Parks Along US-23
Welcome to ROADTRIP-'62 ™ , for a look today at nationally-owned or operated public lands along US-23. Hi again, my name is Don Milne and I’m your travel guide for this historical virtual tour. September 24th is National Public Lands Day, so this seemed like a good time to discover these lands. Many of these were here as far back as 1962, so we could have seen them then. Others have been created since, and we’ll take a peak at them too. We’ll look at the individual sites and some history of the various federal programs that created and maintain them. Though the holiday celebrates all public lands, local, state and national, I’m going to restrict this to just the nationally-owned and operated public lands, and keep the focus on parklands. Discussion of active forts, federal office buildings, and similar locations will not be included here. Let’s begin with a little review of what National Public Lands Day actually does, and then I’ll talk about National Parks.
National Public Lands Day is celebrated on September 24th, and is now in its 18th year. It began in 1994 with just three sites, and events now occur at 2,080 sites covering every state, the District of Columbia and many U.S. territories. Events are usually cleanup and fixup oriented, and are held at city and county parks, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and other green spaces. It’s estimated that more than 170,000 Americans will volunteer this year. Robb Hampton, program director for National Public Lands Day, a program of the National Environmental Education Foundation, notes, “Every year, Boy and Girl Scout troops from Massachusetts to Alaska play a major role in making NPLD a success – and this year is no exception. Students from public and private schools, 4-H groups and colleges, like the University of Illinois and Middle Tennessee State University, have also committed their time.” This is the nation’s largest one-day volunteer event supporting public lands and it’s estimated that volunteers’ efforts will equal more than $15 million in improvements. National Public Lands Day is also a fee-free day in many federally managed lands! So it’s a great day to visit many of the places I’ll mention if you want to sample the best of the outdoors. You can find a site with an activity near you at the event website. Or, just visit your favorite public lands site to celebrate.
So, let’s begin with a look at National Parks along US-23. There are six sites along US-23 administered by the National Park Service. The National Park System uses a sometimes confusing array of place designations for sites it administers. We pass by several of these types, which are explained by the National Park Service as:
- National Park - Generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized.
- National Monument - Landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the federal government.
- National Historic Site - Usually contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject.
- National Historic Park - Generally applies to historic parks that extend beyond single properties or buildings.
- National Memorial - A commemoration of a historic person or episode; it need not occupy a site historically connected with its subject.
- National Battlefield – Since 1958, this general title includes national battlefield, national battlefield park, national battlefield site, and national military park.
- Other Designations - Some units of the National Park System bear unique titles or combinations of titles, like the White House.
One odd bit of history, as our trip passes near what began as a National Park, but no longer is! In 1875 most of the federal land on the Mackinaw Island was designated as “Mackinac National Park.” This was America’s second national park, established just three years after Yellowstone. Perhaps because the park was cared for by soldiers from Fort Mackinac, when the fort closed in 1895 the park was transferred to the state of Michigan. Automobiles have been banned on the island since 1898.
The most northerly of the current National Park lands we visit is Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. We’ll find it 2 miles north of Chillicothe, Ohio, on Ohio-104. The park includes a group of ancient Native American burial mounds known as the Mound City Group. Mounds all around the Ohio River Valley were built by these people between 200 BC to AD 500. The mounds are earthen structures of various shapes, often built in geometric patterns. There are five separate units within Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, representing some of the finest examples of Hopewellian resources. The Mound City Group consists of 24 burial mounds framed by a large earthen enclosure shaped like a square with rounded corners. The site was declared a National Monument in 1923, so it was open during 1962. The park includes a visitor center with very good explanatory exhibits and a 17-minute film, a self-guided interpretive trail of the mounds, and another trail that circles the outer perimeter of these earthworks. Other trails to other nearby mound sites and parts of the park are under construction, so you will be able to wander all about this part of Ohio in the future.
The second National Park our journey along US-23 encounters is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Some people might not think of a trail as a National Park, but it is administered by the National Park Service and is largely on federal lands. We cross the trail, more commonly known as the Appalachian Trail or AT, at the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. At that point, US-23 crosses through Sams Gap. The Appalachian Trail is a hiking trail more than 2,175 miles long from Maine to Georgia. It was conceived in 1921 and first completed in 1937. We could have walked the whole trail or just this part back in 1962. It’s used for everything from short walks, to day hikes and long-distance backpacking journeys, and offers spectacular scenery along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. On its way, the AT passes through more than 75 different federal and state forests and other park lands. The new I-26 freeway crosses at the same point, here in Sam’s Gap, and there is a beautiful scenic turnout at the crest. It’s the first real view you get of the Blue Ridge and the last time I was there it was the quintessential smoky blue. As we come back down the mountain, we briefly cross into the Pisgah National Forest for such a short distance that I won’t discuss it here.
