A Man of Many Parks

Conor Knighton plans to touch down in all 59 National Parks this year, and has already scratched the following five Southern offerings from his list

Photo: Mikael Kennedy

Big Bend.

Conor Knighton has an enviable job. In honor of the National Park Service’s centennial this August, the Charleston, West Virginia, native and CBS Sunday Morning correspondent is spending the year traveling the country, telling the stories of America’s National Parks. He plans to touch down in all 59 National Parks this year, and has already scratched the following five Southern offerings from his list. We asked Knighton to describe each in one word, and to recommend one thing to do or see when you visit.

Biscayne National Park, Florida 

In one word: Surprising
“Because so much of the park is underwater, you really can’t get a sense of what’s there until you dive in. If you experience the park from a picnic bench, it’s alright, but you have to get wet to see what this park offers up.”

Must-see: Underwater shipwrecks
“The park’s 95 percent water, so that’s what you’re coming for. There’s an underwater world here to be explored. Diving from shipwreck to shipwreck and seeing the bones of these old ships is flooring, all while surrounded by tons of aquatic life. A lot of times when you talk about wildlife in parks, you talk about the bison or elk in Yellowstone, but the lobsters and wildly colorful fish of Biscayne are every bit as impressive. You’re also not surrounded by a bunch of tourists underwater.”

Big Bend National Park, Texas 

In one word: Remote
“Because it is so out there, and it is so big, you’ll find that you can’t go there accidentally. It’s for people who want that remote, natural, out-of-the-way experience.”

Must-see: Boquillas, México
“You can wade across this part of the Rio Grande into Mexico on foot or a tiny boat to a border checkpoint and into this little town. Maybe 40 people a day, tops, go back and forth here, and it’s a really low-key, low-stress way to experience another country. Just don’t go expecting a Holiday Inn experience.”

Everglades National Park, Florida 

In one word: Diverse
“It’s got an incredible array of species of plants and animals, and it’s a massive park, so it’s high on my list. The place just draws you in in a way that’s hard to describe.”

Must-do: Take a trail deep into the glades
“The second you get two or three hundred feet from a road, you really get the feeling of the park—its real habitat. Keep your eye out for the park’s wildlife of course, there’s certainly crocodiles and alligators in the area.”

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas 

In one word: Urban
“It’s in a city. That’s obviously not the norm for a National Park. It’s important to remember that the National Parks are designed to protect scenery, but also the human story and history of these places. So you’re not going to Hot Springs necessarily for the gorgeous vistas; you’re going to see these buildings that protect the hot spring waters under them.”

Must-do: Take a bath
“An obvious choice for this one. I woke up at seven in the morning and started my day with a bath in the Buckstaff Bathhouse, a place that’s been in operation for over one hundred years. And while it’s not quite a spa experience, it’s an interesting way to get up close and personal with history.”

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky 

In one word: Mammoth
“What’s crazy is that we don’t know how big it is. It’s that big, and we’re still discovering more of it. If you add up the second and third longest caves in the world they’re still not as long as Mammoth is. If you’ve never been in a cave, why not start in the world’s longest?”

Must-see: 1800s graffiti
“There’s two types of history here: human and geological. It’s taken millions and millions of years to build the formations on the cave’s walls. On the other hand, people who first went in the cave would burn their names into the cave’s walls with candles and torches. It makes you think about time, more than anything.”

Segments of Knighton’s “On the Trail” run during on CBS Sunday Morning. You can view past segments on his website and keep up with him on Instagram and Twitter.