ECOTOURISM: Vacationing on the Coast is a natural thing

BILOXI.COMSeptember 30, 2008 

Vacations become memorable when tourists interact with the environment and have a chance to learn something instead of just being entertained.

Whether one is the outdoors type who loves to hike through marsh and woodlands or someone who prefers to view nature from air-conditioned comfort, the Coast has many adventures to offer. Boat tours and island visits, swamp explorations, quiet walking trails and many opportunities for bird watching await the tourist who wants to learn about and explore the Coast ecosystem.

Ecotourism (or nature tours) are becoming a major draw for tourists, especially those who want active vacations and those who want to learn more about how they can help the environment. The Mississippi Coast is an ideal spot for nature tourism with numerous waterways and warm weather that makes canoeing, kayaking, camping, hiking, biking and fishing available year round.

One of the newest attractions is the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D., center director, is a vocal proponent of nature tourism. LaSalle says people who visit for gaming or the beaches may also be attracted to nature experiences at parks or visitor centers.

"While a nature tourist may sit at the computer and plan trips to see natural areas, the general traveling public might have an interest in nature along the way," LaSalle says.

The Audubon Center focuses on the Pascagoula River which LaSalle described as "the last, large unimpeded river in the contiguous United States." The center offers nature education to youth and adults.

Currently housed in an older wooden house, the Audubon Center plans to build a three-level 9,000-square-foot center and outdoor ampitheater — a nice attraction for visitors.

McCoy’s River and Swamp Tours offers boat tours of the Pascagoula River from the center on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Visitors to Moss Point will discover a pleasant greenway as they enter the city from Interstate 10 at Mississippi 613. The waterfront Pelican Landing Conference Center is at the south boundary of the green area and the Pascagoula River Audubon Center is at the north boundary.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge also offer something for the nature lover, and the Coast is blessed with plenty of rivers and streams.

Visitors to the western Mississippi Coast will find a lush, natural area for picnics, canoeing and camping at McLeod Water Park on the Jourdan River, says Beth Carriere, executive director of Mississippi's West Coast Visitor's Bureau. Carriere notes that almost anywhere in Hancock County is good for bird watching but along the beaches is an especially good location. Bayou tours are available for those who want to see alligators and inland fowls.

For a quiet stroll, take a self-guided tour of the Crosby Arboretum in Picayune. The arboretum is dedicated to educating the public about the environment and preserving, protecting and displaying plants native to the Pearl River Drainage Basin ecosystem.

The Coast's densest population areas are in Harrison County, but the county’s diverse tourism offerings include many opportunities for nature tourism. Ship Island tours offer a boat ride to the island and usually plenty of opportunity to observe dolphins and seagulls on the way. There are also numerous charter fishing and river tours opportunities.

Here are some Eco Tours available in South Mississippi:

Alligator Farm and Airboat Rides
Walking tours, view alligators in natural habitat, airboat tours of swamp; 10300 U.S. 90, Moss Point; (228) 475-6026 or (866) 954-2867

Biloxi Bay Charter & Nature Tours
Located at Point Cadet Marina, Slip C-10, Biloxi; (228) 209-9977.

Black Creek Canoe Rental
Canoeing, camping, kayaking, fishing, hiking; DeSoto National Forest , No. 20 Old U.S. 49 West, Brooklyn (601) 582-8817; www.blackcreekcanoe.com

Crosby Arboretum
Native plant conservatory, self -and staff-guided tours; 370 Ridge Road, Picayune.; (601) 799-2311; www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu

Da Beach House
Kayak ecotours of rivers, bays, open water and islands; catamaran rentals;(228)547-0085

Eco-Tours of South Mississippi
Interpretive tours of natural habitats of cypress swamps, salt marshes; guided kayak tours, overnight cabin stays; Gautier; (228) 297-8687; www.ecotoursofsouthmississippi.com

Flint Creek Water Park
Boating, cabin rentals, fishing, hiking, skiing; 1216 Parkway, Wiggins; (601) 928-3051

Gulf Island National Seashore
Camping, nature tours and walks, kayaking tours; 3500 Park Road, Ocean Springs; (228) 875-0821

Horn Island Charters
Day and overnight trips, camping, fishing; (228) 872-8422, (228) 365-5572, 1 (866) 972-6339

Paul B. Johnson State Park
Bicycling, boating, cabins, canoeing, fishing, jet skiing, 319 Geiger Lake Road, Hattiesburg; (601) 582-7721

Little Black Creek Water Park Camping, fishing, hiking, boating, cabins; 2159 Little Black Creek Road, Lumberton; (601) 794-2957

McCoy’s River & Marsh Tours
Nature tours of unique river and marsh system; located off Mississippi 613 in Escatawpa; (228) 588-0356 or (228) 219-4583

McLeod Water Park & Campgrounds
Camping, fishing, hiking, boating, cabins, nature trail; 8100 Texas Flat Road, Kiln; (228) 467-1894

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge
Observe wildlife, trails, crane tours; 7200 Crane Lane, Gautier; (228) 497-6322

Pascagoula River Audubon Center
Gateway to the Pascagoula River; classes, field trips, summer camps, tours; 7001 Frank Griffin Road, Moss Point; (228) 475-0825; http://pascagoulariver.audubon.org

Shepard State Park
Biking, camping, nature trails, 1034 Graveline Road, Gautier; (228) 497-2244

Ship Island Excursions
Ferry ride to island, visit historic Fort Massachusetts; departs from the Gulfport Yacht Harbor, U.S. 90 at U.S. 49 intersection; (228) 864-1014, (866) 466-7386; www.msshipisland.com

Wolf River Canoe and Kayak
Camping, fishing, canoeing, kayaking; located on Wolf River; (228) 452-7666; www.wolfrivercanoes.com