“A national park is not a playground. it's a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature's own terms.”
-- Michael Frome, writer, educator, and guardian of the national parks
While there's no denying that the western region of the United States boasts the majority of the country's national parks, the southeast region is home to several outstanding parks certainly worth venturing to. Characterized by gleaming waterways, magnificent mountain ranges, geothermal hot springs, and subterranean elaborate cave systems, four distinctive southern parks have been welcoming nature and adventure enthusiasts for decades.
Whether you're looking to enjoy breathtaking scenery while hiking rugged trails, explore underground cavernous passageways, or embark upon a quest of healing natural hot water springs, you're sure to satiate your adventurous appetite in the southeast national parks featured below.
Draining the swamp takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to the Everglades, a 1.5 million acre (yes, you read that number correctly) wetlands preserve in the south of Florida.
While visitors won't find the usual majestic mountains and thunderous waterfalls often found in other national parks, here you'll find tranquil waters, abundant wildlife, and a wide diversity of trees and flowers scattered throughout its many marshes and pinelands.
Pond cypresses and bald cypress are the two species of cypress trees found in the Everglades. The incredible groves of cypress trees were without question the highlight of our time here.
The Everglades is known for its exotic animal life, including alligators, crocodiles, snakes, and over 350 species of birds, including eagles, herons, and osprey.
Exploring a park of this magnitude, of course, can be a bit daunting. We opted for an airboat tour, where we traveled through marshes, swamps, and rivers while discovering these incredible wetlands. We saw a variety of plants and wildlife along the way; our captain was extremely knowledgeable and helpful when pointing them out along the way.
If you're looking for an easy and fun way to explore the Everglades, I highly recommend booking an airboat tour. They vary in duration and private tours are also available, making for an ideal choice for social distancing!
We booked through Wild Florida Airboats, located less than an hour's drive from Orlando.
Expanding across 800 square miles straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is touted as the most visited national park in the United States. Sixteen imposing peaks make up the awe-inspiring mountain range, named for the bluish mist that often blankets it, caused by the water vapor emitted by the thick forests that dominate the majority of the park.
There is no shortage of hiking trails here – about 150 total – ranging from easy strolls to strenuous treks. Our two favorite hikes here are detailed below.
I have never visited a waterfall I didn't like, so most of our hikes intentionally led to cascading falls, the glistening pots of gold that served as sweet rewards of our trekking labors. Our favorite trail was Abrams Falls Trailhead: a five-mile roundtrip hike at the far western end of Cades Cove. The moderate trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park. The Abrams Creek follows next to the trail for the majority of the hike, making for a picturesque and serene setting.
The trail is well-marked; muddy at various spots, and a bit rocky, so be sure to wear comfortable and appropriate shoes (hiking boots are well worth the investment). The scenic hike is a nature lover's dream. The striking views, soothing sounds of streaming water, and towering trees were nothing short of magic.
The final destination of Abrams Falls is the icing on an already incredibly sweet cake. While the falls only stand 20 feet high, they are considered to be one of the most powerful waterfalls in the entire park.
The voluminous falls are enveloped by dense green forests and jutting rock formations, making for a sublime setting.
Travel Tip: The park suggests allotting 3-4 hours for the entire hike. We did it in about 2.5 hours.
While Abrams Falls Trail is about thirty miles from Sugarlands Visitors Center, expect the drive to be a little over an hour. Parts of the highway are narrow and windy, and there's a good chance you'll see wildlife along the way. We spotted elk and deer, but even more interesting, we saw three bears! A mama bear and her two cubs. So amazing!
Another extremely popular hike within Great Smoky Mountain National Park is Laurel Falls Trail, an easy, yet stunning, trail that leads to, you guessed it, a lovely waterfall! Roundtrip, the hike is 2.3 miles in total length and the vistas overlooking the trail are spectacular. While the elevation along the hike does slightly change, the trail is well-paved and very easy to traverse and follow.
The cascading falls flow down the side of a mountain, creating an upper and lower level. The impressive falls stand 80 feet tall.
The roundtrip hike takes about an hour. The trail is a short drive from the park's visitor's center, about 3.5 miles.
Entrance to the park is free. Stop at the Sugarlands Visitors Center to speak with park rangers, grab some maps, and for restrooms.
Most people may not associate Arkansas with being home to a national park, but there's actually a ton of natural beauty to be found throughout the state. While Hot Springs National Park may not be the most popular U.S. park, it is the oldest national park system to be protected by law.
Strolling along the half mile Grand Promenade is a lovely way to orient yourself to the park. The paved pathway overlooks the downtown's main street, Bathhouse Row, which is lined with the area's famous and historic bathhouses.
The park is home to dozens of hot springs, healing thermal waters, and numerous hiking trails. The Hot Springs, West Mountain and North Mountain trails are popular and relatively easy trails, all offering arresting views.
The Gulpha Gorge Trail starts with a bit of a deep descent, ultimately leading to the picture-perfect Gulpha Gorge. This was one of my favorite spots in the park. I found the combination of vivid colors, lush greenery, and placid waters to be incredibly inviting.
Of course, like all amazing things in life, new places are best discovered with friends! Lucky to be able to see so much of this wondrous country with dear friends by our side.
Hot Springs National Park is about an hour's drive from Little Rock.
We chose to rent a house in Hot Springs, just a few miles away from downtown and the park.
Hot Springs National Park is considered an urban park and is accessible from the downtown's main street. Entrance to the park is free.
I'll admit it. I have a strange fascination with caves, and being that Mammoth Cave National Park is pretty much the crème de la crème of caves, it's safe to say that I was in cave heaven here. With over 400 miles of caverns and passages, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. It's so extensive that it's nearly twice as long as the second longest cave system in world, which is located underwater in Mexico.
The five-level extensive cave system is incredible, and new tunnels and passages continue to be discovered. The cave's numerous subterranean passageways carved into ancient limestone are a true marvel to explore.
The parks department offers several cave tours for all levels, ranging from easy to more difficult. We chose the Broadway Tour, which includes entering and exiting through the Historic Entrance, visiting the Rotunda, Broadway Avenue, Methodist Church, the saltpeter mining ruins at Booth's Amphitheater, Giant's Coffin, and the Tuberculosis Huts along the way.
While many individuals travel to Kentucky for its delicious bourbon and world-renowned horses, a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park should also be on top of any traveler's list.
Mammoth Cave National Park is nearly equidistant between Louisville, KY and Nashville, TN. We drove the 85 miles from Nashville and made a day trip out of it.
Entrance to the park is free. Tickets are required to enter the cave. We visited pre-Covid, so we had no trouble joining a tour without an advanced reservation, however due to increased restrictions, reservations are currently highly recommended.
Each of the aforementioned national parks is incredible in its own right, guaranteed to inspire and influence those who choose to explore, from the most novice of travelers to the most experienced.
Happy Traveling, All!
“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks… is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Tennessee Nature National Park Mammoth Cave National Park Laurel Falls Trail Kentucky Cave Arkansas Hot Spring Great Smoky Mountains National Park Hot Springs National Park Florida Everglades National Park Abrams Falls Trail North Carolina