Gulf State Park – One of the Best!

In our travels over the past few years we’ve made a point of staying at state parks. We’ve found them to have more interesting features (trails, lakes, views) while being less expensive than private campgrounds. Most state parks are great but we think we’ve found the very best!

Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama impressed us from the first minute and we were sorry when the time came to move on.

Located on the Gulf of Mexico along the relatively small swatch of land that is the Alabama coastline, Gulf State Park encompasses two miles of white sand beach and over 28 miles of paved trails and boardwalks. Oh, and they have one of the best campgrounds we’ve seen, with nearly 500 full hook up sites.

During our 11 days at the park we checked out just about every trail (some multiple times) and met some of the local wildlife along the way. The park is home to deer, armadillos, snakes (including one that visited our campsite), alligators, bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and much more.

It was easy to just head out and cover 10-15 miles on the bike, something we haven’t found at other parks we’ve visited. With no traffic to deal with, biking was a blast! Along the way there are benches that offer encouragement, pay respects, or recognize those who have contributed to the park.

Steve got in some long runs in preparation for the Space Coast Marathon next week and I even got in some runs. Paths like this made it easy to just keep going!

On a few days we took our Bote kayaks out to the nearby protected bay and paddled the bayous and waterways. The weather was a perfect 68-75 degrees the entire time we were there.

Gulf State Park also has plenty of amenities, many of which we never got around to using. There’s a long fishing pier, a swimming pool, a nature center, restaurant, and lots more. This is the kind of place you could just keep coming back to.

We also used the time take care of business like getting an oil change, buying a hoist for the generator, and getting a pedicure. Our days here were full but leisure-filled with no rush to get anywhere or do anything in particular.

Several times we ventured east to the Florida/Alabama border and one of our favorite bars, the Florabama. We visited this legendary watering hole and music venue last year and loved it. Gulf State Park is just about seven miles away, so we had to stop in for some music a few times while in the area.

Mostly we just enjoyed being in a beautiful place, doing the things we love to do.

We’re now in Destin, FL to pay a visit to the headquarters of Bote. We love these kayaks so much we had to see where they came from and pick up a few accessories. The sunsets here are pretty spectacular too!

We’ll post another update once Steve’s next race is over. Cape Canaveral, here we come!

Vicksburg and Natchez

There’s a mystery about this part of our country…the Great River Road, Civil War battlefields, Antebellum mansions. It’s a new world to us but the history of the area dates back to the 1700s and before.

During the Civil War, Vicksburg’s strategic location on the Mississippi River made it critical for both the Union and the Confederacy. After the 47 day siege, the Confederacy surrendered and the defeat marked a major turning point in the war.

The Vicksburg National Military Park covers over 2,500 acres and features over 1300 monuments honoring those who fought. On our first day we drove the Union Avenue portion of the park and explored the Union lines (marked by blue signs) and key strategic positions. On the next day we focused on Confederate Avenue and the highlights of the defense (marked by red signs). The National Parks Service offers an audio guide that narrates details about the battle as you drive through the large expanse. 

In the north portion of the park is the National Cemetery which holds the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers, more than any other national cemetery. 

The U.S.S. Cairo Museum is also on the site and features the recovered ironclad ship that sank in the Yazoo River in 1862. The Cairo (pronounced KAY-row, unlike Cairo in Egypt) was found in 1952 and was salvaged and restored, creating an interesting display. The adjacent museum includes many artifacts that were recovered from the ship, indicating what life was like for the soldiers of the time.

Besides the military park, we checked out historic Vicksburg and soaked in the history. One mandatory stop in Vicksburg is Solly’s Hot Tamales. Tamales in these parts are not like the tamales we are used to in Arizona. These tasty little things are filled with a mix of ground beef and meal and are served in portions of three or six. We easily polished off six plus some fries. This isn’t the kind of meal we eat regularly…but boy was it good!

From Vicksburg we traveled about 70 miles south along the Mississippi River to Natchez. Another city with a deep history, Natchez was mostly spared destruction during the Civil War and has more Antebellum homes, over 300, than any other city in the south. We enjoyed our stay at an RV park right along the river, visiting a historic home, and trying out a few of the area’s great restaurants and bars. 

