Hidden Southern Escapes for Summer Getaways

Our region filled with natural places to explore and admire.

Calico Rock in Ozark National Forest
Photo: William Rainey

Buffalo National River

Its sparkling waters and Ozark Mountain views still amaze

No wonder so many songs have been written about rivers. There’s something awe-inspiring about the waters that help form and transform our landscape as they travel through it

Numerous American rivers have been harnessed by dams, so the free-flowing ones that are preserved by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System are rare and special. Congress created this program in 1968, and the first American waterway to be named a national river is right here in the South—Arkansas’ Buffalo National River.

Compton’s Double Falls in Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area
William Rainey

The Buffalo is 150 miles long, 135 miles of which are managed by the National Park Service. Another 16 miles or so, including the Buffalo’s headwaters, fall within Ozark National Forest and are designated as a national wild and scenic river—even more protected, with little or no road access.

This area is home to all kinds of wildlife, including a herd of Rocky Mountain elk, introduced here in 1981. Last year, the Buffalo National River became an International Dark Sky Park, making stargazing yet another reason to visit.

Head to the Mountains

Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky
Art Meripol

Red River Gorge Geological Area

At least 100 natural stone arches are framed by dramatic cliffs and woodlands in Daniel Boone National Forest.

Monongahela National Forest

West Virginia
This area includes the Highland Scenic Highway, a 43-mile drive right through the majestic Allegheny Highlands and Plateau.

Pisgah National Forest

North Carolina
America’s “Cradle of Forestry” offers more than 500,000 acres of mountains, woodlands, and waterfalls. A large swath of Pisgah National Forest was once part of Biltmore Estate.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

What began as one man’s dream in the 1920s was finally completed by private citizens in the 1930s and became the first national scenic trail in 1968. Over the years, the federal and state governments secured lands that the trail crossed over so it would always be protected. The final tract was acquired in 2014. Today, the “A.T.” offers hikers more than 2,100 miles of footpaths along the Appalachian Mountain ridgeline, providing incredible views.

Santa Rosa Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida
Getty Images

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Salt air and sand dunes make us breathe a little more deeply

Somewhere, there’s bound to be a more beautiful sight than pristine beaches kissed by blue water, but bless Pat if we can find it.

Seven of the 10 national seashores in America are in the South, and Gulf Islands National Seashore, established by Congress in 1971, is the largest of them all, with 160 miles of coastline in the northern Gulf.

Protected areas lie on Florida’s Okaloosa Island, Perdido Key, and Santa Rosa Island, as well as Mississippi’s Davis Bayou and five barrier islands: Cat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois, and West Petit Bois. The Florida areas are highway accessible from the mainland, with a particularly gorgeous drive along Florida 399 between Navarre and Pensacola Beaches. Sunsets here are spectacular, with nothing to block your view of blue water and white sand.

Mississippi’s islands are accessible by boat, with Ship being the only one with regular ferry excursions. Don’t overlook untouched Horn and Petit Bois. Designated Gulf Islands Wilderness in 1978, they offer a rare glimpse at Gulf beaches that remain as they always have been—wild.

More on the Shores

Padre Island National Seashore

North Padre Island—not to be confused with spring break magnet, South Padre—lays claim to “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.” You’ll see dunes, tidal flats, and abundant wildlife on 70 miles of shoreline, along with the Laguna Madre, which is a rare hypersaline lagoon between North Padre and mainland Texas. Among the island’s residents are sea turtles, jackrabbits, coyotes, deer, and nearly 400 species of birds plus the occasional snake (so watch your step in the dunes).

Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
Wynn Myers

Daufuskie Island

South Carolina
On this time-stood-still island, accessible only by boat, writer Pat Conroy famously taught at the Mary Fields School, an experience that led to his book The Water Is Wide and the movie Conrack. Now, local artisans occupy the former school, celebrating its history and Daufuskie’s ties to Conroy.

Assateague Island Lighthouse
Robbie Caponetto

Assateague Island

Maryland & Virginia
Only 37 miles long, with Sinepuxent and Chincoteague Bays along its western flank and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Assateague Island packs plenty of drama onto its sands, thanks to the wild horses that roam its beaches. Also don’t miss the scenic Assateague Lighthouse. For equine enthusiasts and nature photographers, it’s hard to imagine a better coastal spot.

Caladesi Island

You’ll need a boat to get here. This island is completely natural except for a historic homestead and a marina and cafe, where you can rent water gear. Follow paddling trails through mangrove forests, and relax on serene white-sand Florida beaches.

Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma
Harvey Payne

Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

There’s no other landscape like it, and we almost lost it forever

This is the home where the buffalo roamed. According to the National Park Service, the prairie land of North America once covered 400,000 square miles and was inhabited by tens of millions of bison. Only 4% of the fertile segment that received the most water—the tallgrass prairie—is left. One cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl was the destruction of tallgrass by settlers who were eager to farm the rich soil beneath it. Removal of grazing lands also contributed to the dramatic reduction of our bison population.

