings you alongside the partly subterranean Green River as it wends its way from the cave.

Shenandoah National Park

Virginia

Old Rag Mountain in the Fall [Image: www.nps.gov]

Old Rag Mountain in the Fall [Image: www.nps.gov]

Shenandoah National Park encompasses part of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. The ever-popular Skyline Drive, a 105-mile National Scenic Byway that runs the entire length of the park, affords multitudes of scenic vistas. Skyline Drive is most popular in the Fall when trees at the park burst with colorful foliage. There are also many opportunities to hike the Blue Ridge Mountains, such as the park’s highest peak, Hawksbill Mountain. For the thrill-seekers, we recommend taking the trail up Old Rag Mountain. After a challenging rocky scramble to the summit, hikers will be rewarded with the most breathtaking panoramic views of Virginia.

In addition to beautiful mountainscapes, there are many beautiful waterfalls within the park. At 93 feet, Overall Run Falls is the tallest waterfall at the park and a must-see. South River Falls, the third highest waterfall in the park at 83 feet, is another favorite. Both of these waterfalls offer visitors rocky ledges, perfect places for visitors to sit and have a snack.

Everglades National Park

Florida

An alligator rests on a sandy trail through a cypress grove at the Everglades  [Image Credit: David Geldhof]

Everglades National Park is listed as a World Heritage Site. [Image Credit: David Geldhof]

A watery labyrinth containing 1,100 species of trees and plants, Everglades National Park is the largest designated wilderness in the southeast. Within its miles of diverse ecosystem, travel winding paths through cypress groves, take a boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands, or a tram ride through Shark Valley. With more than 40 species of bird inhabiting the Everglades, this national park is a must for birdwatchers. For optimum bird sightings, we recommend heading to the park’s verdant Mahogany Hammock Trail early in the morning. The park is also home to 14 endangered (and often reclusive) species, such as the Florida panther, American crocodile, Loggerhead sea turtle, and manatee. If you’re anxious to see some turtles and gators, check out the Anhinga Trail. A wildlife hotspot, this trail is perfect for families and is also wheelchair accessible.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

North Carolina & Tennessee

Cades Cove is a popular spot for people and wildlife at Smoky Mountains National Park. [Image Credit: Kristina Plaas]

Cades Cove is a popular spot for people and wildlife at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. [Image Credit: Kristina Plaas]

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the rugged peaks and old growth forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park make it America’s most visited national park. Home to 100 native tree species, the park contains the largest blocks of old-growth deciduous forest in North America. This is one of the many reasons why this beautiful park is honored as a World Heritage Site. The early Precambrian rocks are another popular feature at the park. These very ancient rocks are found at the bottom of the park’s Foothills. Head to the picturesque valley, Cades Cove to see these ancient rocks for yourself.

Since the Smoky Mountains are part of the Appalachian Trail, visitors will most likely run into thru-hikers journeying to either Maine’s Mount Katahdin or Springer Mountain in Georgia. A favorite hike is traveling the Alum Cave Trail up to the summit of the park’s third highest mountain, Mount Le Conte. Spend the night near the summit at the LeConte Lodge. For a more strenuous hike, take on the dual-humped peaks of Chimney Tops. This hike delivers jaw-dropping panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.

Stay tuned for the Pocket Ranger® National Parks Passport Guide, a free new app that makes planning and visiting the National Parks easy and fun!

3, 2, 1 Launch

Contributed by Alex Vail, The Flying Kayak

Whether you’re paddling a fishing kayak or taking the family out on a canoe trip, the launch can define how the entire trip goes. Though often overlooked, the how, when, and where of launching your paddlecraft is a vitally important part of planning any excursion. Proper planning and execution can mean the difference between a fun day on the water or a downright miserable (and possibly dangerous) time.

