Photograph by Thomas R. Fletcher, Alamy Stock Photo
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The New River cuts through the foliage-covered mountains surrounding the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

Photograph by Thomas R. Fletcher, Alamy Stock Photo

The Ultimate Southern Adventure: Get Outside

Go into the woods, out on the water, or off the beaten path to experience the American South’s natural side.

Alabama

Go where the wild things (and wild places) are by following an Alabama outdoor adventure trail. The Alabama Scenic River Trail covers about 650 miles (1,046 kilometers) from the Georgia border to the Gulf of Mexico, and is one of the longest river trails in a single state. To get the most out of your trip, book a guided tour with a local outfitter. The North Alabama Birding Trail is a collection of 50 sites where you are most likely to see part of the state’s collection of shorebirds, wading birds, songbirds, birds of prey, and waterfowl. Current North Alabama bird sightings are reported through eBird. The Alabama Garden Trail covers seven beautiful botanical spots throughout the state, such as the Huntsville Botanical Garden, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and the Mobile Botanical Gardens.

Best Bet: In central Alabama, Horse Pens 40 is a 115-acre (47-hectare) private park and home to one of the most dense climbable bouldering fields in the world. Horse Pen 40 hosts the CukoRakko Music and Arts Festival in the spring and fall.

Insider Tip: On the coast, explore the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail through Gulf State Park. Hike it on foot or go on wheels with such providers as Coastal Segway Adventures (reservations required).

Don’t Miss: True Adventure Sports in Northeast Alabama offers the Sky Swing, cave rappelling, bouldering, and other adrenaline-pumping activities.

Georgia

Georgia is a natural playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Head north to hike spectacular cascades like Panther Creek Falls. Similarly scenic is Amicalola Falls, which features seven cascades covering 729 feet (222 meters), making it the tallest waterfall in the state. Go south to get out on the water on a paddling trip at places like the Altamaha River, designated one of the 75 Last Great Places on Earth by the Nature Conservancy; the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where you can get advice on exploring the area or a guided tour from Okefenokee Adventures; and Tybee Island, the place to try stand-up paddleboarding or sea kayaking with Sea Kayak Georgia.

Best Bet: Pedal the Silver Comet Trail, a paved cycling path on an old railroad bed, just 16 miles (26 kilometers) from Atlanta, covering 61.5 miles (99 kilometers) from Smyrna to the Alabama border. Bike rentals are available from Silver Comet Cycles in Mableton.

Insider Tip: At Tallulah Falls, a group of six waterfalls dives through the spectacular thousand-foot-deep (304-meter-deep) Tallulah Gorge. To get on the gorge floor, hikers need a permit; only a hundred permits a day are issued from the park’s Interpretative Center, so get there early.

Don’t Miss: Historic Banning Mills is an adventure sports hub where you can tackle the world’s longest (about 51,000 lineal feet, or 15,000 meters) zip line canopy tour and the world’s tallest (14-story) freestanding climbing wall.

Kentucky

Kentucky is horse country, but it’s also a place to go underground, get out and hike, enjoy the water, and savor scenery. Ride the horse trails with Hidden Cave Ranch in Burkesville, featuring American Bashkir Curly Horses, or Jesse James Riding Stables, with more than 500 acres (200 hectares) of trails in Cave City. At Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive Hill, explore X-Cave, home to the Great Chandelier, the largest collection of stalactites in the cave, and Cascade Cave, which houses a 30-foot-tall (nine-meter-tall) underground waterfall.

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Bright golden foliage frames the roads in Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County, Kentucky.

Best Bets: Stay in a nautically themed village, sunbathe on the beach, or get out onto the water at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville. In Versailles (pronounced “ver-sales”), near Lexington, visit the Life Adventure Center of the Bluegrass, a 575-acre (233-hectare) farm with challenging obstacle courses, horse paths, water adventures, and hiking trails for groups.

Insider Tip: The Louisville area boasts two great wilderness preserves: the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, which covers 14,600 acres (5,900 hectares), including an arboretum and a canopy tree walk (a platform trail that leads 75 feet, or 23 meters, above the forest floor); and Jefferson Memorial Forest, which has more than 35 miles (56 kilometers) of trails for hikers.

Don’t Miss: Learn how to rock climb or go on a guided climb with Red River Outdoors in southeastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge Geological Area.

Mississippi

Agritourism is blooming across Mississippi. Cedar Hill Farm in Hernando and Mitchell Farms in Collins are two of the state’s many family farms welcoming visitors to pick pumpkins and navigate corn mazes in the fall. To find other places to play on the farm or out in nature, download the Mississippi Agritourism app from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Friday to Sunday, saddle up for a guided horseback riding tour of Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo. The park in Tupelo is home to 260 animals including bison, giraffes, zebras, Watusi cattle, and Capuchin monkeys.

Best Bets: Cycle part of the Longleaf Trace (40 miles, or 64 kilometers, from Prentiss to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, one of the country’s original rails-to-trails developments. The Tanglefoot Trail running from New Albany to Houston is the longest rails-to-trails project in the state at 43.6 miles (70.2 kilometers), encompassing historic sites, small towns, and wilderness areas.

Insider Tip: Paddle the mighty Mississippi River with an outfitter such as Quapaw Canoe Company, which in addition to more standard water adventures offers special events like yoga and artist retreats.

Don’t Miss: Enjoy camping, swimming, disc golf, and a summer-only waterpark at beachfront Buccaneer State Park, located on the Gulf of Mexico in Waveland.

