The Southeastern United States is an outdoor lover’s dream if you know where to look. My daughter recently moved in for Santa Cruz, California, and asked what cool outdoor adventures are near Huntsville. I started rattling off my bucket list of places that were less than a day’s ride away, and she stopped me in my tracks. She wanted a color-coded map so she could follow along.
My first thought was pfft – kids, but I am kind of a softy, so I put together the map per her request. Suddenly, a magic window opened up, and she started asking questions and planning trips. I thought I was onto something, so I thought I would share it with all of you. The list has hiking, biking, diving, caving, and paddling trips with enough information to know why it made the list. I hope you enjoy it as much as kiddo did, and maybe it will inspire you to take one or two of these trips yourself.
I think I still have a Left Coast bias when it comes to hiking. I’ve been loving the waterfalls and tree cover in the Southeast, but there aren’t too many WOW destinations on my list like Havasu Falls or Angels Landing. I do have to admit, Cades Cove at dawn with the mists and baby bears was spectacular. I sometimes think it isn’t one particular destination but getting in touch with the forest. Observing the subtleties as you move along the range and the changes with every season. I am certainly looking forward to animal babies in the spring, fireflies in summer, and my first real fall color in years. Hopefully, soon, I’ll find an ice falls to add to this list for winter, but I’m still not sure how far north I’ll have to travel.
Walls of Jericho
The Walls of Jericho are one of the closest Alabama 20 for 2020 natural wonders to our house. It’s a descent into a limestone canyon to find waterfalls and swimming holes. The perfect time to go is late spring, while the water is still flowing, but the trail isn’t a mud fest. This trail ranks as a moderately difficult hike (7-9 miles round trip), but it has a reputation for being harder than you’d expect for that distance. I don’t know if it’s the trail condition or that you’re walking downhill first.
Fiery Gizzard Trail
I love hiking around Chattanooga. It’s far enough north to get into hemlock forests and significantly more rhododendrons with less than a two-hour drive. The Fiery Gizzard is one of the top trails in the area with a stroll along a beautiful stream with waterfalls. It seems a little tougher than Walls of Jericho because it’s a 12.5-mile trip with an infamous boulder hopping section along the creek. It’s also best done if you can arrange a car shuttle with a friend.
Falls Creek Falls
Falls Creek Falls has to be on the list. It’s a 250’+ waterfall right around the corner from us. It’s an easy trip too. In fact, the only reason it’s still on the ‘to-do’ list is social distancing this spring. We want to plan the perfect day to the park that will probably involve a bike ride through Falls Creek State Park as a plus one.
In a three week window between late May and mid-June, fireflies come out to play. We’ve enjoyed the show from our backyard, but there is a spot in the Smokies with synchronous fireflies. I can only imagine the valley blinking in unison. As it turns out, I can apply for the firefly lottery and see it for myself. If we get in, we’re going!!
Mount LeConte Lodge
On the subjects of lotteries and waiting lists in the Smokies, let’s talk about Mount LeConte Lodge. Even though Clingman’s Dome is higher, there’s a road up (and gaudy observation tower at the top). Mount LeConte is almost as tall, but you have to earn the view hiking. That being said, there’s an option to stay at the lodge with real beds and three hot meals a day. The catch is it’s a little expensive and booked way in advance. I would want to stay for at least two days and make sure that I saw the alpaca train coming up to resupply the kitchen.
Craters of Diamonds State Park
Did you know that you can find diamonds in Arkansas? I expect to be disappointed with this one, but it would be so cool if I found something. My thought is to go late spring after a heavy rain and before the summer crowds set in. I think that gives me the most chance of finding something in freshly churned dirt. Ideally, I’ll hook up with some local guide who knows a hot spot or two. Honestly, he could plant something and let me find it as long as I never found out – lol.
Paddling in the Southeast is extraordinary. We’ve already seen the Cahaba lily bloom and can’t wait to do more. I could honestly say that anywhere with a put in and take out could make this list, but I’ll try to keep to my personal highlights.
The Sipsey is Alabama’s only ‘Wild and Scenic River,’ which runs through the Bankhead Wilderness just around the corner from us. It’s as bucket list as it gets, but there’s a catch. The USGS gage height should be within 4-7 feet for safe navigation. Looking at the historical data, that means between January through April with a chance of going in December and May. Jenn hates paddling in the winter, so that puts us paddling in late April. If we had a good inflatable kayak that could run in low water, that would help too.
