For groups smitten with the great outdoors, there is perhaps no finer playground than the mountains of the South.
From the Ozarks and Ouachitas up to the Smokies and over to the Blue Ridges, the peaks and pinnacles found below the Mason-Dixon line provide such diverse habitats and dramatic topography they might well be the envy of the country. And just as crucially, the towns and parks nestled within these ancient ranges offer all the know-how and equipment necessary for groups to make the most of their time in the mountains.
Whether you’re looking for canoes or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), hiking guides or naturalists, you’ll find who and what you need within the delightful borders of the following mountain destinations.
Perched prettily within the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dahlonega features not only spectacular mountain scenery but also plenty of ways to enjoy it. Rich with waterfalls and wineries, the town also offers groups adventures that are decidedly wilder, according to Sam McDuffie, tourism director at the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber and Visitors Bureau, who calls the area “magical.”
“Just experiencing everything, from the Southern charm of our downtown area to all the offerings in our county, where you start getting more into nature and hikes and things like that — it’s got a little bit for everyone,” McDuffie said.
That includes group members that are looking for adrenaline-charged activities and may want to split off from the tour and paddle the Chestatee or Etowah rivers with guides like Appalachian Outfitters. Or group visitors can get their dirt on at the Iron Mountain Resort, which rents ATVs and lets guests go fast and furious over its hundreds of miles of trails, some of which offer the area’s best views.
Looking for more low-key pleasures? McDuffie suggested that groups visit some of the area’s five wineries and 12 tasting rooms. “We’re called the Napa Valley of the South because our grapes are grown and bottled here,” he said.
Specifically for tour groups, McDuffie recommended stops at the award-winning Frogtown Cellars, Three Sisters Vineyards and Winery, and Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery, all within easy driving distance of one another.
Table Rock State Park
Should any especially fit group members want to brave the 2,000-foot elevation gain that rises from the foothills of Table Rock at South Carolina’s Table Rock State Park, they will be rewarded with the kind of breathtaking biodiversity seldom seen in a day hike.
“When you start down low, you’re in some very wet, stream environments,” said Michael Trotter, Table Rock State Park manager. “As you climb it gets drier, so you walk through an oak/hickory-type forest. Especially on the southern slopes of the mountains as you climb up toward the top, you actually have a little bit of pines, so it gives you the chance to see a lot of different environments.”
Located at the edge of the Blue Ridge escarpment, the 3,083-acre Table Rock State Park also offers plenty of activities for visitors perhaps more familiar with their couches than hiking boots. The park is criss-crossed by easy trails and features two lakes. During the summer, pedal boats, canoes and kayaks can be rented from the concession stand on Pinnacle Lake, across the street from the main trailhead and nature center.
“It’s all right there together,” Trotter said, “so it’s easy to come in with a group and park, and then have part of the group start out at the nature center and go hiking, and then the other part of the group could swim or do boat rentals.”
Petit Jean State Park
If groups are in search of a landscape blessed with unique topography, they should look no further than Petit Jean State Park, which sits atop the mesa for which it’s named and alongside the Arkansas River, between the Natural State’s Ouachitas and Ozark mountain ranges. Although hiking to see features like the stunning 95-foot Cedar Falls is the name of the game in the park, there is much else for groups to enjoy, according to Kathy Fitch, Petit Jean State Park’s group sales manager.
“We also have two swimming pools,” Fitch said, “and there is an antique automobile museum here on the mountain. There’s also a privately owned petting zoo; we have tennis courts; and Memorial through Labor Day, we have the boathouse on Lake Bailey that rents fishing and pedal boats, and kayaks and canoes.”
The first state park to open in Arkansas, Petit Jean is getting upgrades groups will love, including a new visitors center and a 100-seat banquet room overlooking the lake; both are slated to open early this year. But for group members who wish to submerge themselves more deeply in Petit Jean’s remarkable terrain, there is a range of easy trails that don’t take long to hike. One, the Rock House Cave Trail, leads to a shelter that boasts Native American art created some five centuries ago.
Great Smoky Mountains
The South’s most famous mountain ranges by far, the Great Smoky Mountains are part of the Appalachians and so named for the ethereal blue mist that clings to their peaks and valleys. The Smokies benefit from three towns, beloved by group visitors, that lie in Tennessee: Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville. Though they are close to one another, each offers its own singular identity and opportunities for mountain fun.
Pigeon Forge is best known as the home to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, an amusement park themed around Southern Appalachian mountain culture, with more than 40 rides and 15 shows. Surrounded by the Smokies, it offers spectacular views of the range’s rises and special rates to tour operators. A gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg provides group visitors primo peeks into America’s most-visited national park from attractions like the Space Needle, a 407-foot observation tower, and SkyLift Park, which includes the SkyBridge, the continent’s longest suspension bridge for pedestrians.
Meanwhile, Sevierville, the birthplace of country music icon Parton, includes goodies such as Forbidden Caverns, a chance to see the Smokies from down under, and Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park. The latter attraction gives groups the opportunity to immerse themselves in the mountain landscape with hiking, zip lining and more.
Towering nearly 6,000 feet above the western North Carolina high country, Grandfather Mountain is unique among Blue Ridge Mountain peaks. The ancient mountain is home to 72 rare or endangered species and 16 different ecosystems, as well as the legendary Mile High Swinging Bridge, 220-foot-long suspension bridge that spans a chasm that’s 80 feet off the ground but a mile high in elevation. It’s a group favorite thanks in part to its views. On a clear day it’s possible to see all the way to Charlotte, 80 miles away.
Along with more than 12 miles of hiking trails, Grandfather Mountain also gives groups the opportunity to see alpine critters in environmental wildlife habitats, large enclosures that replicate the animal’s natural surroundings. Bespoke tours of the habitats, home to cougars, bears, otters and more, as well as special naturalist programs, can be arranged for groups.
“With our different outcroppings and our geologic history, you see a lot of beautiful mountaintops and rolling hills,” said Frank Ruggiero, director of marketing and communications for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “It’s just gorgeous. It goes as far as the eye can see. It’s simply the kind of place that groups really have to visit. It’s a fascinating mountain, unlike any other on Earth.”
Shenandoah National Park
There’s a lot to love about the 300-square-mile Shenandoah National Park, which ranges through the forest, wetlands and occasional rocky peaks of the gently rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. It has a history that groups will enjoy investigating, thanks to President Herbert Hoover, who in 1929 built an upscale camp of sorts within what would shortly become Shenandoah National Park. Nowadays, groups can reserve a shuttle to take them down to the buildings that once housed guests such as Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison, who were no doubt just as entranced by the landscape as Hoover.
“A lot of people talk about the park’s views,” said Helen Morton, director of sales and marketing for Delaware North at Shenandoah National Park. “They just capture you. Groups can sit back and just kind of breathe in and listen to the sounds of nature. It’s not that dramatic — it’s more peaceful; Shenandoah has a deep-down soothing effect on a lot of people.”
Hiking trails like the iconic Stony Man, just 1.6 miles roundtrip, provide for plenty of gorgeous gazing, but groups don’t have to leave the motorcoach for jaw-dropping vistas. Skyline Drive, Shenandoah’s public road that runs 105 miles along the mountain’s ridge, provides almost 70 scenic overlooks with magnificent views anyone can see without sliding on so much as a hiking boot.