From the Louisiana swamps to the Virginia mountains, the American Southeast may lack the towering vistas that inspired people like John Muir and Ansel Adams, but Appalachia has tremendous charm and beauty. Thousands upon thousands of miles of interwinding trails link hiking areas as far apart as Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
The Southeast offers a variety of hiking options for just about anyone looking to spend time outdoors. Trying to get out for a basic day hike? Most towns have one. Want to backpack? Appalachia beckons. Want to fish for trout without travelling to Wyoming? Head out to the Pisgah National Forest.
This list focuses on shorter hikes that the average hiker can do in a single day. However, given the highly developed nature of the trail networks, many of these day hikes can be turned into backpacking trips with the proper planning and preparation.
With the varied terrain of the Southeast, even someone who has spent time in the Rocky Mountains will find new and enticing landscapes to draw them in.
Clingmans Dome, Tennessee
Towering over the surrounding mountains, Clingmans Dome is an impressive place. Add the observation tower into the picture, and this mountain has some truly impressive views on a clear day. A visitor here doesn’t actually have to hike — you can just drive up.
But there’s more to Clingmans Dome than a simple tower. It’s a classic spot on the Appalachian Trail, and the beginning point of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Adventurers can park at the top and go on a day hike from there. Since the trail network extends for thousands of miles, the possibilities are almost endless.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. The view is excellent, and often when the sun sets, hikers are reminded why the Great Smokies have their name: a fine, blue haze holds firm over the surrounding area.
If you’re looking for a beautiful but not too exhausting hike, check out Clingmans Dome. Just be ready for some colder and wetter weather. This peak has its own ecosystem, with forests closer to the taiga of Quebec than other Appalachian woods.
Old Rag, Virginia
Deep in Virginia’s historic Shenandoah Valley, Old Rag stands out as a challenging but fantastic hike for any adventurous soul in the area. Oddly enough, it’s possible to wake up in Washington D.C., hike Old Rag, and be back home before dark — depending on traffic, of course.
This hike is really a climb more than anything else, though the rock scrambles are not technical. So undertake Old Rag with caution and an honest appraisal of your skills and conditioning. It’s a serious workout, but there’s not much in the world quite as fun as a good rock scramble.
The Shenandoah Valley is a remarkable area, and Old Rag offers hikers not only a good view, but also an all-around experience of some of the best hiking in the East. I first climbed Old Rag as a child, and it is one of the reasons I fell in love with the outdoors.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, Louisiana
Just a few miles south of New Orleans, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve offers an amazing glimpse into the ecosystem of the Mississippi Delta. This is where swamps, forests, and oceans meet each other in dramatic fashion.
The Barataria Preserve is the main show for a hiker. You’ll trek along boardwalks over the swamp in this unique location, all the while keeping an eye open for alligators and snakes. However, the ancient reptiles mostly add to the ambiance.
For a history nerd, there’s also the Chalmette Battlefield, where American and British armies clashed in 1815. And the park is named for Jean Lafitte, the notorious pirate who may (or may not) have stashed his treasure in the area.
The swamps of Louisiana are an amazing experience, and while the hiking isn’t difficult, the trails and boardwalks are special. As an added bonus, much of the Barataria Preserve is accessible to people with limited mobility, opening the bayou for all to enjoy.
Springer Mountain, Georgia
Located at the southern terminus of the legendary Appalachian Trail, the trail network around Springer Mountain, Georgia, offers more than many realize.
Want a leisurely stroll through the woods with a good view at the end? Summit Springer Mountain proper. Looking for a longer trek? Hike an out-and-back on the Appalachian Trail approach. There are numerous trail options for hikers — or even not-so-outdoorsy people — across a variety of activity levels.
As one of the best hiking destinations in Georgia, you can expect some crowds in the summer, especially on holiday weekends. Because of this, the best time to visit Springer Mountain is probably fall, when the heat is bearable and the fall foliage are spectacular.
Alum Cave Bluffs Trail, Tennessee
For anyone looking for a cave hike through unique and impressive terrain, the Alum Caves trail network near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is well worth the trip. Once used as a Confederate saltpeter mine for gunpowder manufacture, Alum Cave is now simply a hiking destination with great scenery.
The hike also benefits from a magnificent view toward the Eye of the Needle and Myrtle Rock, other noteworthy destinations in Tennessee. An ambitious hiker can continue up to the summit of Mount LeConte. And like many hikes in the Smokies, you have access to a nearly unlimited trail network for the trailhead.
The Alum Caves area has a hike for anyone, and that alone makes this spot a worthy destination for any hiker in the American Southeast.
This article was originally published July 23, 2019, on Coffee or Die.