Photograph by Dylan Walker, Camera Press/Redux
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Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Photograph by Dylan Walker, Camera Press/Redux

The Ultimate Southern Adventure: Explore the Parks

Put a southern spin on the 100th birthday celebration of America’s best idea.

Alabama

Follow the footsteps of freedom fighters on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, one of seven Alabama national parks. The signposted trail (on Route 80) covers the 54-mile (87-kilometer) route taken in the 1965 Voting Rights March, and its National Park Service interpretive centers in White Hall and Selma capture the story of the seminal civil rights march. The Selma Interpretive Center sits at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police clashed with unarmed civil rights demonstrators on “Bloody Sunday,” on March 7, 1965. At the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, learn about the famous World War II-era, all-black squadron of pilots.

Best Bet: Inside the Selma Interpretive Center, kids can collect some of the free trading cards the National Park Service created to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Insider Tip: In northern Alabama, Little River Canyon National Preserve runs mostly on top of Lookout Mountain, where you can find scenic waterfalls, cliffs, and canyon rims. Mountain bike in the backcountry on 23 miles (37 kilometers) of dirt and chert (fine-grained rock) roads.

Don’t Miss: Horseshoe Bend National Military Park is home to 354 wildlife species and 901 plant species with a tour road loop bordering the edge of the battlefield.

Georgia

Georgia’s 11 national parks offer outdoor adventure, seaside fun, and a healthy dose of history. Near metro Atlanta, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area features fishing for trout, bass, catfish, and other species; cycling; and river rafting, kayaking, tubing, and motor boating. Book rental watercraft or guided trips through the Nantahala Outdoor Center. To the southeast on the Georgia coast is Cumberland Island National Seashore, accessible only by boat. Ride the ferry (reservations recommended) from St. Marys to explore Cumberland Island’s 18 miles (29 kilometers) of undeveloped beaches and 50 miles (80 kilometers) of hiking trails.

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The Dungeness, a mansion on Cumberland Island, Georgia, was once owned by Gogo Ferguson, the great-great grandfather of Thomas Carnegie.

Best Bet: Book seats in advance for Cumberland Island’s Lands and Legacies Tour, about a 30-mile (48-kilometer) driving and walking tour featuring stops at historic sites such as the Georgian Revival Plum Orchard Mansion.

Insider Tip: The Andersonville National Historic Site pays homage to all American prisoners of war at the location of a Civil War POW camp. Time your visit to coincide with the Living History Weekend in March, when re-enactors portray Union prisoners, Confederate guards, and civilians. More than 45,000 soldiers were held here and about 13,000 died.

Don’t Miss: The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site pays tribute to America’s 39th president and his relationship to his hometown of Plains, Georgia.

Kentucky

Arguably the crown jewel in Kentucky’s national park collection is Mammoth Cave National Park. The park, a World Heritage site, has the longest known cave system in the world, at 400 miles (644 kilometers) explored. To get the most out of your visit, make reservations for a ranger-led cave tour, such as the family-friendly Frozen Niagara Tour or the extreme Wild Cave Tour deep down into the primordial darkness.

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Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is home to Princess Falls, accessible to hikers off the Lick Creek Trail.

Best Bet: Bring your bike and hiking shoes to enjoy Mammoth’s free aboveground locations, such as the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail.

Insider Tip: Straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area preserves 125,000 acres (50,586 hectares) of the Cumberland Plateau. While you can explore the area on your own, authorized concessionaires like Sheltowee Trace Outfitters offer guided rafting and kayaking experiences.

Don’t Miss: South of Louisville, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park memorializes America’s 16th president. The site was the first to honor Lincoln, who died at age 56—also the number of steps up to the memorial building housing a re-creation of the tiny cabin where Lincoln was born. After touring the park, head northeast to the Knob Creek site of Lincoln’s boyhood home.

Mississippi

Hit the beach, take a scenic drive, and explore Civil War battlefields all within the confines of one of Mississippi’s eight national parks. Running through the center of the state is the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic highway covering 444 miles (715 kilometers) from Natchez to Nashville, Tennessee. In the southernmost part of the state and stretching into Florida are the white sands of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a playground for sunning, swimming, boating, and bird-watching.

Best Bet: When driving the Natchez Trace, get off the road and hike the more than 60 miles (97 kilometers) of five trails that make up the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail.

Insider Tip: In Natchez, explore the Natchez National Historical Park, consisting of historic sites around the city. Two must-see landmarks are the ornate Melrose estate and William Johnson's town house, the home of a freed slave who launched a successful business career.