There have been efforts, however, to save and rejuvenate remnants of the prairie. Near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, The Nature Conservancy has amassed almost 40,000 acres and set about restoring and protecting native grasses. Here, on the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, American bison have been reintroduced, sharing habitat with white-
tailed deer and other wildlife, including more than 300 species of birds.

In the 1990s, The Nature Conservancy made it possible to drive a 15-mile loop through the tallgrass so you can see a piece of living history and appreciate a natural treasure that almost slipped away.

Time To Go West

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Once part of a vast ranch that was established in the Texas Panhandle by the legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight and his business partner and investor, John Adair, Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the United States. Texas acquired it and created the park in the 1930s. Palo Duro was a major source of inspiration for painter Georgia O’Keeffe, known as the “Mother of American Modernism.”

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma
Courtesy Clark Brown/Stardust Inn Bed & Breakfast

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

One of America’s oldest wildlife refuges, this 59,000-acre preserve near Lawton protects endangered animals and their habitat. Some 40% of the refuge is available for recreational use. Hike, boulder, and explore one of the most impressive and distinctive landscapes in the Southwest, and keep your camera handy for bison, deer, longhorn cattle, and elk.

Davis Mountains State Park

This might be where Western movies came from. Davis Mountains State Park is an unforgettable slice of West Texas, loaded with big skies and cowboy character. Horses are welcome on the equestrian trails in the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area, where riders can clip-clop to a 5,700-foot altitude.

Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site

Native people came to these hills to find shelter and water, which would pool in natural rock basins—huecos (WHEY-coes). You can still catch glimpses of their ancient stories in pictographs and petroglyphs at this fascinating state archaeological landmark.

A Few More Wild Ideas

Made by man or nature, they’re all unforgettable

Lake Norman

North Carolina
Unlike some lakes, which provide plenty of water recreation but not much else, North Carolina’s largest man-made body of water has 520 miles of shoreline, along with access to several cool towns, including Davidson. The dining, cultural, and entertainment options in this eclectic college town give a whole new dimension to weekends on the lake.

Caddo Lake State Park

An East Texas gem adorned with cypress trees and Spanish moss, Caddo Lake looks like a slice of Louisiana dropped into Texas—fitting, since it spans the border between the two states. With almost 27,000 watery acres, it’s dotted with bayous and sloughs that show its unmistakable kinship to its next-door neighbor.

Lake Martin

The 40,000-acre reservoir has over 700 miles of shoreline and is known to have a penchant for pontoon-boat socializing. It’s home to Church in the Pines, an outdoor worship space that locals can boat up to.

Talimena National Scenic Byway

Oklahoma & Arkansas
Built to capitalize on amazing views, the Talimena runs through Southeast Oklahoma into Arkansas, taking a 54-mile high road through Ouachita National Forest.

Atchafalaya River Basin in Louisiana
Getty Images

Atchafalaya River Basin

The largest floodplain swamp in America reaches 140 miles from Simmesport to the Gulf. A fascinating waterscape dotted with cypress trees and covered in bayous, it’s teeming with wildlife—from alligators to 250 kinds of birds, including bald eagles.

Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area

South Carolina
Find this coastal wilderness in Charleston County, a short trip from some of South Carolina’s most popular destinations, including Charleston and Kiawah Island. Wander nearly 3 miles of unspoiled Atlantic beachfront and maritime forest near the North Edisto River.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Located on the North Carolina-Virginia border, this 112,000-acre refuge was established in 1974 and offers incredible boating and birding experiences, not to mention the largest natural lake in Virginia, Lake Drummond. This area was once home to secret communities of people who had fled slavery and found a way to live free in the forbidding swamp.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Maryland & Delaware
Follow the byway’s self-guided driving tour not only to explore specific sites related to Tubman and the Underground Railroad but also to experience the natural beauty of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The route travels 125 miles across Maryland and extends 98 miles through Delaware before terminating in Philadelphia.

Log Cabin on Rabun Lake in Georgia
Hector Manuel Sanchez; Prop Styling: Page Mullins; Wardrobe, Hair, and Makeup: Celine Russell/Zenobia

Georgia Highlands

If you equate this state with metro Atlanta, the highlands will surprise you. Experience gorgeous mountain landscapes; Georgia’s wine country; quaint little towns like Helen, Ellijay, Blue Ridge, and Dahlonega; and beautiful Lake Rabun, among other waterways.

U.S. 64

North Carolina
Both the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway and Waterfall Byway are located along the 150-mile stretch of U.S. 64 between Morganton and Franklin, near Asheville. Among the cascades here are Dry Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and the somewhat indelicately named Bust Your Butt Falls.
The full length of Route 64 in North Carolina is about 600 miles, all the way from the Outer Banks to the Tennessee line.

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