Best Natural Wonders in the South
From canyons to coral reefs, Mother Nature uses a Southern accent to deliver some of her most dramatic performances
Cahaba River Lilies (Alabama)
The Shoals lily is so rare that it appears only in certain parts of Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia. The largest stand in the world can be found along Alabama’s Cahaba River at Hargrove Shoals near West Blocton. You’ll find tufts of the 3-foot-tall plants sprouting between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but each plant blooms only for a single day each year. Sign up for a guided canoe trip from the Cahaba River Society.
Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge; cahabariversociety.org
Crater of Diamonds (Arkansas)
Sitting atop one of the world’s few gem-bearing volcanic craters, Crater of Diamonds is the only place in the world where the general public can hunt for these rare stones. Hopefuls sift through a 38-acre plowed field—the surface of an ancient volcanic crater—looking for white, brown, and yellow diamonds. The largest one ever found in the U.S. came from here, and people still pull sizable diamonds from the surface almost daily.
209 State Park Road; craterofdiamondsstatepark.com
The Everglades (Florida)
This 1.5 million-acre “river of grass” covers the southern tip of Florida in a mix of fresh and brackish water, hosting the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere and the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie in North America. It’s also home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, including rare, endangered, and threatened species, such as the alligator, crocodile, manatee, and panther.
40001 State Road 9336; nps.gov/ever
Great Florida Reef (Florida)
Tucked beneath the surface of the water just a few miles from the Florida Keys, the Great Florida Reef is the only living coral reef in the United States and the third-largest barrier reef in the world. Intrepid divers can explore 358 miles of colorful coral, teeming with vibrant sea life.
102601 Overseas Highway; pennekamppark.com
Cumberland Falls Moonbow (Kentucky)
Picture a 125-foot-wide wall of water dropping over a cliff into a gorge. Dubbed the “Niagara of the South,” Cumberland Falls is impressive enough on its own, but visit during a full moon and you might see a rare “moonbow,” which occurs when moonlight meets the spray from the falls, creating a rainbow effect at night.
7351 Ky-90, Corbin, Kentucky; stateparks.com/cumberland_falls
Mammoth Cave (Kentucky)
The South is riddled with caves, but the most impressive is Kentucky’s Mammoth, known for its cathedral-like rooms. With more than 400 miles of explored passages, it’s the longest known cave system in the world.
1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy; nps.gov/maca
Red River Gorge Geological Area (Kentucky)
This canyon system is best known for the highest concentration of natural sandstone arches east of the Mississippi. Of the 100-plus arches, Sky Bridge is arguably the most magnificent, spanning 75 feet across.
3451 Sky Bridge Road
Atchafalaya Basin (Louisiana)
The Atchafalaya is the largest river swamp in the United States, containing almost a million acres of bottomland forest and bayous. It stretches 140 miles from Simmesport to the Gulf of Mexico. The area is known for its signature bald cypress trees rising up from swampy waters—and its crawfish. An estimated 22 million pounds of them are pulled from the Atchafalaya every year.
Atchafalaya Welcome Center; atchafalaya.org
Jockey’s Ridge (North Carolina)
Standing at roughly 100 feet above sea level, Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest sand dune in the Eastern U.S. and an icon of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Brave a daunting climb to the top for a bird’s-eye view of Bodie Island, Albemarle Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean, or get really adventurous and sign up for hang-gliding school, based at the park.
Milepost 12, Highway 158; jockeysridgestatepark.com
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (North Carolina)
This 3,800-acre preserve, accessible only on foot, has one of the largest stands of old-growth forest in the East and some of the region’s largest trees. Among them are 300-year-old tulip poplars soaring 100 feet high, with a 20-foot circumference.
5410 Joyce Kilmer Road
Whitewater Falls (North Carolina)
Measuring a jaw-dropping 411 feet from top to bottom, Upper Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. But add the 400-foot Lower Whitewater Falls just below and you have one of the most impressive waterscapes anywhere in the country.
Cashiers, North Carolina
Great Salt Plains (Oklahoma)
The 11,000-square-mile Great Salt Plains are as white as, well, salt, thanks to the saline deposits left over from an ancient sea that once drenched the area. Still flowing beneath the surface is a saline aquifer that replenishes the layer of salt when the underground water rises. Dig for hourglass selenite crystals here because they are found nowhere else in the world.
Rock City (Georgia)
If you’re a Southerner of a certain age, chances are you grew up seeing Tennessee entrepreneur Garnet Carter’s “See Rock City” ads painted on barn roofs all over the place. Tourists still flock to see Rock City’s acres of massive sandstone boulders, which form mazes and walls along the brow of Lookout Mountain. Walk the Enchanted Trail through narrow passages and over deep gorges to Lover’s Leap, an outcropping that overlooks the lush valley 1,700 feet below.
1400 Patten Road; seerockcity.com
Synchronous Fireflies, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee)
Southern kids grow up catching “lightning bugs” in Mason jars during the summertime, but there are only a few places in the world where you can see a species of synchronous fireflies that glow in a unified pattern. Elkmont Campground, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has the largest population of them, drawing thousands of visitors to this natural light show in late May or early June.
107 Sugarlands Visitor Center Loop Road; nps.gov/grsm
Big Bend (Texas)
Big Bend National Park defines West Texas, with its vast canyons and cactus-covered deserts, but the park was named for that sharp turn in the Rio Grand where the river changes direction and heads north. Big Bend also has one of the South’s only natural hot springs, located on the north bank of the river. Soak in the 105-degree water that pools inside a stone foundation, the only remains of a historic bathhouse.
1 Panther Drive; nps.gov/bibe/
Padre Island National Seashore & Laguna Madre (Texas)
Padre Island separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of the few hypersaline lagoons in the world—Laguna Madre’s water is saltier than even the ocean itself. The longest known barrier island, Padre has 113 miles of undeveloped beaches, dunes, and prairies. About 380 different bird species call it home, as do five different species of sea turtle.
20420 Park Road 22; nps.gov/pais
Palo Duro Canyon (Texas)
Think of Palo Duro as the South’s very own Grand Canyon. The second-largest canyon system in the country, it stretches for 120 miles through the Texas Panhandle, with sections as wide as 20 miles across and up to 800 feet deep.
11450 Park Road 5; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon
Natural Bridge (Virginia)
Over the centuries, Cedar Creek carved a hole through a limestone cliff while making its way to the James River, creating a stone arch that stands 215 feet high and spans 90 feet across the creek. The bridge is so stunning that George Washington felt compelled to survey it, and Thomas Jefferson had to own it. Having described it as “the most sublime of Nature’s works,” Jefferson acquired Natural Bridge in 1774. It was sold with his estate in 1833.
15 Appledore Lane; naturalbridgeva.com