Winter Wandering

The South
By Eileen Gunn

Don't get snowed in. Take off for the southern section of the country and find nice weather and plenty to do, from wildlife watching to hiking to biking, and much more.

The Everglades Wilderness, nearly a million and a half acres of grassy wetlands, is chock full of things to do, as this shallow, 50-mile wide river makes its leisurely way to Florida Bay. The operative word is "leisurely," and this may just be the laziest wilderness river you'll ever experience. Paddling a canoe puts you right in the water with the local flora and fauna, and is the best way to experience the ecosystem's sawgrass prairies and mangrove swamps. Campgrounds in the Everglades are open year-round, and the National Park Service has constructed chickees, elevated camping platforms, for canoeists on the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. Biking is permitted on the main park roads and on some trails of the Everglades Wilderness, but the Shark Valley Tram road provides the peak biking experience, especially during the mild winter months, when the temperatures stay mostly in the 70-80 degree F range. Experienced cyclists can bike on down to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo via our Glades to Keys Bicycle Tour. If you crave the adrenaline rush of saltwater gamefishing, you'll head farther on down to the Keys. Winter is the peak season for sailfish in the deep water off the Keys, and you can get there by charter boat from Islamorada and Key West.

A drift of sandy islands south of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana, the Gulf Islands extend for 150 miles parallel to the mainland, and are among the last undeveloped barrier islands on either the Atlantic or the Gulf coast. Wilderness camping is allowed any time of the year anywhere on East Ship Island and on the designated wilderness islands, Horn and Petit Bois. In winter, northerly winds make warm, wind-resistant clothing a necessity, but the summer crowds (and the pesky summer insects) are gone. Fourteen-mile-long Horn Island offers the best hiking, through varied terrain that includes tidal marshes and pine forests, and it provides an important nesting area for ospreys, skimmers, terns, and snowy plovers, and a wintering area for rafts of other waterfowl. The Gulf Islands National Seashore includes some more sheltered areas on the mainland and a number of historic forts, such as Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island and Fort Barrancas at the entrance to Pensacola Bay, for entertaining sidetrips.

Winter is a rewarding time to look for alligators while paddling the quiet bayous of Louisiana's Batararia Preserve, in the diverse Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. Alligators also find this a rewarding time—migratory ducks and other waterfowl are plentiful. Nine miles of these history-laden waterways are off limits to motorized boats—you'll see baldcypress and water tupelo, great blue herons and egrets, and prehistoric Native American shell middens and bayou wildlife of all kinds.

Texas can get pretty cold in its northernmost reaches, but camping, hiking, and fishing are year-round activities in Padre Island National Seashore, another Gulf barrier island. Hot and humid in the summer, it's much more temperate in winter. (Don't plan on swimming, but bring your suit, just in case.) This is one of the most biologically diverse of all the islands in the Gulf of Mexico, a good spot for viewing dolphins, rare sea turtles, and other marine wildlife. With 350 native bird species, the island also provides a winter home to sandhill cranes, and you may even see birds more commonly associated with Mexico, such as the green jay and the great kiskadee. You'll find abundant fishing: surf fishing for marlin and tarpon, fly and lure fishing, even fishing from sea kayak in the salty Lagune Madre. Winter days also mean considerably less beachcombing competition—look for shells and other treasures at low tide and after storms.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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