Access national parks with pass

Vicksburg National Cemetery is the burial site of 17,000 Union soldiers. CONTRIBUTED BY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Vicksburg National Cemetery is the burial site of 17,000 Union soldiers. CONTRIBUTED BY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Park service will soon raise the price of its Senior Pass.

I remember my first good look at Fort Pulaski, sitting stout and battered just outside Savannah proper on Cockspur Island near the mouth of the Savannah River. The moat; the fort’s thick brick ramparts showing the kind of pock-marked structural damage you’d expect from taking heavy Union cannon fire; the home team’s black cannons pointed outward toward ghostly Union troops from atop the high, broad parapets; the large expanse of grassy lawn inside giving way at the edges to the numerous batteries and low-built rooms. It was all fascinating to me, and I’m not even a Civil War buff.

I had a grand time last summer when I visited Fort Pulaski National Monument and it was at a very reasonable $14 in fees for me and my companion. Still, it would have been even better had I been eligible for the National Park Service’s Senior pass, which costs $10 and gets you lifetime free admission – often by the carload – at National Parks and most of the various military parks, monuments, memorials, seashores and other varieties of sites overseen by the National Park Service. These free passes last for as long as you do.

Don’t have yours yet? Well, if you’re 62 or older and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident you might want to consider getting one soon. The $10 senior passes will jump to $80. The effective date of the price change is unclear.

You can purchase the lifetime Senior Passes around Atlanta at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area office (1978 Island Ford Parkway, Sandy Springs). You can also purchase the passes at most, but not all, NPS sites.

The Senior Passes, along with other kinds of passes, are available but currently are taking up to six weeks to process. You can check to get the latest info on the various passes available for NPS sites.

Consider using your pass at these parks in the Southeast:

Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg National Military Park (3201 Clay St., Vicksburg, Mississippi. 601-636-0583, is one of those Civil War battleground sites, like Gettysburg and Antietam, that is simply so beautiful, so poignantly evocative that even visitors who aren't particularly interested in the history are moved by the haunting beauty of the landscape. There are a stunning 1,400-plus monuments, tablets, and markers, including about 145 cannons, on the sprawling 1,800-acre landscape. This park is truly impressive.

Summer is a great time to visit. Granted, it’s a time when lots of other folks are visiting the park but it’s also time for the Summer 2017 Living History Program, when reenactors put on their period uniforms and portray the day-to-day life of a typical Civil War soldier of the time. Program weekends include July 1-4, July 22-23 and August 5-6.

Start at the Visitor’s Center to get your bearings with a 20-minute orientation film and perhaps to arrange a tour. While you’re there, check out the interesting exhibits – among them representations of a Union officer’s tent, a hospital room and a fascinating take on the “cave life” of the many Vicksburg residents who sought shelter from the fray underground.

Don’t miss these highlights:

State memorials: There are memorials from all states involved in the conflict. I'd like to say that Georgia's is the most impressive, but it doesn't strike me that way. If you've seen the one at Kennesaw – or Gettysburg or Antietam, for that matter – then you've seen this one. It's identical. Be sure to check out the impressive Illinois State Memorial, modeled after the Roman Pantheon; the Missouri State Memorial with its winged bronze figure representing "The Spirit of the Republic;" The Mississippi State Memorial rising 76 feet up with a bronze representation of Clio, the muse of history, at its front.

The Shirley House: The home of James and Adeline Shirley was the only structure that survived the destructive clash at Vicksburg. Today, it sits pretty as a picture next to the "Panthenonic" Illinois State Memorial. Tours of the house are rarely offered, however.

USS Cairo: The torpedoed ironclad river gunboat spent a century on the bottom of the Yazoo River, but was raised in 1964, cleaned up, restored and put on display at Vicksburg. The gunboat has armor plating, 13 guns and a paddlewheel.

Vicksburg National Cemetery: The cemetery, established in 1866, is the burial site of 17,000 Union Soldiers, more than at any other national cemetery. About 5,000 Confederates were laid to rest in a special section of Vicksburg City Cemetery (Cedar Hill Cemetery).

Castillo de San Marcos

Visit Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (1 S Castillo Drive, St Augustine, Florida. 904-829-6506, at the right time on the right day and you just might think you've entered a time warp taking you back to a colonial-era war. The National Park Service's historic fortification, just over five hours by car from Atlanta, has vivid thrice-weekly, five-times-a-day demonstrations of historic weaponry, including cannons. Reenactors in period costume demonstrate the weapons and describe the life of a colonial Spanish soldier.

Spain built the fortification to protect its 17th century Florida colony and the Atlantic trade route. Made from coquina stone, an amalgamation consisting primarily of clam shells and burnt oyster shells mixed with sand and water, the Spanish began building Castillo de San Marcos in 1672. It is the oldest masonry fortification in the continental U.S. and withstood several attacks by British forces.

In addition to the visitor-favorite weaponry demonstrations, the national monument holds other special events throughout the year.

Canaveral National Seashore

The place name “Canaveral” is sure to bring to the minds of the 62-and-over crowd images of rockets blasting off toward space. And there continue to be rocket launches from the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and from nearby Kennedy Space Center.

While that’s an exciting prospect that you might want to wrap into a multiple-day visit, the launches can cause a shutdown of Canaveral National Seashore parking lots so be sure to check that out at the Seashore’s NPS website.

Canaveral National Seashore (212 S Washington Ave., Titusville, Florida. 321-267-1110, offers an opportunity to chill out and enjoy the peaceful sun-kissed splendor of its 24 miles of undeveloped beaches. The beaches have restrooms and boardwalk access but no food or drinking water, though the northernmost of them – Apollo Beach – does have drinking water at its information center.

There are many short beach trails here, including three in the Apollo District. Turtle Mound has an ocean view, Castle Windy curls through a dense stand of coastal trees, and Eldora Hammock leads to the restored Eldora State House and a fishing dock at the end of the road.

The Apollo District has a couple of boat ramps and spots to launch kayaks and canoes. Keep your eyes and ears open because Canaveral and Merritt Island both are home to lots of animals, many of them endangered, including three different types of sea turtles that nest on these beaches. And overhead you just might see a soaring bald eagle or arctic peregrine falcon.

Canaveral National Seashore’s nearby sister site Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is immediately adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center and is also great for animal watching. The refuge has an agreeable visitor information center with exhibits, film, refreshments and restrooms. Pop in before heading out on the island’s 7-mile one-way Black Point Wildlife Drive that cuts through pine flatwoods and marshy territory and is home to everything from gators and snakes to otters and bobcats and all manner of birds. There’s even a manatee observation deck, though autumn and winter are the best times to get a view of the comical looking coastal waterway dwellers.

A National Park Service Senior Pass gets you onto Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Black Point Wildlife Drive for free.

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