A beached yellow kayak in a harbor [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

It seems simple enough, right? You put the kayak or canoe in the water and off you go. But there’s often much more to it than that. Many places that you may wish to launch at don’t actually have easy access for paddlecraft. I recently visited a nearby park that overlooked a lake and discovered that access wasn’t as easy as I had initially expected. The bank was littered with jagged rocks and areas that didn’t have rocks presented the challenge of a steep cliff face. As much fun as it would have been to slide off the bluff and plummet to the water 8 feet below in my fully loaded kayak, I was forced to change up my plans. Careful scouting of any launch is important. Eventually, I found an area of rocks that weren’t too difficult to navigate across and was able to launch, but it was less than ideal. One slip would have cut me up terribly.

Man pulls kayak off beach and into water [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

When launching in saltwater, another thing to consider is the tide. In areas that are affected heavily by tidal flow, it is entirely possible to have a nice easy launch, only to come back hours later to discover a hundred-yard mud flat between you and dry land. Be sure to research the area and check tide tables before launching to avoid a long, muddy drag to shore.

Finally, there’s ocean launching. This is what I consider to be the most dangerous type of launch. If conditions aren’t perfect, your day can go horribly wrong very quickly. Ideally, the surf is minimal to flat on launch, but keep in mind that you’ll eventually have to come back to shore. Check the weather and surf report to ensure you don’t launch in an area where the seas will build while your offshore. Riding a wave back to shore can certainly be exciting, but dangerous for you and your gear.

Two kayaks on a sandy beach at sunset [Image Credit: Alex Vail]

Image Credit: Alex Vail

And speaking of gear, it’s vitally important to plan how gear is stored when launching your paddlecraft. If launching in the surf, make sure anything you don’t want to lose has been strapped down or is safely below deck. Regardless of craft type, flipping in the surf is a very real danger, and no one enjoys cleaning up a yard sale when their gear gets strewn across the beach.

In calmer areas, it’s important to consider the day ahead when placing gear in the craft at launch. Will you be able to get out and stand at some point? Or is it an area where you’ll be stuck in your seat all day? If you cannot get out of your kayak, what good is your food, water, or camera going to do you when you can’t actually reach it? All of these things are important to take into account when deciding how you go about your launch.

So, the next time you gear up to launch the kayak or canoe, take a minute to consider how you’ll be getting into and out of the water. Above all else, safety is the most important thing. If you ever feel unsafe or unsure about the launch, don’t do it. Trying to push your luck in the surf or on the rocks isn’t worth the lost gear or bodily harm.

March State Park Events

March may be in like a lion and out like a lamb, but no matter what the weather, there’s plenty of March state park events this month that you don’t want to miss. Whether it’s assisting with bird-banding efforts in Nebraska, running a half-marathon in Washington, or sugaring in Pennsylvania, make sure to download your state’s free Pocket Ranger® app to help you plan, navigate, and share your experience with friends and family! For more March state park events, check out the Events Calendar feature on our apps!

March State Park Events

Florida

In March at the Stone Age Festival, a boy throws an Atlatl, an ancient weapon at a target. [Image: www.knapfest.comrel=“nofollow

Learn how to throw an atlatl! [Image: www.knapfest.com]

8th Annual Stone Age and Primitive Arts Festival
Ochlockonee River State Park
February 27th – March 1st, 2015

If you’re in sunny Florida, spend the weekend learning about and then honing your own primitive skills at Ochlockonee River State Park! At the Stone Age and Primitive Arts Festival, Old and New World bow and arrow construction will be on display, as well as primitive pottery, basketry, and bone- and wood-carving. There are plenty of activities for the whole family, such as learning how to throw an atlat, a primitive spear once used by early Homo sapiens. The festival’s Ten Speed Competition is a crowd favorite. In just 10 minutes, flintnappers compete to see who can create the finest arrowhead!

