By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Emily Vanderford is like many Alabamians. She had only a limited knowledge of the Alabama State Parks System, so she decided to do something about it.

Fortunately for Emily, her occupation afforded a perfect opportunity to explore Alabama State Parks. She is the system’s traveling Park Naturalist.

“I grew up in Alabama, but there are a lot of parks that I didn’t know existed,” Vanderford said. “There are a lot of places in our state that people don’t realize exist for the sake of recreation. As I’ve been in the parks, I’ve met people who say, ‘I never knew this place was here.’”

That gave Vanderford an idea of how she could “bring light” on the diversity in the Alabama State Parks System and the many recreational opportunities available.

That idea turned into the Eighth Day Escape adventure series and contest by Parks Explorer. When her regular work schedule allows, Vanderford is traveling to a variety of Alabama State Parks to detail the scenic vistas, relaxing atmospheres and the recreational opportunities, some that are jam-packed with adrenaline-fueled rushes.

Through Parks Explorer, Vanderford will share trip ideas, staff stories and activity suggestions from each Alabama State Park.

“I think it’s intimidating for some people to decide what to do if they visit an Alabama State Park,” she said. “So this series will provide tangible examples of what you can do. Earlier this year, I went to Meaher State Park (on the Causeway at Spanish Fort, Ala.), and I wrote about how people can visit 5 Rivers (Alabama’s Delta Resource Center) and walk the trails and visit the resource center. I wrote about the new cabins there. I talked about going to the favorite fishing spot. Then at Guntersville, I talked about visiting Buck’s Pocket for a day trip or going to Cathedral Caverns.”

Next up was Lakepoint Resort State Park on the banks of Lake Eufaula, a reservoir on the Chattahoochee River. Vanderford included in her visit to Lakepoint a day trip to adjacent Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.

I can attest to the great fishing on Lake Eufaula for bass, bream, crappie and catfish. Last fall, Lakepoint hosted the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA), a diverse group of outdoors communicators, for its annual conference. Every fellow SEOPA member

I talked to raved about the accommodations and recreational opportunities at Lakepoint as well as the red carpet rolled out by the City of Eufaula.

“I’m trying to give clear examples of what people can do in the parks in hopes they will go to places they have not been,” Vanderford said. “I think about so many families that could benefit from what the parks have to offer.”

Vanderford, who said she was blessed to be raised in a family that enjoyed and appreciated the outdoors in west Alabama near Coker, is currently at Cheaha State Park on top of the highest mountain in Alabama. She will highlight the hiking trails and unique scenery from the mountaintop.

She plans to head to DeSoto State Park for the April post on Parks Explorer.

“The trip to DeSoto is really going to be an adventure,” Vanderford said. “I’m going rappelling, and I’ll highlight the hiking trails. Wildflowers Weekend is coming up at the end of April, so I’m sure we’ll highlight some of the wildflowers.”

Other destinations on Vanderford’s schedule include Joe Wheeler State Park, Rickwood Caverns, Oak Mountain, Wind Creek, Chewacla, Lake Lurleen, Gulf State Park, Blue Springs, Frank Jackson and Monte Sano.

The contest portion of the Eighth Day Escapes adventure series will include monthly giveaways to show appreciation to park customers. A Grand Prize drawing will be held at the end of the year from all contest entries throughout the year-long event.

Entering the contest is as simple as visiting any Alabama State Park and submitting a contest entry form with a photo. Include a brief recap of your adventure at the park. The Parks Explorer column on www.alapark.com/explorer will announce the monthly winner. The entry form is available at www.alapark.com/sites/alapark.com/files/EighthDayEscapeContestEntryForm.pdf and must be accompanied by at least one photo to be eligible for monthly prizes and the grand prize at the end of the contest. Entry forms and photos may be submitted within 30 days of trip by email, social media or U.S. Postal Service mail.

Those who wish to enter the contest via email should send entry form along with digital photos (up to 5 MB) to Parks.Explorer@dcnr.alabama.gov. Contestants also may enter by posting their photos to the State Parks Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ALStateParks/, tweet photos to @ALStateParks, or post to Instagram, tagging @alstateparks. Indicate where the image was taken and use hashtag #EighthDayEscape for all social media entries. An emailed entry form must accompany all social media photos in order for participant to be eligible. For USPS mail, send the entry form and printed photos to Eighth Day Escape Contest, Oak Mountain State Park, 200 Terrace Drive, Pelham, AL 35124.

All winners will be selected by random drawing so only basic photography skills are required. Monthly prize packages will highlight the area explored by Vanderford. The prize packages could include everything from overnight accommodations at a park to dining vouchers or adventure packages.

A grand prize winner will be selected from all the entries received from January 8, 2016, to January 7, 2017.

“The project has been very rewarding and will be for the participants also,” Vanderford said. “We know the grand prize will include a $300 State Parks gift card, and we are very excited about some of the other contents for the prize packages.”

Vanderford said participation in the Eighth Day Escapes has been a little inconsistent, but she hopes that will change soon.

“I think a lot of people are just finding out about the contest,” she said. “I think as people are getting out for spring break, we’ll start to see more people enter. I’m starting to see more Facebook traction.

“And I want to make sure people aren’t confused about the contest. They may think they have to enter something from the park that is posted on Parks Explorer that month. That’s not true. If they go to any Alabama State Park, they can enter.”

In other Alabama State Parks news, Buck’s Pocket will continue to operate as a day-use area only. Work will begin later this year to develop off-highway vehicle trails and trail head facilities to enhance the park’s offerings. Rickwood Caverns will reopen April 1 except for the swimming pool, which will reopen later. Both motels and restaurants at Cheaha and DeSoto resumed operations seven days a week on March 1.

PHOTOS: Park visitor Bill Lawrence captured this mirror image at one of the lakes at Oak Mountain State Park. Susan Allison Lee snapped a close-up of an inquisitive whitetail doe at Lake Guntersville State Park. Emily Vanderford shot the beautiful vista from one of the overlooks at Buck’s Pocket State Park.

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