Adventure awaits under Southern skies.
Outdoor experiences and ecological tour opportunities abound in the Southeastern region of the country. Travelers can explore beautiful natural caverns in Florida and Tennessee, marvel at unusual rock formations in West Virginia, visit a sea turtle rescue in North Carolina and enjoy swamp tours and shrimping expeditions in Louisiana and Mississippi.
If you have nature lovers in your group, include one of these fascinating outdoor attractions and excursions in your next tour through the Southeast.
Florida Caverns State Park
The highlight of Florida Caverns State Park is its extensive cave system, the only dry-cave tour system in Florida. Along with its amazing stalagmites and stalactites, the system features rimstone pools, soda straws and drapery formations. The caverns, which opened to the public in 1942, were created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which chiseled pathways through the caves and widened rooms to make them accessible to visitors. Guided tours of the caves are offered daily, but groups that want a more unusual experience can book a nightly lantern tour on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.
The cave is still alive, meaning that its formations are still evolving as water drips in from the surface or the water table rises, sending a large amount of water through the cave at once. During the 45-minute tour, experienced guides point out features that were created slowly through the millennia. Visitors learn how they were formed and how they are still evolving to this day. The cave itself stays a balmy 65 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, making it a pleasant stop, especially during Florida’s hot and humid summer months.
The cave tour doesn’t comply with Americans with Disabilities access guidelines, but groups with limited mobility can watch a recorded tour of the cave in the museum. The museum also talks about the endangered plant and animal species that make the park their home.
The 1,000-acre park has picnic areas, campgrounds and plenty of trails for hiking, horseback riding and bicycling. The Chipola River and the Blue Hole Spring provide areas for fishing, canoeing, swimming and boating, and the nine-hole Florida Caverns Golf Course is adjacent to the park’s entrance. Bat houses are placed around the grounds, and one of the many highlights of the park is watching hundreds of bats flying in and out as they go on their nightly hunt for bugs.
Cajun Encounters Tour Co.
Groups that want to tour one of the most pristine swamps in Louisiana should book an excursion with Cajun Encounters. The company uses small pontoon boats that can take up to 22 passengers each into narrow bayous with snakes hanging from the trees and the swamp’s natural beauty all around. The boats can cruise through water less than one foot deep — meaning they aren’t limited to canals made by people — including through a Nature Conservancy area with old-growth cypress trees dripping in Spanish moss and with more than 200 species of birds, alligators, snakes, wild pigs, bears, foxes and nutrias. Because airboats are not allowed into the Honey Island Swamp, the area is undamaged.
Informative guides talk about the ecology of the swamp, what happens when there are floods and hurricanes and the distinct types of flora and fauna that make the swamp their home. Groups can also book a shrimp or crawfish boil before or after their tour prepared by their boat captains, who cook the meal over propane burners on the main dock at Cajun Encounters. Groups of up to 150 people can enjoy the crustaceans, along with new potatoes, sausage and corn, all piled onto tables for visitors to enjoy beneath a covered pavilion. Guides will show visitors new to the area how to peel a shrimp or a crawfish and even organize competitions to see who can get to the meat first.
Cajun Encounters also recently started offering kayak tours of the swamp. It acquired Pearl River Eco-Tours, which will eventually be the company’s main launch point for smaller boats and tours. It also combines swamp tours with tours of area plantations and New Orleans attractions such as the French Quarter and the National World War II Museum.
Biloxi Shrimping Trip
Biloxi Shrimping Trip has been taking group visitors on ecological and scenic tours along the Mississippi coastline since 1954. And although the company’s ownership has changed hands eight times, the 49-passenger vessel Sailfish remains the same. Its mission is to educate guests about the flora and fauna along the Mississippi coast. As the captain talks about various points of interest, the vessel drops nets to pick up sea creatures in its path. The nets are brought on board, and any fish are placed in onboard saltwater tanks so that passengers can see them up close.
The catch typically includes shrimp, crabs, oysters, starfish, sea robins, pufferfish and, sometimes, seahorses. Guests learn about the creatures and their place in the ecosystem before they are released back into the ocean.
“We catch anything floating out there close enough to us,” said Capt. Brandy Moore, co-owner of Biloxi Shrimping Trip with her husband, Michael. “We go along the beach, but we can’t keep anything. We are shrimping where no one else can.”
The boat travels between Deer Island, a long and skinny island that is home to 10 types of endangered species, and Biloxi Beach on the mainland. The waters are calm and the ride comfortable.
