Many people think you have to travel far and wide to see stunning marvels of nature. However, we believe you don’t always need to hop on a plane to see the planet’s most spectacular sights. We’re convinced there are delightful destinations in your very own backyard. We’ve created a list of 20 lesser-known natural wonders you should take the time to see, and several of them might be just a short car ride away!
Best Places to Visit in Alabama
1. Cahaba River Lilies (West Blocton, Alabama)
Traveling through Alabama in May or June? We have the perfect scenic detour for you! Each year on the Cahaba River, Cahaba lilies bloom in the middle of the water, and it’s a truly breathtaking sight. According to the Cahaba River Society, this special aquatic plant only grows in three states (Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina), and the flowers require swift flowing water and plenty of sunshine to flourish. Typically, you can see the blooms from mid-May to mid-June, but we recommend asking a local before making the drive in case the window changes slightly. So, pack up a picnic lunch and some swim trunks and enjoy the beauty one hour outside of Birmingham.
2. Dismals Canyon (Phil Campbell, Alabama)
This is by far the most misleading name on the list because there’s nothing depressing or gloomy about Dismals Canyon. It’s a network of narrow passages, mossy boulders, waterfalls, wildlife, plants, and natural bridges. The 1.5-mile hiking trail will take you around the canyon floor where you can explore all the evidence of 300-million-year-old geological events, according to the Dismals Canyon website. Visiting the canyon during daylight hours provides you with incredible views, but a nighttime tour gives you a chance to see Dismalites, the canyon’s famous inhabitants. These little bioluminescent creatures are found in only a few places on the planet, and they start to glow at sunset in one of nature’s best light shows.
If you want to take a trip to Dismals Canyon, be sure to check out their entrance fees which vary based on age, group size, and time of day.
Best Places to Visit in Arkansas
3. Crater of Diamonds (Murfreesboro, Arkansas)
Our next destination is a place you could strike it rich if you’re lucky! That’s right, we’re talking about The Crater of Diamonds, a place where you can dig for these precious gems. According to the Arkansas State Parks website, “more than 33,100 diamonds have been found by park visitors since the Crater of Diamonds became an Arkansas state park in 1972.” In fact, the largest diamond ever discovered in the United States (named “Uncle Sam”) was unearthed in this very volcanic crater, and it came in at a whopping 40.23 carats. Most of the diamonds found are much, much smaller, and normally only one or two diamonds are found each day. But it’s still a fun way to spend the day, even if incredible fortune isn’t on your side! Click here for ticket/fee information.
4. Lake Ouachita (Garland & Montgomery Counties, Arkansas)
Known for its beautiful, undeveloped coastline and for boasting 40,000 acres of some of the cleanest, clearest water found at any lake in the United States, Lake Ouachita is a source of joy for outdoor thrill-seekers. Every year, people flock to Arkansas’ largest lake to swim, kayak, fish, bike, scuba dive, and even look for freshwater jellyfish. “August and September are peak months for jellyfish sightings when Lake Ouachita water is warm and food is abundant,” according to the Lake’s website.
5. Hot Springs National Park (Hot Springs, Arkansas)
In 1832, the United States Government designated this area as “Hot Springs Reservation” in order to protect these precious natural resources, according to the National Park Service website. This early version of the National Park model did its job because nearly 200 years later, visitors can enjoy all the things the springs provide. There is no shortage of activities to enjoy, but if you’re on a tight schedule, at least fill up a bottle to taste the spring water. If you have more time to spend in the city, you can hike the park’s trails before washing off at one of the famous bathhouses.
Best Places to Visit in Florida
6. Ichetucknee Springs & River (Fort White, Florida)
Most people visit Florida for the seemingly endless miles of beaches, but this hidden wonder rests in one of the most landlocked parts of the entire state. Ichetucknee Springs and the Ichetucknee River have been treasured for thousands of years according to Florida State Parks, and they’re still wildly popular today. The highlight of the park is tubing down the six-mile stretch of river, either from the northernmost point or by launching from points further downstream. If you’re interested in the area’s marine life, you can snorkel or scuba dive (as long as you’re certified) at the beautiful Blue Hole Spring. Have a family reunion or birthday approaching? This could be the perfect spot for you! Click here for ticket/fee information.
