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Camp Beneath the Southern Pines
There are things in this life of which I’m certain: I love summer, I love to camp, and I love living in and exploring the southeast. However, the combination of these matters leaves much to be desired when the humidity, heat and mosquitoes present themselves during a summer camping trip!
With the warm summer months upon us, National Wildlife Federation is celebrating our annual camping event, the Great American Campout, to connect people to the great outdoors and wildlife. It is the perfect opportunity to gather your family or friends, gear and trail shoes and find a great camping spot. For those of us (like myself) in the Southeast, if the summer elements prove too much, now is a great time to begin planning your fall getaways.
The Southeastern U.S. is full of spectacular places to camp; if you are curious about where to go camping, consider pitching your tent in the richest forest that the United States has to offer—the Longleaf Pine. These forests are home to an abundance of plants and many species of wildlife such as the endangered gopher tortoise, Bachmans sparrow, fox squirrels, and many more.
Due to development and conversion to dense trees plantations, only approximately 5% of longleaf forests remain. We have compiled a list of public lands where you can find longleaf pine in its historic and natural range—from the eastern plains of Texas to Florida and all the way up to the Carolinas.
Kisatchie National Forest, Louisiana
During your visit, be sure to enjoy the panoramic views from the sandstone bluffs of the Longleaf Vista Recreation Area, which lies on a ridge that provides excellent views of the 8,700-acre Kisatchie Hills Wilderness, surrounding the Vista on three sides. Also take advantage of the leisurely drive along the 17-mile Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway. And abundance of camping options—campground, group and RV camping—are available throughout the 604,000 acre forest.
“When you look at the forests explorers like de Soto and Lewis and Clark described, they talk about very open areas that were easy to walk through. What they saw were longleaf pines and blue stemmed grass that was very open and very beautiful. And that’s what foresters have recreated in Kisatchie.” -Jim Caldwell, Kisatchie National Forest Public Affairs Officer
De Soto National Forest, Mississippi
You can find longleaf in Mississippi’s “pineywoods” alongside native hardwoods throughout the gently rolling terrain. De Soto National Forest is located two hours northeast of New Orleans, and is home to over 518,000 acres of longleaf pine savannas, pine flatwoods and longleaf pine forests.
Black Creek, Mississippi’s only National Scenic River, runs through the De Soto and is the perfect location to canoe or kayak down the river bordered by the pines. Beneath the pines and plentiful hardwoods lies the perfect habitat for deer, turkey and quail, among others. Campgrounds that are sure to be scattered with the fallen needles from longleaf include Big Biloxi and the Long Leaf Horse Trail (daily rates required).
Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
In the heart of Texas, one can travel to Big Thicket National Preserve to witness first-hand the national efforts to conserve longleaf pine. Managers of Big Thicket use prescribed fire and the planting of longleaf pine seedlings on thousands of acres to keep the natural area thriving. Hiking trails and waterways meander through nine different ecosystems including the longleaf pine.
“Big Thicket is a place of discovery, a place to wander and explore, a place to marvel at the richness of nature.” – National Park Service
Popular preserve activities include hiking, bird watching, canoeing and hunting. While camping is allowed in Big Thicket, there are no designated campsites, so be prepared for the true primitive experience of making your own!
Ocala National Forest, Florida
Just north of Orlando, The Ocala National Forest is the southernmost forest in the continental United States. Ocala protects the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest (scrub contains a biological treasure chest of plants and animals adapted to life on scattered ridges of sand). This forest has more than 600 lakes, rivers, and springs—these magnificent springs provide visitors with the opportunity to swim, snorkel, and scuba dive in their crystalline waters. Explore the longleaf pine islands and scrub ridges for unusual plants.
Visitors can enjoy hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, mountain biking and OHV trials in Ocala National Forest. Ocala hosts multitudes of camping options including camp and primitive camping, rental cabins for large families and small groups, and RV camping.
“Immerse yourself in nature inside the Ocala National Forest. Visit in the early morning, as mists rise off the ponds and lakes, to hear a symphony of birds stirring to sunrise. Explore the longleaf pine islands and scrub ridges for unusual plants. Sit silently in your car along a back road to watch mama bear and cubs lumber across the sand. The Ocala is a landscape of living wonders.” –US Forest Service
Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina
One can discover a luscious landscape of longleaf pine forests, wildlife-filled swamps, and marshes shaded by bald cypress trees in the Francis Marion National Forest. This forest spans nearly 259,000 acres in the Carolina coastal plains, and is home to a variety of wildlife, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
A multitude of recreational opportunities exist in this natural area, including: hiking, biking, canoe trails, boat launches, and even a rifle range for the avid sportsman. This national forest is a convenient destination stop as it is situated between two popular cities, Myrtle Beach and historic Charleston. Camping is allowed in developed campgrounds and in designated primitive sites.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park is well-known as one America’s greatest treasures: it is the 3rd largest park in the U.S, covering 2,400 square miles, and is designated as a World Heritage Site. A wide array of recreational options await you throughout the park. Trails and heads are located near all the park entrances and campgrounds for hiking, biking, bird-watching and walking. You will also find ample canoe and kayak trails to carry you further into the park’s mangrove forests, saw-grass marshes and the open Florida Bay. You should definitely explore the Pineland Trails of the Long Pine Key Area during your visit; perhaps you will catch a glimpse of the elusive Florida Panther among the pines along the way!
The park offers fantastic camping opportunities in both the front country and backcountry. While camping is available year-round, individuals visiting during the wet season (June through November) should be aware of potentially strenuous and uncomfortable conditions, while the dry season (November to March) is the “busy season” due to the warm winters.
Conecuh National Forest, Alabama
Conecuh National Forest offers visitors scenic stretches of forests scattered with lakes full of bass, bream, catfish, and striped bass for the keen fisherman. This 450-acre site offers camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing and boating. The 20-mile Conecuh Trail provides hikers with views of Longleaf Pine alongside Holly, Dogwood, Magnolia, and Cypress trees (wintertime hiking is advised as the most enjoyable hiking time). Many native wildlife species can be found here, such as white-tailed deer, endangered gopher tortoises, carnivorous pitcher plants, and numerous species of frogs.
The forest has several designated recreation areas that offer any number of activities, from fishing to target shooting to camping. The newly renovated Open Pond Recreation Area is the largest recreation area in the Conecuh. Be sure to stop for a picnic overlooking the scenic Cypress ponds while you are here!
Pledge to camp this summer! For each camper who pledges, $1 will be donated to protect the great outdoors for all Americans, up to $100,000. You’ll also be entered to win the Ultimate Campout Prize Pack.
I personally enjoy pledging to camp each year and finding new areas to explore. If you find yourself under the stars and starburst of pine needles of the longleaf pine, be sure to take a photo and share on social media with the hashtag #campie or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. NWF would love to see and hear about your stories and experiences!
Consider campsite/visitation fees, reservations and seasonal restrictions vary from site to site–check for detailed information on each particular location before visiting.
Happy planning and camping!