From still forest glens to serene lakes, sky-high mountain vistas to spectacular geological formations, the South is blessed with a landscape so untamed and beautiful that it’s both a pleasure and a privilege to play within it.
Groups touring Southern states can enjoy a range of activities that will set adventurous spirits soaring without intimidating other travelers who might prefer their fun a little milder. Hiking iconic trails, hanging with woodland friends furry and feathered, taking to the water or just watching it fall, strolling dazzling bridges both natural and man-made, the South serves it all up at the following spots you’ll love to explore.
Shenandoah National Park
You just might call Shenandoah National Park the park that President Herbert Hoover helped build. In 1929, not long after taking office, Hoover purchased 164 acres for his rustic weekend retreat in what would shortly become Shenandoah National Park. He donated Rapidan Camp, which sheltered luminaries including Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill, to the commonwealth of Virginia in 1932. It officially became part of the 300-square-mile park three years later.
Today, groups can hop shuttles down to the secluded property on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Memorial Day to mid-October and tour the three remaining buildings of what’s been dubbed the original Camp David. But Rapidan isn’t the only storied land within Shenandoah. The Appalachian Trail extends for 101 miles through the park’s gently rolling landscape, thick with oak, hickory, maple and hemlock. Group travelers can indulge in everything from soothing strolls to strenuous hikes on it and other popular trails like Stony Man, which leads to an overlook high above the valley floor.
Groups also might want to take advantage of Shenandoah’s step-on guide service. According to Helen Morton, director of sales and marketing of Delaware North at Shenandoah National Park, along with other pleasures, the tours “stop at Byrd Visitor Center in the Big Meadows area. You get a great overview of the park there, and they’ve got a wonderful film, too. And then groups might go out for a walk in the meadow and have lunch at the lodge. It was dedicated in 1939, so we just celebrated 80 years. Shenandoah really offers a lot of visitor services for those coming into the park.”
Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium
With so much to see and do within its 3,500 acres, Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium was made for group travel. Adventurous guests will want to explore the park’s ropes course and 40 miles of hiking and biking trails; those looking for less adrenaline-charged activities can experience Bays Mountain’s state-of-the-art planetarium, a barge ride across the park’s 44-acre lake and a renowned nature center that’s home to wolves, bobcats, foxes and more.
“We are very fortunate and blessed to have the inventory and facilities that we do, and thankfully, so much of that centers around our natural resources,” said Rob Cole, Bays Mountain’s park manager. “We work very fluidly with groups and can do special programming depending on what they’d like to experience. We are able to tailor everything in such a way that we can break them into smaller groups and rotate those groups around to accommodate their needs so that everybody gets the same experience or a different experience, if that’s what they prefer. We can also provide catered meals through our Farmstead Museum.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that the creators of Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium have so fiercely protected its natural marvels while providing the public unparalleled access to them.
The city of Kingsport hired the National Audubon Society to help design the park, and its first director was a representative of the illustrious conservation organization. When development began in 1968 at Bays Mountain, the facilities could handle just 100 cars a day; 50 years later, more than 200,000 people visit the park annually.
New River Gorge, West Virginia
Suspended 876 feet over the second-oldest river on the planet, the New River Gorge Bridge is not only the third-highest bridge in the country, it’s also the longest single-span arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Bridge Walk, which takes groups on an amble down the 3,030-foot length of the bridge’s catwalk, offers a memorable way to experience this incredible engineering feat and the scenery that surrounds it. For some, it’s an exhilarating bucket-list adventure. For others, it’s a way to take control of their fear of heights. For most, it’s accessible and easy to navigate.
Before heading out on the catwalk, which runs 25 feet below the bridge, group members are secured to the structure with safety cables. The first step might seem like a bit of a doozy, but the catwalk is solid plate, which helps calm any lingering nerves. By the end of the two-hour guided walk, guests are far more focused on the beauty of the landscape below than how high they are above it.
According to Bridge Walk guide Doug Coleman, it’s never a bad season for groups to stroll the catwalk.
“Much is made of fall foliage, and rightfully so,” he said. “But a lot of people like the wintertime. It’s easier to see the contour of the land with snow on the ground and the leaves off the trees. Springtime is my personal favorite, when trees like paulownia, dogwood and redbud are blossoming. I always encourage my guests to bring a camera. You’ll want to take lots of pictures.”
