The South's Best Parks 2021
From coasts to peaks, the South is blessed with a bounty of scenes that will take your breath away. The region’s natural features offer such range—whether it be rich, marshy waterways, dramatic canyons, or famed hardwood forests—one might wonder how you could scratch the surface in one lifetime. But the true beauty in what Mother Nature bestowed in our backyard is the immersive spirit that lies in every landscape of the South. No matter how varied, the South’s protected lands unite in igniting a sense of wonder; they draw us deep into the depths of discovery while relieving us of reality’s hustle and bustle. With just one visit, they can restore our sense of place in the world.
While you’ll find this inspiration in every corner of the South, our favorite spaces exemplify the especially scenic diversity of our region. Some are off the beaten path while others are among the most visited public lands in our nation, but all of the South’s Best parks promise some of the most spectacular landscapes you’ll ever see.
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests
Spanning more than 867,000 acres in North Georgia, this medley of mountains and dense, tree-lined hikes is the gateway to the Appalachian Trail. Winding routes climb the state’s highest peak, Brasstown Bald; others lead to the cascading waters at Amicalola Falls. These paths also offer glimpses into one of the country’s first gold rushes, the Native American experience, and Civil War battles.
Learn more about the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
Congaree National Park
This floodplain forest just outside Columbia is known for its majestic trees. Home to the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the Southeast, Congaree’s lush backcountry is specked with ancient elms, oaks, cypresses, maples, and more, earning the park its nickname, “Redwoods East.” Paddle among the tupelo trees, with trunks that stretch wide into the water, or stroll through the park’s network of boardwalks and trails to best experience this untouched ecosystem.
Learn more about Congaree National Park.
Everglades National Park
A seemingly endless expanse of subtropical wilderness, this 1.5 million-acre park is wild at heart. Its tangled waterways, mangrove forests, and saw grass marshes are a humid haven for tremendous biodiversity that extends far beyond Florida’s iconic alligators. From wading birds and bobcats to manatees and flamingos, the Everglades are a sanctuary for seawater, freshwater, and land-dwelling wildlife. Meander through this sluggish “River of Grass” by kayak or boat to better acquaint yourself with its complexities.
Learn more about Everglades National Park.
Grayson Highlands State Park
Just north of the North Carolina border, Grayson’s windswept pastures and high alpine meadows offer a breath of fresh air from the surrounding Appalachian landscape. They’re also home to a population of wild ponies that help control brush along the highlands and delight visitors. Spruce-fir forests, wild trout streams, and trails to the summit of Mount Rogers offer something for everyone.
Learn more about Grayson Highlands State Park.
The South's Best Parks
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Tennessee / North Carolina
America’s most-visited national park boasts mist-cloaked ridges and world-renowned wildlife along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Scores of waterfalls and forested hills await sightseers along the park’s scenic roadways and trails, and as you wander further in, the crowds will fall away. Off-the-beaten-path adventures towards the North Carolina side of the park offer a retreat for solitude seekers, even during peak seasons. Known for tremendous array of animal and plant life, the Smokies host the most biological diversity in the world’s temperate zone. Many visit hoping to catch a glimpse of a black bear, but more than 100,000 species have been identified within the park’s gates.
Learn more about Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Gulf State Park
Serene white sands meet woodlands, wetlands, and wildlife at this 6,150-acre coastal preserve. Even with 2 miles of shoreland, Gulf State Park offers more than sand and surf. A well-maintained maze of 28 miles of trails weaves through hardwood swamps, sun-kissed dunes, and freshwater lagoons. A bird-watcher’s paradise, the park is also known for its feathered treasures, from great blue herons to loons.
Learn more about Gulf State Park.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Cutting into the rugged landscape for 120 miles, Palo Duro’s 800-foot-deep canyon, carved by the Red River and the weather, is the second largest in the country. Dramatic features are the draw of this Panhandle retreat, which you can explore on horseback or foot. Painted layers of rock pour out into “Spanish skirt” formations as splendid as the garments they’re named for, while towering rock pedestals known as hoodoos seem to defy gravity. Hike the 5.75-mile trail to the park’s 310-foot-tall Lighthouse structure to see for yourself.
Learn more about Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
Pisgah National Forest
Pisgah’s western North Carolina mountain ranges are blanketed by hardwood forests, white water rapids, and streams prime for outdoor recreation. Home to the first designated wilderness areas in the Eastern United States, Shining Rock and the Linville Gorge, Pisgah National Forest was created in 1916 when the Vanderbilts sold a significant portion of Biltmore estate to the U.S. government to be managed as public lands. Today, visitors can splash down the 60-foot natural granite water cascade at Sliding Rock, hike to the summit of Mount Pisgah, admire spring’s splendor among the wildflowers at Craggy Gardens, or cast a line on the Davidson River. On or off the trail, this 500,000-acre landscape provides boundless exploration.
Learn more about Pisgah National Forest.
Red River Gorge Geological Area
Whittled away through the ages by wind and water, the sandstone arches and towering cliffs here rival what you’d find out West. After traveling through the historic Nada Tunnel on the way into the preserve, visitors are greeted by a rugged landscape. This canyon system is a climber’s dream, but its miles of unique rock formations offer equally impressive views from area trails or rapids. Be sure to see Red River Gorge’s best-known fixture, the Natural Bridge, before checking out more than 100 arches and other features.
Learn more about the Red River Gorge Geological Area.
Shenandoah National Park
Not just a scenic drive, Shenandoah National park is rich with panoramic views, history, and adventure. The pastoral wilderness along the Blue Ridge Mountains is an extraordinary stretch of gentle peaks, trout-filled waters, and hike-worthy waterfalls. The park’s 105-mile Skyline Drive may be the simplest way to sightsee, but the route’s milepost system makes it easy to find spots where you can swap the road for a path. Nearly 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail may entice thrill seekers to throw on a pack and stay awhile. Don’t miss the fall foliage or spring wildflowers.
Learn more about Shenandoah National Park.