Beyond the hustle and bustle of big-city destinations, travelers can experience the South through some of its most distinctive natural treasures, from breathtaking mountain vistas to lush swampland and towering rock formations. These serene retreats offer opportunities to encounter wildlife, see natural landmarks and discover wonderful hidden gems in the surrounding communities.
Next time you plan a trip through the scenic South, be sure to check out the following natural wonders.
Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Since 1889, millions of visitors from around the country have traveled to eastern Kentucky to witness the splendor of Natural Bridge, a natural sandstone arch that is 78 feet long and 65 feet high. This geological marvel offers a spectacular view of the Daniel Boone National Forest, especially during the fall when the treetops transform into a colorful array of red, gold and orange.
Groups can take full advantage of the 2,400-acre park from Hemlock Lodge, a cozy mountain lodge with a full-service restaurant and 35 rooms with private balconies. On Saturdays from May through October, the park hosts community dances on Hoedown Island, a small event site next to the lodge’s outdoor pool and four-acre pond. During the dances, a local square-dance caller leads guests through traditional folk dances such as Appalachian square dancing, line-dancing, the two-step, the polka and the waltz.
To reach Natural Bridge from Hemlock Lodge, groups can follow a three-quarter-mile trail of moderate difficulty that climbs over 400 feet through a beautiful canopy of hemlocks, tulip trees, white pines and thickets of rhododendron. The trail ends just below the arch, where hikers can access the top through a natural fracture in the rock. Visitors can also ride to the summit on a sky lift, which begins a half-mile from the park entrance and stops within 600 feet of the arch. The sky lift is open daily from the first weekend in April through the last weekend of October.
In addition to its namesake attraction, Natural Bridge State Resort Park offers a number of excellent opportunities for camping, canoeing, hiking, fishing and birding. The park encompasses more than 18 miles of hiking trails, with many more trails available in the nearby Red River Gorge Geological Area. Mill Creek Lake, a tranquil 40-acre lake surrounded by forest and sandstone cliffs, is a popular site for boating, as well as fishing for bass, bream, catfish, crappie and rainbow trout.
Yadkin Valley Scenic Byway
Over the past two decades, the Yadkin Valley has steadily grown into North Carolina’s first and largest wine region. Once a major tobacco-growing region, it is now home to nearly 45 wineries, as well as a professional viticulture and enology program at Surry Community College.
Travelers can enjoy all the sights and scenery this thriving viticultural area has to offer along the Yadkin Valley Scenic Byway, which extends 65 miles across Yadkin and Surry counties. Some of the highlights along the route include the Yadkin River; the Brushy Mountains, an isolated spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains; and Pilot Mountain, a 2,400-foot-high granite monadnock that looms over North Carolina’s rolling hills.
“Driving through it gives you this feeling of serenity,” said Suzanne Brown, media relations specialist at Visit North Carolina. “You’re surrounded by mountains, woodland foothills and farmland. In some ways, the experience makes me think of drinking wine; you take it in slowly and appreciate all the different nuances.”
Every winery has an interesting story to tell, and visitors will discover a deeper sense of place and community as they visit some of the region’s family-owned vineyards. Known as “Chianti in the Carolinas,” Raffaldini Vineyards is a Tuscan-style villa and vineyard that specializes in Italian wine-grape varietals. Groups can arrange special events or behind-the-scenes tours of this picturesque property, which features a sweeping view of the Brushy Mountains. Travelers can also pay a visit to Shelton Vineyards, one of the valley’s oldest and largest vineyards, to enjoy an excellent wine selection and on-site restaurant.
The charming “Trail Town” of Elkin is another hidden gem along the byway, marking the confluence of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and the Yadkin River Trail. In Hamptonville, groups can stop by Shiloh General Store to browse a wonderful selection of fresh baked breads, creamery products, deli sandwiches and preserves made by the local Amish community.
Atchafalaya National Heritage Area
Spanning 14 parishes across the state of Louisiana, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is the largest wetland and river swamp in the United States. This vibrant landscape covers a vast range of topography, from bottomland hardwood forests to winding bayous and backwater lakes.
The Atchafalaya Basin is a prime example of how Louisiana earned the nickname “Sportsman’s Paradise.” Groups can explore the rich wilderness along bicycle or paddling trails, pitch a tent under a canopy of ancient live oak trees or plan a fishing excursion to hunt for catfish, shrimp, oysters and crawfish. The heritage area is also home to more than 270 species of birds, providing fantastic bird-watching opportunities.
