Into The U.S. South
The Southern U.S. is one of the most culturally rich regions in the country, and this is matched by an equally vibrant landscape, a mix of ancient eroded mountains, lush pine and hardwood forests, and bountiful rivers.
These idyllic features can be found everywhere within and around the southern reaches of the Appalachian Range, but you can also dig a little deeper to find some truly special spots that often only make it on the radar for locals: secluded swimming holes, wildlife sanctuaries, and gargantuan cave systems.
We started our journey in northwestern South Carolina, a mountainous corner of a state more typically associated with bright beaches and Spanish moss. Devils Fork State Park is 620 acres of Appalachian foothills that holds several small waterfalls and fields of the rare Oconee Bell flower. The adjacent Lake Jocassee draws visitors looking to paddle, fish, and even scuba dive in its cool waters.
From there, it’s a few hours’ drive southwest to Pine Mountain, Georgia, home of Callaway Gardens. The gardens protect a large number of native plants, and the enclosed butterfly habitat, hiking trails, and nearby beach make this a popular spot with kids as well as adults. Just an hour farther south you’ll find Providence Canyon State Park, Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon,” where erosion has cut colorful clefts into the soft marine soil.
Traveling up the Georgia/Alabama border will take you to Lookout Mountain, which towers over three states and provides stunning views of them all. On the Alabama side lies Little River Canyon National Preserve, another natural space that conjures comparisons to Arizona’s Grand Canyon. For millennia, the Little River has cut through the rock of Lookout Mountain, carving one of the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi. Waterfalls, swimming holes, and backcountry camping are all popular activities.
And finally, due north of Lookout Mountain is a national park whose name says it all—Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the entire world, 400 miles of which have been explored and charted. You can’t access all of that as a National Park visitor, of course, but the expert ranger-guides will take you down to see the most spectacular cave features: seemingly bottomless pits, cavernous rooms, and plentiful stalactites and stalagmites. Like the rest of the South, Mammoth Cave proves that the deeper you go, the more you’ll be rewarded.
– Filmmaker and Outdoor Enthusiast Spencer Cordovano