Washington 

Marathoners run through a woodsy section of trail at March's Lake Sammamish Half-Marathon one of many great March state park events

The Lake Sammamish Half-Marathon attracts 500 – 600 runners every year! [Image: marathons.ahotu.com]

6th Annual Lake Sammamish Half-Marathon
Lake Sammamish State Park
March 7th, 2015

Whether you’re conditioning for the upcoming Boston Marathon or just looking to get outside with a great group of people, the Lake Sammamish Half-Marathon is for you. This half-marthon’s flat run through Lake Sammamish State Park ensures that participants can achieve their personal best! The race is chip-timed, and participants can choose to run or walk. The walk category is given a very generous four-hour time limit. Finish at the park’s beach, where there will be a nice line up of food and music.

Nebraska

A bird is gently banded by a staff member [Image: neblandvm.outdoornebraska.gov]

A bird is gently banded by a staff member [Image: neblandvm.outdoornebraska.gov]

Bird Banding Workshop
Schramm Park State Recreation Area
March 7th, 2015

At the Bird Banding Workshop, learn more about songbirds! Licensed bird-banders from the Frontenelle Nature Association will share info about bird identification to migration patterns. Situated along the Missouri River migration flyway, many of the state’s different songbirds will be captured and released for banding, such as the American redstart, Yellow-throated vireo, Wood thrush, and more. This free workshop is hosted at the AkSarBen Aquarium within the Schramm Park State Recreation Area and is open to both children and adults. Don’t forget to share your bird sightings with other enthusiasts through our new, free Bird Feed app!

South Dakota

Get a great view of the full moon while snowshoeing this March! [Image: cdn.allblackhills.com]

Get a great view of the full moon while snowshoeing this March! [Image: cdn.allblackhills.com]

Owl Moon Snowshoe Hike
Oakwood Lakes State Park
March 7th, 2015

What better way to enjoy the full moon than snowshoeing around Oakwood Lakes State Park? The full moon in March marks the last full moon of winter. This snowshoe hike will travel along a one-mile, lamplit trail. Afterwards, gather by the campfire for some complimentary hot chocolate and marshmallows. If you don’t have your own pair of snowshoes, call ahead to borrow some from the park at no cost. For snowshoe reservations, contact the park at: 605-627-5441.

Pennsylvania

These trees in Pennsylvania are being tapped for sap [Image: sayermotterphotography.weebly.com

Trees being tapped in Pennsylvania [Image: sayermotterphotography.weebly.com]

Maple Sugaring Workshop
Raccoon Creek State Park
March 14th, 2015

Did you know it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup? The process of making the tree sap into maple syrup is called sugaring, and you can learn all about it at the Maple Sugaring Workshop at Raccoon Creek State Park. Taste samples of different syrup grades and enjoy a pancake dinner. This workshop will also cover tree identification, teas you can make from wild plants, and milling grain at home.

Virginia

This March, Union and Confederate soldiers will again face off at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek [Image: www.dcr.virginia.gov]

Union and Confederate soldiers face off at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek [Image: www.dcr.virginia.gov]

American Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemorative Event
Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park
March 28th, 2015

Experience living history at the American Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemorative Event at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park. The Battle of Sailor’s Creek was the final major battle in Virginia of the American Civil War. Tour the park’s Overton-Hillsman farmhouse, which served as a Civil War field hospital in 1865. Re-enactors will execute tactical demonstrations of the battle just as it unfolded 150 years ago.

Attend any of these March state park events? Share your pics with us on Twitter and Instagram accounts. 

Winter Biking: Tips for Cycling through the Chilly Months

Winter biking is a whole different world from biking in the warmer months of the year. There’s a lot to take into consideration when jumping on your bike and heading out for the trail or onto the road, but freezing temperatures and slippery surroundings shouldn’t be deterrents. A new challenge is an exciting challenge, and biking during winter isn’t actually as bad as one might assume. Properly preparing the bike, and more importantly its rider, are key to enjoying winter cycling.

