Bonnie and I enjoy taking trips over most breaks, with Christmas being no exception. Last year (2015), we spent the entire two-week break driving through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. This year (2016), we decided to stay closer to home and visit the Southern Alabama National Parks and Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola.
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We started off our trip heading to Anniston, AL, where we spent a rainy Sunday night before starting our trip in earnest. We snagged a room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Oxford/Anniston for 10,000 points, which translates to $50 based on a valuation of .005 cents per point. Deals like this are great. Ultimately, the hotel was clean and very comfortable, exactly what you would expect from a Hilton Garden Inn.
Anniston has made an effort to revitalize its downtown area with shops and restaurants. We enjoy that sort of reinvestment in the heart of a city, which is evident by the fact that we live in a vibrant downtown area in Woodstock, GA.
We grabbed dinner and a couple of drinks at the Cheaha Brewing Company. The food was hearty, tasty and the beer was outstanding!
In addition, Anniston is home to the world’s largest office chair, which serves as an advertisement for a local business.
Horseshoe Bend National Military Park
Our first stop on the drive south was Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. I will be honest… I am a bit of a US military history buff, but I had never heard of this Alabama national parks site or of Horseshoe Bend, not even in passing.
The battle occurred March 27, 1814, and was the final battle in the Creek Indian War. The Creek Indian War does not get a lot of play in US history books because it was primarily a civil war among the Creek Nation, but also because it was considered part of the War of 1812 by proxy.
Essentially, 1,000 Red Stick Creeks holed up on a peninsula in the horseshoe bend of the Tallapoosa River, using the river and a barricade across the narrowest part of the peninsula as fortifications. About 3,300 troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson attacked and killed around 800 of the 1,000 Red Stick warriors. Jackson’s troops lost fewer than 50 men, with another 150 or so wounded.
The battle ended the Creek Indian War, forcing the Creek nation to cede much of its land to the US and Jackson used the battle as a spring-board to capture Pensacola and then on to the Battle of New Orleans. The victories granted national fame to Jackson, who ran for president in 1828.
Visiting Horseshoe Bend
The park preserves much of the battlefield, but there is not a ton to see. After a brief stop at the visitor center to learn more about the battle, we drove the tour road, getting out at the stops. Other than a monument and cannon on one of the knolls, there is little else there. While the park does have a nature trail, we simply did not have time to hike it.
In all, while there was not much there, we did learn about something we had no idea about. While not a big chapter in American history, it still laid the groundwork for Jackson to become president. Learning about parts of our country we had no idea about is one of the main reasons we embarked on this goal of seeing every National Parks site.
Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site
From Horseshoe Bend NMP, we continued south to the town of Tuskegee. Tuskegee is home to both the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, both items of significance in US history and the Civil Rights movement.
The Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, is a private, historically black university and is the only historically black campus designated a national historic site. It was founded by Booker T. Washington and was home to the famous scientist George Washington Carver.
I would love to be able to tell you more. I truly would. Unfortunately, the George Washington Carver Museum, which serves as the major visitor component of the site is closed indefinitely and “The Oaks,’ Booker T. Washington’s home, was closed the day we went.
With the addition of three more Alabama national parks sites dedicated to the Civil Rights movement, perhaps we will be able to make our way to Tuskegee again to see and learn more.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Located on the outskirts of Tuskegee on Morton Field, the Tuskegee Airmen NHS looks like there is not much there, but looks are deceiving. Inside the World War II-era hangars are a plethora of great exhibits on what it was like to be a Tuskegee Airman.
For those who do not know, the Tuskegee Airmen were part of the Tuskegee Experiment, a project designed to train black men to fly and maintain combat aircraft during WWII. The experiment was a success, with the Tuskegee units becoming some of the most highly respected squadrons in the Army Air Forces.
These pioneers faced significant discrimination while in the military, but their service led to the desegregation of the military in 1948.
We spent a couple of hours touring the site, checking out the various films and looking at the preserved aircraft. While the exterior could use a little better welcome signage, this was a well-done historic site and worth the trip.
Driving through this portion of Alabama is interesting and we passed through some colorful small towns well off the beaten path.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Gulf Islands National Seashore preserves barrier islands in both Mississippi and Florida. The Florida portion is located in the Pensacola area and preserves not only some amazing pristine beaches but also coastal fortifications dating back to when Florida was a Spanish colony.
After a stay at the Hampton Inn in Ozark, AL (another 10,000 point stay!), we headed toward Pensacola Naval Air Station, the location of Fort Barrancas, our first stop.
Fort Barrancas dates back to Spanish Florida and the water battery originally built by the Spanish remains as part of the fortifications. The pre-Civil War fort also had a redoubt, a secondary fortification built to protect from land attack.
We took a ranger-led tour of the redoubt, which we were grateful for considering the ranger had recently been bitten by a bat. In fact, it was on this same tour the ranger was bitten and he was still getting rabies shots in his finger (the bite site).
The fortifications were similar to the other coastal forts we have visited. That said, we find each one has a story to tell.
One thing to note about visiting Fort Barrancas: it is located on NAS Pensacola, an active US Navy air station. You should expect to pass through security measures. The base is home to the Blue Angels and the National Naval Aviation Museum. If you plan your trip well, you can see the Blue Angels rehearse, which is something you shouldn’t miss! We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to a rehearsal in 2009.
Naval Live Oaks
We headed across Pensacola Bay to the Naval Live Oaks unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore near Gulf Breeze. This area preserves the first tree farm in the US. The government set aside the area for growing live oak trees to use in the construction of wooden ships of war. Live oak wood is significantly more dense than white oak. The use of live oak in the construction of the USS Constitution led to the ship’s nickname “Old Ironsides.”
The area has a nice, calm coastline on Santa Rosa Sound. There is a great trail through the live oak forest and an extensive and informative visitor center.
It was getting late in the day, so we headed to our hotel for the night, the Hilton Pensacola Beach. The complimentary upgrade to a Gulf-view room (Diamond status, woo hoo!) pleasantly surprised us. The view from the balcony was great and worth every penny of the $99 for the night.
Fort Pickens and Santa Rosa
The sun finally came out the next day. We had bright blue skies for our visit to Fort Pickens. Fort Pickens, like Fort Barrancas, is a pre-Civil War coastal defense fort. The US Army used the fort all the way through World War II.
You can find the fort at the west end of Santa Rosa Island. The campground at that unit of the park really impressed us… We are going to have to come back with our camper.
The amazing thing at both Fort Pickens and Santa Rosa is the sand. It is powder white and gorgeous.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Gulf Islands NS. It had a lot more variety than expected. We are looking forward to visiting the Mississippi unit, which promises a more primitive experience.
Tallahassee and St. George Island
We headed east to Tallahassee to spend Christmas with Bonnie’s parents. We took a brief trip out to St. George Island to see the lighthouse and state park.
Like Pensacola, the beaches at St. George Island are gorgeous powder white sand and just beg for sunbathers. It was a bit cool for that, but there were still a few sun worshippers out.
It was good to spend time with family. We are already looking forward to next Christmas. Right now, we are planning on heading to see some of the park sites in the Mid-Atlantic states. We especially want to visit those where taking the camper would be difficult due to traffic.
Looking for more on Alabama National Parks? Check out this post on our visits to the northern sites of Little River Canyon and Russell Cave. You can also check out these two southwest Georgia National Parks sites as well.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.