We took a tour of the historic Longwood Mansion, which was built in 1860. The construction of the eight-sided mansion was interrupted by the Civil War and the structure was never completed, yet generations of the Nutt family lived in the first floor until the 1960s. From the unfinished second floor you can see up six levels to the unfinished cupola. 

Natchez is a pretty city, situated alongside the Mississippi River. We enjoyed strolling around the town, reading interpretive signs about the town’s rich history.

On our way to the Gulf Coast we spent one night at a Harvest Host. This time we stopped in Stringer, Mississippi and A-Stroka-Genus Alpaca Farm. The small family farm has 35 alpacas, one llama, four Great White Pyrenees dogs, 30+ chickens, ducks, guinea hens, and a pair of very loud miniature donkeys.

Mary Ann gave us a tour of the farm and allowed us to feed the animals. She then demonstrated how she spins the alpaca wool into the skeins of yarn she sells in the small, onsite store. Bob got a new alpaca hide toy out of the deal too! As always, Harvest Host delivered a great experience. 

We’re on to the beach next!

Hot Springs National Park

As we work our way south towards the Gulf Coast we wanted to cross one more National Park off the list. Hot Springs National Park (HSNP) was along the way and it’s easy to do in a day.

From the beginning, the waters drew those with disabling conditions seeking to ease their pain in the thermal waters. Over time settlers built cabins and lured travelers to the famed springs.  In 1876, the US Supreme Court ruled against private land claims and made the thermal waters available to all. Once the federal government began regulating private bathhouses the building began. By the 1900s, Hot Springs was among the most visited health and wellness resorts in the country. Promoted as a place “where crutches are thrown away,” the area attracted actors, athletes, politicians, and the rich and famous. Notable patients included Will Rogers, Andrew Carnegie, Herbert Hoover, Helen Keller, and Jack Dempsey.

Today only two of the original bathhouses still operate. Others have been transformed for other purposes including the National Park Visitor Center, a cultural center, and a brewery.

We lucked out by getting a full hookup campsite at the park’s Gulpha Gorge Campground. We don’t often drive somewhere without a reservation, but when we arrived, there were several spots available, and we grabbed one. Those who arrived later in the day were not so lucky.

Just behind the campground runs Gulpha Creek, and the park’s 26 hiking trails link together just across the creek. We set out for a nice hike to explore the Hot Springs Mountains, following the Oertel Trail across the mountain and into the historic town of Hot Springs.

The trails were originally established as part of the park’s exercise program and are color-coded based on difficulty. The Grand Promenade runs directly behind Bathhouse Row and served as the most easily accessible of the fitness trails, often prescribed as part of a visit. Our four and a half mile walk through the forest and along the Promenade was a great way to start the day.

The National Park Visitor Center is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse. The 1915 structure has been restored to its original, elegant state. On three floors you can see treatment rooms, the gymnasium, and the parlors that served as “America’s First Resort.” Though the waters held no magical cure, the treatments offered some relief for patients who were suffering and in desperate need of help.

The facilities in Hot Springs at one time rivaled similar bathhouses in Europe. At the Fordyce Bathhouse the men’s bath hall features a large domed skylight containing 8000 pieces of glass arranged to represent Neptune’s daughter, mermaids, dolphins, and fish in swirling water.

In the Hubbard Tub Room non-ambulatory patients were lowered into the tub by the overhead wooden stretcher, allowing for therapies designed to treat polio, arthritis, and paralysis. 

The gymnasium was state of the art for the time and included dumbbells, traveling rings, and parallel bars. These facilities were popular with major league baseball players at the time, including Babe Ruth.

The historic area of Hot Springs is a typical tourist area with souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. There was a gangster presence here during prohibition, and some of that history is reflected in the area.

We strolled the avenue, browsed a bit, but didn’t indulge in anything but a coffee. While it’s possible to receive spa treatments in two of the historic bathhouses, you must book ahead and we passed on that opportunity.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t one you go out of your way to see and you certainly don’t need days to explore. It is, however, an interesting glimpse into a part of American history.