Don’t Miss: Vicksburg National Military Park is the place to learn about one of the most important battles in which the Union triumphed over the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Missouri

Missouri’s national parks feature one of the most recognized landmarks in the world—the 630-foot-tall (192-meter-tall) Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The iconic arch is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which honors President Thomas Jefferson and the movement to the West. Encompassing about 91 acres (37 hectares) on the Mississippi riverfront, the area is undergoing construction through late 2017. The Museum of Westward Expansion is closed for renovations, but the Old Courthouse and its galleries, site of the Dred Scott trial, and the arch itself are open. Although the trams to the top of the arch, when fully operational, can handle 6,400 people a day, tickets sell out quickly. Buy them at the Old Courthouse or, better yet, purchase them up to two hours in advance online.

Best Bet: Across the state near Kansas City in Independence, the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site honors the 33rd president. Start at the visitors center on Main Street, where you can buy tickets to tour the Truman Home on North Delaware Street.

Insider Tip: National park adventure awaits in the southeastern part of the state at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which boasts the famous Blue Spring, deep enough to hold the Statue of Liberty.

Don’t Miss: Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Republic is the site of the first major Civil War battle waged west of the Mississippi River.

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A tree hangs over Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park.

South Carolina

Prehistoric wilderness, former plantations, and monumental sites all can be found in South Carolina’s national parks. In the Coast region, Fort Sumter National Monument marks the spot where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. The fort is only accessible by boats leaving from Liberty Square in Charleston or Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. In the Midlands, Congaree National Park boasts more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) of hiking trails and 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers) of boardwalk through timeless landscapes. Get out on the marked Cedar Creek paddling trail which passes through an old-growth forest containing some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. In the Mountains region, Kings Mountain National Military Park memorializes the battle between American separationists and Americans loyal to England on October 7, 1780, a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

Best Bet: All coastal routes lead through the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, celebrating the distinct culture and language that developed among slave-era West Africans and Central Africans on coastal rice plantations such as historic Snee Farm at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site.

Insider Tip: Drive to St. Helena Island to visit the Penn Center, a national historic landmark district dedicated to Gullah Geechee culture.

Don’t Miss: Watch the 26-minute Battle for Kings Mountain introductory film shown every 45 minutes in Kings Mountain’s visitors center.

Tennessee

Spanning the most visited national park in the nation to battlefields where the tide turned in the Civil War, National Park Service sites are found in every region of the Volunteer State. In East Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the most visited) straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It is a crown jewel of the National Park System, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary in 2016. In Middle Tennessee near Nashville, Fort Donelson National Battlefield commemorates General "Unconditional Surrender" Grant’s and the Union’s first major victory against the Confederacy. West Tennessee’s Shiloh National Military Park honors the nearly 110,000 American troops who fought in a Civil War clash resulting in more than 23,000 casualties.

Best Bet: Six Chattanooga-area locations are part of the 9,000-acre (3,642-hectare) Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park, a Tennessee-Georgia park preserving key Civil War battlefields and other historic and natural sites.

Insider Tip: Get off the beaten track by entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Greenbrier (between Cosby and Gatlinburg on U.S. 321), starting point for seasonal wildflower hikes and a trek to the park’s tallest waterfall, Ramsey Cascades.

Don’t Miss: Visit the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, portion of the new (established November 2015) Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a tristate park chronicling the events and science behind the building of the world’s first atomic bomb. (The other locations are in New Mexico and Washington.)

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Harpers Ferry in West Virginia

West Virginia

West Virginia’s six national parks are truly wild and wonderful. In the far northeastern part of the state, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park preserves a small historic town at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. For a taste of nature, head south to National Park Service units protecting three grand rivers. Farthest south is the 10.5-mile (17-kilometer) section of the Bluestone National Scenic River. Going north, the second river is the 70,000-acre (28,328-hectare) New River Gorge National River. Take in the view 876 feet (267 meters) above the river on the New River Gorge Bridge. River number three is the farthest north, at the Gauley River National Recreation Area, home to thrilling Class V+ white water.

Best Bet: Explore 20 miles (32 kilometers) of hiking trails at Harpers Ferry with A Walker's Guide to Harpers Ferry 7th Edition by David T. Gilbert.

Insider Tip: No camping is allowed in the Bluestone National Scenic River area. The closest campgrounds are at either end of the protected river in Pipestem Resort State Park and Bluestone State Park.

Don’t Miss: Watch extreme BASE (BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth) jumpers leap from the New River Gorge Bridge on Bridge Day on the third Saturday of October.