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Canoeists paddle down the sun-dappled Mississippi River.

Missouri

The granddaddy of Missouri recreation areas is the Lake of the Ozarks, a paradise for swimming, boating, water skiing, hiking, and camping. Conveniently located in the middle of the state, the outdoor playground covers 54,000 acres (21,853 hectares) with 1,150 miles (1,851 kilometers) of shoreline. There are two great state parks on the lake: the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, which includes Ozark Caverns, a cave system available for tours; and Ha Ha Tonka State Park, boasting the ruins of a huge 1905 castle constructed by a Kansas City businessman.

Best Bets: Walk, run, or bike a section of the Katy Trail, a relatively flat 240-mile (386-kilometer) rails-to-trails project running across the state. Explore St. Louis by bike or on foot via the St. Louis Riverfront Trail, covering more than 11 miles (18 kilometers) of urban neighborhoods from the Gateway Arch to Old Chain of Rocks Bridge.

Insider Tip: Elephant Rocks State Park, near a large section of Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, is so named for its huge, pachyderm-shaped red granite boulders perfect for climbing or photographs.

Don’t Miss: Grand Gulf State Park, near Thayer along the southern border of the state, is called the “Little Grand Canyon” for the gorge running through steep rock walls up to 130 feet (40 meters) high.

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The Chain of Rocks Bridge stretches over the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri.

South Carolina

Start your epic Palmetto State adventure in the western Mountains region, where you can hike a portion of the challenging Foothills Trail. Sometimes called South Carolina’s Appalachian Trail, the route covers some 96 miles (154 kilometers) from Oconee State Park to Caesars Head State Park. In the Midlands, the 11-mile-and-expanding (18-kilometer) Three Rivers Greenway walking and biking path winds through the cities of Columbia, West Columbia, and Cayce. On the Coast, explore the Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area on Edisto Island, and Hunting Island State Park and the Hunting Island Lighthouse (the only lighthouse in South Carolina open to the public) on Hunting Island.

Best Bet: About 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Columbia, Dreher Island State Park abuts Lake Murray, which encompasses 78 square miles (200 square kilometers). Take a sunset sail on the lake with outfitters like Lanier Sailing Academy.

Insider Tip: Tourists flock to Hilton Head Island, but relatively few discover the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, 605 acres (245 acres) of prime Sea Pines Resort real estate set aside as a permanent wilderness area open to the public.

Don’t Miss: Go wilderness canoeing (weekend rentals available March to November) through the cypress trees at Goodale State Park near Camden.

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A stack of rainbow canoes lies on the beach in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

Tennessee

Wherever you are in Tennessee, green spaces and adventure sport opportunities abound. In East Tennessee, tackle Ijams Nature Center’s 300 acres (121 hectares) of protected wilderness and 10 miles (16 kilometers) of trails, just three miles from downtown Knoxville. Chattanooga is an outdoor mecca for rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, white water rafting, hang gliding and more. In Middle Tennessee, head to the Upper Cumberland region to explore 16 state parks, including Fall Creek Falls—home to one of the highest waterfalls (256 feet, or 78 meters) in the eastern United States—and Rock Island, 883 acres (357 hectares) including the scenic Caney Fork Gorge. In West Tennessee the big draw is Reelfoot Lake, which covers about 18,000 acres (7,284 hectares) in the northwest part of the state. Get out on the water with a one- to three-hour scenic boat cruise captained seasonally by naturalists (call 1 731 253 9652 for reservations).

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A bald cypress reflects off the glassy waters of Fog Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Tennessee.

Best Bet: Take to the treetops with Ijams Nature Center’s Navitat, offering six different elevated trails and more than 60 aerial adventure elements such as zip lines, swings, bridges, nets, and elevated tunnels.

Don’t Miss: Before any adventure, gear up properly or stay overnight at the imposing Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi river in Memphis. The 32-story, 535,000-square-foot (50,000-square-meter) steel colossus features a tank with 600,000 gallons of water and more than 1,800 fish, a cypress swamp that’s home to alligators and ducks, and a 103-room hotel featuring tree house cabins called Big Cypress Lodge.

West Virginia

West Virginia more than lives up to its “wild, wonderful” billing. The state has world-class white water, and running the Gauley River with an outfitter such as New & Gauley River Adventures is considered the top trip. The prime Gauley white-water season is short—just 22 days in the fall—so book early. For mountain bikers, explore from such spots as the 10.5-mile (17-kilometer) Blackwater Canyon Trail, formerly a path for hauling coal and lumber, near Davis; the Mon River Rail Trails, which include 48 miles (77 kilometers) of rural and urban trails near Morgantown; and the very challenging 24.2-mile (38.9-kilometer) North Fork Mountain Trail near Franklin.

Best Bet: Take to the skies with the Wild Blue Adventure Company, which features flights in a World War II Stearman biplane over such sights as the New River Gorge and the headwaters of the Gauley. For those with the stomach for it, the pilot will do some thrilling swirls, loops, flips, and other aerial acrobatics.

Insider Tip: Become a State Park VIPP (Very Important Parks Person) and earn a $25 gift certificate by visiting 20 West Virginia state parks or forests. In the Charleston region, for example, get stamps on your membership card at 9,300-acre (3,764-hectare) Kanawha State Forest, 3,144-acre (1,272-hectare) Beech Fork State Park, or 4,000-acre (1,619-hectare) Chief Logan State Park.

Don’t Miss: Snowshoe Mountain is an all-season resort offering adventure possibilities such as zip-lining and off-roading in summer and snow skiing and snowmobiling in winter.