Best Places to Visit in Georgia
7. Tallulah Gorge (Tallulah Falls, Georgia)
At nearly 1,000 feet deep, Tallulah Gorge is an iconic canyon in the eastern United States. For a relaxing day with the family, bring binoculars and look at all the wildlife as you stroll the paved paths around the canyon. For the more adventurous traveler, there’s a swaying suspension bridge that sits high above the rocks in the river and gives you a perfect vantage point of the waterfalls below. You can even obtain a permit and be one of the lucky 100 people a day that Georgia State Parks allows to hike to the gorge floor if you’re searching for a more exclusive experience. Click here for ticket/fee information.
Best Places to Visit in Kentucky
8. Mammoth Cave (Edmonson, Hart & Barren Counties, Kentucky)
Did you know the world’s longest discovered cave system resides in the middle of Kentucky? With over 400 miles explored, Mammoth Cave tops the list, according to the National Park Service, there could still be about 600 miles left to explore! If you ever have the chance to visit Mammoth Cave, there is something for everyone, even those who don’t want to venture underground for a cave tour. Camp, fish, hike, or ride horses—this area isn’t just cave central, it’s a national park with so much to explore all around.
9. The Cumberland Gap (Kentucky, Tennessee & Virginia)
The original gateway to the west sits where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia meet. The Cumberland Gap is a natural break in the Cumberland Mountains that has allowed people to go west, well, for as long as people have been going west in this part of the country! With paved roads and nice tunnels, it’s easy to lose sight of just how important this geographic marvel was throughout history. But if you’re ever in the area, take moment to pull over at one of the overlooks and marvel at the geological processes that led to this wonder.
10. Cumberland Falls (McCreary & Whitley Counties, Kentucky)
While it might not quite be Niagara Falls, Cumberland Falls is often referred to as the “Niagara of the South.” The curtain of water stretches 125 feet across and plummets approximately 65 feet. If the sheer size and power of the falls isn’t enough to wow you, we think a moonbow might. While you may have seen a rainbow at another waterfall, a moonbow only occurs during nighttime when a full moon is present and specific conditions and features are present. Cumberland Falls checks the necessary boxes, meaning it’s one of the only places in the world to see a moonbow, according to the Kentucky State Parks website.
The moonbow might be the main attraction, but there are plenty of other activities to enjoy if you have kids that can’t stay up late, you visit at the wrong time in the month, or the full moon is obscured by clouds.
Best Places to Visit in Louisiana
11. Atchafalaya Basin (Louisiana)
If you’ve never spent a day down on the bayou, you might be surprised to learn it’s a beautiful place with stunning scenery. The Atchafalaya Basin is the most sizable river swamp in the United States, and it’s home to hundreds of species of wildlife, according to the Atchafalaya Heritage Area. When you arrive in south Louisiana be sure to take a swamp tour, chow down on some crawfish and watch a sunset. If you do those things, you’ll never forget your time in Cajun Country.
Best Places to Visit in North Carolina
12. Outer Banks (North Carolina)
This list wouldn’t be complete without the Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands spanning 130 miles off the North Carolina coast. That 130-mile stretch is packed full of incredible opportunity. You can visit pristine, uncrowded beaches. There are lighthouses, the highest sand dune on the east coast, deep sea fishing, and so much more! The Outer Banks are even the birthplace of flight, and there’s a national memorial in to prove it. The Wright Brothers literally changed the world forever from right here!
Best Places to Visit in Oklahoma
13. Great Salt Plains State Park (Jet, Oklahoma)
Normally, a flat area with little to no vegetation is something tourists would avoid. But Oklahoma’s Great Salt Plains State Park draws visitors from all over and for good reason! In prehistoric times, an ocean covered the area now known as Oklahoma, and the barren, salty landscape is one of the last remnants of that time long ago. Visitors can swim in the park’s saltwater lake or dig for hourglass-shaped selenite crystals. This is the only place in the world where this shape of selenite crystal is found, according to National Geographic.