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
There’s a story to go with the picturesque castle ruins at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, but it’s a bit of a tragic one. Around the turn of the 20th century, Kansas City businessman Robert McClure Snyder visited the northern Ozark Mountains, promptly fell in love with the area and decided to build a palatial vacation home overlooking what would eventually become the Lake of the Ozarks. But before Snyder could spend even one night in it, he died in an auto accident. His sons finished the project, but just two decades later, in 1942, a fire burned the building to the ground.
Groups will discover more at Ha Tonka than the fairy-tale-like ruins and its gorgeous view. The park, which bears an old folk name believed to have been created by settlers in honor of the Osage Native American tribe, is also a prime example of karst topography.
“Our bedrock has been dissolved away,” said park naturalist Jacob Bryant, “and that’s left the park with many caves, sizable sinkholes, natural bridges and springs. Ha Tonka is really the best of both worlds when it comes to resources. We also have a rich cultural history starting with the Osage and then the early settlers and the Snyders, as well as some of the finest examples of oak woodlands and glades that you’ll find in Missouri.”
Blessed with opportunities for kayaking and fishing, and plenty of hiking trails and boardwalks for all skill levels, Ha Tonka also offers specialized group programs about topics such as the castle, Ha Tonka Spring and the park’s large natural bridge.
Walhalla, South Carolina
Issaqueena Falls, which sits nearly surrounded by South Carolina’s Sumter National Forest, is the stuff of legend. According to a story that originated 250 years ago, Issaqueena was a Cherokee princess who fell in love with an Oconee brave. Her father didn’t approve of the relationship, as fathers in romantic folk tales never seem to do, so Issaqueena was forced to flee. She leaped across the falls, successfully evading her pursuers, and lived happily ever after with her lover.
Issaqueena Falls is accessible via a short path that leads to a platform built about three-quarters of the way up the 100-foot-tall cascade waterfall. Active group members can hike down to the bottom or head off to the area’s second feature.
“We call this attraction a twofer because Stumphouse Tunnel is within a few hundred feet of the falls,” said Tim Todd, executive director of the Discover Upcountry Carolina Association. “It was begun in 1856. The tunnel was supposed to be part of the Blue Ridge Railroad that would have linked Charleston to Cincinnati. They got 1,600 feet of it built, but the money ran out. And then in April of 1861, we had a little occurrence at Fort Sumter in Charleston that kicked off what we call the War of Northern Aggression. With all of that going on, the tunnel was never finished.”
Like the Issaqueena Falls, Stumphouse Tunnel is close to parking; however, the road leading to the attractions is not accessible to motorcoaches. Group leaders should reach out to the Discover Upcountry Carolina Association to schedule shuttle vans from a nearby Forest Service office to the attractions.
Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Natural Bridge State Resort Park takes its name from the magnificent 78-foot-long sandstone formation that rises 65 feet over Daniel Boone National Forest. Formed by what is suspected to have been an earthquake, Natural Bridge can be reached by hiking up about 500 feet in elevation. Groups can also take the less taxing sky lift, a peaceful 15-minute ride to the top of the ridgeline. Once there, visitors are free to wander the 25-foot-wide geological wonder.
There’s plenty to capture the fancy of groups at the park, including canoeing, kayaking, fishing and birding. Serious birders are enthusiastic about the warblers that flock there May through June. There’s a lodge and restaurant on-site, and a celebrated hoedown has been held summers there for about the past 50 years. The event, which features a square dance caller, brings in upward of 800 local residents and visitors on a busy night.
The park can accommodate groups with a variety of programs including tours of the bridge, nature hikes and presentations about the area’s history. Whatever aspect you choose to focus on, said Brian Gasdorf, Natural Bridge State Resort Park grounds and trail supervisor, you’re going to see spectacular diversity.
“We have so many different rocks that are exposed at the surface,” he said, “including silkstone, limestone, dolostone and black shale. There’s also an amazing variety of plant life, which leads to a wide diversity in wildlife, like bears, bobcats and beavers. As a naturalist, it’s kind of like being a kid in a candy store.”