In my last post, I described some of my personally observed critiques related to the global Eco-Tourism industry. As much as I love travel, I also understand the contradictions between experience and knowledge; and am deeply aware of the privilege associated with the capacity to cross oceans and borders freely, where I enter other lands without the burden of their oppression or hazards. Village poverty appears quaint and charming to uninformed eyes. If I can’t handle the sea of plastic bags blowing across the Peruvian desert, or when I tire of climbing over post-war rubble on Bulgaria’s sidewalks, I can simply book the next bus to somewhere else and walk confidently across another continent with my return plane ticket tucked safely in the back of my mind.
The global pandemic has halted my personal plans to travel internationally, and even prior to March 2020, I knew that our current behaviors of travel were unsustainable. Although I continue to feel a longing to fulfill my dreams of celebrating the summer solstice at the Arctic Circle in Finland, of trekking overland from Ulaanbaater to Lisbon, and of visiting Almaty with a friend who is local to the Kazakh capitol city, I am learning to see potential for a revitalized tourism market in the United States. The wilderness areas here are expansive and clean. Our state (and national) park systems are well-maintained and accessible. And our abundance of resources and supplies means someone can enter on a plane with nearly no gear, and stock up locally with everything that is needed for hiking, camping, kayaking, scuba diving, or whatever.
This posts provides three ideas for low-impact, budget-friendly eco-adventures in the American southeast. The downside is that a personal vehicle is required. Bus routes are non-existent, and the destinations are remote enough that hitchhiking or trekking in from a nearby town are not practical options. However, what’s more synonymous with America than a road trip?
Hiking DeSoto Falls
Located deep in northern Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chattahoochee National Forest are DeSoto Falls. A 2.4 mile rugged trail along Frogtown Creek connects hikers to the Upper Falls, Middle Falls, and Lower Falls. The Upper Falls are the most scenic, with a 200-foot drop and a wooden viewing platforms with seating to rest and observe the sunlight filtering through the dense forest of old-growth pine and vibrant rhododendrons. The video below is an 11-second clip of the majestic Upper Falls.
Although AllTrails lists DeSoto Falls Trail as “heavily trafficked,” I was the only person on the trail during my visit. The sky had dumped buckets of rain on the forest the night before my hike, and the cascades were alive with movement. I paid the price of comfort for the solitude though, as I had been camping nearby and discovered during the overnight storm that my tent is only relatively waterproof.
Rain, and any weather pattern, is part of the eco-system, and without a cold and wet night digging moats to direct the flow of water away from the base of my tent, I would not have seen such vibrant waterfalls, or the lush and nearly jungle-feel of the surrounding forest. Besides, waterfalls are good for health. Check out my post on Waterfalling to learn more about the demonstrated health benefits of hanging out near a waterfall.
Swimming in Natural Springs in the Ocala National Forest
Florida’s Ocala National Forest is one of the most unique eco-systems on the planet. The area is home to the largest concentration of sand pine in the world. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt formally established the National Forest, and today it is 607 square miles of conifer, sand pine, and long leaf pine woodlands, with four crystal-clear and inviting natural springs for swimming and meditation.
Juniper Springs is located inside a large recreation area, and was rather crowded when I arrived late in the afternoon on a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon. However, the weekend groups thinned out, and the pool was completely empty when I awoke and walked to the pool from my campsite. Another woman was nearby doing yoga and a park employee was preparing the site for the day, but otherwise the space was mine.
The water at Juniper Springs is a constant 68-72 degrees, which is definitely chilly. Although the bottom is deceptively visible, the pool is 21 feet deep. I am a good swimmer, but afraid of deep water for some reason, and took the opportunity to confront that fear with several laps around the pool.
Swimming in cold water is good for health. It boosts white blood cell counts, and flushes veins, arteries, and capillaries. It also activates endorphins, and supports estrogen and testosterone production. Finally, it burns more calories than swimming in warmer water, as the body tries to keep itself warm.
After about 20 minutes in the water alone, the woman doing yoga joined me. She and her male partner both worked for a California-based tech company and had been remote for over a year, living and working from their RV. She told me about Salt Springs, and since it was on the way toward my next destination, I decided to visit that one as well.
Arriving at Salt Springs felt like I had discovered an ancient secret. The infrastructure was clean, welcoming, accessible, and developed, but hardly anyone was there. The pool at Salt Spring is much larger than Juniper Spring, and it is shallower so the water is warmer. A tall mosaic wall surrounds the pool, and I secured a spot in the sun with a roomy distance between a group of young boys snorkeling in the shallows, and a woman reading a novel. I felt very connected to the earth and water spirits at that location. The video below is a 25-second clip of one of my swims into Salt Spring.
I was relieved that the springs I visited had not been ruined with over-crowding and over-use. If planning to visit these springs, or any natural area, please remember to pack everything out. One easy way to do that is to minimize the amount you are packing in. Identify everything you might want to take with you, and then remove half of it. We need less than we think.
Biking Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island is located about 11 miles off the coast of Georgia. It is only accessible on a ferry from the town of St. Marys. Unfortunately, affordable lodging is scarce in St. Marys, and the only nearby camping is an RV park at the Crooked River State Park. I bunked in my tent among roaring generators and nosy neighbors the night before my day-journey to Cumberland Island, and almost cancelled the entire endeavor. However, I followed through on my plans and the experience was one of my most memorable adventures in the past year and a half.
The ferry ride is about 45-minutes over smooth waters. Upon arriving at Cumberland Island, it docks twice. Most passengers de-board at the first dock, the Ice House Museum, to explore the Dungeness Ruins and the historical cemetery, and to walk the Interdune Boardwalk and across Dungeness Beach. The Southend Loop walk takes about 3-4 hours, and allows visitors to see and experience the island’s natural and cultural landscapes. The video below is a short clip of the ferry docking at the Ice House Museum.
I stayed on the ferry to de-board at the more remote Sea Camp Rancher Station. This is the stop for backcountry campers, and for those of us renting bikes for the day. My bike rental was $18, and I set off north on the Main Road. I had wanted to reach the northernmost point of the road to see the Cumberland Wharf Ruins, which would take me through many miles of wilderness area, but of course that plan was overly ambitious.
First, the Main Road is an unpaved sand and gravel trail that turns progressively more rugged once I entered the wilderness area. At some points, I had to get off the bike and push it through sand that was deeper than the depth of the tire. Second, water is scarce and although the map indicated potable water at Plum Orchard around mile eight, it had not gotten turned off during shut down and there wasn’t actually any water. Third, I had drastically underestimated the mileage to the Cumberland Wharf Ruins, and how long it would take for me to travel that distance on a beach cruiser across the sandy path. In total, I biked about twenty miles, and returned to St. Marys on the evening ferry, dehydrated and sunburned.
It was worth the effort. The eco-system of the wilderness area was like something out of Jurassic Park. Herds of wild horses meandered across beach prairies, armadillos munched calmly on leafy vegetation along the path, flocks of fat turkeys pecked at insects in the trees, and a green-eyes bobcat sheltered in the shade of a large fern leaf while an oppressive afternoon sun tore through the forest canopy. Riding a bike in these conditions isn’t for everyone though. It was definitely difficult and somewhat painful, but the wild horses and armadillos are also often sighted near the Ice House Museum and the Dungeness Ruins.
So there you have it, three eco-adventures in the American southeast. I visited these locations in early May, when the crowds were thin and the weather transitional between spring rain and summer heat. If you are going to be in that part of the world, you might also want to read about a historic hotel in Florida, waterfalls in Ohio, a hiking trail in South Carolina, or forest giants in Kentucky.