Best Places to Visit in South Carolina
14. Angel Oak Tree (Johns Island, South Carolina)
Nobody is exactly sure how old the Angel Oak Tree is, but most estimates put it between 400 & 500 years old, meaning it has survived numerous storms and floods. The tree is staggeringly large. It stands at 65 feet tall, has a circumference of 28 feet, shades an area of 17,000 square feet, and has a branch that stretches 187 feet, according to Atlas Obscura. If you are traveling to Charleston, South Carolina, this tree is worth a short trek to see.
Best Places to Visit in Tennessee
15. Synchronous Fireflies of the Smokies (Elkmont Campground, Tennessee)
There’s something magical about the glow of fireflies on summer evenings, but these little bioluminescent creatures put on an even more spectacular show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park every May or June. One particular species of lightning bug in the park, Photinus carolinus, is able to synchronize its flashing pattern. The result is a remarkable, naturally-occurring light show. The display is so popular, they even have to use a lottery to distribute parking passes!
16. The Lost Sea (Sweetwater, Tennessee)
Sweetwater only has a little over 5,000 residents, but this city literally has a secret beneath its surface—The Lost Sea! That’s right, Sweetwater is home to the largest underground lake in the United States, and it has a Guinness Book of World Records listing to prove it. Every day (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), visitors come from all over the world for a guided tour that ends with a boat ride across the famous waters. Click here for ticket/fee information.
17. Roan Mountain Rhododendrons (Roan Mountain, Tennessee)
Imagine looking up at a mountainside and seeing nothing but pink and purple blooms. Well, if you visit Roan Mountain in June for peak rhododendron bloom time, you can do exactly that, according to Romantic Asheville. There are a number of great hikes to choose from, with no fees or small fees, where you can get some exercise and take in the beautiful landscapes.
Best Places to Visit in Texas
18. Palo Duro Canyon (Canyon, Texas)
The United States’ second-largest canyon calls the Texas Panhandle home. Just outside of Amarillo, the “Grand Canyon of Texas” started forming about 1,000,000 years ago, and according to Texas Parks & Wildlife, the walls of the canyon go back 250 million years! You can drive or bike through the canyon, camp, pick a hike, or take a horseback ride as you explore the precariously balanced rocks, flora, and fauna present at this geographic marvel. Click here for ticket/fee information.
19. Congress Avenue Bridge Bats (Austin, Texas)
Perhaps the coolest attraction in Austin is the Congress Avenue Bridge. What’s so special about a bridge, you might wonder. After all, the city is full of barbecue joints, live music, and outdoor activities. Well, this particular bridge is home to the largest urban bat population in North America.
Each evening from late March into early fall, swarms of Mexican Free-Tailed bats fly out from under the bridge to feast on 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects, according to Visit Austin. Late in the season, approximately 1.5 million bats will emerge every time the sun goes down. This is definitely a show worth seeing if you’re in the Lone Star State.
Best Places to Visit in Virginia
20. Natural Bridge (Rockbridge County, Virginia)
From coast to coast, there have been plenty of impressive bridges built by human hands. While they’re certainly architectural feats worth admiring, Virginia’s most famous bridge was carved out by nature. The Natural Bridge is a stunning rock archway sitting high above Cedar Creek, and it’s so impressive that Monacan Indians considered it a sacred site. George Washington once visited to survey the site, and Thomas Jefferson was so impressed he purchased the land around it before using it as a retreat, according to Virginia.org. The Natural Bridge is also not far off the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it can be a stop on a scenic road trip. Click here for ticket/fee information.
Before You Explore…
We know you’re probably eager to start exploring now, but before you get on the road, it’s worth checking to see if your insurance coverage is what you want and need. Give us a quick call (1-877-GO-DIRECT) or come into one of our convenient locations; we’ll make sure you’re ready to keep driving to your next adventure.
Please be sure to double-check for any closures, fee changes, or capacity restrictions due to COVID-19.