Along with shrimping trips, the couple offers travel packages for groups that include culinary demonstrations and lunch; a 70-minute ride on the Sailfish; a city tour of Biloxi, Mississippi; and tours of Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home.
The Sailfish, which is nearly 70 years old, was pulled out of the water in September for a major overhaul. The boat will be taken apart and its frame replaced with new wood. The couple hopes the boat will be back in the water by February 17, which is the start of their tour season.
Chattanooga’s Ruby Falls is the largest and deepest underground waterfall in the United States at 1,120 feet below the summit of Lookout Mountain, and it was discovered by accident in 1928. Leo Lambert, a local cave enthusiast, knew that Lookout Mountain Cave was under the mountain, but it was inaccessible because the entrance was blocked when a railroad tunnel was built through the mountain. He spent a decade rounding up investors to fund the digging of an elevator shaft that would take visitors down for tours of the cave. During excavation, the crew encountered another cave about 260 feet down. Lambert named it after his wife, Ruby.
After a 17-hour exploration of the new cave, the explorers found the Ruby Falls waterfall, which is 120 feet tall. Lambert decided to open both caves for tours, but after a couple of years, he realized that Ruby Falls was the more popular cave and that Lookout Mountain Cave was too close to the railroad tunnel.
Groups can sign up for a 75-minute guided tour of the cave’s impressive features, from Frozen Niagara, a flowstone formation formed by minerals deposited by muddy water that looks like a frozen waterfall, and drapery formations that are thin and wavy like folded drape material. The Bacon is a drapery formation with a strip of iron oxide running down the middle of it, making it look like bacon. A natural rim pool was formed by dripping groundwater and is the only body of water in the cave not connected to the outflowing water from the falls.
The mile-long roundtrip path through the cave has a mild elevation that is broken up by a total of 50 steps in three- to five-step increments, so it is fairly accessible to most visitors.
Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
Surf City, North Carolina
Karen Beasley began rescuing sea turtles when she was just 7 years old. She found a turtle nest behind her family’s North Carolina beach house and wanted to protect it. Over the years, she and a group of volunteers began protecting more nests, nesting females and hatchlings along 26 miles of coastline on Topsail Island. Beasley passed away from leukemia at a young age, and her mother, Jean, picked up the torch of the Topsail Turtle Project.
The group would find injured turtles every so often and realized they needed to start a sea turtle hospital to nurse them back to health. The center opened its doors in 1997. It moved into a new 13,000-square-foot facility on the mainland in 2013.
Groups can tour the facility with a knowledgeable volunteer to learn about the history of the organization. They go into a hallway with education stations that describe the species of sea turtles found off the North Carolina coast and tell why sea turtles get stranded. Then they can look through the window into the sea turtle sick bay, where turtles in critical condition are cared for. At the end of the tour, groups can visit Turtle Bay, where recovering turtles are allowed to swim around and interact with other recovering turtles.
Once they are deemed healed, the turtles are released back into the wild. If they have injuries that won’t allow them to be released, the center finds homes for them at zoos and aquariums across the country. The facility closes for two months beginning in mid-December, as it is the beginning of the cold-stun season. When the water gets too cold, many turtles get trapped foraging too close to shore and become hypothermic. In January 2020, the facility cared for 109 cold-stunned turtles.
Beartown State Park
Marlinton, West Virginia
Beartown State Park is a 110-acre natural area on the eastern summit of Droop Mountain in West Virginia’s Greenbriar and Pocahontas counties. It is known for its unusual rocky formations, massive boulders, overhanging cliffs and crevices. The land was purchased in 1970 with funds from the Nature Conservancy and a local donor who wanted to honor the memory of her son, who died in the Vietnam War. The development of the park has been minimal to preserve the natural beauty of the area.
The main attraction is a half-mile-long boardwalk — with informative markers that explain the geological processes at work in the area — that takes visitors past some of the park’s most spectacular formations. The park is open to visitors from April through October. It is closed to tourists from November through March, as winter storms coat the boardwalk with ice that doesn’t thaw until sometime in March because the nearby sandstone outcrops conduct the cold.
Originally, the boardwalk was built in a horseshoe shape, and people could climb on the rocks. Because of the degradation to the various rock features of the park, the boardwalk was transformed into a circle with fencing to keep people from climbing the rocks. The boardwalk is accessible to groups, and the park is about five miles from Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, site of the last battle of the Civil War, as well as New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.