The best way to get to know someone is to walk a mile in their shoes; it’s the same for destinations. When traveling, the best way to learn about a place is not with tours that barely skim the surface but with immersive, experiential tours that let you delve into its past and explore its present.
The South has plenty of these tours, and they take group travelers everywhere, from the underground mines in West Virginia to the lesser-known waterways of St. Louis. Travelers can meet the sea creatures that inhabit Georgia’s beaches and the specters rumored to haunt the hills of eastern Tennessee.
For an unforgettable trip, choose one of these immersive tours that introduce visitors to the secrets of the South.
Tybee Beach Ecology Trips
Tybee Island, Georgia
If your group needs another excuse to go to coastal Georgia, here’s one: Biogeographically speaking, Tybee Island’s beaches are incredibly interesting, according to Joe Richardson, a former professor of marine science at Savannah State University. That’s because the area’s variety of nearby habitats, from rivers to salt marshes, make for a marine life hotspot.
“It really is one of the better beaches up and down the East Coast for being able to find a variety of different animals at any time of the year,” Richardson said.
Richardson has been leading ecology trips on the beaches of Tybee Island for 15 years, even after retiring from his 30-year teaching career. He plans the trips around low tide, which varies a little each day, and he brings along shovels and dip nets for the groups to explore the beach. He guides them along the wet sand where the tide has receded, looking for marine life. They’ll also explore the tide pools along a rock jetty at the water’s edge.
There’s a lot going on under the sand’s surface that visitors may not know about, even ones who are frequent beachgoers. Richardson helps groups find the animals, identifies them and answers questions about their habitats and behaviors. There’s no telling what they will find on their expeditions, from jellyfish and ghost shrimp to anemones and barnacles.
“As we find animals and things, if they’re alive, we’ll collect them in tanks and get some seawater, so we make our own touch tank out on the beach,” Richardson said.
Groups should dress for the beach, and Richardson recommends wearing water shoes so visitors can explore the beach comfortably. Tours last two hours and can accommodate 30-40 guests.
Big Muddy Adventures
St. Louis, Missouri
Of all the ways to explore St. Louis, paddling through its waterways in canoes may be the last thing visitors expect. But Big Muddy Adventures, founded in 2001 by “Muddy” Mike Clark, helps them do just that. This outfitter and tour company takes guests on paddling trips on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the waterways that wind through the city.
“We paddle through parts of St. Louis that you don’t typically see from the water, so there’s a nice dichotomy from the riverfront and natural areas,” said Natalie Rolwes, a guide with Big Muddy Adventures.
Trips include everything from short floats on the city’s riverfronts to see its most iconic sights, such as the Gateway Arch, to half-day expeditions on the water surrounding the city. They can even attend multi-day paddling excursions, but the most popular tour lasts four to six hours. North of the city, groups will see the less-inhabited parts of the rivers, including beautiful, uninhabited natural islands, where they can stop to explore or have a meal. On these journeys, they might spot a broad range of the area’s wildlife, from bald eagles to beavers to deer.
While the active nature of the tours may seem daunting to some groups, that’s part of the appeal. Roo Yawitz, the current owner of Big Muddy Adventures, said these tours are enjoyable because they involve “getting people outside and being active while also stepping outside of their comfort zone.”
Appalachian GhostWalks Lantern-Led Tours
Skeptics and believers alike will be delighted by Appalachian GhostWalks’ lantern-led tours of Jonesborough, Tennessee. Founded 20 years ago, this tour company leads guests through many cities within the Appalachian region, entertaining them with tales of the paranormal. Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest city, dating back to 1779. It’s also considered one of the most haunted towns in America.
Lantern-led walking tours of the town will take groups to some of its oldest sites, such as the Chester Inn, built in 1797, which operates as a museum today. Tour guides will lead groups of up to 30 around town to give them the history of the buildings and their past residents, as well as stories of alleged hauntings. These tours last roughly three hours, and no two tours are just alike thanks to the countless tales of hauntings in Jonesborough.
“Not only can you count on a good storytelling performance, but you also get the real history of the town,” said Stacey Allen McGee, executive director of Appalachian GhostWalks.
Far from being macabre or frightening, McGee said these tours reinforce principles of faith and positivity about the afterlife. But that’s not to say these tours are entirely tame. McGee said skeptics sometimes come away with new things to think about after experiencing the unexplainable, from seeing shades being pulled back in unoccupied buildings to hearing disembodied voices. Daring guests will also have opportunities to try their hand at spirit photography. However, even for staunch skeptics, the stories told on these tours are entertaining.