Benefits of Winter Cycling

man winter biking in the snow

Mountain biking in snow [Image: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold-weather_biking]

First things first: Determine the perks of winter biking. Not only will you avoid any car traffic, but it also gets the blood coursing and heart thumping. Not always the easiest task in the winter! If you’re still feeling hesitant, try setting up a schedule to ease yourself into it before making it a part of your routine.

Clothing

Man showing specific gear for winter biking

Winter bike touring clothing [Image: bicycletouringpro.com/blog/winter-bike-touring-clothes]

Before heading out, you’re going to want to make sure you dress the right way. The key is to layer but not overdo it, similar to when cross-country skiing. Since you’ll be exercising, you’re going to end up sweating—especially depending on the amount of hills you’ll be tackling during the ride. The best way to go about it is to wear an outfit where you feel a bit chilly in at first. As your ride progresses, you’ll notice that you don’t actually miss throwing on that extra winter coat after all.

There are a few items that are particularly important to have. It’s essential to keep your head and ears warm because even though the rest of your body is warming up, your head will have a harder time doing the same. A scarf or balaclava is great for keeping your neck and face comfortable during the ride.

Since the fingertips and toes lose a lot of heat, ensuring that they are warm will make the difference between a positive biking experience and one that you can’t wait to end. Gloves that keep your fingers warm but don’t inhibit you from grabbing your brakes at a moment’s notice will make your ride infinitely more enjoyable. Hand warmers may just become the most valuable investment you make. Depending on how much icy rain/snow you encounter, waterproof shoes will probably become your new best friend during winter cycling outings. For the same reason you don’t want to over-bundle, having wet shoes can lead to problems with hypothermia when you finally slow down and the cold catches up with you. Even if you don’t notice, the sweat and water will turn to ice soon enough and will be quite the unwelcome riding companion.

Winterizing Your Bike

Studded mountain bike tires for use in icy con...

Studded mountain bike tires for use in icy conditions [Image: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tread]

Prepping your bike is as important as prepping your body. Similar to how car tires need to be prepped to handle intense snowfall, bike tires need to be adjusted so that they can get a good grip on the wet surface. Some prefer thicker tires while others add studs to their tires to handle the snow better. It’s best to start off with at least lowering the pressure in the tires.

Monitoring your bike (especially the gears if they’re exposed) and keeping it clean is equally important in the winter. Your bike is flying through tons of snow, sand, salt, and whatever else is buried, and all that stuff is likely to get stuck in your gears and wheels. A well-maintained bike is a happy bike, so clean it as often as possible.

Since winter means that it gets darker earlier, bike lights are more important than ever. Being visible to other vehicles is key to making sure you have a safe winter biking experience. A pair of strong, bright front and rear lights will ensure that others can take proper precautions around you.

Stay Hydrated and Fueled

Man drinking water while biking

Drink water to stay hydrated during a ride. [Image: keyassets.timeincuk.net/inspirewp/live/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2012/11/Fuel_for_winter_drinking.jpg]

It’s easy to become dehydrated and not take in enough food or water without even realizing it. Your body might not feel thirsty or hungry, but you’re releasing a lot of moisture into the air and sweating more than you may in the summer. Without proper nourishment, your body will have a lot of trouble keeping warm. Make sure to drink enough water and pack some food to keep your body satisfied.

With all these handy tips, you’re ready to have a safe and fun winter cycling session in any environment. Check out our Gear Store for anything you might need to make your rides easier and safer. Be alert and enjoy the cold!

Related articles

Cast Iron Cooking: Tips & Recipes

Whether you’re winter camping or in the comfort of your own home, there’s no reason not to bust out the cast iron cookware. Cooking with cast iron has become such a time-honored tradition due to its ease of use, durability and versatility. What exactly is cast iron? It’s an alloy (metallic mixture) of iron, carbon, and silicon that when made molten hot, is poured into molds to create the durable cookware we’ve come to love.