There are numerous outfitters based in the area that offer guided paddling excursions and swamp tours, taking passengers along remote waterways as they keep an eye out for wildlife like egrets, alligators, bears and raccoons. In addition, visitors can take advantage of many distinctive restaurants, shops and festivals throughout the region showcase Louisiana’s lively Cajun culture.
“It’s such a diverse area,” said Justin Owens, assistant director of the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area. “You can go fishing in the morning and go to a Mardi Gras celebration in the afternoon. There’s nowhere else on earth like it.”
Notable festivities in the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area include the Gumbo Festival in Thibodaux and the Rougarou Fest in Houma, an event inspired by the Cajun iteration of Big Foot. Another popular event, SugarFest, pays homage to Cajun culture through craft demonstrations, fresh local cuisine and live music.
Elephant Rocks State Park
Impressive rock formations may not be the first visual that comes to mind when it comes to Missouri’s natural scenery, yet Elephant Rocks State Park is home to one of the state’s most fascinating geological features: a series of huge red-and-pink granite boulders that stand in a row like a line of circus elephants. Formed more than 1.5 billion years ago, the unusual rock formations have attracted the curiosity of geologists and visitors alike for generations. The largest boulder in the park weighs around 680 tons, stretching 34 feet long and 27 feet tall.
“The elephant rocks are very striking,” said Liz Coleman, public relations specialist at the Missouri Division of Tourism. “It’s amazing to find that kind of feature in Missouri, compared to the farmland in northern Missouri and hills and valleys of the Ozarks.”
To reach the boulders, groups can follow a paved, one-mile path called the Braille Trail that was designed as the state’s first accessible trail for those with physical or visual disabilities. Along the way, visitors will pass several remnants of the park’s former days as a rock quarry, including a dig site that has since become a pond and wildlife-viewing area.
Groups can include several other major outdoor destinations in the area with their visit to Elephant Rocks State Park, such as Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park and Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. Taum Sauk Mountain State Park is home to the highest point in Missouri, as well as the highest waterfall, which is best viewed during the spring when the water flow runs at its heaviest. Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is known for the unique rock formations in the East Black Fork River that create “shut-ins,” or little pools and waterfalls for visitors to swim in.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
Cass, West Virginia
Nestled in the rugged mountain country of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, the historic lumber town of Cass was founded during the railroad boom around the turn of the 20th century. Today, visitors can stop by Cass Scenic Railroad State Park to hitch a ride on the 11-mile-long heritage railway that once carried lumber to the mill in Cass.
Transporting guests to a time when steam locomotives played a pivotal role in everyday life, the Cass Scenic Railroad takes passengers on a 4.5-hour round-trip journey up to the overlook at Bald Knob, the third-highest point in West Virginia and home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. One of the trains, the Class C-80 Shay #5, has been climbing up Cheat Mountain for nearly 100 years, making it one of the oldest engines in continuous service on its original line and the second-oldest Shay locomotive in existence.
Along the way, the train stops for 30 minutes at Whitaker Station, giving guests the chance to use restroom facilities and explore a re-created 20th-century logging camp. A King of the Road hobo lunch is served on board after the Old Spruce junction.
Groups can also stop by the old Cass Company Store to pick out a special souvenir, enjoy hand-scooped ice cream from the soda fountain or grab a bite to eat at Last Run Restaurant, which was featured in West Virginia’s “101 Unique Places to Dine.”
The gateway to Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive is widely recognized as one of the most famous mountain drives in America. In addition to providing access to more than 500 miles of trails throughout the park, the route includes 75 dramatic overlooks that offer panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Piedmont.
“From the road, you’ll see streams, lakes, valleys and all kinds of animals: bears, deer, fox — maybe even a horse or two,” said Rita McClenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. “It’s just a timeless, scenic feast for the eyes.”
Four overlooks stand out as visitor favorites: Hogback, Spitler Knoll, Big Run and Crimora Lake. Another distinctive feature along the route is Mary’s Rock Tunnel, a 670-foot-long tunnel that was carved through the solid granite of Mary’s Rock in 1932.
Every season of the year brings a new shade of beauty to this special mountain vista. During the winter, visitors can see the mountain valley wreathed in snow and ice, and spring brings in a wealth of colors as wildflowers like azaleas and mountain laurel bloom along the roadside. From late September to mid-November, a stunning display of fall colors takes over the landscape.