Explore the best parks in the Southeast


Annie Laster

Visitors exit Mammoth Cave, after being led on a two and a half hour Extended Historic Cave tour. The tours are the only way to visit inside the cave.

When searching for natural beauty in the United States, the South isn’t the place people first look. The Rocky Mountains of the west, glaciers of Alaska and jagged coasts of the East and West usually draw people’s eyes. However, fall in the mountains of the South can be absolutely incredible.

Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited park in the United States, and for good reason. Near Dollywood, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the Smoky Mountains can provide a beautiful weekend haven for the average traveler, or mount a challenge for serious hikers and backpackers. The Smokies are a three-hour drive from Atlanta, perfect for a long weekend trip.

As with most parks in the United States, there are many incredible trails running through the park, including the world famous Appalachian Trail and many day hiking routes. Some of the best include Clingmans Dome, a hike to the highest point in Tennessee, and the Middle Prong Trail.

No trip to the Smoky Mountains is complete without waterfalls. The Ramsey Cascades (the tallest waterfall in the park) and the Grotto Falls are some of the most notable and gorgeous.

Other possible activities in the park are fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking and backpacking. Wildlife is plentiful in the area, from elk and deer to black bears and birds.

Only a three and a half hour drive from Atlanta, Asheville is a small, folksy town nestled in the mountains. It’s very popular in the fall, so book your hotels early.

The North Carolina Arboretum is a beautiful representation of the native plants and trees of the region. Some exhibits include the Bonsai Exposition Garden, the Heritage Garden and the National Native Azalea Collection. With 65 acres of gardens to explore, beautiful hiking and mountain biking trails extending outside of the Arboretum, the Arboretum is a perfect place to experience the beauty of North Carolina.

One of the most popular attractions is the Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America. The estate was George Vanderbilt’s 250 room winter palace, with 35 bedrooms and 46 bathrooms. The 8000 acres of property were landscaped by Fredrick Law Olmestead, and contains the most visited winery in the United States, forested trails and gardens. Take a tour of the building and explore the grounds on horseback, bike or foot.

Don’t miss the Pisgah National Forest, half an hour away from Asheville. It is full of beautiful mountains, trails, streams and waterfalls. Take a hike in the mountains, on one of the hundreds of trails. The Art Loeb trail is one of the best overnight trips, while Black Balsam is a fun way to experience the beauty of the trail in a day. A trip to Pisgah National Forest is not complete without a trail to a waterfall and swimming hole. The region has hundreds of them, some just off the highway and some deeper down a trail. This is also an excellent area for mountain biking, fly fishing, kayaking and rafting.

For those who would rather see the fall color in traditional road trip fashion, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a perfect option. The road begins in Pisgah National Forest and ends at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. There are plenty of trails, campgrounds, overlooks and small towns off of the parkway.

Mammoth Cave
One of only ten national parks east of the Mississippi, Mammoth Cave is lightly visited and off the beaten path. The park is a five and a half hour drive from Atlanta, a perfect road trip on a long weekend.

Most people travel to Mammoth to visit the cave, a 412 mile long system that is the longest in the world. The best thing to do is take a ranger-led cave tour. There are tours about cave formations in the Domes and Dripstones and Frozen Niagara tours. The Historic Tour provides an overview of the human history of the cave. For those looking for adventure, the lantern led tours show how the original cave tours would have been conducted. Book cave tours in advance because they do sell out and are the only way to see the cave.

There is also much beauty outside of the cave. There are many hiking trails showcasing the region’s beautiful fall color. Take a trail leading to overlooks of the Green River. Or take the Sinkhole trail to the emergence of the underground river system. Other activities include canoeing and kayaking down the Green river and horseback riding through Mammoth’s trails.

Stay inside the park at the historic lodge or outside the park in the nearby towns of Bowling Green or Cave City.

For those who would love to explore the fall foliage close to home, the parks of the South are the best places to do so.