Cast Iron Through the Ages

Entire stoves were once made of cast iron. [Image: usualdays.blogspot.com]

Entire stoves were once made of cast iron! These stoves were wood-burning. [Image: usualdays.blogspot.com]

Here in the States, we tend to associate cast iron with early settlers, but cast iron has even older roots in ancient China. The Chinese were using cast iron as early as 6th century B.C.! It wasn’t until the 14th century that cast iron made an appearance in Europe, and then in the late 19th century, became a staple as cast iron stoves in American kitchens. Vintage cast iron cookware has a smoother surface, where as a newly-made cast iron pan will have a rougher texture. This is because vintage cast iron cookware was subjected to an additional, but more costly polishing process. If you’re looking for a quality nonstick surface that isn’t Teflon, find yourself some vintage cast iron. Oftentimes, even old, rusted pieces can be easily restored for everyday use.

The Importance of Seasoning

To be at its best, cast iron cookware needs to be used frequently to retain its “seasoning.” Seasoning seals the porous surface of cast iron by building a thin, hard layer of petrified oil or grease. A seasoned pan retains a nonstick surface and extends the longevity of the pan.

Both a brand new cast iron pan and a used, poorly kept cast iron pan will need to be seasoned before cooking. To season, scrub pan with warm water and nonmetallic brush. Dry and coat the pan with vegetable oil or shortening, inside and out. Place your cast iron upside down on a foil-lined baking sheet (to catch drips) and bake at 350°F for 45 minutes to an hour. Turn on your oven fan because the pan will probably smoke! After baking, turn off the heat and let the pan cool completely in the oven. Once cooled, remove from the oven and wipe away excess oil.

Cast iron pans hang from brick wall [Image: www.grit.com]

Image: www.grit.com

Easy Cleaning Tips

Unlike other dirty dishes, cast iron should not be washed with soap, cleaned in the dishwasher, or left to soak in water. Soap and prolonged exposure to water destroy cast iron’s seasoning and creates rust. After light cooking, clean your cast iron by simply wiping with a paper towel. If your cast iron needs a deeper clean, scrub the pan with salt or just some hot water and a nonmetallic brush or scraper. Dry completely with a towel, then rub a teaspoon or two of olive oil or vegetable oil around the surface of the pan. This will keep the cast iron from drying out and rusting.

Cooking & Baking Inspiration

Since cast iron can go in the oven, on the stovetop, or over a campfire, there are a plethora of cooking and baking recipes to choose from. In addition to its superior cooking abilities, cast iron may also improve your health. Cast iron imparts trace amounts of the mineral iron into the food you cook. Iron is an essential mineral in your diet that helps build hemoglobin and myoglobin, two important proteins found within the body.

Down Cellar’s No-Knead Bread

Courtesy of Ashley Benson at Down Cellar Catering

Bread dough and bread loaf in cast iron skillet [Image: thisisnotreallife.tumblr.com]

Image: thisisnotreallife.tumblr.com

After an overnight rise and an hour or so in the oven, this recipe consistently wows by producing a versatile white bread that looks and tastes like it came from a professional bakery. We especially like that Down Cellar Catering has adapted this much-loved Jim Lahey recipe, so we can bake a stunning loaf in either our cast iron pans or Dutch ovens. Cast iron is great for baking, since it evenly distributes heat.

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups bread flour
  • 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour, plus extra for dusting
  • ¼ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 5/8 cups water