“Ghost stories are about the human experience and who we are,” McGee said. “That’s why people are compelled to come and listen to us.”
Inlet Point Plantation Stables
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Plenty of groups have waded through the surf at Myrtle Beach, but few have explored these breathtaking beaches on horseback. At Inlet Point Plantation Stables, groups get this opportunity, as well as the chance to see the area’s pristine landscape and hear about its storied past.
Inlet Point Plantation, a historic plantation in North Myrtle Beach, has a long history involving several famous outlaws and rebels. Once the home of the Confederate Fort Randall, the plantation has ties to both the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. Legend has it the plantation was once host to Billy the Kid and that Blackbeard once stopped on Waites Island, a 1,400-acre private island adjacent to the plantation that straddles the state line between the Carolinas. Groups will hear about all this and more on a horseback tour of the plantation and its surrounding area.
Opened in the 1990s, the stables now have about 50 horses, including Tennessee Walkers, Appaloosas and Belgians. Each is well-trained and can be matched with groups based on temperament and riding experience.
Groups can pick among a couple private tours on two trails, the one-hour intracoastal waterway trail or the two-hour beach ride. The waterway trail is mostly shaded and takes groups through the plantation’s wooded trails and pecan groves and along the water. The beach ride takes groups across a bridge onto Waites Island to ride near the water. Tours can be during the day or at sunset for an even more gorgeous beach ride. Both trails offer the potential to spot wildlife, from a variety of birds to deer and even the occasional bear.
Ozark Bike Guides
Founded in early 2020 by Alex Martens, owner and head guide, Ozark Bike Guides began to accommodate a growing interest in biking in northwestern Arkansas. Martens was managing a retail shop and saw a need for guided tours of the breathtaking trails surrounding Bentonville. Now he and several other guides take groups of up to 20 onto the trails, with one guide per six guests.
While the vast forests of the Ozarks are a beautiful backdrop to these tours, groups can see far more than rock bluffs, trees, waterfalls and wildlife. They’ll also come across historic sites, artwork along the trails and may even get to visit a coffee shop in the middle off the woods that is only accessible by bike. There are even city tours of Bentonville on paved bike trails, as well as gravel bike tours. Ozark Bike Guides can help group leaders choose the right trail to accommodate bikers of any skill level. They can even work with groups over multiple days to take them to explore new trails each day during their stay in Bentonville.
“There’s so much terrain to ride, you won’t get it all in in one day or one week,” Martens said. “A guide service will make sure you’ll see the trails that are fun and appropriate for you, and that you don’t waste time trying to get to stuff.”
There’s no shortage of bike rental shops in town or near the trailheads. For groups with beginners or travelers who are looking for a less strenuous tours, e-bikes are allowed and even encouraged on these tours. Groups should dress in weather-appropriate athletic clothing and with close-toed shoes.
Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine
Beckley, West Virginia
One of the lesser-explored histories in the South is that of the Appalachian coal miners, who lived their lives surrounded by the beauty of the ancient mountain range. These men lived whole lives in coal company camps and towns, working deep within the mountain and raising their families among the company stores, schools and churches. It’s a history worth learning, and there’s no better way to do that than with a tour at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, West Virginia.
The crown jewel of a visit to the mine is the Underground Tour, which takes groups 1,500 feet inside the mountain for a 30-minute tour. Groups of up to 30 can ride on a conveyance called a mantrip, which used to transport coal miners. The six-foot-high, 12-foot-wide passages in the mountain are lined with exhibits. Tours are led by retired coal miners, who tell groups about the practices of mining, working conditions, and the daily lives of the miners and their families.
“They’re not just actors reciting a script; each tour guide gives a slightly different tour because he often relates to his own experiences,” said Leslie Baker, director of operations at Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. “We stay true to our heritage and culture.”
In addition to the Underground Tour, there’s a coal camp, including a company store, which doubles as a museum with authentic artifacts and antiques from the early 20th century. There’s also a shanty, a one-room schoolhouse and a miner’s house for groups to explore. Docents are located in the museum and throughout the property, and they also have a history with coal; many are the wives or kin of former coal miners.
“Everybody is there to lend their very authentic voices to the experience,” Baker said.