Three Must-Visit National Parks Near Charlotte

It's easy to visit at least one national park during the National Park Service Centennial
Cades Cove at sunset. Located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In August this year our National Park Service will observe its 100th anniversary, and Park officials are bracing for record crowds during summer monthsWe are fortunate as Charlotteans to be close to three national parks: Congaree, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah.

Each of  these parks offers a different experience, and all are perfect for a long weekend—or longer—outdoors.

The remedy for "nature deprivation"

If you have trouble pulling your kids' digital devices out of their hands, that's a sure sign they need some time in nature. Don't worry, there's always something to see and do—let Mother Nature dish up the day's entertainment. 

According to researcher and author Richard Louve, "The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need."

Here's a preview of these three parks in my interview with "Good Day Charlotte."

1. Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park just southeast of Columbia, SC, is the closest to Charlotte, not quite two hours away. It's the most recent park to gain that designation.

Congaree NP is the largest tract of  bottom land flood plain forest in the Southeast, and the trees are the stars of this park. It's even been called, "Redwoods of the East," and boasts the tallest known specimens of 15 species.

There are five backwood trails and a 2.5 mile boardwalk through the old growth forest, which means that even during high water you'll have a way to step out into nature without getting your feet wet.

The visitor center is a great place to get acquainted with the flora and fauna. Speaking of which, Congaree is home to more than 1200 species of moths, and nearly 200 species of birds make their home there or migrate through.  

Plan to take a canoe through the park out to the Congaree River. 

If you visit during mosquito season, be prepared with repellant. 

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Click to see my full interview on "Good Day Charlotte"Over 10 million visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) each year, making it the most-visited national park in the system.

You can reach the eastern border in Cherokee, North Carolina in just about three hours' drive. It's located at the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and encloses 520,000 acres, which equates to over 800 square miles! 

Establishing most of the older parks located in the western United States, such as Yellowstone, was fairly easy. Congress merely carved them out of lands already owned by the government—often places where no one wanted to live anyway. But getting park land for GSMNP was a different story.

The land that became Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers and a handful of large timber and paper companies. That's why GSMNP holds one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States—left behind by the former residents of the area. The Park Service beautifully preserves the histories of the 90+ historic structures—houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills.

Be sure to stop and explore them with the kids, and talk about what life was like for people who lived in these remote areas without modern conveniences. Maybe discuss what would have made life better for those ancestors than the world we live in today. 

If you wait for leaf season, you might be stuck in traffic through Cades Cove (pictured at the top of this post) for the entire day. Do yourself a favor and go in spring or early summer.

3. Shenandoah National Park 

Shenandoah National Park is located at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, not far from Charlottesville, Virginia. It will take about 4.5 hours to get there from Charlotte. 

Shenandoah has one of the largest concentrations of black bears in the US.They rarely hibernate in winter, but they cut their metabolic rate in half and sleep a lot. As I said in the video earlier, be sure not to feed or interact with the bears. 

Bobcats also to be found there, as well as fabulous waterfalls. Be sure to hike around!

Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive is a gateway to unspoiled nature. With a strictly-enforced 35 m.p.h speed limit, Skyline Drive offers 75 scenic overlooks as it runs through the park for 105 miles along the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

If you want to add some adventure, you can take a horseback trail ride of the park. Starting in May you can take guided Twilight hikes far above the light pollution and really see the evening stars. 

If you've visited one or all of these parks, please share your experience and recommendations in the comments.