Directions

  1. Mix together bread flour, whole wheat flour, yeast and salt in a medium-sized bowl. (Make sure not to sprinkle the salt directly over the yeast, since salt inhibits the yeast from making the bread rise.) Pour in water and stir until all ingredients are well incorporated.
  2. Cover and let the dough rest at room temperature overnight or for at least 12 hours. After rising for so long, the dough’s surface will be bubbly and smell of yeast.
  3. Generously dust a cotton tea towel with flour, cornmeal or wheat bran. (Do not use a terry cloth kitchen towel! The dough will stick to it, and terry cloth fibers will get into your bread.) Gently transfer the dough from the bowl to the towel, and loosely fold the towel over the dough. Let the dough rest in the towel for another two hours, or until the dough has almost doubled in size.
  4. Thirty minutes before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the cast iron pan or Dutch oven in the oven as it heats up. When the dough is ready, remove the cast iron from the stove and carefully slide the dough into the hot pan.
  5. Bake covered for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 15 – 30 more minutes until the crust is brown. Ashley Benson observes that most people tend to take out baked goods a little too early. For better crust and flavor, she recommends letting the loaf cook a little longer than you think.
  6. Allow to cool 20 – 30 minutes before slicing, so the bread has time to rest.

Pan-Roasted Chicken with Harissa Chickpeas

Courtesy of Dawn Perry at Bon Appetit

Chicken thighs and chickpeas in a cast iron skillet [Image: www.bonappetit.com]

Image: www.bonappetit.com

Who says cast iron is relegated to just cooking up franks & beans? This mouth-watering, seared chicken recipe gets a tasty kick from harissa, a spicy North African red chile paste. This recipe serves four, and would be delicious served with bread or over rice, quinoa or lentils.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (about 3 lbs.)
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed
  • ¼ cup harissa paste (or less, if you’d like it less spicy)
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat olive oil in large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Working in two batches, cook chicken thighs until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer cooked chicken to a plate.
  3. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of drippings from the pan. Add onion and garlic to the pan. Cook for about three minutes, stirring often until onion is softened.
  4. Add tomato paste to pan. Cook for one minute until the paste begins to darken, making sure to stir so it doesn’t burn. Add chickpeas, harissa and broth. Bring to a simmer.
  5. Place chicken back in skillet, skin side up so it remains crispy. Transfer skillet to the preheated oven, and roast until chicken is cooked through (about 20 – 25 minutes). Top with parsley and serve with lemon wedges.

Bacon & Scallion Griddle Cakes with Maple Crème Fraîche

Courtesy of Beth Kirby at Local Milk

Plated pancakes, creme fraiche, and skillet [Image: localmilkblog.com]

Image: localmilkblog.com

Finally, a way to dress up our Sunday morning flapjacks! This recipe makes 28 mini cakes or 14 regular-sized cakes.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
  • 3 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup water
  • scant ¼ cup bacon fat
  • 1/3 cup crème fraîche or sour cream (plus ½ cup for serving)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup scallions, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup crisp bacon, finely chopped
  • canola oil, combined with bacon fat (for frying)
  • 1- 2 teaspoons maple syrup

Directions

  1. Whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and sugar in medium-sized bowl.
  2. In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, water, bacon fat, and crème fraîche. Blend well. Add eggs and mix until just combined.
  3. Pour liquid ingredients into dry ingredients. Mix until a thick batter forms. Stir in scallions and bacon until just combined.
  4. Heat oil and bacon fat in a cast iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat. For smaller cakes, use a large tablespoon to spoon the batter onto the skillet. For larger cakes, use a quarter cup measuring cup. Allow the batter to cook on one side (about three minutes) before flipping and cooking the other side. The crust of the cakes should be crisp and golden brown. As you make them, you may need to add more oil to the pan to keep them from sticking.
  5. In a small bowl, stir together maple syrup and additional ½ cup of crème fraîche. After plating the griddle cakes, top with maple crème fraîche and serve hot.

Florida State Parks and Scuba Diving

Ever wonder what it’s like to go scuba diving? Now is your chance to experience it at the Florida State Parks! If you are planning a vacation to Florida or if you reside there, check out some of these state parks that offer scuba diving as an activity!

Bahia Honda State Park

Two women and a boy scuba diving under water with fishes

Image: www.authenticflorida.com

36850 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, Florida 33043
Southeast Region

The water at Bahia Honda State Park is very shallow which can be beneficial to those who have never experienced scuba diving or snorkeling before. Keep in mind that while scuba diving, a “diver-down” flag must be displayed.