The third National Park along US-23 is another linear park, the Blue Ridge Parkway. At Balsam, North Carolina we cross Balsam Gap and the Blue Ridge Parkway does the same. The parkway is one of the most beautiful roads in the country, running mostly on the ridges of the highest mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Today it covers 469 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park, but in 1962 it was still under construction in this area. Maybe we could have watched some earthmoving. We could have seen a completed piece back at Asheville, North Carolina, as a section began 5 miles east of town. The parkway was begun in 1935 as a Depression-era public works project and took over a half-century to complete, with the final link of the Linn Cove Viaduct completed in September 1987. It’s construction techniques set the standards for parkway engineering and design for the rest of the country. In addition to the beauty of the roadway itself and the surrounding mountains, you can find historic sites, waterfall hikes, dining, camping and more along the route. At this point, we cross the parkway at 3316 feet above sea level, though it reaches above 6,000 feet not far from here.
Lying near the Atlanta, Georgia metropolis, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is the fourth site we visit in the National Park system. While US-23 never enters the park, it is within five miles for quite a long distance between Lake Sidney Lanier and Doraville, Georgia. This park has hiking, biking, horse riding, and lots of water recreation opportunities along 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River. The park begins at the bottom of the Buford Dam, near Buford, Georgia and continues down the rocky river right to the edge of Atlanta. The hiking trails pass large rock overhangs where prehistoric people would take shelter. The river includes quiet stretches and rapids for more adventure.
In 1962, we could not have visited any of the historic sites here that are now connected with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At that time, he and many others were still making history, working to end legal segregation policies across the country. These laws and the activities to end them were most concentrated in the southern states. Dr. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. After he grew up, he moved away when attending colleges and then became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was during that tenure he helped lead the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956, which resulted from the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. For 381 days, the Negroes (the term in common use in 1962) in Montgomery, who were a majority of the bus riders in the city, stayed off the busses to protest her arrest. During the next several years Dr. King worked on many protests and was also arrested many times in many different cities throughout the south, even between meetings with Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. His meeting with President Kennedy was on October 16, 1962 and he had served time for a conviction for leading a march in Albany, Georgia in February of that same year. Dr. King’s most famous speech was given at the March on Washington in 1963. He was named “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine that year, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and of course was tragically assassinated in 1968. Today you can see bits and pieces of his life at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site. This site is a collaboration between the National Park Service, Ebenezer Baptist Church and The King Center. The King Center was established in 1968, after Dr. King’s death. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Visitor Center wasn’t constructed until 1995. You can only visit the Birth Home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on a park ranger-led tour, which is strictly limited to 15 people per tour, so register early if you’re interested in the home.
Our final National Park is right in a town, in Macon, Georgia. The Ocmulgee National Monument displays monuments and artifacts of prehistoric human life in North America, similar to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park we saw back in Chillicothe, Ohio. But unlike Hopewell, Ocmulgee has been more impacted by recent human life. This is the only National Park property I’ve ever seen with an active railroad running right through the middle and an interstate freeway within the park property. The railroad was first built in 1843 and even had a locomotive roundhouse located near the Funeral Mound. Another line was added in 1874 destroying the mound. Additionally, in 1932, a large part of one mound was removed for use as fill dirt for Main Street. It was immediately following this that a group of local citizens decided the mounds were of historical significance and should be preserved. They sought assistance from the Smithsonian Institution, which sent staff to conduct archeological excavations. As that work progressed, Congress authorized Ocmulgee National Park and in 1936 the park was established as Ocmulgee National Monument. Even that didn’t stop further losses, as the freeway was constructed along the river in the late 1960s (we would not have seen it) destroying or damaging a number of important prehistoric and historic sites just outside the park. Finally, an entire village site outside the present park was destroyed in the 1970s for construction of the Bibb County Sheriff's Department firing range.
Nonetheless, evidence is here of over 12,000 years of human habitation, back to distinctive Ice Age "Clovis" spear points. Pottery from several ancient cultures is on display and other artifacts showing connections to the Adena/Hopewell Cultures we previously saw. Of course the most stunning artifacts are the remains of stone effigy mounds and earthen burial and temple mounds of the Woodland, Lamar and other cultures of the area. You can walk several trails in the park’s 702 acres and see remains of mounds and interpretive signs at village sites and more. In the Art Moderne style visitor center, some of the artifacts unearthed over the years are on display along with information on the cultures that produced them. At least we can enjoy what’s left while thinking a bit about how little we valued these ancient sites in earlier years. And in case you’re wondering what is the difference between a National Park and a National Monument, the National Park Service says, "A national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource, whereas a national park is usually larger and preserves a variety of nationally significant resources."
