The western half of the U.S. isn’t the only region with spectacular national parks. States like Montana, Colorado and Utah usually get all the credit for having picturesque national parks. The next time you’re in the South and are in the mood for a good hike, try out one of these beautiful spots.
8. Croatan National Forest – Havelock, NC
The Croatan National Forest is the only coastal forest anywhere along the east coast. Its 160,000 acres contain all kinds of ecological settings, from pine forests to swamps to estuaries. It’s the perfect spot for wildlife geeks – wild turkeys, gators and black bears are common.
Because the park is surrounded by water, its trees have adapted their roots to this soggy environment, giving the decidedly deciduous scene a strangely tropical, mangrove-y feel. For Brownie points, ask a ranger to help you locate a native-growing Venus flytrap.
7. Great Smoky Mountains – Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Linking North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains are one of the most beautiful mountain ranges this half of the Mississippi River.
The mountains are coated with colorful trees that make this a mandatory autumnal trip. Also, the park was once home to Native Americans and Appalachian settlers, so it’s littered with artifacts.
6. Congaree National Park – Hopkins, SC
The Congaree National Park holds the largest chunk of “old growth bottomland hardwood forest.” It’s been around for so long that it hosts unique ecological features that aren’t found anywhere else.
The best way to experience the park is to kayak or canoe straight through it on the Congaree River.
5. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve – Lafayette, Marrero, and Chalmette, La.
These swampy lands surrounding the Mississippi Delta are some of the most biodiverse in the world. The park comprises three general locations, but Marrero and Chalmette are the most impressive views of nature.
Like Congaree National Park, this park offers canoe and kayak tours through the marshes and swamps.
If you’re a history buff, the Chalmette preserve was the location of the Battle of New Orleans, and the park has a national battlefield and cemetery you can visit.
4. Hot Springs National Park – Hot Springs, Ark.
Hot Springs, Arkansas is the oldest nationally-managed park and one of the only remaining cities worldwide that was built around naturally-occurring hot springs.You can take a dip in any of the urban bathhouses or explore the park’s hiking trails and mountains that split the city in half.
Throughout its history, travelers have come from all take advantage of the baths’ supposed healing powers.The hot water was also diverted to a local military hospital and pay bathhouses, which you can still visit today as historical landmarks.
3. Providence Canyon State Park – Lumpkin, Ga.
Affectionately called Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon”, the pine-ridden canyon boasts breathtaking views like the one above. The massive time-carved walls show off Georgia’s famous clay sediment and appear a dead ringer for Utah’s Bryce Canyon.
Ironically, the canyon isn’t exactly naturally occurring – it was caused by poor farming practices in the 1800s. Still, it provides some of the best hiking in the whole state. Drop offs can reach 150 feet. The second-best activity is the nighttime stargazing.
2. Everglades – Miami, Naples, and Homestead, Fla.
We all knew the Everglades would be high on this list, right? The once-massive national park is one of the most biodiverse areas on the entire planet, made famous by its mangrove forests (pictured) and swamps.
The Everglades are the only non-zoo American area where you can see a crocodile in the wild. The park is also home to the endangered Florida Panther, as well as manatees, which you can swim with.
1. Biscayne National Park – Miami, Key Biscayne, and Homestead, Fla.
Shockingly, the picture above wasn’t taken in Bermuda or Australia – the exotic wonderland of Biscayne National Park starts just outside of Miami. The park’s coral reefs are dotted with tropical fish and sit in crystal clear waters.
Fanciful waterfowl, sea turtles and manatees also live here, all of which is to say there’s no better place in America to go snorkeling. Biscayne is your next getaway vacation – you’re welcome.