Fanning Springs State Park

Man visiting Florida State Parks and scuba diving in a cave at Fanning Springs state park

Scuba Diving at Fanning Springs State Park! [Image: www.floridiannature.com]

18020 N.W. Highway 19
Fanning Springs, Florida 32693
Northeast Region

Experience the beautiful waters of Fanning Springs State Park. Divers should have certification and are required to register with park staff before 3:00 P.M and you must be out of the water by 5:00 P.M. There is a minimum of two divers in the water at a time.

Manatee Springs State Park

Man scuba diving near coral reefs

Image: www.101scubadiving.com

11650 NW 115 Street
Chiefland, Florida 32626
Northeast Region

Scuba dive at this state park to explore nature’s wonders. Cavern and cave diving is also available at Manatee Springs State Park. You must preset your certification upon registration and dive instructors are required to purchase a Commercial Dive Permit. All divers must have a scuba diving buddy and you must be registered by 3 P.M. and be out of the waters by 5 P.M. It is recommended that you dive within your certification limits.

Troy Spring State Park

Troy Spring and ramp that leads to water

Troy Spring State Park [Image: www.floridacaves.com]

674 NE Troy Springs Road
Branford, Florida 32008
Northeast Region

Come and scuba dive in the 70-foot deep spring at Troy Spring State Park! There is a rinse station and outdoor shower near the restroom. A ramp gives you access to the dock that can be used for wagons or a handcart to carry gear.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Two people learning how to scuba dive underwater with an intructor

Image: www.guadalajaradivecenter.com

6131 Commercial Way
Weeki Wachee, Florida 32606
Southwest Region

Learn how to scuba dive at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with an instructor from a dive shop. No individual dives are allowed. Make your reservation today!

Download Florida State Park Pocket Ranger® app to see Rules and Regulations for scuba diving and to view park rules, fees and reservation info.

Suggested Gear:

  • Wetsuit
  • Swimwear
  • Sunglasses

View Pocket Ranger® Gear Store to purchase these needed items for your trip plus much more!

Winter Escape at the National Parks

If winter is turning out to be inhospitable, travel to one of these desert national parks where temperatures range from the 50s to 70s during winter. These National Parks are home to scenic landscapes, rich biodiversity and boundless geologic history. While you’re contemplating the timeless beauty of deserts and finding peace, don’t forget to roll down the sand dunes, and embrace your wild child nature. This is our version of a winter escape in the desert at some of the most breathtaking national parks in the country!

Joshua Tree National Park

A field of Joshua trees and Ryan Mountain in the background at one of the US's National Parks.

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and Ryan Mountain [Image: NPS/Brad Sutton]

Imagine landscapes filled with Joshua trees, twisted and spiky, rugged mountains, sand dudes, dry lakes, and endless flat valleys. Joshua Tree National Park is abundant in scenic views, but also wildlife with 6 species of rattlesnakes, desert bighorns, desert tortoises, lizards, jackrabbits, and pacific flyway migratory birds. The park is especially popular with rock climbers with many routes and levels of difficulty. For novice hikers there are shorter trails, such as the one-mile hike through Hidden Valley, which offers a chance to view the beauty of the park without straying too far into the desert. Some look out points include: Keys View, south of the park, offering views of Coachella Vally and the Salton Sea. Longer trails include Ray Mountain, Lost Horse Mine, Warren Peak, and many more. Visit between October and April for cool, crisp weather as opposed to the heat madness of summer. To see the wildflowers visit from March to April, but always check park reports for their status. And if you want to hike at night, don’t leave out stargazing in Black Rock Campground and Pinto Basin.