Mobile River Delta
The Mobile River Delta is on Alabama’s 20 for 20 list, so it’s on our bucket list too. I know that we want to avoid the blazing heat and mosquitos. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is the nation’s second-largest river delta. The Upper Bartram Canoe Trail system on the delta has six day-use trails and six overnight trails. There are two land-based campsites and four floating platform campsites available for the overnight routes.
We have paddled on sections of the Suwannee River, and it keeps calling us back. It’s possible to arrange a 20-mile/day 3-4 day trip where you stay in cabins every night. An option exists to self-shuttle and leave out of Lafayette Blue Springs, which could be a nice option because you don’t need to bring any gear in the boats with you. My dream trip looks like:
- Day 0- Stay in a treehouse at the Spirit of Suwanee, launch at dawn.
- Day 1- Suwannee River State Park Cabins.
- Day 2- Advent Christian Village Lodge (with restaurants).
- Day 3- Lafayette Blue Springs Cabins. Take out at highway 51 and shuttle back to Spirit of Suwannee.
Great Calusa Blueway
We did some paddling at Cayo Costa and loved it. Now we want to extend our time on the Great Calusa Blueway. I imagine a loop trip leaving out of Fort Meyers / Sanibel and paddling around Pine Island. We would keep our boats fairly empty, stay at hotels, and eat at restaurants along the way. We would also bring our bikes and bike Sanibel, too, as a +1 to the trip.
RushSouth Whitewater Park
RushSouth Whitewater Park on the Chattahoochee River is the longest urban whitewater rafting in the world, and it’s a half-day drive away in Columbus, Georgia. I figure we would go and do some rafting, plus there are bike trails up and down the river and zip-lines too. This just sounds like an easy and fun adventure weekend waiting to happen.
Whitewater Rafting in the Smokies
There are multiple runs available, but I am not sure which one is calling me right now. I know Jenn is a little worried about her knees on a big-water trip. Sooner or later, this is going to happen.
So, there I was, in Belize, hanging with the guys having just finished the most spectacular caving experience of my life. I ask my friend Roland, what was his best ever trip. He said camping in the Okefenokee Swamp. It’s been on my bucket list ever since. Now that I’m living in the Southeast, it has to happen. Apparently, you reserve your spot on camping pads and paddle a circuit through the swamp. You might not see another person for the entire weekend.
Camping in the Everglades
If Okefenokee made the list, there’s no way I could leave the Everglades off. It sounds like a very similar setup to Okefenokee, but you’re in the massive and unique ecosystem of the Everglades, where mangroves are thick enough to stop hurricanes.
We left Florida before we had our fill of diving there. The visibility is pretty good, the water is warm, but man oh man do they build artificial reefs there. If you love diving with sunken ships, you’ll love diving in Florida. Of course, there’s a lot more to see than shipwrecks, particularly the seasonal migration and gathering of large pelagic critters and America’s only living coral reefs.
I’m starting here because it’s close, and you almost have to do it. Known as ‘The Great Carrier Reef,’ the Oriskany tops many ‘best-of’ dive lists. At 911′, it’s one of the largest wrecks you’ll ever dive. It’s one of only three diveable carriers in the world and the only one in America. Most dive profiles spend time exploring the control tower, but rarely reach the flight deck at 140′ down (below recreational limits). I would want to go on when the visibility is good at about 100′, of course, I still would not be able to see to either end of 900′ vessel.
Shark Tooth Diving
The same sediment vein that makes Venice Beach the Shark Tooth Capital of the World extends into the ocean. Only, at 90 down, you have a legitimate chance of finding a megalodon tooth, the largest shark that ever lived with a chance of being over 60′ long. My dream shark tooth dive comes right after the waters clear from a big storm. Who knows what got kicked up with that storm surge?
Marco’s Blue Hole
Florida is dominated by its karst geology. The limestone topology continues out to sea, where you’ll find Marco’s Blue Hole, an 80′ wide sinkhole in 70′ of water. It has a vertical shaft down to 90′ and then caverns opens, which sounds a lot like a submerged Devil’s Den. What’s really freaky here is that the fish swim upside down in the bell dome oriented to the roof.
This dive isn’t about the wreck, it’s about the fish. The M/V Castor sits at the edge of the Gulf Stream Current. In fall, 800 lb Goliath Grouper swarm the ship in one of the world’s largest Grouper aggregation. Yeah, that’s going on the list. Besides the Castor, there’s plenty of Fort Lauderdale dive sites we need to explore including Lady Luck, where we can see sharks playing poker at 90′ down.
Black Water Drift Dive
Another diving phenomenon created by the Gulf Stream is black water diving. On moonless nights, Palm Beach charters cruise out to the Gulf Stream for a night dive you’ll never forget. You’re tethered in close to the surface, but photoluminescent creatures rise up from the depths beyond description and imagination.
