Ecotourism in America: Stunning Natural Wonders of the Southeast
Year after year, the southeastern states draw millions of nature-loving Americans to experience their incredible outdoor recreation opportunities. From diverse habitats and conservation sites to breathtaking views and world-famous hikes, the southeast boasts some truly special destinations. Below, I’ve compiled a list of the best ecotourism destinations in each southeastern state, ranging from some of the most popular to a few lesser-known gems.
Gulf Coast Beaches
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Alabama is consistently ranked among the top five states for biodiversity, and the Gulf Coast island strip is certainly proof of that. The white sand beaches and aquamarine seashores provide the perfect location for boating, charter fishing tours, scuba diving in any of its 17,000 reefs, and miles of beaches to explore.
However, the ocean isn’t the only attraction for nature lovers in Alabama. The Gulf Coast is full of nature trails where guests can hike or bike through 9 different ecosystems and wildlife watch for rare species like sea turtles or the sea mouse.
Visitors to Everglades National Park often marvel at the tranquility and mystery of the swamp system running through south Florida. The park spans a massive 1.5 million acres, and its tropical wetlands are home to thousands of animals, including alligators, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, manatees, Florida panthers, and hundreds of unique bird species.
Winter is considered the best time to visit the Everglades, as the bugs are fewer but the wildlife is more abundant. Guided tours, boating, and camping in the backcountry are popular activities. There are also canoe and kayak ‘trails’ that visitors can paddle through, enjoying the mangrove forests, sawgrass marshes, and the Florida bay. These paddling trails can accommodate any experience level, with lengths ranging from a few hours to a few days!
Known as Georgia’s ‘Little Grand Canyon,’ Providence Canyon wows guests with its color but can also remind them of the importance of caring for the earth. This ‘canyon’ is not a natural occurrence, but was caused by poor farming practices in the 1800’s. Despite its unfortunate source of creation, the canyon has been turned into a state park so that guests may appreciate the beauty of the plunging gullies with their red, orange, pink, and purple coloration while learning about nature.
Guests enjoy hiking, camping, and backpacking throughout the Canyon, as well as photographing Plumleaf Azaleas, which are a rare flower that blooms in late summer all along the canyon.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest cave, which currently measures 412 miles long (with continuous discoveries driving the belief that the cave could actually carry on for up to 1,000 miles!). Guided tours offer an opportunity to explore the labyrinth of caverns by either electric light or lantern, and also provide the chance to learn about the extensive history of the cave.
While Mammoth Cave itself is the biggest attraction, the park includes over 52,000 acres and has many other sites of interest including hills, forests, the Green river, 200 smaller caves, and trails.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras became the nation’s first national seashore when it was created in 1953. The Cape protects a strip of about 70 miles of scattered barrier islands along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The rough winds and rocky shores that once earned the Cape the nickname ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ due to many shipwrecks provide the best fishing and surfing on the Atlantic shoreline today.
The Park is thought to have one of the darkest skies (aka one of the best stargazing opportunities) east of the Mississippi. Lighthouses seasonally open at night provide guests with a change to look at the stars and moon from a different vantage point. As far as wildlife goes, the loggerhead turtle and the piping plover, as well as seals, whales, dolphins, various species of migrating birds, and even a herd of banker ponies make the Cape their home.
Walterboro, South Carolina
Located between Hilton Head Island and Charleston, the ACE Basin is framed by the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers, which together form one of the largest undeveloped estuary ecosystems remaining along the Atlantic coast. Spanning about 350,000 acres in total, the Basin contains 79,000 acres which are designated as public lands.
With 265 species of local and migratory birds, the ACE Basin is considered one of the premier birdwatching sites in South Carolina. The area boasts multiple wildlife preserves and refuges designated Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society. Visitors may see storks, herons, and other waterfowl, as well as songbirds. Other wildlife in the Basin include alligators, bobcats, deer, and wild hogs.
The Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most popular National Park in the United States, with over ten million visitors annually. Hiking the park’s 500,000+ acres is extremely popular, as guests marvel at the breathtaking mountain views and keep a vigilant eye out for wildlife. The animals present include white-tailed deer, black bears, raccoons, and salamanders (the park is considered the ‘Salamander Capital of the World’). Before the park was established, bison, elk, mountain lion, gray and red wolves, river otters, Peregrine falcons, and several species of fish were eradicated from the area. However, thanks to efforts by the National Park Service, the river otter, elk and the Peregrine Falcon have recently been reintroduced.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also a world-famous location for wildflower diversity, with upwards of 1,500 species at the park, which is more than any other national park in North America. With all these colorful blooms against the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains, you can imagine why the spring is a popular time to visit. At the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the new pollinator garden allows visitors to learn about and observe all kinds of bees and other pollinators at work.
Blue Ridge Mountains
Part of the larger Appalachian Mountain range, the Blue Ridge mountains are a breathtaking part of the Virginia landscape. Visitors can wind their way through the mountains via the 469 mile long Blue Ridge Parkway, which is considered America’s favorite drive. Hiking, however, is always one of the best ways to see the topography up close and find unique vantage points. Portions of the Appalachian trail, as well as many caves nestled throughout the range, are fun for visitors to explore.
Shenandoah Valley National Park is a must-see; on 500 miles of trails, visitors have the opportunity to appreciate the 130 tree species and 1,600 plant species in the region. Songbirds, deer, and black bears are just a few of the animal species visitors will be able to spot.
Monongahela National Forest
The Monongahela National Forest spans close to a million acres in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. The forest is nearly completely made up of second growth trees, which began growing after the intense deforestation of the region in the early 1900’s. Today, the Forest is an important haven for the growth of red spruce, balsam fir, and mountain ash.
Known for its rugged mountain views, the Forest is also the cite of eight different U.S. Wilderness Areas where guests can experience prime nature observation opportunities. Guests can also enjoy the brilliant wildflowers, cranberry bogs and blueberry and huckleberry thickets scattered throughout the region.
Arkansas / Missouri
The Ozark National Forest, the southern part of which is located in Arkansas, includes more than one million acres and is made up of a ‘range’ of plateaus linked together. The erosion caused by rivers has formed especially rugged looking cliffs. Spring is one popular time to visit the Ozarks, as dogwood and redwood trees bloom brilliantly. Fall is also a favorite time for visitors, when they can enjoy the brilliant colors of the changing oaks, hickories, and maples.
Visitors can drive over 160 miles and through six nationally-designated scenic byways to take in the views. The Forest is scattered throughout with campsites, swimming sites, and the 218 mile Ozark Highlands Trail. Mt. Magazine is a popular climb, and many other unique geologic features and caves like Blanchard Springs Caverns provide fun places to explore.
New Iberia, Louisiana
Avery Island is an incredible haven for nature in Louisiana, covering over 2,000 acres of mystic marshes and bayous where visitors can observe the local flora and fauna. Conservationist Edward Avery McIlhenny established the island as a wildlife sanctuary in the late 1800’s when he became alarmed by the diminishing snowy egret population.
At Bird City sanctuary today, visitors can observe several hundreds of thousands of snowy egrets, along with herons, ibises, spoonbills, and many other unique waterfowl. Visitors to the 170 acre Jungle Gardens may be able to observe semitropical wildlife such as bears, bobcats, deer, and alligators, amidst the beautiful flowering plants and classic Spanish moss-laden trees of the deep South. Due to its early founding and pioneering example, Teddy Roosevelt once called Avery Island, “the most noteworthy reserve in the country.”
Each of the sites on this list deserve a round of applause for their dedication to protecting the natural wonders of the southeast. They are places where visitors can learn about, experience, and appreciate the vast expanses of nature all around them. As a resident of the southeast, I can attest: this region has some of America’s most beautiful places (not that I’m biased or anything)! You definitely won’t regret planning your next trip here.