Mojave National Preserve

Image: NPS Photos

Table Top Mountain. [Image: NPS Photos]

Mojave is the third largest national parks outside of Alaska with 1.6 million acres of wilderness, unique vegetation and wildlife. There are four major North American deserts running through the park: the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran. Many also come to see the cactus gardens, white fir, and chaparral. The landscape is comprised of mountain ranges, dry river beds, great mesas, towering sand dunes, cinders cones, domes and lava flows. There are ancient rocks that date back to 2.5 billion years old discovered in the Clark Mountains. For creepier sights, there’s a defunct railroad depot and the ghost town of Kelsoare. The depot is now a visitor center. The park offers hiking, backpacking, camping, 4-wheel driving, wildflower viewing, and hunting. Even if you don’t have much time, you can experience the Mojave scenery by visiting the Kelso Dunes and Kelso Depot visitor center for exhibits. Other points of interest include Providence Mountains, Ivanpah Valley, and the Lava tube.

Navajo National Monument

Betatakin Ruin at Navajo National Monument

Betatakin Ruins just inside the canyons. [Image: www.jqjacobs.net]

There’s no need to travel far to see ancient ruins. Navajo National Park has three preserved cliff dwellings: Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House. This monument is high on the Shonto Plateau overlooking the Tsegi Canyon System. Built by the prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan People, the ruins were constructed within sandstone alcoves within the canyons. The villages date back to AD 1250. Visitors can also appreciate roof beams, masonry walls, and even rock art. The park has a museum, two short self-guided mesa top trails, two small campgrounds, and a picnic area. If you’re on your way to Monument Valley, this national monument is the perfect stop to learn about the early civilizations of Arizona and embrace the spiritual energy of the land. Don’t forget to check out the Sandal Trail, an accessible self-guided walk that provides spectacular views of the canyon lands and its rugged topography.

Death Valley National Park

F44CA159-155D-4519-3EF400819ED56D37

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes [Image: NPS Photos]

The peak season for Death Valley runs through the cool winter and spring months into the middle of April. Here you’ll find colorful badlands, snow-covered peaks, beautiful sand dunes, rugged canyons, the driest and lowest spot in North America, and the hottest in the world. Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North American has a dreamy landscape of salt flats. After heavy rain a temporary lake may form in which case you’ll need a kayak! Death Valley is famous for its spectacular, spring wildflower displays, but they are not always around in full array. Under perfect conditions the desert fills with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers depending upon rainfall. Reptiles, butterflies, desert bighorn, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and mule deer call this place home. Other places to visit include ghost towns, ranches and mines. Take a picturesque tour at Scotty’s Castle, reminiscent of a Spanish mansion, and last occupied in the 1920s. Don’t miss Dante’s View, an overlook of more than 5,000 feet above the Death Valley floor, and Artist’s Drive, which offers magnificent vistas of the valley floor and distant peaks. During winter you can see Mars Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus in the night sky.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument during sunset.

Image: wikipedia

Considered one of the world’s great natural wonders, the White Sands National Monument is 275 square miles of desert, and the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. The field of dunes are composed of gypsum crystals. Its origins date back to more than 10,000 years ago. Though it may appear barren, White Sands is teeming with life, and enchants visitors with its endless fields and starry nights. What to do once you’ve arrived? You can start on one of five hiking trails. The park offers a variety of guided tours, including the sunset strolls where a guide takes you through the sand dunes and discusses the geology, plants, and animals of the area. Sunrise and sunset hours bring out the color of the sand dunes so be sure not to miss it. For those wanting to discover their inner astronomer, this is the place to go stargazing! Though fall is considered prime-time, White Sands has the best dark skies in the lower 48 states thanks to its moon-like landscape. Many visitors say White Sands takes them to a different time and place, where they can find a spiritual and physical connection to the land. Be sure to call the park when there’s snow or freezing temperatures in the area, since the park gates might be closed.

Stayed tuned for our newest Pocket Ranger® mobile app, America’s National Park Passport where you’ll find activities, events, and wildlife!

Be sure to share any National Park photos with our twitter and instagram accounts.