One of my favorite dives in Panama City Beach was the Dupont Bridge Spans. The steel girders sheltered a myriad of creatures. That’s what I would imagine diving the Tenneco Towers would be like, but with better visibility and more colorful fish since it’s at the Dade/Broward County line between Ft Lauderdale and Miami.
The Vandenburg is an homage to Key West’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world was at the brink of nuclear war as Russia stockpiled missile in Cuba, less than 100 miles south of Key West. The Vandenburg was a surveillance ship that kept ties on the Cuban threat. Like the Oriskany, she’s one of the largest wrecks ever sunk. However, you can swim around her radar dishes instead of looking at an inaccessible flight deck. Plus, you’re in Key West.
The Dry Tortugas are the most remote place you can reach in the Continental United States. The skies are dark, and the oceans are blue. It too far away to run dive charters, and the reefs are too shallow anyway, but the snorkeling should be off the hook (pun intended). I think of it like snorkeling Key West on steroids.
The older I get, the more I like biking. I don’t know if it’s because of my knees or just because I can afford nicer bikes. Either way, I’ll take it. Jenn loves biking too, so it’s something we can do together. These aren’t one and done rides for me, but more of an impetus for a romantic weekend.
Chief Ladiga Trail
Alabama’s longest rail-trail is the Chief Ladiga. It connects to Georgia’s longest trail, the Silver Comet, to form one of the nation’s longest paved trails with 95 miles of rail trail. To be fair, this is on the list as a romantic getaway for Jenn and me to escape kiddo, but it’s on the list.
Tanglefoot Trail in Tupelo Mississippi might actually be closer to the house than Chief Ladiga. In any case, we have already booked a conference in Tupelo, so I’ll take the easy win. Since it’s 43.6 miles long, we could break it up into two days of riding or one start training. Plus, Faulkner’s Grandfather was an engineer on this line, which is kind of cool.
Louisville Mega Caverns
Since moving back east, we have found ourselves driving I-65 a lot between seeing my mom and son and looking for stops along the way. Louisville keeps coming up, especially the Mega Caverns. I mean, a 3-hour fat tire tour through an underground quarry is pretty unique.
Longleaf Byway / Tammany Trace
I keep looking for excuses to go to New Orleans. I haven’t been yet, but there always seems to be a reason to go. We have friends in New Orleans who have offered to put us up, and these two rail-trails are on the Rails Trails Hall of Fame. It sounds like a match made in heaven. Tammany Trace (31 miles) and Longleaf Trace(17 ) will make a fine weekend of riding.
Virginia Creeper / Greenbrier River
I recently rode Cades Cove and thought it was amazing. As I was telling the story, people asked about the Virginia Creeper (34.3 miles) and Greenbrier River Trails (78 miles). They looked amazing, so I put them on the list. I imagine a long road trip where we ride them in a single weekend and head home, maybe during the height of fall colors. I am saying it now; I am riding the hill climb on Virginia Creeper. Although at 78 miles, the Greenbrier River Trail might be its own trip.
Chewacla State Park
I ordered a new mountain bike, and I’m waiting to hit the trails with it. Chewacla State Park, near Auburn AL, keeps coming to the top of all the Alabama trails lists. The Dell’s Trail is a feature-heavy ride that looks like it would kick my ass, but it is over 30 miles of single track at varying levels, so I should be able to find something fun sections to do.
The Fire Mountain Trail system in Cherokee is called the flowiest trails in the Southeast. I love me some flowy singletrack. I turned on this video and was mesmerized. 10.5 miles of trails interlace through the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. Some people still swear by Ridgeline. I say I’ll ride them both and decide 😉
I would be remiss in my southeastern bucket list if I didn’t mention TAG caving. There are more than 100 caves within Huntsville city limits, so this could be a list of lists in itself. Only I am not going to publish any sensitive cave data.
I will say that Fern Cave, Alabama’s largest and deepest cave is on the list, as well as the beautiful Stephens Gap Cave, but these caves are public knowledge with a rock-solid (pun intended) management plan in place. There’s also Mammoth Cave as part of our I-65 adventures. The rest of the list. That’s a story for another day. Maybe around a campfire somewhere and not published on the internet.
Wrapping up My Southeast Bucketlist
I hope ya’ll have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. I would love to hear from anybody who has done any of these activities. Also, if you think there are any epic adventures in the Southeast I am missing, drop me a line. Once you release your bucketlist to the world, it’s bound to grow!
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