There is also a trail we cross that is administered by the National Park Service, though very little of the trail is on federally-owned land. That's the North Country National Scenic Trail. This trail follows the route of Ohio’s Buckeye Trail for over 800 miles and that’s where US-23 crosses it. This route traverses eastern, southern, and western Ohio, generally on public roadways. We meet the trail as it leaves Scioto Trail State Forest, where it travels along the shoulder of US-23 from Woods Hollow Rd. to leave on a foot trail less than a mile south. You may think of hiking trails in forests and you would generally be correct, but the North Country Trail also wanders through farm country in several states, as wooded areas are not continuous enough for such a trail. This trail is over 4600 miles long and passes through seven states, with a variety of terrain. In some states, the trail is mostly a foot trail through national forests, state forests, and other public lands. Much of this trail is alongside public roads though, and this is particularly true in Ohio. Because Ohio is densely populated and farmed in the western part of the state, the North Country Trail even has to pass through a major metropolitan area from Cincinnati to Dayton. This is largest urban area the trail passes through. Our second roadtrip, along US-6, crosses this trail twice, near Kane, Pennsylvania and Napolean, Indiana. Congress passed legislation authorizing the North Country National Scenic Trail in 1980, though planning work had began even before the National Trails System Act of 1968. However, none of this trail was open for us to use back in 1962. Unlike most other lands of the National Park Service, this trail is built and maintained primarily by volunteers coordinated by the North Country Trail Association.
Another type of federal public lands we encounter several of on US-23 are National Forests. These lands are administered by the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. The Forest Service was established in 1905 to manage public lands in national forests and grasslands. Some National Forest lands were set aside from federal holdings, others were purchased from cut-over wastelands left from 19th century logging, and others were transferred from state ownership. These lands now encompass 193 million acres of land, which is an area equivalent to the size of Texas! There are currently 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as other special areas in the system. We’ll pass through six of these forests on US-23, with one in every state except Ohio and Florida.
The Huron-Manistee National Forest is the farthest north on our route. We first enter this forest in a small tract near Black River, Michigan and then travel through it between Oscoda and East Tawas. For the adventuresome who want to leave US-23, the Michigan Shore-to-Shore Trail begins at Oscoda, and runs west 220 miles across the state to Lake Michigan. Much of the trail is through the Huron-Manistee National Forest. It's the longest continuous trail in the Lower Peninsula. It’s a combined hiking and horse trail and was first laid out in the early 1960’s, so we could have hiked it in 1962. The trail was completed the next year, with the first ride of the Michigan Trail Riders Association occurring in 1963. Another good bet for hiking is the Eagle Run trails of the National Forest, located at a new visitor center about 2½ miles west of Oscoda. The Eagle Run trails afford great views of the Au Sable River valley, but the visitor center is newer and the trail system may be too. Fishing on the Au Sable River is another popular activity here. Seasons run from January through September. Careful wading is a must as the river is noted as dangerous by some standards, and some anglers recommend a boat. Trout varieties caught in good numbers every year include brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout. Or, if you’d rather try some other fish, the walleye fishing is good in May and salmon fishing is also possible both on the river and out in Lake Huron. Below the Foote Dam right into Lake Huron is also a quality steelhead fishery. Charters are available in Oscoda, and I’m sure you could have hired a guide back in 1962 also. And don’t forget canoeing the Au Sable! This is one of the most popular canoe rivers in Michigan, with the water divided between free-flowing and dam backwaters.
We next come to the Jefferson National Forest, near the border of Kentucky and Virginia. Most of this forest is in Virginia. Jefferson National Forest was created in 1936 to preserve and repair the forests of the mountains of western Virginia. As was typical of the times, they had been logged off haphazardly, had lost most of their wildlife, and were eroding badly. Through the use of sound forest practices, both the trees and wildlife have largely returned and natural resources are again being harvested, though large-scale lumbering is not yet an option for this area. It was combined in 1995 with the George Washington National Forest, for administration. Jefferson National Forest also provides recreational opportunities and scenic views. In this area though, there were no hiking trails, waterfalls, camping or other recreational facilities in 1962. The North Fork of Pound Lake recreational area wasn’t completed until 1966 by the US Army Corps of Engineers. There is a now short trail to Hopkins Branch and a boat launch for fishing for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, bluegills, black and white crappie, channel and flathead catfish and carp. But all we had were mountain views four years earlier. At Norton, Virginia you can find several places to get spectacular views of these mountains and forests. In June when rhododendrons bloom they cover the Powell River Valley with color! Visit Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, and High Knob Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest, both south of town on the same road. Flag Rock towers above Norton and has, appropriately, a U.S. flag planted at the top. High Knob is the highest point on our journey so far, at an elevation of 4,162 feet. We’ll get even higher farther south. There is an observation tower, originally a fire lookout tower built in the 1930s, where you can see several states from one panoramic point of view. It’s barely 5 miles from US-23, up a very twisty mountain road so we’ll drive slowly. There are also 15 wilderness areas in the forest, for those of you who really like to get away.
There are so many national parks, forests and more along US-23 that this essay has become longer than I like to post all at once, so I’ll continue the discussion in two weeks. In the meantime, celebrate National Public Lands Day by visiting the park or other public lands of your choice! Next week, Roadtrip-'62 ™ goes back on the road, where we’ll be visiting some national public lands.
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.